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April 05
2022

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

HOW VFX SEAMLESSLY TAKES VIEWERS BACK IN TIME TO THE GILDED AGE

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of HBO and Lesley Robson-Foster.

DNEG in Montreal looked after the big backlot set constructed at the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage, New York that utilized extensive greenscreen.

DNEG in Montreal looked after the big backlot set constructed at the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage, New York that utilized extensive greenscreen.

DNEG in Montreal looked after the big backlot set constructed at the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage, New York that utilized extensive greenscreen.

Julian Fellowes has become synonymous with projects dealing with the lives of the wealthy elite and their servants from Gosford Park to Downton Abbey to The Gilded Age, which is a HBO historical drama set in the 1880s where the old and new money families in New York City come into conflict with one another. The first season had nine episodes and stars Carrie Coon, Morgan Spector, Louisa Jacobson, Denée Benton, Taissa Farmiga, Harry Richardson, Blake Ritson, Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski.

“I’m not going to let someone draw a storyboard when I need to say what is possible. Unfortunately, I see an alarming trend of that not being true on bigger shows, and it couldn’t be more important, because if you want the best, biggest scope but can’t go to shoot it because it doesn’t exist, you’re going to want to have visual effects. Having an experienced team say, ‘We can build three greenscreens and get there.’ That is good fun, and it makes for a better show in the end.”

—Lesley Robson-Foster, Visual Effects Supervisor

Rodeo FX looked after the train station scenes.

Rodeo FX looked after the train station scenes.

Rodeo FX looked after the train station scenes.

Getting out of New York City does not seem a possibility for Visual Effects Supervisor Lesley Robson-Foster, outside of working in various eras. “I don’t want to get out of New York City! There’s that thing where you do one period job and that becomes your niche. From Boardwalk Empire to Hunters to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to The Gilded Age, that’s my thing. And I’m not from here!”

It was essential for the visual effects team to be brought onto the project during pre-production. “Early on I was part of the core group of the production designer, DP and director to work out [the set extensions],” explains Robson-Foster. “I’m not going to let someone draw a storyboard when I need to say what is possible. Unfortunately, I see an alarming trend of that not being true on bigger shows, and it couldn’t be more important, because if you want the best, biggest scope but can’t go to shoot it because it doesn’t exist, you’re going to want to have visual effects. Having an experienced team say, ‘We can build three greenscreens and get there.’ That is good fun, and it makes for a better show in the end. For The Gilded Age, we wanted a solid greenscreen that’s a junction because it can be many streets. It’s nice to have something that is interactive with the actors like a doorway or real smoke. The rest that is not front and center, I am happy to build. A good thing was that all of the scripts were done, so we had early locks on the big sequences.”

Six days before principal photography was to commence, the production was shut down because of the pandemic. “HBO thought we would be back six weeks, but you know the rest!” states Robson-Foster. “It’s hard to imagine that you had those six weeks to yourself. We ended up shooting in the wrong season, so that was the main thing that impacted The Gilded Age. We were forever putting trees in, but we shot long enough that the trees did come back and we were able to shoot plates. We didn’t have to do too many CG trees. The first thing that I ever learned is, if you can shoot it then shoot it.” Post-production lasted from June 2021 to Christmas 2021 with frequent collaborator, Visual Effects Supervisor Douglas Purver (The Blacklist), assisting in the creation of 1,500 shots. “My methodology on shows like this is to have an in-house team that includes a matte painter, Nuke artist, editor and data wrangler,” explains Robson-Foster. “We’re the face of the visual effects. We like to do the heavy lifting of designing and working with the production designer and DP ourselves, and then include the vendors. It’s a team approach that I’ve carried with me since Boardwalk Empire.”

DNEG in Montreal looked after the big backlot set constructed at the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage, New York that utilized extensive greenscreen. “At the far end, where George Russell’s [Morgan Spector] office was, nothing existed,” reveals Robson-Foster. “We worked out an AR app on an iPad. There were little tracking spots on the street, we showed the iPad the little QR code, lifted the iPad up and, lo and behold, there was the CG on top of the partial thing that we physically built. You could turn 360 degrees and the camera operators and DPs were well aware of how tall those buildings were; that was the main driving for me asking for it because nobody could imagine how big that Russell house was. I was trying to get a real-world marker such as a weather balloon tethered in places, but it proved to be too hard with a mad wind. Sometimes I had an 80-foot crane parked there so the camera department could see where the top was. But for most days the AR app was the thing.” Other vendors were Rodeo FX, which looked after the dock scene and train station, Phosphene, Powerhouse VFX and Alkemy X.

Practical smoke was essential in the seamless integration of CG elements with the plate photography.

Practical smoke was essential in the seamless integration of CG elements with the plate photography.

Practical smoke was essential in the seamless integration of CG elements with the plate photography.

Practical smoke was essential in the seamless integration of CG elements with the plate photography.

“[Because of COVID] we ended up shooting in the wrong season, so that was the main thing that impacted The Gilded Age. We were forever putting trees in, but we shot long enough that the trees did come back and we were able to shoot plates. We didn’t have to do too many CG trees. The first thing that I ever learned is, if you can shoot it then shoot it.”

—Lesley Robson-Foster, Visual Effects Supervisor

The dock set was actually constructed in a parking lot, with the water being a combination of CG and plate photography.

The dock set was actually constructed in a parking lot, with the water being a combination of CG and plate photography.

The dock set was actually constructed in a parking lot, with the water being a combination of CG and plate photography.

The dock set was actually constructed in a parking lot, with the water being a combination of CG and plate photography.

To raise money for the complete construction of the Statute of Liberty, the iconic hand with the torch was placed on display in Madison Square Park, which was recreated by the visual effects team. “It was so much fun being able to talk to the historical researchers,” remarks Robson-Foster. “The hand was in Madison Square Park for 10 years, and it started off shiny and because of being copper it went green. We had to make sure that we were looking at the hand in the right time and figure out how tarnished it would actually be. There was coal smoke in the air in Manhattan then, so even though these things were relatively new they quickly got grubby from the coal.” There are not many photographs from the 1880s.

“Particularly for the scene across the water, there are few etchings and photos but of poor quality. Bob Shaw [The Irishman], the Production Designer, conceptualized the Russell house as it wasn’t based on a real place. There were two sets of plans. One for what the whole house was going to look like, and the other is what they built on the backlot. It was my job to fill in the bits, but at every stage we had to include production design because in effect we were set building.”

“My methodology on shows like this is to have an in-house team that includes a matte painter, Nuke artist, editor and data wrangler,” explains Robson-Foster. “We’re the face of the visual effects. We like to do the heavy lifting of designing and working with the production designer and DP ourselves, and then include the vendors. It’s a team approach that I’ve carried with me since Boardwalk Empire.”

—Lesley Robson-Foster, Visual Effects Supervisor

Interior set extensions were minimal. “We sometimes put hundreds of candle flames on chandeliers,” states Robson-Foster. “The real ballrooms were in Newport, Rhode Island, and for the sets that Bob Shaw built at Gold Coast Studios we did skylights and murals on ceilings.” Not everything was building-related on the backlot set. “We had three visual effects plate days on the backlot where nine cameras were set up and shot the horses and carriages and people picking up the pooh,” describes Robson-Foster, “all sorts of stuff from various angles so in edit when the director said, ‘I wish that street was busier,’ we were ready with numerous elements to do that.” Windows had to be replaced to get the proper reflections and refraction, Robson-Foster says. “If you looked at the house across the street from the Russell house, you would see the green edge that I made all of the time. The greenscreen was even reflected in the puddles!”

1,500 visual effects shots were created for the nine episodes by DNEG, Rodeo FX, Phosphene, Powerhouse VFX, Alkemy X and an in-house team.

1,500 visual effects shots were created for the nine episodes by DNEG, Rodeo FX, Phosphene, Powerhouse VFX, Alkemy X and an in-house team.

1,500 visual effects shots were created for the nine episodes by DNEG, Rodeo FX, Phosphene, Powerhouse VFX, Alkemy X and an in-house team.

A set was constructed in a parking lot for the dock scene. “Douglas Purver went to Red Hook and shot across from Governors Island because that’s how far away across the Hudson River in Manhattan was from the Communipaw ferry terminal,  which is now called Central Railroad of New Jersey,” reveals Robson-Foster. “That’s a hybrid of real and CG water. There was not much reference for what it looked like, but from what we could see Manhattan was bristling with docks.” The train derailment scene was captured up in Westchester County. “The debris on the hillside was real. The trees were a problem because we were in the winter. We went back and shot plates of those trees. The crashed train was the same model that was featured in the train station.  We put large 2 x 4s with tracking info on them because there were huge cranes.  We wanted to give everybody the best chance to see perspectives and parallels.”

Three days were spent doing an element shoot for horses, carriages and pedestrians in order to minimize the number of digital doubles.

Three days were spent doing an element shoot for horses, carriages and pedestrians in order to minimize the number of digital doubles.

Three days were spent doing an element shoot for horses, carriages and pedestrians in order to minimize the number of digital doubles.

Three days were spent doing an element shoot for horses, carriages and pedestrians in order to minimize the number of digital doubles.

“At the far end [of the set], where George Russell’s [Morgan Spector] office was, nothing existed. We worked out an AR app on an iPad. There were little tracking spots on the street, we showed the iPad the little QR code, lifted the iPad up and, lo and behold, there was the CG on top of the partial thing that we physically built.”

—Lesley Robson-Foster, Visual Effects Supervisor

The hand of the Statue of Liberty on display at Madison Square Park is based on the historical campaign to raise funds for what would become an iconic landmark.

The hand of the Statue of Liberty on display at Madison Square Park is based on the historical campaign to raise funds for what would become an iconic landmark.

The hand of the Statue of Liberty on display at Madison Square Park is based on the historical campaign to raise funds for what would become an iconic landmark.

Digital augmentation was needed to disguise the pregnancy of actress of Carrie Coon, who portrays Bertha Russell. “We did a couple of face replacements on the body double and did some work on her as she progressed with the dresses. The corset is serious armor, and we had to work out what she could wear so we could adapt it and what would we do later on. We knew that early on and planned for it.” A particular aspect of the costume designs proved to be technically challenging,” says Robson-Foster. “There is a scene in a bazaar where George Russell comes in and buys everything; that was on a greenscreen stage. Every shot out every window is a composite. You wouldn’t think about it, but each woman in that room has feathers and lace!” The last shot of the first season is a personal favorite. “The weather was not that nice and the drone was not perfect. I like that because it wasn’t presentational. It was like, ‘This is life on 61st Street.’”

2 x 4s with tracking markers were utilized to place the derailed train, which was a CG asset created by DNEG in the plate photography.

2 x 4s with tracking markers were utilized to place the derailed train, which was a CG asset created by DNEG in the plate photography.

2 x 4s with tracking markers were utilized to place the derailed train, which was a CG asset created by DNEG in the plate photography.

2 x 4s with tracking markers were utilized to place the derailed train, which was a CG asset created by DNEG in the plate photography.

The New York Times building was entirely a CG asset.

The New York Times building was entirely a CG asset.

The New York Times building was entirely a CG asset.

The New York Times building was entirely a CG asset.


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