Union’s Explosive VFX for Pennyworth Season 3
HBO Max's Pennyworth depicts the life of Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon) who leaves his former life in the British Special Air Service to form a security company in 1960s London. In this new role he encounters billionaire Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) and his wife Martha (Emma Paetz), the couple destined to become the parents of Bruce Wayne — otherwise known as Batman.
Produced by DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Television Productions, this prequel to Batman and Pennyworth’s later adventures in the city of Gotham pits the one-time SAS soldier against the fascist Raven Society. Season 3 begins in the aftermath of a period of civil war and at the beginning of a new age where humans with enhanced abilities are on the rise.
Andrew Lim was the overall visual effects supervisor on Season 3 with Tim Barter as VFX Supervisor for Union.
The Union award of work centred around the season finale, where Blue Raven (Chi Lewis-Parry) — a newly introduced cyborg character — escorts a bus-load of people out of London under imminent threat of nuclear attack. When the bus encounters barricades of cars, Blue Raven uses a powerful plasma weapon to blast the obstacles aside.
Live-action was shot on the Leavesden backlot, with a bus racing along a short section of street. Union created previs to determine the final choreography for the shots, augmenting the environment and often adjusting the vehicle’s speed and trajectory. Many shots benefited from set extensions in the form of digital matte paintings, and several also required the introduction of a CG bus, complete with digi-double Blue Raven and passengers. For wide shots, Union built out a larger environment complete with 3D elements.
“We had a top shot looking down at the street from above with the bus driving away from camera,” Tim Barter said. “We built the street in 3D, taking the architecture from the backlot set and extrapolating what the rest of it would look like. There were no roofs on the backlot, for example, so we had to design those to be true to the era. I did a rough DMP to show the department how I wanted everything to fit. We needed a sense of the road opening out towards distant green fields and freedom. We did that in 2½D with flats stacked backwards to give a sense of depth. We initially based it all on a plate we’d been given of modern London — that was nice as a placeholder but knew that if we tried to use that plate with all the modern-day stuff digitally removed, it would be so labour intensive that it was more worthwhile to create a brand new street from scratch!”
Shots of the bus escaping onto the motorway out of London also required environmental work. “You’d think a motorway shot is going to be simple,” Barter commented, “but that wasn’t the case. The fictional London of Pennyworth has its own geography so we had to add in all those buildings that don’t exist in our reality. The plate was also shot in a different country, so we had to strip out all the signage and put in the correct motorway signs for the period. We even had to change the spacing of the dotted white lines.”
Union also crafted an aerial shot of an enemy aircraft circling London’s famous Elizabeth Tower, home of Big Ben. “We added our CG plane to footage of London, again stripping out all the modern stuff,” related Barter. “The streets are in chaos because people are trying to escape from the imminent nuclear explosion, so we added fires here and there and littered the streets with debris.”
During the escape, Blue Raven blasts a clear path through the streets with his plasma weapon. Union designed the look for the plasma blasts and used lighting effects to enhance live-action of Chi Lewis-Parry in costume. The team also created a Blue Raven digi-double for use in medium and wide shots.
Union's FX department created all the fireballs and explosions required for the high-octane sequence. “I had quite a specific idea of what a plasma blast should look like because of the way my imagination works,” said Barter. “Let’s be honest, every artist loves doing these kinds of effects!”
The first step in creating the plasma lighting effects was to work out a logical sequence of events. “I imagined it would start with the power building up in Blue Raven’s backpack,” Barter explained. “The glow gets bigger and the light starts spilling out through the seams in the backpack. Then, in a matter of a few frames, the energy shoots from the backpack and out through his arm. There was a disc on his chest with studs around it — we illuminated those to get really bright when he’s at maximum charge, then dim straight down when he fires.” Artists created the final look by tracking the plates in Nuke and compositing the lighting effects into the live-action.
The team also created the look of the plasma blasts splashing across the road, damaging buildings and setting vehicles on fire. “We added CG cars from the period with flames and big plumes of smoke coming off them,” remarked Barter. “With fully CG shots I always like to introduce as many aspects of realism as I can — fire, smoke, embers, debris flying off the walls, and incidental bits of reality like a moment where he shoots a car and some nearby birds are startled and fly off. All these things give the shots a degree of sumptuousness and realism which you need when you’re representing something fantastical.
Pennyworth is currently streaming on Apple TV+ in the UK.