When Lawson Deming and an assembled crew returned to Quixote Studios in Los Angeles to film the show’s latest round of exploding objects, they arrived to find there was still proof of their last visit, lodged in a spot high above them.
“When we walked onto the stage, we hadn’t been there in two years. We still saw bits of debris embedded in the ceiling from the last time we’d been there. That stuff goes everywhere,” Deming said.
For anyone who’s taken the plunge on the Paramount+ original since its 2017 premiere, that will be a familiar sentiment. A show channeling the rage and bewilderment of a half-decade of uncertainty has found the perfect 100-second encapsulation of all those swirling emotions in a choreographed symphony of component parts from around the legal world being pulverized to bits.
Ascribe any thematic resonance or greater narrative meaning you want to it, but take it from series co-creator Michelle King: The appeal is as simple and human as it can get.
“Honestly, it’s just allowing ourselves fun. It’s really self indulgent. Every 10 or 13 episodes, we should start blowing more things up,” King said.
As Michelle and Robert King were prepping their streaming spinoff to “The Good Wife” — also a critical and fan favorite, over its seven CBS seasons — they wanted to take advantage of not being limited by broadcast TV runtimes.
The Kings were taken with the credits for the Amazon Prime Video series “The Man in the High Castle,” and approached the Emmy-nominated visual effects supervisor Deming (who also worked on “The Good Wife”) about a possible collaboration for their new show. The initial seeds of what would form the operatic final product came from an early idea.
“What he pitched to us was porcelain objects dropping in slow motion and shattering. And I remembered in ‘Zabriskie Point,’ the refrigerators blowing up in slow motion and it just being fascinating. So we kind of combined the two ideas. Even as destructive as it is, it’s beautiful,” Robert King said. “And obviously, as you know, blowing shit up is always exciting.”
But once the idea of combustion started to come into focus, the question was how to set it all up. Another initial idea had the sequence set to Andy Williams’ song “Happy Heart.” “It was supposed to be very pleasant and like what your parents would listen to and then all this shit explodes in contrast,” Robert King said.
When that plan fell through, composer and longtime Kings collaborator David Buckley was eager to provide his own interpretation, one that used a Baroque-style framing paired with a level of refined excess that would mirror the vibe of the rest of the series. Though the final version opens with the humble felt-piano beginnings of the fiery fugue-like spiral to come, that wasn’t the first instrument that Buckley tried out.
“To start off, I tried it on a chamber organ like you might find in a little church. I think Robert said it just sounded too liturgical. Then I moved it over to harpsichord and I think he found it a bit too twinkly. Then I moved it to a toy piano and having it on a comedy instrument was kind of missing the point,” Buckley said.
While Buckley continued to shape what would become the musical foundation for the sequences, a day of balletic destruction was happening right across town.
In order to properly execute this idea, Deming — who’s overseen the various iterations of “The Good Fight” credits over its five seasons — would have to call on some specialized equipment. Based on test images, he and the Kings determined that the best way to harness the slow-motion aesthetic they wanted was to move to a rate of 25,000 frames per second, well beyond standard entertainment cameras.
To better capture these highly concentrated images, more frames meant more lights. That led to yet another instance of the shoot’s demands outpacing the traditional demands of a Hollywood sound stage.
“We did need to pull power from another stage. We needed the breakers from basically two different stages to have enough electricity to run all the lights,” Deming said.
At the risk of oversimplifying, more lights meant more heat. When operating at full temperature, it was enough to melt the plastic on the computers placed in the frame. Given the eventual purpose of what the team was there to do, that led to a very specific order of events in the prep process.
“The lighting setup was incredible. The heat alone from that could definitely set the things off,” said special FX supervisor and explosives whisperer Tom Ceglia. “I talked to the lighting guy and said, ‘Look, here’s the deal. Turn on the one light and give me about five-to-10 minutes to set it up and put the detonators on the detcord. Then you can get your full spectrum of your lights to come on. Once they come on, I’ll be back away from it.'”
Over the years, various desks and benches and chairs have been specially made out of more fragile and less-dense material like balsa wood, not only to break apart easier and in a more visually pleasing way, but to ensure that any projectiles are lighter. Some of Season 1’s original sequence was made using a setup involving a trunnion gun that sent tiny bullet-like balls through the glass artifacts, but the team has moved in subsequent seasons to using controlled detonations, even for the intricate Busby Berkeley-esque stretch of bursting teacups.
For each detonation, Ceglia and any other members of the crew who happened to be on the stage were 25 feet away, safely behind a 3/4-inch plywood wall that would block any stray debris. That was key to protect human and camera alike, with the lenses filming everything also placed behind thick layers of Lexan, a more durable Plexiglass alternative, with a removable outer plastic film that the team was able to clean and peel off in between takes to get rid of any small fragments or residue.
“The detcord that I use is so directional,” Ceglia said. “I can put it on the side of a vase or the side of a decanter, and that side would blow a little bit, but then it would push everything out in front. So it all depends on what side and where the camera is looking. You can actually wrap it around stuff, almost like a climbing rope. The size that we usually use goes anywhere from 100 grain all the way to 15 grain. The stuff that we use is considered soft explosions, but they still will make an impact. They can cut off body parts easy in a heartbeat.”
Ceglia, a longtime pro with decades of SFX experience (he recently worked on the latest Bella Poarch video), was approaching the project with plenty of experience, but nothing that had required the precision called for by this elevated frame rate. The plan for the Season 1 shoot, replicated for each season after, was to have three identical versions of each new item. From there, the usual arc followed a kind of modified Goldilocks approach.
“I told Lawson, ‘Look, all we’re going to be doing is testing. This is just nothing but a big test.’ We’ll do one big. And then if it’s too big, we’ll tone it down a little bit. It’s really funny because my big, to them, is huge,” Ceglia said with a chuckle. “It’s incredible what detcord can do. When you put it in a different element, it changes everything. Indoors, it compacts it a little more, which makes it go even bigger.”
“Robert King didn’t want the actual fire from the explosion to overtake because you want to see all the little bits flying apart. You don’t just want to see a fireball. So getting just the right amount of explosives was key. Because it was so, so, so slow, even if there was just a poof of smoke, that poof would be on frame for 30 seconds,” Deming said.
Whenever a shot in the final version has multiple items in the frame, it’s a composite. Due to the fraction-of-a-second timing it would take to have more than one explosion in rapid succession, Deming and the team at Barnstorm VFX make a composite shot to seamlessly thread the separate takes together. That triplicate approach is maybe best demonstrated by one consistent piece across the seasons and one that, for Robert King, might be the most untouchable.
“The one we repeat, and will probably repeat if our show goes till the end of time, is the three phones exploding,” Robert King said. “They were blown up separately, but I do think they work together. I love the way there’s a dance and a tangling of the phone cables.”
Though the plan was always to introduce some new additions every season, “The Good Fight” Season 3 credits were something of a reinvention. The show needed to better match the bombastic indulgences of Roland Blum (Michael Sheen), a Roy Cohn apostle with taste as gaudy as his legal tactics. So the credits needed to blow up some TVs.
“They exploded in such an interesting way, almost like a water drop falling in in a pool and rippling outward,” Deming said. “It was a complete surprise. When they blew up, we were like, ‘Let’s try and do more of whatever did that.'”
“That was definitely an artistic part on my move,” Ceglia said. “I basically opened the TV up and I had it in two parts. I took the screen that it shoots the projector on and I could pretty much make it any kind of circular pattern. I made what they call a pancake where the two pieces come together. Then we did it so you’d get an explosion going out the back and some out the front. But for some reason, it always did what we wanted it to do and went toward the front of the screen.”
The images on those TVs over successive seasons — cable TV hosts, occupants of the White House, Capitol attackers — have changed, helped by the fact that the screens were left intentionally blank. Adding in that faux video footage after the fact gives it a little extra oomph. “Normally, if it blew up, the image will just completely turn off. We wanted to keep it on screen for just a moment so you see the ripple go through,” Deming said.
Having already built the music in the opening sequence to a towering crescendo of whoops and screams, Buckley had little room left to go higher. The eventual solution was to call on the thundering canon sound as the televisions pancake their way left and right, but Buckley tried some other ideas first.
“When you’ve got trumpets, horns, and trombones playing at their highest capacity, nothing else orchestral is really going to register. I went through loads of sound effect things, like a lion roaring. We did discover that some of them did go too far. It lost its musicality and it became abrasive. We always wanted to have an elegance, even if it became extremely thunderous. But I think you can still have thunderous elegance,” Buckley said.
The Season 3 credits culminate in one last subversion: The black backdrop for three seasons’ worth of explosions of all angles and sizes falls away, amidst a crashing set of lights, all before a final blast tears a hole in the wall. A facade within a facade, the lights (prop versions, not like the 24K ones that were in actual use on the set) and curtain were rigged specifically for the shot, with the fake soundstage wall added in later as a separate element. Unlike the bevy of purses and law books and gavels, there was no backup wall. That specific burst was the team’s only chance to get it right.
Again, it was far easier to stitch those separate pieces together later than to time them to Buckley’s newly written coda. Rather than trying once more to, as he described it, “figure out how to make something that’s already at 11, volume-wise, go to 12,” the tone ratchets down to a trio of recorders, playing out the last decelerating phrase.
“It has a melancholic tinge to it. The bombast has all ended and it just gives you the opportunity to think that there is some gravitas in what we’re saying, without being without being heavy-handed and grim. It’s just a little moment of poignancy, which I’m very glad we were able to fit in there,” Buckley said.
Perhaps the most memorable Season 4 alterations were done in tribute to two musicians who passed away from Covid complications: Adam Schlesinger and John Prine. The visuals remained the same for the season’s final two episodes, instead playing over “Hey Julie” from Schlesinger’s band Fountains of Wayne and Prine’s “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight.”
The March 2020 production shutdown left the show three episodes short of a full Season 4 and without its usual complement of new items blown to bits. One episode has placeholder markers (“a conference table would have blown up here”) for the session they knew wasn’t going to happen.
“Michelle and I just talked, and thought it would be funny and also therapeutic for us to do these. They were supposed to look like almost like nuclear warning signs of what would have been there,” Robert King said.
There have been other turns, some somber and one that saw everything un-destruct in reverse. And, of course, these are all pieces in the show’s own playful arms race to see how deep into an episode’s runtime it can present this sequence, in whatever kaleidoscopic form it happens to take.
The Season 5 premiere, in keeping with the dreamlike “Previously on…” theme of the episode, assembled existing footage of adorable animals to move around, unharmed against that same black background, all for a slightly tongue-in-cheek return to a world with one noticeable change.
“Mercifully, that was existing footage. I don’t think anyone would be happy with us bringing in little ducklings,” Michelle King said. “It was, again, amusing ourselves, this idea of ‘Oh, a Biden administration. It’s all going to be adorable. Everything’s new and clean and lovely.’ Which lasted a whole episode.”
When Deming and the team finally did get around to this season’s latest round of supplements, one particular bit of furniture destruction involved some size-based trickery.
“The biggest challenge in general is that the bigger something is, the harder it is to work with,” Deming said. “If a piece of debris flies one foot over a set period of time and you’re wider on a bigger object, one foot of the frame might only be a little bit. So the newest version of the sofa that we blew up was actually a children’s sofa. The best take that we got on that, it ripples through the whole thing and flops around in this very cool way.”
In the ever-continuing handshake between image and music (like the faint shimmering chimes added as a flourish to accentuate the microscopic silicate fragments glistening off of an imploding laptop keyboard), size is also a key component in the ongoing mixing of the music, especially as new elements join in.
“You might be surprised to know that there’s a mandolin in there, but I think that does get swallowed up. There’s a viola da gamba, which is an old kind of Renaissance instrument,” Buckley said. “They peek their heads above and let themselves be known when they can. But then ultimately, as the bigger and bolder instrumentation comes in, they have to yield. Otherwise, I would be left with ugliness. But they’re still poodling away in the background, saying, ‘Over to you, French horn. I’ve had my moment.'”
With Season 6 now officially on the horizon, there will be another chance to adjust and augment as the show has done since the start. It all goes back to what Buckley said about the transition from “The Good Wife” to “The Good Fight,” but it might as well apply to each of the latter’s season-to-season tiny leaps.
“The explosions and the blowing up of all those office artifacts, the tables and the crystal decanters and the handbags, I think it was all about saying that we’re shattering everything that you got to know and love about the show, and we still want you to know and love it, but you’re gonna know and love it in a different way. The main title to me serves as this crazy kind of rebirth. A very, very explosive rebirth.”
“The Good Fight” is available to stream on Paramount+.