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Full-CG Shots Help Tell the Story in Last Resort

How FuseFX Pushed Water and Particle Sims to the Limit for Episodic TV

As TV shows go, it’s pretty high concept. The crew of the U.S.S. Colorado, a U.S. Navy submarine loaded with missiles, questions an order to fire nukes at Pakistan and is suddenly treated as an enemy combatant, taking potentially deadly fire from another American sub. Left for dead at the bottom of the sea, the crew finds a remote island where they commandeer a communications facility and begin operating autonomously, using the threat posed by their sub’s nuclear firepower to keep the world’s military powers at bay.

Last Resort’s pilot debuted on ABC last night. For that episode alone, the story demanded that visuals be created depicting the submarine surfacing under a raft filled with Navy SEALS, smacking into the ocean floor, and evading a cruise missile as it dives into the water. Later, another missile erupts through the water’s surface. Watch the following video clip to see some VFX breakdowns from the show, then read on to learn more about how the effects were accomplished.

Shawn Ryan, the show’s executive producer and co-creator (with Karl Gajdusek), is well-known for The Shield and The Unit, but said Last Resort is “without a doubt” the most VFX-reliant show he’s worked on. Fortunately, Ryan already had a good relationship with VFX facility FuseFX and its founder and VFX supervisor, David Altenau, who worked on The Unit for four seasons, as well as on other Ryan projects including Lie to Me, Terriers, and Chicago Code. That helped raise Ryan’s confidence level, although he admits to being a little nervous about all those VFX shots while the show was being planned.

“I started off worried from a quality standpoint,” he told StudioDaily. “I’ve become less nervous because I’m super-impressed with the work they’ve done. You do have to pick your spots, because it can be expensive, but the longer you can prepare, the better things are budgetwise and creatively. So we’ve given them a good heads-up on the things we’re going to need weeks ahead of time. We don’t have stories being broken at the last moment.”

In fact, Fuse FX had some serious space for planning before it had to start delivering shots for the show. The company spent three months developing water-simulation pipelines, working with underwater environments, and developing models that would be used for the project. That lead time gave Altenau and his team the confidence to suggest executing full-CG shots for the pilot, rather than combining live-action plates with CG elements. All-CG imagery allows Fuse FX to completely control camera moves and shot compositions for the best dramatic effect in any given shot. And, with much of the heavy-duty development work out of the way before production began in earnest, the team is able to quickly and efficiently build out new scenes. But it does demand a previs process that’s rigorous by TV standards.

The pilot episode was directed by Martin Campbell, who gave the team a full set of storyboards showing what he wanted to accomplish in the VFX shots. “We took it on ourselves to incorporate previs into our normal shot design, going through a rigid process before we commited to the renders,” Altenau said. “The water sim is massive — we have 30 TB dedicated to simulation data for it. So I had a series of great conversations with each director, explaining what we were doing. They got a chance to look at and comment on every element of composition, speed, and camerawork, which made the shots much more efficient for us. By the time we actually do them, we’re highly confident we’re making something that fits the timing and pace of the show.”
As a result, Ryan and Gajdusek had VFX on their mind in the writers’ room. “We had an episode that filmed a week and a half ago that we knew was going to require a lot of underwater VFX,” Ryan recalled. “Even as we were breaking the story, we were breaking down the shots we knew we’d need. David spoke with us about what we needed, how much, and what effect we were after. And the director talked specifially about angles and sizes of things. Those conversations happen pretty quickly. When we start seeing previs, we make sure it’s not too far afield from what we’ve imagined, and we have time to correct things. For example, in the third episode there was a scene with a submarine going through underwater canyons. When I first watched it, I felt the submarine was traveling too fast. It felt reckless and dangerous. I thought we’d want them at more of a crawl, carefully going through the canyons. So you give them that note, and you’re doing it well enough in advance that you can make those adjustments.”