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December 13
2022

ISSUE

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HOW BRAINSTORM DIGITAL RECREATED 1980s NEW YORK FOR ARMAGEDDON TIME

By OLIVER WEBB

Michael Banks Repeta as Paul Graff and Anthony Hopkins as Grandpa Aaron Rabinowitz in James Gray's Armageddon Time. (Photo: Anne Joyce. Courtesy of Focus Features)

Michael Banks Repeta as Paul Graff and Anthony Hopkins as Grandpa Aaron Rabinowitz in James Gray’s Armageddon Time. (Photo: Anne Joyce. Courtesy of Focus Features)

Set in 1980s Queens, New York, James Gray’s autobiographical tale, Armageddon Time, follows Paul Graff as he navigates his way through school. Dreaming of a career as an artist, Paul witnesses first-hand the harsh realities of the American dream and the prejudiced schooling system. Visual Effects Supervisor Glenn Allen and his team at Brainstorm Digital worked to recreate 1980s New York. “This is the fourth movie we have done with James,”Allen explains. “We did some work on Ad Astra, but we weren’t the only vendor on that one, as it had space and things we don’t normally do. We normally do invisible effects and a lot of period work. Of course, for Armageddon Time we had to do a lot of period fixes.”

Paul Graff and Johnny Crocker (Jaylin Webb) playing hooky in the Central Park scene. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Paul Graff and Johnny Crocker (Jaylin Webb) playing hooky in the Central Park scene. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

 

“[Director James Gray] lived it, and so he was very clear about how he wanted it to feel. He said it’s not a coming-of-age story, it’s moments in time. I remember on his monitor on set he had words written down: loss, love and memories. He had that as a reminder, and I saw that every day. I carried that as I was instructing artists and I always had that in mind.”

—Glenn Allen, Visual Effects Supervisor, Brainstorm Digital

In terms of creative references, Allen looked at photographs from the time period. “It was just random shots off the internet, whatever we could find from those locations,” he notes. “There wasn’t a lot of video. For things such as the park in Queens, where the grandfather sets the rocket off with the grandson, there is a tower back there where the World’s Fair took place back in the ’60s,  and it was painted a certain way at the time. James was very specific about that. Just the memories. He lived it, and so he was very clear about how he wanted it to feel. He said it’s not a coming-of-age story, it’s moments in time. I remember on his monitor on set he had words written down: loss, love and memories. He had that as a reminder, and I saw that every day. I carried that as I was instructing artists, and I always had that in mind.”

Anne Hathaway is Paul's mother, Esther Graff, in Armageddon Time, director James Gray's autobiographical tale. (Photo: Anne Joyce. Courtesy of Focus Features)

Anne Hathaway is Paul’s mother, Esther Graff, in director James Gray’s autobiographical tale. (Photo: Anne Joyce. Courtesy of Focus Features)

“James was very particular about it being authentic,” Allen adds. “We had to prove to him that it was 1980, and he’d sometimes say things like, ‘no, that was 1982.’ He cared a lot about that, and we had to do our homework. James knows what he wants, which is great, and that helps us a lot. The first time we deliver something, we have a better idea of what he is looking for because we know him so well. There are some directors that don’t really know what they want until they see a version of it, which makes it harder because then we can send a version which might be way off. With James we know his sensibilities. My partner, Richard Friedlander, and I don’t come from a technical background, we come from a filmmaking background. I think that helps a lot because we picture the edit instead of giving something that might be technically correct. We try to deliver something that we know will fit into the edit.”

“There are some directors that don’t really know what they want until they see a version of it, which makes it harder because then we can send a version which might be way off. With James we know his sensibilities. My partner, Richard Friedlander, and I don’t come from a technical background, we come from a filmmaking background. I think that helps a lot because we picture the edit instead of giving something that might be technically correct. We try to deliver something that we know will fit into the edit.”

—Glenn Allen, Visual Effects Supervisor, Brainstorm Digital

The pinball sequence was shot on a greenscreen stage. Visual Effects Supervisor Glenn Allen and his team relied on matte painting to create 1980s Times Square as the scene’s backdrop. (Images courtesy of Brainstorm Digital)

The pinball sequence was shot on a greenscreen stage. Visual Effects Supervisor Glenn Allen and his team relied on matte painting to create 1980s Times Square as the scene’s backdrop. (Images courtesy of Brainstorm Digital)

Brainstorm Digital created around 200 visual effects shots for the film. “Thirty  or 40% of the shots in Armageddon Time are things that they didn’t plan on doing,” says Allen says. “There might be a car in the shot that they didn’t like, or there might be a great performance, but there might be an airplane in the sky and they want to get rid of it. We usually prioritize the hardest shots, which for us would be the CG rocket shooting up into the sky, and that goes to our CG team. We have matte painters. For the bulk of our work, it was painting out satellite dishes which they didn’t have in 1980. For every location, we had to look for things and paint them out. Some of the work went to CG, but the bulk of the work was matte painting. We had a number of shots where we duplicated the school children in the classroom. That’s always a bit of a challenge on set. We did what we call crowd tiling, so we jumble up the kids and move them around. I think we did five or six plates of the kids to make it look like a full gym of schoolkids. When we shot it, it was pretty easy because the seats were in rows. It was very easy to move all the kids. I said. let’s fill up one row, one section so we have enough, and then we move those kids into each section. It went very smoothly.”

Brainstorm Digital used a ‘crowd tiling’ effect to duplicate the number of school children throughout the classroom scenes. Having the seats in rows proved an efficient way of achieving the ‘crowd tiling’ effect. (Images courtesy of Brainstorm Digital)

Brainstorm Digital used a ‘crowd tiling’ effect to duplicate the number of school children throughout the classroom scenes. Having the seats in rows proved an efficient way of achieving the ‘crowd tiling’ effect. (Images courtesy of Brainstorm Digital)

Flushing Meadows Park has changed since the 1980s and proved to be challenging to recreate. Scaffolding surrounding the structure was digitally removed in post-production. (Images courtesy of Brainstorm Digital)

Flushing Meadows Park has changed since the 1980s and proved to be challenging to recreate. Scaffolding surrounding the structure was digitally removed in post-production. (Images courtesy of Brainstorm Digital)

“Thirty or 40% of the shots in Armageddon Time are things that they didn’t plan on doing. There might be a car in the shot that they didn’t like, or there might be a great performance, but there might be an airplane in the sky and they want to get rid of it. We usually prioritize the hardest shots, which for us would be the CG rocket shooting up into the sky, and that goes to our CG team. … For the bulk of our work, it was painting out satellite dishes which they didn’t have in 1980. For every location, we had to look for things and paint them out. Some of the work went to CG, but the bulk of the work was matte painting.”

—Glenn Allen, Visual Effects Supervisor, Brainstorm Digital

The World’s Fair park proved to be particularly challenging to complete. “It is quite different now compared to how it used to be,” Allen explains. “We changed the color of it. They had scaffolding and we had to get rid of that. That one stands out because we spent a lot of time getting that just right. There was some reference, but James remembered it a certain way.” A number of modern buildings also had to painted out in wide shots, and a few visual effects shots were required for the scenes in Central Park. “There weren’t a whole lot of visual effects shots in this movie,” Allen remarks. “There was a challenging shot, when the kids are playing pinball at Times Square, and they shot that on a greenscreen stage. We did matte painting for the background, which was supposed to be in Times Square, and we had CG cars and a CG bus going by. We also had people walking past the window. We created a store front window behind that. That was probably the most challenging scene. We also had a bit of trouble with the snot bubble scene. That was when the father chokes on his coffee during the family dinner scene. I came on set one day and I had a hollowed-out light bulb that I put up to my nose. James cracked up. That was a full-on CGI snot bubble. It had to be a certain way that he wanted, as it was something else he remembered.”

The ‘snot bubble’ was created using CGI and was based on a memory from director James Gray’s childhood. (Images courtesy of Brainstorm Digital)

The ‘snot bubble’ was created using CGI and was based on a memory from director James Gray’s childhood. (Images courtesy of Brainstorm Digital)

“There was a challenging shot, when the kids are playing pinball at Times Square, and they shot that on a greenscreen stage. We did matte painting for the background, which was supposed to be in Times Square, and we had CG cars and a CG bus going by. We also had people walking past the window. We created a store front window behind that. That was probably the most challenging scene.”

—Glenn Allen, Visual Effects Supervisor, Brainstorm Digital

Director James Gray, known for his depictions of family dynamics, blocking the classroom sequence. (Photo: Anne Joyce. Courtesy of Focus Features)

Director James Gray, known for his depictions of family dynamics, blocking the classroom sequence. (Photo: Anne Joyce. Courtesy of Focus Features)

The visual effects were completed over the course of three-to-four months. “I love working with James because he is such a cinema historian and he cares so deeply about his work,” Allen observes. “I haven’t worked with a director quite like him. Armageddon Time is so intimate and autobiographical. I loved the script. Production Designer Happy Massee did a great job. A lot of times he’d dress pieces of the set and we would extend it. A lot of the work we do is extending what they build on the set. If someone notices where the virtual effects are, then we aren’t doing our job. I think it turned out really well.”


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