Inside the VFX of HBO’s ‘Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty’

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

We recently spoke with Frank Belina, the FuseFX VFX Supervisor, on the second season of the HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty

Based on Jeff Pearlman’s book, Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, the series follows the professional and personal lives of the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers. Season two follows the team after the 1980-1984 Finals, which ended with the first rematch between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

One of the most significant aspects of FuseFX's work was extending the dynamic crowds in the arena. Their primary goal was to make the crowd emotive, which was crucial in mirroring the intensity and emotional drive of the playoffs. Additionally, they focused on creating supporting shots of the arena exteriors to match the interior set design enhancements. They also worked to create an immersive experience for the audience by enhancing the 1980s look of the show, and making sure every element was period accurate. 

PH: Hi Frank! When did you first get into the industry? 

Around 2005, I started as a previs artist for movies being shot in Vancouver. It opened the door to get into Technicolor, and I worked on small films as a digital artist. At that point, I had already worked in the video game industry as an art director, leading the pitch team to what was a very successful game called Simpsons Road Rage. Prior to that, I spent four years building worlds, robots, and creatures at Mainframe on the first televised full 3D cartoons, Reboot and Beast Wars, as a digital artist and evolving to managing a team of artists as head of modeling, with a few stints of directing which pulled it all together. 

PH: What drew you to visual effects?

I have always been passionate about film. From the grandeur of watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in the Cinerama experience to the Statue of Liberty shot in Planet of the Apes to the iconic opening shot of Star Wars: A New Hope. These movies shaped my emotional foundation growing up, and each movie brought together an immersive and visceral visual experience that would replay in my creative mind. My conclusions evolved to understanding the importance of design, color, lighting, and, most of all, how a sequence is critical in telling the story. I am thrilled to be part of the creative collaboration of visual effects today.

PH: Can you talk a bit about some of your work? 

Around 2009, I landed a gig with MPC to work on set as a previs artist on The Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Not long after, I found myself at MPC to work on an epic movie, Life of Pi. I broke in as a layout artist and got to build some of the most iconic shots in the movie, the sinking of the TsimTsum primarily. It was a stereo show, but I recall working till 3 a.m. polishing a presentation shot as the lead character, PI, watched underwater the sinking of the ship he was on, experiencing the loss of his family and everything that he understood. That experience entrenched my philosophy at that time, the importance of visually presenting ideas through lighting, as lighting dictates what we see, supported by surrounding elements of lesser importance. So, my view of the layout became more intricate. Because the importance of film is not only the image, dictated by what the camera sees, or not, but the image as a sequence. What was amazing about that iconic shot was all about the scene's emotion. Once one understands that key perspective, it becomes what film is great at capturing the human emotion of the moment.

I went on to spend four years running teams in building shows as a layout supervisor. I continued to hone my skills as an artist, leader, and mentor, working on four big features at a time: San Andreas, Pan, Guardians of the Galaxy, Power Rangers, and Justice League. I was well-versed in how to build a show from the ground up, and understood the importance of developing strong team chemistry.  

My experience is built on the diversity of backgrounds as an artist. After university, I began as a stained glass painter, which taught me the mixture of business and art and how the two were intertwined. I moved on to working as a graphic artist back in the day, when it was all done with traditional tools, focused on ad agency work, and early on, developed skills working under pressure and, funny enough, the introduction to all-nighters. The art director would call at 5 pm, requiring presentation art for the next morning.

For the next four years, I continued my development at Canadian National Railways as an instructional illustrator. The goal was to create cohesive training material using visuals that would be utilized from coast to coast. The senior Illustrator taught me how to look at things from different perspectives. The pinnacle of that experience resulted in winning the best training award for “How to Start a Locomotive”, a 20-page comic book used by railway employees and trainees.

After transitioning to the pharmaceutical industry as a desktop publisher, creating graphics and books using software of the time, which taught me the ability to transfer my skills from a traditionalist to the new expanding digital world. I approached a new crossroad when I applied to learn the evolving 3d software called SoftImage, instrumental in the first Jurassic Park. A three-month course catapulted me into the evolving video graphics industry. After a brief stint at TSN creating sports graphics, I landed a job at Mainframe, my first introduction to the TV computer graphics production line. Looking back in retrospect, the system utilized to make 22-minute episodes was a precursor to modern-day previz. With 6 weeks to produce an animated episode, it was all about speed.

In the next few years, the focus moved to the video game industry, just as it was transitioning to the Xbox. Times were changing, technology was evolving, and artist requirements were being redefined. Video games were about efficiency, while TV CG production was the opposite, in the sense that it did not have the strict requirements of the game engine. The skills that I developed at Mainframe were a precursor for the new video game era. Working on a pitch demo for Simpson’s Road Rage opened the door to client relationships and became one of the most successful products for the company. The pitch was a success as it was Homer driving through Springfield, experiencing the comedic essence of the show.

PH: How has it evolved and shaped you into the type of VFX Supervisor you are today?

The big takeaway for me was recognizing that when I was working in many different art disciplines, I had the resolve to consolidate it all into process and structure. In essence, we are making a product. Regardless if it is a painting, comic book, film, or a video game, they all tell a story. I have always viewed film as an art form that requires the ability to draw from every art discipline. You are part photographer, sculptor, illustrator, painter, designer, and philosopher. Every image and sequence has a story to tell. The philosopher part comes in as film/TV is always exploring the human condition and how we, as artists, express that in the visual medium.

PH: How do you go about selecting a project to work on? Do you have a certain criteria you follow?

When the door of opportunity opens, you go through it. Every project is unique, as the people we work with and work for are unique. Every film show is an interpretation of art, a perspective, and the goal is to make it as immersive as possible in line with the creative’s vision.

PH: How did you become with Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty?

Thanks to FuseFX, it was an opportunity that presented itself. What is so cool about working on Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers is it tells the story of the evolution of big sports entertainment while we tell the tale of the rise of a sports dynasty. You get a chance to go back to the 80s and create a reflective experience for those who remember that decade and a new one for those who are seeing it as a historical reference. Along with the FuseFX Laker team experience, VFX Supervisor Art Codron reminisced his real-life Lakers experiences in Los Angeles in the 80s. The FuseFX team was a diverse and well-rounded group. I want to take this time to thank all the producers who were there every day, to get the show to the finish line, Natasha Abrahams, Jessie Sanchez, and Ashley Nizich.

PH: Can you talk me through your pre-production mindset when it comes to extending the dynamic crowds in the arena?

The critical part is analyzing the technical requirements to complete the project on time. Creating crowds for 70-100 shots means you have to get it right pretty fast, with the three month clock ticking down. When heading into a show, I look for areas that allow the production team to move effectively in the initial foundational process (essentially building the 3D aspects of the shot and connecting the dependencies that allow us to complete it in a timely manner). CG supervisors Geoff Mark and Rav Brar drove the CG aspects of the show, with CG artist Jonny Diaz building the Boston Gardens arena, Greg Malkin recreating LA Forum billboards, who, along with Histesh Druv, drove the lighting requirements on the show. Drawing on my experience building many shows with teams of artists, I can quickly gauge where to build up fast. Communication is the spoke in the wheel, as every show relies on the supervisors in engaging the process of assembly. For example, for all the arena shots with the crowd, we would ensure that the set lidar lined up with the CG arena. In parallel, the CG team would work on the asset and lookdev, and all shots turned over would get tracked in the meantime. This critical lineup reduces the repositioning of the tracked cameras in 3D space. Utilizing a crowd system built by FOLKS, led by Alexander Tremblay, comp supervisor in Montreal, we focused on getting key shots assembled. This also allowed flexibility to modify and adjust the crowd. Initial runs of the crowd generated some duplication within the given crowd system, but continued to build setups and honed the crowd to the point where we could finalize the shots. With lighting renders through the CG department, compositors would go in and adjust the lighting and atmosphere for a given shot. We had a mix of shots that just used plate crowd for specific angles which were supplied by the client.

PH: How challenging was making the crowd emotive and how did you navigate that?

Success is always defined not only by the results, but the team at FuseFX from LA, Vancouver, Montreal and Bogota, were instrumental in putting all of this together. A lot of credit goes to team members DFX Supervisor Astrid Busser Casas, and comp lead Manthan Bhayani, who were there from the start of the project, along with Irina Berdyanskaya, comp supervisor, who came in to wrap the show with us. Astrid was also driving the Bogota team led by Comp Supervisor Alejandro Valesco, and Jennifer Moron, production manager of the Bogota team. The FuseFX Bogota team was instrumental in dividing and conquering the many shots that were required for completion.

Crowd elements were parsed through and selected as possible components in crowd building.  Once we had a crowd in place, we could see pretty quickly if the feeling of the crowd was working. That’s why in the initial stages, we did a quick build up and mock up for the key shots. This allowed us to pivot quickly, if we ran into technical issues, such as broken animation, or misplaced emotion of crowd. Different shots had different challenges, such as wide shots, creating the right energy and atmosphere were key in making them work, as the crowd was very small, it required energetic elements to get the broad sense of motion. There is one cool shot, in a medium wide of the court, the Celtic’s score a basket and we see selected people standing and waving in cheer timed perfectly. To make the shots effective, it’s important to tell that story as it drives cause and effect, and the crowd in sports games is the emotional barometer of the sports psyche.

PH: Can you talk about how you created an immersive experience for the audience by enhancing the1980s look of the show?

As most of our shots were in the Boston Gardens, the art direction was such that the colors had to feel a bit saturated, angling towards green to give it that 80s film look. Viewing the show, one can see the effectiveness of the visual style to get the feel of watching TV history. To get the look, we balanced between 3D lighting, and color grading once we were in compositing, which gave us ultimate control. When you watch the sequence of the shots in a given episode, they blend in well with the visual style of the show and seamlessly tell the story.

PH: In your opinion, what does the future of VFX look like?

The future is always exciting, because it is unwritten, and hard to predict. We are at another crossroad as technology is dovetailing in, changing how we look at, and execute our work. In retrospect, as I connect all the dots to my layered experiences passing through these evolutionary crossroads, from a traditional artist, painter, graphic designer, instructional illustrator and designer, to CG cartoons of the 90s, to working on successful video games, to epic shots of great films, shows me how the next steps will be even more profound, as we get closer to expressing what we have in our minds to materialize in a form of new immersive visual media. I look forward to future collaborations that will take us to the next steps of human expression!

PH: What new technologies are you excited about in the VFX space?

Off the top, using Epic’s Unreal engine is a game changer for me. For the first time, artists have the power to world build. What took months of hard work, can be distilled in an effective shorter time because of the ready to go CG elements and interactive lighting. I had the chance to be involved in recreating a canyon sequence in Orville’s season 3. It was the right time to access the technology. TV production has always been fast (back in the 90s, working CG TV, we had 10 lines of production with a show completion of 6 weeks, so we had to make fast decisions). So, the speed of process time is compounding now and I am so amazed at how fast we got here, the key here is getting your ideas down and executing. What I love about the previs experience, is the ability to put ideas that are tactile. Transitioning from one’s mind to something tangible. The key is making a commitment of ideas, because we can modify and change once we see it. The mind never stops working at finding solutions, so the earlier you start, one gives themselves the opportunity to improve on it. So, I bring back the power of layout, the foundation of what the camera sees, and we have the tools where we marry the idea and its execution in real time. I imagine that the speed of thought is next!

PH: What's next for you?

As I cannot divulge any future projects, I am currently working on small projects that are tied into the advancement of art process and technology.

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