“The Americans”

Season 5 premiere was out of this world

Season 5 of The Americans premiered this week on FX. The Molecule has been providing Visual Effects and Motion Graphics since season 2, and this year has proved more challenging and exciting than any other.

In the first episode there is an opening montage that juxtaposes beautiful, American fields of wheat with bleak, Russian agriculture. The script called for a camera move that pulled up from the fields, all the way into space, past a spy satellite, and down into the fields in Russia. Co-Producer David Woods recalls, “this was an unusual shot for The Americans. We usually maintain a grounded, practical point-of-view. So it was an interesting challenge to maintain the feel of the show as we flew out into space.”

David worked with Molecule VFX Supervisor Luke DiTommaso to devise a solution. Together they watched the infamous Powers of 10 video, not only for technical reference, but also for the period appropriate feel.  Luke explained “we liked the look of Powers of 10, but the camera move had to feel more like Google Earth, which we actually used as an early previs.”

The Molecule collaborated with the researchers in the Americans editorial department to locate and source hi-res images at various altitudes to create the nested zoom effect. NASA was an excellent source for much of the imagery.

“It’s always exciting when we can create an entire shot from just an idea on the page” says VFX producer David McElfresh. CG Lead, Manuel Riedl mapped the imagery to our CG earth model. There are several layers, including day, night, clouds, atmosphere, water, etc. Each one had its own set of considerations. Manuel explained, “the massive changes in speed and scale proved to be a little bit of a challenge, but we were excited to go into a level of detail that we can’t often do for episodic television.” He continues, “space still is a theme guaranteed to get artists excited, and on this shot for The Americans it was great to really make use of everyone’s specialties.”

The compositing team, lead by Compositing Supervisor Mark Friedman, completed the final shot assembling all the CG passes into the final shot. Lead Compositor Michael Millspaugh says, “Matching real satellite photos to a digital globe was a really fun challenge. We had to stitch together 10-12 different sized satellite photos, and then place them seamlessly into our CG globe. We used cloud layers to help blend the edges and sell our transition.”

Over the years, The Molecule has provided a fair amount of illusions for The Americans, anything from replacing contemporary signage to swapping out modern cars for period-appropriate cars. However, this opening episode was a chance for the Molecule to contribute to the show in a new and exciting way.

We will follow up with Season 5 updates as they air. In the meantime, here is a collection of the Molecule VFX work on Season 4 of The Americans.