Making TV: Playing With Fire: When fire breaks out on Chicago Fire, it’s real
By Michael Fickes
Scene from Chicago Fire pilot. Pictured: Jesse Spencer as Matthew Casey, Taylor Kinney as Kelly Severide. Photo: Matt Dinerstein/NBC. Copyright NBC Universal, Inc.
Fires – real fires – rank as major characters in Chicago Fire.
Director of Photography Lisa Wiegand and Special Effects Coordinator John Milinac carefully plan the fires for the NBC show from prolific hit-maker Dick Wolf. Milinac works with his crew to design and install networks of pipes that jut out of the floor and ceiling for the fire sets – often built in a warehouse. Then, the crew pumps fuel for a fire into the pipes.
For safety, camera operators and dolly grips don fire retardant automotive racing suits before the shoot.
In a typical scene, fire trucks drive up to the building – a real building in Chicago with real flames from fireboxes installed in the windows. “The cameras, two ARRI ALEXAS, are always with the firefighters,” Wiegand said. “So the audience discovers problems along with the firefighters.”
Inside, Milinac brings the fire in each pipe up to a planned and pre-tested level. The actors wear firefighter bunker gear – protective clothing and equipment that can withstand high temperatures.
“John is always there, along with Stunt Coordinator Rick Le Fevour,” Wiegand said. “If something goes wrong, they will turn off the fuel and put the fire out.”
Holding back fire
Onscreen, the scenes look extraordinarily dangerous. In one scene inside a multistory downtown apartment building, a character named Matthew Casey (Jesse Spencer) herds two residents into a room with a window and slams the door on the growing fire that has blocked their escape route down a stairwell.
Firefighters outside must raise a ladder to the window. While they work, the raging fire pushes against the door. Casey braces his back against the door to keep it shut. The pressure from the fire pushes the door ajar and flames lick around the openings. Casey pushes the fire back and the fire pushes Casey back. He bounces back and forth, moving a foot or more each time. That better not be real fire coming through the openings around the door.
“It was real,” said Wiegand. “But it looks worse than it was. Casey wasn’t moving very much, and the shot was dull. Then Reza Tabrizi, the camera operator, tried zooming way in and way out rapidly and repeatedly. It worked and gave the scene all that energy.”
The crew carries three Angenieux Optimo lightweight zooms for each ALEXA: 15mm-40mm, 28mm-76mm and 45mm-120mm. Then there are two primes: 135mm and 150mm for each camera. The lightweight lenses facilitate handheld shots, which make up 90 percent of each show.
Two 12:1 Angenieux Optimos handle studio shots.
Chicago Fire is a demanding show. Every scene, even the difficult rescue scenes, must move quickly. Large crews facilitate that. “My departments dealing strictly with photographic concerns number 30 to 50 depending on the day,” Wiegand said.
Technology helps. The show uses Burbank-based FotoKem’s nextLab, an automated software solution for productions shot in high-definition digital video files.
“We set up look-up-tables or LUTs before the season,” said Scott Rader, VFX supervisor on Chicago Fire and creative director at Spy, a post-production house with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“The LUTs are digital files that contain color specifications for various scenes,” continued Rader. “For example, Lisa wants a certain look for the interior of the firehouse during the day. There is a LUT that contains color and lighting specifications for those scenes – and there are LUTs for other kinds of scenes.”
When the digital video loads into nextLAB, the software downloads the appropriate LUT for each scene, attaching each to the appropriate video files. “That corrects 90 percent of the color,” Rader said. “We fix the rest during final color correction.”
It’s an innovative system that is slowly replacing disk drive storage.
Rader also is in charge of VFX fire. Although the fire scenes are real, Rader’s team often makes them bigger, smokier and scarier, while painting out the safety riggings and harnesses that keep the actors safe during the shoot. So while Lisa Wiegand can scare you with a zoom lens, Rader does it with animation software.