When you’re watching Succession, it probably never crosses your mind that the Roy family’s private jets aren’t actually flying through the sky on their way to Bosnia or Croatia or Italy.
In reality, the actors are, of course, just performing on a TV set — and although the HBO drama doesn’t seem like the type of show that uses a lot of visual effects, those clouds you see out the windows of those private jets were actually constructed in a computer program and displayed on a huge LED wall on-set. After the post-production process of color-grading and editing, it looks indistinguishable from a real sky on your TV screen.
But the viewer never notices any of the work, thanks to the expertise of visual effects artists like Aaron Raff from the New York-based independent design and VFX studio Phosphene.
“Obviously, the visual effects in a show like that are very, very subtle,” Raff told MovieMaker of working on Succession Season 3.
He said that the visual effects on Succession are meant to support the filmmakers and solve logistical problems, not be flashy. In fact, they’re supposed to slip by unnoticed altogether.
“They always have to be super subtle and not noticeable, because I think seeing anything that would be obviously a visual effect in a show like this would just be distracting and weird. It doesn’t really fit with the vibe of the show,” Raff said. “We definitely are on the side of invisible effects, and just trying to low-key enhance the scene.”
The cloudy sky detail is a perfect example of the type of subtle effects that Raff and his team used this season.
“A lot of the action in the first episode of Season 3 has different characters flying in airplanes when they go back and forth and try to figure out where Logan should hide away. So the scenes inside the airplane — there are a couple of different ways that shows do this. It’s impractical to shoot in real airplanes, so they built the airplane set in Long Island City where they shoot the show,” Raff said.
“You can put green screens outside of the windows of this airplane set, or you can just blast very bright light inside of it, which looks beautiful, but then it just looks like it’s really sunny outside. And I think that trick works, and they used that on a lot of previous seasons and it looks beautiful and it works for quick scenes in an airplane, but in [Episode 1], they really wanted to communicate the times of day to help orient the viewer, because they’re moving between time zones. So some of these scenes they wanted to take place in a sunset time.”
Raff used Blackmagic Design’s Pocket Cinema Camera 6K to shoot VFX plates and elements. In order to pull off the sunset look, he used the aforementioned LED wall.
“We had two 60-foot long LED television screens that were outside of the airplane on either side of it. And what I did is — myself and the visual effects company, Phosphene, that I work for — we created these sunset sky animated scenes of the clouds and the sky, and we played those video clips on these giant 60 foot long TV screens outside of the window. So what that does is, it fills the airplane cabin with this beautiful sunset lighting, and then when the camera sees outside the windows, you can see this video playing of a sunset and clouds, but it looks real in-camera.”
Another way that Raff used the LED wall was also in Episode 1, when Logan is pictured watching a plane take off in the distance as he gazes out of his window at the Hotel Clio in Sarajevo (see photo above). As Succession executive producer Scott Ferguson told us ahead of the Season 3 premiere, that reflection wasn’t really there.
“What’s cool with doing this stuff is when you have that giant video wall playing this stuff live, then you get all these interesting reflections all over the set, and that makes it look much more real than if you just had a green screen,” Raff said. “So the shot that [Ferguson] was talking about… they walked outside of the set and filmed inside the hotel. They pointed the camera into the hotel room so that you’re seeing Logan, but in front of him is a pane of glass. But then the reflection that’s on the pane of glass is a sky and an airplane flying, and that airplane is coming from the video screen behind the camera. So you get all these in-camera visual effects that you otherwise would have had to composite later on the computer. But you can just do it all live because you’re playing it from this big video screen.”
As a personal fan of Succession himself, Raff’s favorite part about working on this season was watching the actors perform in real-time.
“Honestly, the most fun thing about working on Succession was the times where I could be close on set and getting to watch the performers,” he said. “Just seeing them work through subsequent takes and trying their performances in different ways and trying out different lines and coming up with the performances was incredibly entertaining.”
Season 3 of Succession is now streaming on HBO and HBO Max.
Main Image: Logan Roy (Brian Cox) pictured gazing out a window in Season 3 Episode 1 of Succession