Pennyworth 101 VFX: "Pilot"

The ambitious new television series Pennyworth premiered this Sunday, July 28 on the EPIX HD cable channel. The series hails from Gotham creators Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon and continues CoSA VFX's collaboration with those producers after the company worked for that Emmy-winning Batman prequel for all five seasons of its run.

Now, Batman lore goes back a generation as we meet a young Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon), a former SAS soldier who is now providing "private security" with characters like Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) and Bet Sykes (Paloma Faith) in his orbit. The series takes place in 1960s-era London, and like the producers' Gotham series, it has its own fantastic feel and atmosphere.

Below, members of the CoSA team talk about what it's like to go back in time for this show.

Can you introduce yourselves and share what your responsibilities were on Pennyworth?

NICK LUND-ULRICH: My name is Nick Lund-Ulrich. I am the Co-VFX Supervisor on Pennyworth. My duties include overseeing shots, working with the other supervisors and the artists, ensuring the quality of work, and making sure everything moves along.

MARK DAVIS: I'm Mark Davis, the 2D Compositing Supervisor on the show. I work to make sure that all the elements come together in beautiful, harmonious ways. Everything from Environments to CG, and the original footage, and then I make sure that the sequences all run smoothly together.

GEOFFREY MARK: My name is Geoff Mark. As the CG Supervisor on Pennyworth, my team and I make sure that Comp has everything they need to make the show look great.  If it's in the three dimensional world, my team creates it, finds it, perfects it, and then hands it off to Comp.

MARK NAZAL: I'm the Environments Supervisor on the show, and as you know from NOS4A2, my team works on not just the execution, but also the design of a lot of the establishing shots for the show. For Pennyworth, it was very unique because we were there from the beginning, getting initial concepts from the client. We started off looking at artwork from the production department, which we then interpreted for different shots, and for certain sequences, we designed them from scratch.

How challenging was it to take present day shots and like remove anything that could possibly be anachronistic?

MARK N.: Unlike Gotham, we were able to use some key assets because London is a more familiar real world location. From a design standpoint, they already had some production art that established the look and feel they wanted and we just followed it.

They had a really good look book to begin with, so a lot of those decisions have been made already, and we just needed to follow some certain design directions.

 

Certain elements like the blimps in the sky, did those come from the look book?

GEOFF M.: There are two different blimps in Pennyworth. There are the Zeppelins - the big guys - and then there was a barrage balloons, which are completely historical. They actually did exist in our world.

 

Did you have to look at pictures of London the 1960s to know what things weren't really there?

MARK N.: Considering the production designer established a look, we just looked for similarly-styled references. We didn’t look at London today but imagined what it could be in the context of the story.

MARK D.: They do a really good job with the locations where they shot.

NICK L.: They found amazing locations.

Did they purposely pick locations that would look timeless?

NICK L.: There was small cleanup on things like alarms and satellite dishes, but there were not a lot of times where "this whole side of the street is wrong." There was some of that, but it was minimal because they would find such good locations.

Can you talk about the work you did to alter the skies in the show?

MARK N.: When it came to the skies, they wanted a little bit more color to it. There were stormy clouds, but there was a tinge of color regardless.

NICK L.: Danny [Cannon] had a clear idea of how he wanted the skies to have texture. Not like Gotham, because Gotham had a certain look. It was different than that, but there was this sort of feel to it, and we added skies to a lot of shots.

It really makes the shots pop when there are these really interesting skies. For example, with the graveyard shots, in the first episode, in the beginning… those shots look really crazy. The whole graveyard's real, all the background stuff is in, but adding that little extra little thing of the clouds being all enhanced was cool looking.


Layout and final comp by Magica Osment

Can you talk about about the incorporation of ravens into so many shots?

NICK L.: We were told the story that there are ravens in the Tower of London, and I believe… you might want to look it up, but if the Ravens leave the Tower of London, historical legend says England falls. And I think because a big plotline is a political struggle in England, I think that having the ravens as symbols throughout the whole season was important. Also because the one of the organizations is called the Raven Society.

Was there anything you learned from working on Gotham that came into play with this project?

MARK N.: I think a lot, actually. Putting in a lot of the spires, and definitely the idea to bring things into distance and have like compressing the look of it to make it feel denser are a lot of things we learned from Gotham.

MARK D.: We learned a lot from Gotham, but it is not Gotham.

NICK L.: One thing that was so valuable is the shorthand that Tom Mahoney who was the visual effects supervisor, as well as Mark and others… there was a sort of understanding of what the client wanted from Gotham. That was huge, because there was a trust and understanding of the design sense, and what they like. That's so huge because we don't don't worry about that; we can just go to making it look cool.

Was there someone from CoSA VFX on set as the show was filming?

NICK L.: Rob Delicata was the on-set VFX supervisor, and he was great. We were in constant contact with him, sharing information back and forth, showing him what was going on. He was a huge resource and really great.

Can you talk about how CoSA would enhance gunfire and that sort of thing?

MARK D.: When it comes to the gun fights in these shows, there were definitely big, bright muzzle flashes in your face, and when it comes to being shot, lots of blood.

And being on cable, there's a lot more blood to play with, right?

MARK D.: Well, yeah, especially now since this is geared to air on EPIX, we kind of pulled the plug on any restrictions on how much blood and gore we could do. It was a really fun show to work on, with being able to see how far we could push it with the gore level.

NICK L.: We did not hit a limit.

In the first episode there are a lot of people watching elements on television screens, which require a certain kind of burn-in. Can you talk about that?

MARK D.: It wasn't terribly difficult to establish the look. You can go back, and look at how TVs play, look at scan lines, and see the amount of distortion you're going to have, [and then] dial in a look. It does become difficult when there are many TVs across an episode, where each TV has to be balanced to a certain degree to be its own personality as a TV, for example. We'll have a TV in a bar and it's going to be a little more degraded, and then there's gonna be a little worse, and then we'll have the TV in a Lord's house, which should have a little better reception.

NICK L.: We tried to give each TV a character.

What should fans keep an eye open for?

NICK L.: There's some really crazy stuff coming up that you completely would not expect, even from the first episode.

GEOFF: It's not Batman. Yeah. It's not Old Man Alfred. But it is awesome.

NICK L.: People have said it's like James Bond.

GEOFF: It's a little more a little more grounded in reality. You're not going to see the crazy villains with all their crazy powers.

NICK L.: There are some jaw-dropping surprises.

What did you find the most unique and great about this show in particular?

GEOFF: This show? For me? Yeah, it's fun.

MARK D.: A lot of times, there's not as much artistic creativity allowed in these shows. But because of the relationship that Tom has built with the clients over at Gotham, there was a little more artistic freedom for a VFX house to have fun with.

The client had a really good sense of what looks great, and what tells the story, and not directing every pixel, so it was a lot of fun. We could express more creativity on our side. and not have it be

GEOFF: I think we've all been there, working on a show, and we sit there and go "yeah, there's no way we're gonna watch this." Pennyworth is a show I'm probably gonna watch. From word one of script one, it's a fun show, all the way through.

NICK L.: We had a really great team. Everyone had great ideas. Everyone was all working in the same direction. And again, to echo what he said, just working with Danny and Jason [King] and everyone over there, it was awesome, because they trusted us to make their TV show be awesome, and it feels so great to have that trust.

MARK N.: And because we were exclusive to it, creating the look for it was us at CoSA.

You can see a featurette about Pennyworth below. The series airs new episodes Sunday nights on the EPIX channel as well as their EPIX NOW service.



ABOUT CoSA VFX

Founded in 2009, CoSA VFX has grown from a small boutique into a thriving visual effects studio with offices in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Vancouver. The CoSA VFX team has received Emmy nominations and wins for their work on TV series including Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Almost Human, Revolution, and Gotham, and currently provides visual effects for multiple studios, networks and streaming television services.

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