Perpetual Motion: Achieving the Visual Marvels of 'Legion'

"This was more about building from the ground up than leveraging the look of [the Marvel] universe," says DP Dana Gonzales.
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For those acquainted with Marvel Comics, the character of David Haller/Legion does not rank particularly high in the pantheon of heroes and villains. But his relative obscurity, coupled with a 2016 statement from FX Networks that Legion takes place in a universe “parallel” to that of the X-Men franchise, dovetails nicely with this very different take on mutant superheroes. Diagnosed early in life as schizophrenic, Haller (Dan Stevens) has been confined to mental institutions for years, but while at the Clockworks Psychiatric Institute, he learns that his powerfully distorted perceptions of the world may be attributable not to illness, but to his more-than-human origins.

Showrunner Noah Hawley, long a fan of the comics, took on the Legion challenge between seasons two and three of his darkly quirky series Fargo, also produced for FX. He brought several key behind-the-camera personnel with him to the new series, including visual effects supervisor John Ross and director of photography Dana Gonzales, ASC. 

Gonzales admits to not being a huge fan of superhero or comic book programming. “I’d never even seen an X-Men movie,” he concedes, “though I did take a look at Daredevil on Netflix. That whole Marvel Cinematic Universe aspect really wasn’t something Noah and I talked much about. This was more about building from the ground up than leveraging the look of their universe, with the pilot script more concerned with telling David’s story and playing that against his ‘unreliable narrator’ perspective.

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David Haller (Dan Stevens) and Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) attempt an escape from agents of Division 3, a government organization that captures and studies mutants, killing those who can’t be controlled. Photo By Michelle Faye/FX.

“We talked about various references and stylistic approaches for about three months before I even started prepping,” Gonzales continues. “I did a lot of testing with cameras, lenses and techniques to help decide the direction we would be going in visually, developing the aesthetic, which doesn’t include much in the way of long lenses—we do our close-ups on 27mm and 40mm.”

Some of the more bizarre mindscapes were shot with a rectilinear Kinoptik Tégéa 9.8mm lens, which, like the “Clockworks” designation, nod back to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Shooting mainly on an ARRI Alexa Mini from Keslow Camera (two ARRI XTs and a Mini were employed for the pilot), Gonzales captured in 4K UHD, which he characterizes as “incredible in look. We have two cameras but are essentially a one-camera show. If we can get a bonus view that doesn’t compromise the look of A-camera, that’s great.”

While some DPs spend most of their day in the video village tent, Gonzales says he is always running in and out. “I tend to do a tweak, then go back out with the director,” he explains. “I really like seeing the best possible image during shooting. DIT Ryan McGregor used Pomfort’s LiveGrade to apply our show LUT and manipulate the look via a CDL with Blackmagic HDLink Pros and Teradek COLR LUT boxes. Once the footage is copied using Pomfort’s Silverstack, Ryan brings all the material into [Blackmagic] DaVinci Resolve and applies the corresponding CDLs and any letterboxing or resizing that is required for our anamorphic material. All this information is sent to Bling Digital for dailies creation via a DaVinci Resolve project file.”

Filming takes place in Vancouver and on stages in nearby Burnaby. The production design includes a mix of mid-century/1960s influences with more contemporary aspects, and reflects a heavy commitment to LED lighting for both the camera and art departments. “At one point I had 400 ARRI SkyPanels working in various sets and 189 LED Lekos [ETC Source Fours] plus LED tape in the Clockworks set, all of which was controllable from a board so we could dim or change colors at a moment’s notice,” says Gonzales. “Every one of production designer Michael Wylie’s [Marvel’s Agent Carter] sets had external lighting features built in with this flexibility in mind, which is critical given that the reality of a location can change drastically depending on our main character’s perceptions and actions.”

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David gets his brain scanned at Summerland, a facility run by Dr. Melanie Bird that studies and trains mutants.Photo By Michelle Faye/FX.

Both DP and showrunner concur on the use of Steadicam: “We don’t care too much for it,” Gonzales notes. The two prefer a solution with less horizon shift. “So we use jib arms, at least 80 percent of the time, that can be built in different lengths, along with 30-foot cranes and dollies, both on set and on location. We use cranes in all sorts of crazy ways I would never have imagined when I started out, both here and on Fargo, and that’s because everybody is on board with the equipment. That isn’t always the case on shows because big pieces of hardware can be daunting, but doing big shots that are repeatable is great for us.”

 At the end of the pilot, when David escapes an interrogation room through a swimming pool and runs out into the real world in what seems to be a single shot, Gonzales used DJI’s Ronin camera stabilizer, shooting the action with two shots that were subsequently stitched together by VFX. “For the second part, we put the camera on a cable and rode it down to the beach, which gave the shot a certain nice flow,” he says. “Another thing about [Ronin] that improves on how we would have done it before is that a guy running with Steadicam carries some potential danger owing to the weight, whereas with the Ronin, if there’s any issue of getting hurt, you could just throw the thing. We have made the Ronin part of our approach for the series, especially with handoffs from the crane.” 

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In a scene that looks like a visual effect but was actually filmed practically, David loses control of the telekinetic powers he doesn’t even know he has.

The escape sequence features a lot of VFX work, which is supervised by John Ross. “There are hundreds of thousands of dollars spent there, but what I love is how we don’t dwell on that aspect,” he relates. “There’s a jeep that gets slammed down, which the characters hide behind before it gets flung back into the building, but we pan off it, just throwing it away, because the destruction isn’t the point of the scene. Sometimes staying closer is better than cutting back to the wide—showing the spectacle isn’t necessarily the answer when the point can be made with the expression on a character’s face. The opening of Unbreakable [directed by M. Night Shyamalan], with the train crash played from inside the car, followed by a cut to the aftermath in the hospital, is a good example that proves it isn’t always appropriate to show or dwell on the big, drawn-out crash.” 

Another very kinetic shot from the pilot—in which David telepathically flips a table and propels other characters in the room against the walls—certainly looks like a VFX-fest, but the effect was actually created on set with several motion control passes—yes, motion control on a TV series that doesn’t have the words “Star Trek” in the title.

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David loses his temper during an interrogation by Division 3.

In another sequence, “we see all the cabinets and drawers in a kitchen flying open and all sorts of [kitchen items] flying out all around David,” Gonzales recalls. “Most of that was shot practically, using ARRI XTs for high speed and motion control. [VFX composited the various passes and added layers of supplementary CG foreground elements.] We shot the explosion of debris using 60 air cannons as one pass, then went back in to shoot the actor. The camera really needs to be moving fast when you’re shooting 1,000 fps, so we brought the Bolt [Cinebot from Mark Roberts Motion Control] up here for that and for when David causes the tiles to explode out of the floor during the interrogation. You could have done this with VFX, but it wouldn’t have been quite as organic.”

Ross, while clearly impressed by how much gets achieved in-camera, observes, “On high-concept shows, this one in particular, you have to embrace what VFX can do for you. The cost of spending half a day on a special scene has got to be worth it, or else you can just shoot a plate and do the rest in post and save yourself all that production time with the crew standing around. Then again, if you went too far in this direction, one sentence in the script could cost $100,000 and you could easily wreck the budget. So it is often a matter of thinking up alternatives with the various departments, then finding the right VFX facility.”

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David, Syd and David’s friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) in the Clockworks facility. Photo By Chris Large/FX.

Legion’s CGI requirements necessitate the use of multiple facilities for each episode. “It’s a bit of a crapshoot,” Ross admits, “because due to their workload, the A-level artist you had last week might be on something else this time around. Sometimes I have to keep kicking a shot back again and again with my specific notes attached so the facility can achieve what I’ve designed. For me, it often comes down to that split-second up front when the average viewer will either accept or reject a shot, even something as seemingly simple as a comp looking out a car window. I feel that if we can get the first shot right, the audience will be on board and we can go from there. If they don’t buy it, they’re going to be staring at that instead of watching the scene.” 

While most of the work includes live-action elements or derives from set reference, there are occasional all-digital shots as well. “Sometimes while looking at the assembly I’ll realize we need another shot but there isn’t any coverage that works,” Ross says. “That is when all the stills I take on set pay off. I shoot still reference DSLRs—at first a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and now a newer Sony Alpha a7R II—which gives us a starting point for building our new shots. And whether they are all-CG or just elements, we are always dealing with Noah’s aesthetic of making it look as real as possible. So even when you’re dealing with characters’ special powers, it still comes down to tying this fantastic beam coming out to somebody’s hand, and showing how it lights up a face and distorts the air as it travels across frame. We want it to look as much like a live interactive element as we can imagine it to be.”

Gonzales shot five of the eight episodes of Legion, including the pilot, while DP Craig Wrobleski, the alternating DP on Fargo, shot three. Gonzales remains actively involved throughout post, attending multiple grading sessions in Los Angeles in person and through online review. “By the time we’re doing the final sessions [with colorists Tony D’Amore at Encore and Cody Baker at Company 3], I’m just tweaking aspects and can wrap a whole show with just six to eight hours on the final DI,” he concludes.