Madam Secretary: VFX Breakdown Reel

The artists at VFX Legion recently completed the visual effects for the fifth season of ‘Madam Secretary.’  CD, VFX Supervisor, James David Hattin assembled a team of 30+ artists from the studio’s  global collective of talent. Working as  a single unit via Legion’s next-generation remote pipeline, they delivered over 100 high-quality visual effects – from large-scale set extensions, matte-paintings, digitally bulked up crowds and composited shots, to a computer-generated virual reality game environment. 

The political drama is shot in New York with a storyline rooted in Washington, D.C. The logistics tapped Legion’s experience replicating iconic environments in locations integral to the geopolitical issues that the show addresses.  A computer-generated shot of the White House viewed from the perspective of Pennsylvania Avenue, and the digital recreation of the Lincoln Memorial that sync seamlessly with live-action footage are among the visual effects that enable scenarios to unfold in the nation’s capital.

The plight of the Syrian people is core to this season’s storyline. Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) tries to broker deals for humanitarian aid with heads of state. She seeks out the Chinese Foreign Minister at a tech conference where she finds him immersed in a VR game. 

Legion’s team created an entire CG virtual video game environment, replete with a horde of alien monsters that explode and shatter mid-air as he enthusiastically fires on them. Match moving his performance, artists transferred it to an avatar playing the game inside its virtual world. Looped run cycles and interactive death animations unfolding in real-time were simulated in Houdini and then rendered in Redshift.

VR game CG environment -Alien Monster sequence A long establishing shot provides the ‘cold open’ for episode 506, jumping directly into the heart of the story with a hard-hitting scene with hundreds of desperate Syrians flooding the Turkish border seeking refuge. Originally shot in NY State, the producers called on VFX Legion to bolster the number of displaced men, women and children in the practical footage.

The studio’s matte painters, compositors, and CG artists augmented the sequence, building a large crowd of refugees that reflects the scale of a mass exodus.When producers discovered that the number of people on the naval vessel that was relocating them during this natural disaster needed bulking up, they scheduled a second unit shoot with Legion’s VFX Supervisor David Isyomin on set directing the action to ensure that the footage aligned with CGI. Artists then Rotoscoped out the entire foreground and added the sky, along with the additional people  during the compositing of the scene.

Before of after shot of set extension -Syrian Refuges 

 Another scenario focused on global warming called for a computer-generated C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft flying through a hurricane, which Legion’s team  simulated in Houdini, rendered in Redshift and lit in Maya.

Wireframe of CG MiG Aircraft

The most visual effects-driven episode of the season, aptly titled ‘Proxy War,’ required over a dozen complex shots – from a large set extension and a computer-generated  shelled-out lot in Syria, to detailed matte paintings that stand in for the demolished buildings in the background. The digital environment provides the setting for children playing football when their laughter turns to terror as they hear the sound of a cluster bomb just before impact as it’s dropped from a computer-generated MiG aircraft.

‘Madam Secretary’ shines a light on an issue ripped from today’s headlines in an episode that opens with a Mexican woman and her young son as their long trek through the Sonoran Desert ends as they reach the US border. After assurances of help from the border patrol, the scene closes with the mother’s arrested as the son boards a bus headed to a detention center. The establishing environments, a barren desert landscape and the parking lot of a US sheriff’s office, were created by Legion’s Matt Painter Marc Adamson and Compositor Eugen Olsen. Ruy Delgado handled the camera all of the match moves in the scene.

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