Thursday, August 28, 2014
 
 
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It's Hell on Wheels at FuseFX

The second season of Hell on Wheels, which recently completed it second season on AMC, continued its epic story of post-Civil War America, focusing on Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier, and his dramatic journey west as he struggles to leave his past behind.

Produced by John Shiban, Joe and Tony Gayton and Endemol USA's Jeremy Gold, the show depicts the traveling town known as Hell on Wheels, a dangerous, raucous, lawless melting pot that follows and services the construction of the first transcontinental railroad.

The building of the transcontinental railroad serves as the backdrop to the entire series.  The scope and challenges of the expanding railroad were critical to the storytelling and couldn't be achieved without the resourceful use of visual effects provided by FuseFX. 

 


At the center of the traveling town are the trains.  Production built full scale replicas of the period trains and laid down a few hundred feet of track to support tight shots and moments when the train isn't moving.  But almost all shots showing wider perspectives and moving trains was achieved with CG models of trains and railroad tracks composited into live action backgrounds.  

In addition, season 2 culminates in the need to create a trestle to cross a large gorge in the planned path of the railroad.  Unfortunately, the shooting location had no such gorge, much less a trestle that could be used for practical photography.    With successful work on CG trains and tracks throughout the series, FuseFX was tasked with a fully digital creation of the gorge itself, as well the a CG trestle for that entire part of the storyline.

Before

After

FuseFX was tasked with creating full CG versions of the trains to match the practical train used on set.  A custom rig was developed to allow artists to quickly put the train and tracks into shots.  All the parts of the train would automatically move and animate and update as the speed and position of the train was dialed in.  This allowed more time to be spent on lighting and interaction with production footage to make the shots seamless.  FuseFX used their expertise in fluid dynamics to develop a very real smoke stack.  "We have developed some very good techniques in generating smoke using our fluid dynamics software," according to Matt Von Brock, FuseFX CG Supervisor.  The train was put into many different environments including wide open grassy plains, beautiful nighttime shots, and, at the end of Season 2, the crossing of a gorge.

Before

After

It was decided that the gorge, trestle bridge, and train would be completely CG.  The gorge was established early in Season 2 and was generated as a matte painting with special attention paid to the continuity that would be needed for the end of the season.  The last two episodes required FuseFX to expand on this matte painting to create an environment from all angles to show the train crossing the gorge.  The most aggressive shot was a high angle looking down showing the train as it crosses.  A full matte painting of this angle was created along with a CG Trestle, CG train complete with CG Smoke.  Jason Fotter comments, "Completely digital shots are the most challenging because there is no base for what is real," commented Jason Fotter, co-founder of FuseFX.  "You rely on reference photography and an experienced eye to judge the reality of the shot."  There are shots of the train crossing the bridge from all angles of the sequence.   Various production footage was shot with actors on green screens.  There are wide shots from both sides, tight shots looking down at the water from inside the train, completely CG low angles shots looking up at the train.  "It was challenging and exciting to work on such a dynamic sequence.  The end result is a tense moment in the show wondering if the bridge will hold up and Cullen will make it across."

Before

After

In the last episode of the season the Native Americans attack by running across the newly created trestle bridge.  This scene happens at night, and all the gorge work done in the previous episode now had to work at night.  The Native Americans were shot on green screen running on a small piece of track.  FuseFX took these and duplicated them to show "thousands" of Native Americans running across the bridge to attack.  The comps required many layers of people.  These people all needed to interact with each other, and their contact with the CG bridge required shadows and interactive lighting.  As they are running across the bridge, they are being shot at by men on the other side of the bridge.  FuseFX also composited single elements of actors being shot and falling off the bridge.  The scene proved to be challenging because all of the previous work done on the trestle bridge and gorge now had to work for night.  The result was a dramatic scene helping the season finale be one of the best episodes of the season.

Before

After

Season 2 of Hell on Wheels was filled with many other visual effects.  This work included train track extensions, town and tent extensions, and many shots adding and enhancing blood.  Train track extensions are an essential part of the show.  They help to show the scale of the wide landscapes that the transcontinental railroad spans.  Since production was only able to cover a small section of any particular location, FuseFX always extended the tracks where necessary and added numerous town extensions and matte paintings.

Before

After

In one episode the town of Durant is completely burned down.  FuseFX created a complete matte painting of the burned town as well as adding CG fire and CG smoke.  Many other shots throughout the season required the adding of buildings, tents, and smoke to extend the towns and make them larger in scale.  In one episode FuseFX extended a Native American camp to show "thousands" of natives getting ready to attack. 

Before

After

After

The shot was composed of 50 plus layers of people, tepees, smoke, and horses.  FuseFX also was constantly adding blood effects to shots.  These included people getting stabbed with a sword, sliced in the throat, and shot in the head.

"Hell on Wheels is a gritty show with greed and corruption at the forefront of the storylines.  These kinds of shots help the creators show just how uncivilized


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