Leverage Feature Article starring…us!

Leverage Feature Article starring…us!

January 13, 2010 in Visual Effects

Tangent Design Labs and  Twisted Media enjoy some press time!

Below is the article that ran in the Chicago Sun Times prior to the premier of the new season of Leverage.

Chicago pair has ‘Leverage’

By Mike Thomas

Click, click, click. Data processing sounds. A snazzy array of documents appears on the computer screen of master hacker Alec Hardison. Driver’s license, birth certificate, hospital records, business records. They seem to confirm the identify of Russell Pan, owner of the Golden Panda Clothing Co.

Hardison tells his boss, sleuthing con ace Nate Ford.

“Yeah,” Ford remarks from off-site, “but did we make sure Russell Pan isn’t anybody else as well?”

It’s all for tonight’s episode of TNT’s action-packed dramedy “Leverage,” which returns this week with new episodes. Ford is played by Timothy Hutton, Hardison by Aldis Hodge.

Aside from snappy dialogue and bad guy butt-kicking, the storylines rely heavily on digital effects — specially, meticulously crafted digital effects from the nimble minds and fingertips of Chicagoans Derek Frederickson and Tom Slattery. They’ve been charged with “Leverage’s” tech aesthetic since season one.

“Ah, hell,” Hardison sighs, realizing his oversight. With that, there’s more clicking and more computer-like sounds. Seconds later an image of Pan zooms into view. Hardison isolates his subject’s face inside a yellow rectangle. Beside the face, another image materializes — this one the generic head outline of an as-yet-unidentified person. In the center of a third window are the words “Database Search,” and below them a slide show of rapidly morphing mug shots — white, Asian, skinny, fat, male, female. Before long there’s a match. Pan’s Polaroid, with views from side and front, emerges from the scan.

Russell Pan is actually Nicholas Chow: Chinese national, member of the deadly Sun Yee On Triad and all-around evil dude. Hardison passes along the update.

On a less tech-obsessed show, this update is all we might have heard — after the fact. But it’s so much more satisfying to witness the techno magic in action.

Frederickson (of Twisted Media) and Slattery (of Tangent Design Labs) toil for countless hours to get it just right. Their work is visible (sometimes only fleetingly) on everything from straightforward data screens (nondescript code they call “gak”) and 3-D animation to surveillance footage, fake commercials and anything else that appears on screens big or small.

“Our show is about modern-day Robin Hoods,” says executive producer Dean Devlin, who first hooked up with Frederickson and Slattery while shooting the “Leverage” pilot in Chicago a few years back. “For that to be really believable in the world we live in today, they’d have to be enormously sophisticated on a high-tech level. And our only way to really communicate that besides the dialogue is through the imagery that we see on their computer screens and their phones. So it’s a huge part of our show, and [Frederickson and Slattery] have just done amazing work.”

Not all of it, however, is equally complex — Slattery once splattered barbecue sauce on his basement floor, snapped a photo of the mess and digitally enhanced it to create the black-and-white image of a crime scene. Or as artistically fulfilling.

“Sometimes the script is like, ‘Then Hardison pulls up financial documents showing that [the person being investigated] used his credit card here,'” Frederickson, 40, says from the basement work space of his North Side home, where musical instruments outnumber gadgets. (He and Slattery met in the late ’90s while playing in a Chicago band called Dirty.) “And we’re like, ‘Uhhh, kill me now.’ Then you get the cool things that are like, ‘Wow, we can actually make this work.'”

Half the script directions, he estimates, fall into that “cool” category.

Must look real

Devising effects that are functional and user-friendly as well as eye-popping is the main goal.

“It doesn’t have to be [functional], it’s just got to look like it’s functional,” Frederickson admits. “But a lot of what we do, the actors are driving it. They’re clicking things open and moving things around.”

This interactivity not only elicits more realistic reactions, but it also improves dramatic timing and lends credibility to the story. People are so technologically adept these days, Devlin says, that it’s tough to hold their interest with anything that’s less than believable.

“With these guys, their taste is so spot-on for our show, both in making it feel sophisticated but also understandable to the audience,” he says of Frederickson and Slattery. “And these are very complicated cons and complicated hacking systems [being portrayed]. We’re doing very difficult stuff, and they’ve found such a language in the imagery that they use that it becomes very simple for the audience to understand. And yet, the images feel robust enough that you can believe it was actually [possible] on your own computer.”

Production pressure

“Leverage” being a program watched by millions, there’s plenty of pressure to perform. When they’re deep in it — when actors and directors are on set and production is buzzing along — Frederickson and Slattery feel that pressure acutely, even though they’re typically working in dimly lit solitude thousands of miles away.

“Most of the time we get the script on Monday and we start shooting it on Wednesday,” Frederickson says of the breakneck pace. “So that leaves us 24 to 48 hours. Sometimes when we get the script, the directors can’t even meet us until literally the day before the shooting. And who’s to say that the biggest scene that we have to work on wasn’t scheduled for day one?

The start of each new episode, which comes on the heels of the last, is when they really sweat it out.

“It’s a very roller-coaster kind of thing,” Frederickson says. “And you might have a couple days in the middle where it’s a little bit lighter and you breathe a little, but you know that you’ve still got to be on your toes.”

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Slattery adds. “Because when we’re off-season, I’ll go to my world of some stuff that’s not nearly as exciting . . . and I just get bored.”

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