Dianshuo Zhang on Manifesting the World of FX’s The Amercians

FX’s Golden Globe winning Best Drama series The Americans is considered by many to be one of the most innovative and gripping television programs in decades. Flipping the tables on the typical spy story genre, the plot centers on two undercover Soviet agents posing as an American family in the Cold War era. With more than one-hundred forty-four nominations and multiple wins, The Americans has served to further cement the FX network as one of the most progressive and successful cable television entities. The difficulty of manifesting Reagan’s America in present day is substantially lessened due to the work of VFX compositors like Dianshuo Zhang of The Molecule. Zhang and her team aided the production in turning the clock back some three plus decades with amazing authenticity.

Created by Joe Weisberg for the FX network, this spy thriller series takes place during the 1980’s in the Virginian suburb of Washington, D.C. called Falls Church. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are two Soviet KGB officers posing as a married American couple who blend in perfectly with their neighbors. Unlike any show before airing in the US, The Americans offers a sympathetic bent to the lives and emotions of these Russian agents. Instead of portraying them as evil interlopers, they appear as individuals loyal to their homeland and anguishing over their actions and what the experience has extracted from their souls. In many ways, they are perfectly balanced with the idea of American covert operatives of the time.

Because this story takes place between thirty to forty years ago, the creators of The Americans relied heavily on a number of production team groups to manifest it. While wardrobe and Hair/Makeup created the day to day appearance, Zhang and her team were responsible for addition by subtraction. She explains, “Because this show is set in the 1980’s during the Cold War, many shots were focused on making the streets look like 1980s or removing the things that didn’t exist in the 1980s. In season 6, I worked on a shot that required removing a bridge. In this scene, Elizabeth Jennings (played by Keri Russell) is walking along with her daughter Paige Jennings (played by Holly Taylor) and conversing with each other. There’s a white bridge in the background and they walk in front of it. It was quite a long shot; hundreds of frames. In order to remove this bridge, I chose a frame in which I could see the most of it, painted a clean plate, and used the painted part of this as a patch. The software program Mocha is a good 2D tracking tool when there’s scale and angle change; I used it to get a track of the bridge and applied the tracking information to the patch. The hardest part was to rotoscope the two characters, because there were a lot of hair details.”

For the final season of The Americans, Matthew Rhys won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. Executive producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, as well as the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series - Drama. The awards and accolades for VFX compositors are not as prevalent as for actors and producers but the work of professionals like Dianshuo are most certainly a vital part of the final product which results in these trophies. Zhang declares, “It was such a gratifying moment when I heard the show won the Golden Globe Award. I was so excited and happy! I am delighted that the visual effects work helped the show’s storytelling and made the ‘impossible’ come true. It was such a great pleasure to have the opportunity to work on this project and be part of this team.”

Author: Patrick Wilson

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