Creating The Roller Coaster Scene in Season 2 of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
Friday April 15th marked the highly-anticipated return of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” to Netflix.
For those who missed the first season (go watch it now!), the show follows Kimmy Schmidt (played by Ellie Kemper) as she adjusts to life in New York City after being trapped in an underground bunker by a cult leader for 15 years. She finds an apartment, a roommate named Titus Andromedon (played by Titus Burgess), and a job as a nanny for Jaqueline Vorhees (played by Jane Krakowski).
Season 2 continues to follow Kimmy’s adventures, one of them being a conversation with her long-lost mother on one of the most bananas rollercoasters in the country, The Rip Ride Rockit.
Visual Effects Supervisor Luke DiTommaso was on set at Universal Studios, FL during the shooting of this scene, which took place in two major parts.
The first thing the crew realized was that filming on a moving roller coaster would be a nightmare. The uncontrollable shakiness of the camera, the loud noise, and the difficulty of remembering your lines when hanging upside down on Orlando’s tallest roller coaster all provide big challenges. We opted for VFX at the very beginning in order to have more control.
The first day of shooting involved rigging three cameras to the front row of the roller coaster, and sending them for a ride a couple times through. All of the seats were filled except for the front row where the camera rig was set up. The second day of shooting was much more hands-on, and Luke had to act as a choreographer of sorts to get the shot he needed.
On the second day on the sound stage, there were three main components that were necessary to make Ellie Kemper and Lisa Kudrow look as though they were on a rollercoaster: the lighting, the gimbal, and the fans.
When you’re riding on a real roller-coaster, the angle of the sunlight is always changing. When you’re riding on a fake roller coaster in front of a green screen, you have to mimic the changing angle of the sun in a creative way.
“To get that swinging shadow look, we had to swing the lights,” says Luke.
We first thought of using a grid of lights that we could control remotely, but that wouldn’t give us the seamless light movement that we needed. Luke instead opted for a very old-school, very awesome Chapman crane to hold the light. In essence, he created a de facto sun, and we could change the angle of the sun without having to rotate the roller coaster seats at all.
To give the actresses the sensation of being on a moving roller coaster, we brought two of the real roller coaster seats onto a sound stage, and we placed them on top of a gimbal platform. That way we were able to change the tilt of the seats based on the tilt of the track in the background plate.
Here is the platform during a test, before the seats were added:
A real roller coaster ride can get a bit windy, especially as you plummet down the steep drop on Rip Ride Rocket. We brought a huge fan onto the sound stage to turn on whenever our makeshift roller coaster pitched downward.
With the lighting rig, the seats on the gimbal platform, and the fans all together in the studio, we were ready to roll.
Putting it All Together
Each of these three elements need to be perfectly coordinated and timed to match the background that we filmed on Day 1.
We timed out pages of dialogue and pick a section of track that didn’t involve a steep pitch or loop-d-loop (because who can talk when you’re too busy screaming??). Then we would mark how the car would move (i.e. “tilt left, tilt right, pitch down”) so we could choreograph our platform to match the banking of the track.
Whenever the track banks or dips, the sun’s angle on the cars changes. What we couldn’t achieve with the gimbal, we achieved with the light on the crane: when the gimbal banked left, our sun rig banked right. When the gimbal pitched down, our light rig shot up. The result was a constantly changing lighting angle, similar to a real roller coaster ride.
One of our favorite details was during the first ascent – there are trusses along the way that throw shadows onto the car. We simulated that shadow by having one of the lighting crew pass a flag over our artificial sun at a rhythm that was in sync with the trusses.
When faced with a complicated shoot like this, sometimes the details can make your head spin. Luke advises, “Unpack it into its individual components and ask yourself ‘how do I solve each of these problems?'” To solve the lighting problem, bring in your own controllable sun. To solve the wind problem, bring in a huge-ass fan.
It also doesn’t hurt to do your research. Luke watched a lot of footage from the tech scout, but he says that the most helpful (and entertaining) piece of video he used was this gem, featuring Kevin Hart and Jimmy Fallon on the Rip Ride Rocket: