June 15, 2024

Interview: ‘Ted Lasso’ On-Set VFX Supervisor James MacLachlan Discusses Recreating Premier League Stadiums

[This interview was originally posted on our sister website, AwardsRadar]

When one thinks of special effects heavy TV series, workplace comedies aren’t normally top of mind. However, Ted Lasso, which follows an American college football coach who is hired to coach an English soccer team with the secret intention that his inexperience will lead it to failure, is actually quite VFX-laden.

The series convincingly places the fictional AFC Richmond football team into the real world of the Premier League. The VFX team on the Apple TV+ series did so convincingly enough, in fact, to earn an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects In A Single Episode (the series received 21 Emmy nods in total, including Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for star and co-creator, Jason Sudeikis).

We spoke with Ted Lasso On-Set VFX Supervisor James MacLachlan about the process for digitally recreating Premier League stadiums, generating emotions for 53,000 fans, and the process for VFX Emmy submissions.

First, congratulations on the Emmy nomination. It was well deserved.

Appreciate it. Cheers.

I’d like to start off with how you were brought onto the project.

Years ago I worked with a woman named June Gordon who worked in film and TV. We worked together in advertising and her agent got in touch with me and said “I’ve got this little 22 minute TV show being shot out in West London.” It was the middle of the pandemic, so people weren’t easily able to travel, but I fortunately lived a short ride from from the set and the studios. So, I went out and had a had a few meetings with a few people on the production side, all of the heads of department and everything, had a good chat with them about their approach. And then also on the L.A. side in terms of the studio, like Kip Kroger and the guys at Barnstorm, Cory Jamieson and Bill Lawson Deming It was sort of a, an amalgamation or hotpot of all of those people decided that I was sort of up to the task. I got  involved at the beginning of series two. Series one hadn’t come out, but we were about to shoot series two, so it was in and around that little gap there.

I’m sure many people are surprised to learn just how VFX heavy the show is. Can you just walk through what your job on set is, and in turn what the Barnstorm VFX crew does?

Sure, yeah. Across the series, I was involved in over 3,500 shots. There were around about 6,000 in the entire show. Basically, I got involved at script level. So I’d be chatting to the production designer, the heads of production, the heads of departments, and just working out how we could get the best approach going in terms of working with production. And then I would constantly be on the on the calls to Bill over at Barnstorm just working out the football side of the visual effects, what we were going to do with the I think it’s 1000 odd shots that we were doing of the football.

So, I was heavily involved with Barnstorm because the visual effects and the football are quite in depth. There’s full stadiums, there’s backgrounds, crowds, extensions, the odd digital ball, That sort of stuff, t. So that took up a good third of my shot count. And the the rest was all through Ingenuity Studios and DFT, who were our major supplier on that one, and Untold Studios who covered all of the blue screens and set extensions that weren’t football shots. So, it was really interesting chatting with the guys from Barnstorm. They’d already done season one and done such a great job that they were invited back and to do two and to just focus on the football elements. So, we had some processes in place.

They actually shot at a different location in season one, but they wanted somewhere a bit more fixed for season two. We were able to shoot with more flexibility and shoot more content, because between series one and two, the show really took off, and then season three took off even further. But, most of my days were spent on set with all of the crew working out how we were going to shoot with the most amount of flexibility possible at the practice pitch at Hayes & Yeading, which is across the road from West London Film Studios where we shot most of the studio stuff. So, we would set up the football pitches work get an approach with Barnstorm and myself, and then I take care of all the day to day. We would shoot football blocks for sort of five days of second unit on a number of stages through the season. I think we shot four or five blocks of football, plus a few crowd days and things like that. There was a fair amount focused on the football element within the show.

You were nominated for episode 3×11, “Mom City.” What would you say was the most challenging aspect of that particular episode?

We were really conscious, Barnstorm and myself, about allowing flexibility for wherever went. We were never allowed to put a foot on the actual football pitches. All of the Premier League football grounds have groundsman that are really not interested in you going anywhere near the pitch. So, we had to ensure that when we were shooting the football at Hayes & Yeading, we were able to extend what was happening around around the stadium around the football play and the narrative, and we wanted to really support that. So, when we were up in Manchester, we were fortunate enough to shoot in the stands because we offered so much flexibility to production in terms of camera placements and camera movement, that crane shots foreground talent like Pep Guardiola who would only be there for 30 minutes. Great availability to have him, but we had to work around his schedule. And we had to work around the stadium camera placements. So, we had our cameras in places that weren’t necessarily what we would call traditional broadcast positions. We had some shots where we had really close up content of the guys when they were acting in the foreground, but then we would have an unnaturally close crowd behind them and stuff like that.

We had to work out a system for angles that weren’t necessarily flat camera or traditional. So we actually used meta stage. The meta stage thing that we used was really interesting. It was a volume capture of a crowd that was done in L.A. Person by person went into a volume stage. We had this video that we’d played earlier in the season to shoot some crowd, what we call sprites, of people performing to this six and a half minute video where they go through all the emotions of a football match. The crowd is not just constantly loud and yelling and screaming. There’s ups, there’s downs, the emotions, the chewing the fingernails. The emotive beats that were written into the foreground players and was happening on the show it had to be mirrored in the crowds behind every single shot. So, we had the six and a half minute video that went through those motions, and we would play that to our crowd people when they came in for their sprite days, so that they could hear what they were meant to be doing at that time. It was like a big, long choreographed, six and a half minute dance, where you had people would come in, they do their piece, and then they move on. We’d shoot them seven at a time when we did sprites, but we were also able to use that and the volume stage.

The advantage of the volume stage was that rather than just flat camera, which is how you would shoot a normal sprite, these were real people giving real performances really acting really putting in their emotion on a volume stage, but we could place them on any angle we wanted. So, we could come from behind them over their heads, or we could be top shot looking down or we could be raking across them as we open up on the in the scene where we see a big crane movement as they’re singing their song. So to have them in a 3D volume space, and then place them in individual seats in the stadium was really quite advantageous. There was a lot of planning that went into it, but it really paid off. I think we were we were able to be flexible with what the crowds were doing at given moments and motlively relative to what Jason and the guys had written in the foreground.

Can you talk about getting permission to use the likenesses of the Premier League stadiums? 

Yeah, the likenesses were really important to production designer Paul Cripps, and to be fair, the Premier League themselves. The clubs were all brilliant with access. We weren’t allowed on the pitches, but we were allowed in the stadium. So we were we were we got Duncan Lee and the team at Visualskies  involved. They are a specialist company that does terrestrial and aerial photography and LiDAR. They went up there before we shot, and they spent two days in the stadium, scanning the whole stadium so that we knew exactly what it looked like. We knew how big the stadium was how different it was compared to our practice pitch, because they laid out the practice pitch as well. So, we were able to put them over one another and work out the key differences. Little things, like the pitch elevation is higher at Hayes & Yeading relative to a crowd at Manchester. We were able to really sell in the authenticity of the stadium based on that photography. And then the stadium  got made in CGI. We had the advantage of the LiDAR. We knew where every seat was. So, they were able to put a little pixel, an emitter, for every single seat, which meant every single seat got a crowd member. And then because we had the six minute video, we were able to slide what the crowd was doing and align them in a way that we were able to emotively change those individual 53,000 people to what they had to do, whether they were the home or away crowd.  One crowd’s excited the others disappointed. It’s a real dance. But that authenticity was was sculpted and by the artists at Barnstorm based on what Visualskies supplied us.

At what point does the VFX team get involved in an individual episode?

I was getting outlines even before they were properly written. So, there’d be an outline saying, “There’s going to be a match at ‘X’ ground, then there’s going to be a scene back at Keely’s house,” and there’d be a little one liner on each. Then I’d start to see it fleshed out. It was really lovely to see that process actually and sneak in behind the back doors of the writers. So there’s versions of the scripts that come out, based on colors, you know, blue, green, yellow, goldenrod, all sorts of wonderful colors and names. And then so as they develop, I would have a rolling document with scenes or moments would come and go, based on the writing being finessed and finessed. I would update my document, and I’d keep everybody at Barnstorm  involved, as they would know what was needed and what wasn’t needed. We would just develop and develop and then pre shoot. Obviously, I’d be sitting down with all the heads and make sure that the gaffer and the Director of Photography Ness Whyte and the director, Declan Lowney, would all understand what we could achieve.

I have a question regarding the the Emmy submissions. Are you submitting a VFX breakdown for those submissions or are  you just submitting final renders?

It’s a selection. We submit shots, and we submit scenes. I think it was an eight minute video. it was quite a long time ago, but I think it was an eight minute video, and I think you’re allowed four minutes of break down behind it. So you submit an eight minute video, four minutes of what happens in the show, four minutes of break down. And you can also V.O. the whole thing, so even from the beginning, you can start talking about what you’ve added to scenes. So, they get a good flavor of what the shots look like as finished product. And then you can really get into the nuts and bolts, but we try not to get too technical, because you’re never really quite sure what the expertise or level understanding the people at the other end have. All the VFX people will understand that by looking at some really quick frameworks. We all nerd out by spotting it. But it’s important to have a bit of video with a bit of context for people who aren’t necessarily as deeply involved in digital effects.

Sure. That makes sense. Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time. I appreciate you taking the time to talk and congratulations again.

Oh, thank you. I really appreciate it. Thank you for for having a chat.

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