Creating Realistic Background Imagery For Fictional Stories

Fernando Argüelles, ASC AEC is an acclaimed Spanish cinematographer based in the United States who has worked on feature films and countless televisions series, including Prison Break, Hemlock Grove, Grimm and Scorpion. He was also one of the first cinematographers to have used Rosco SoftDrop shortly after we launched the product in 2015. After his first experience using a SoftDrop on the science fiction crime drama television series Second Chance in 2016, he was enthusiastic to use it again in 2021 on the post-apocalyptic horror television series Fear the Walking Dead. Below, Fernando shares how Rosco SoftDrop helped him create realistic background imagery in these two very different fictional stories.

Second Chance

Second Chance took place in Seattle, Washington but was shot in Vancouver, Canada. We built a massive set that comprised a two-story house with a real garden and swimming pool. Through the large full-wall, panoramic windows that surround the entire house you could see the patio with the swimming pool and the trees, followed by more trees, and the city skyline stretched at the end of the horizon.

Scene from Second Chance that shows downtown Seattle in the background, even though the series was shot in Vancouver.

The team at Rosco Digital Imaging captured the photo of downtown Seattle that produced the nearly 129 ft (40m) Rosco Day/Night SoftDrop that we installed outside of the house. Because the house was all in glass, every time we moved the camera or panned around, we were able to see the background imagery at day and nighttime. This backdrop length gave the actors more freedom to walk where they wanted and the directors more flexibility to set up scenes with different points of view and movement, whether we were using a Steadicam, a dolly or a jib arm.

House set with a panoramic view of Seattle background imagery.

I had never worked with SoftDrop before. In my previous experiences with other backdrops, I always had two major problems: 1) they are shiny and 2) they show wrinkles. When you have a vinyl backdrop, it needs to hang for a certain period to get completely flat. If it is not flat and warm enough, there are wrinkles that are almost impossible to avoid because of the reflection of lights.

Artwork file used to create Rosco SoftDrop for Second Chance.
Final images of the Seattle city skyline used to produce Day/Night SoftDrop for Second Chance.

When Production Designer Paul Peters suggested using Rosco’s new SoftDrop technology for this series, I agreed. It seemed to me that it was the way to go. Two or three days after we installed the backdrop, it became completely flat. Thanks to its 100% cotton composition we didn’t have any of the problems associated with vinyl backdrops. I fell in love with Rosco SoftDrop. It suited my style of photography which is more naturalistic. The little shiny points that appear here and there when you photograph a vinyl material were gone. Plus, we didn’t have to fight them in post-production, which saved us a lot of time.

SoftDrop background imagery seen from the house at nighttime.

I also requested to have some smoke between the trees and the city to diffuse the atmosphere. If you look at any city, when there is natural backlighting, there is this atmospheric diffusion in the air, which could be mist in the air or pollution, or the combination of both. Using Rosco SoftDrop, which is already soft in itself, together with the smoke, longer focal length lenses, and some light filtration in the camera helped me achieve the desired softness and look for these scenes.

SoftDrop background imagery seen from the patio at nighttime.

Many cinematographers were complimentary of the result saying that these shots looked real. To say that the house, the patio, and the city skyline are realistic, regardless of whether it is beautiful or not, is the best compliment we could get.

Fear the Walking Dead

My experience with Rosco SoftDrop on Second Chance in 2016 led me to recommend it to Production Designer Bernardo Trujillo for Season 7 of Fear the Walking Dead in 2021. We built a full circle set and needed a background that could envelop the set and enable us to shoot at any angle. We acquired two distinct SoftDrops for different episodes – one showing a red sky and the other a yellow sky with clouds. Rosco Digital Imaging turned our artwork into two SoftDrops that covered nearly 200° of the set so we could circle them wherever the camera or the action needed to go on set.

Post-apocalyptic scene showing red sky background imagery, bare trees, fog and a masked man.

The design intent was to create a post-nuclear atmosphere – a surrounding that is lifeless, devoid of colours, with only brown and black tones. Each backdrop depicts a distinct place and time frame. We wanted to create a progression in the look that matched the progression of the story. The muted red sky backdrop, used in episodes one, two, and three, depicts a dark atmosphere after a recent nuclear blast.

Artwork of the red sky (above) was used to produce the SoftDrop (below) for Fear the Walking Dead.

The yellow sky SoftDrop was used in episode four to show time progression. To enhance the feeling of a post-nuclear apocalypse we backlit the backdrop with a yellow LED colour. We placed the lights underneath, about 10 ft (3m) from the backdrop, pointing up. There is smoke here as well, both regular and ground fog, that adds to the overall softness of the image.

Artwork of the yellow sky (above) and the backlit SoftDrop (below) on the set of Fear the Walking Dead.

I am very happy with how the SoftDrops worked out in both projects. The first one was a very natural, everyday situation inside the house, while the second was a completely different case. In both instances, the backdrops worked for me and created the artistic vision we were pursuing. From my experience, I can say that Rosco SoftDrop is a very important cinematographic tool – it is your image right there!


Cinematographer Fernando Argüelles on the set of Fear the Walking Dead.

Fernando Argüelles is a member of the American Society of Cinematographers and Spain’s Asociación Española de Directoras y Directores de Fotografía (AEC) and he works as an official AEC delegate in the US, contributing to strengthening the links between professionals from both countries. Fernando is also a member of the Television Academy (EMMYS), and an associate member of the Society of Camera Operators and The Actors Fund. He has worked for numerous production companies, including Netflix, USA, A&E, Fox, CBS, CW, and ABC. To learn more about Fernando Argüelles’ comprehensive work, visit his website: fernandoarguelles.net.

For more information about the backdrops that Fernando Argüelles used to create the background imagery on Second Chance and Fear the Walking Dead, explore the Rosco SoftDrop product page on our website. To read this article in Spanish, click here.

Photo credits: Fernando Argüelles

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About Tatiana Massano

International Marketing Coordinator: Based in the Madrid office, Tatiana is ideally positioned to share inspiring stories of how customers use Rosco products to accomplish their ideas in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.