By IAN FAILES
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By IAN FAILES
We might be surrounded by many superhero and cosmic visual effects blockbusters right now, but a large proportion of VFX work out there remains dedicated to recreating key moments in history. This includes period or historical dramas, where era-correct cities and towns need to be recreated via digital means.
Oftentimes, partial sets are built and then extended with visual effects, or real locations that still have that ‘period look’ are used. Sometimes the actors may be shot entirely on blue or greenscreen backlots. Here’s a look at just some of the historical drama VFX work that has taken place in recent times, with a view to the key things artists need to look out for when working on these kinds of projects.
WORLD-BUILDING, FROM THE REAL WORLD
Netflix’s Bridgerton series is set in London’s Regency era. For Season 2, One of Us VFX studio was engaged to craft a range of period environments. Visual Effects Supervisor Victor Tomi says the process included research of those period settings and a review of what had been built on set.
“Being on set shooting at real locations is a great advantage, as you have your reference right there,” he notes. “It’s also important to talk to the art department and let them point you in the right direction, as we have to make sure both departments are building the same world. On a show like Bridgerton, we start by creating assets that follow historical accuracy, but we then have the freedom to modify certain aspects of it that are more in line with the vibrant and bold aesthetics of the series.”
The shooting of Bridgerton saw the use of blue or greenscreens whenever a background needed to be replaced or a set extended. “The largest use of bluescreens was in the final episode scene in the Featherington back garden,” Tomi describes. “The scene involved all the main cast and hundreds of background actors. The rigging team put up six bluescreens to cover an area of 120 feet across and 20 feet high. We needed this to replace the entire view from the garden with 1800s London and add a full fireworks show in the sky for the grand finale.”
While the look of the environments needed to be old school, One of Us employed some new virtual production technology to help during filming. This was via their on-set app brought on an iPad that allowed for virtual sets to be visualized right then and there. “We first imported some of our final VFX assets into the app,” Tomi says, “but a simpler version of them was built in Unreal that we could play with live. Once on set, you can match your real position to that inside the asset, and then switch to AR, so as you move the device or yourself, the camera in the app moves accordingly. This was useful to both director and DP, as they could see what the final framing of a shot would look like and reposition their camera or change lens until they had what they wanted.”
For the city environments themselves, One of Us had already worked on Season 1 and could repurpose certain assets while also needing to build more for extra establishing shots.
“Once we knew the area that needed to be covered, our CG Supervisor Zach du Toit and his team built independent neighborhoods with their own buildings, streets and parks,” Tomi explains. “These were then laid out to fill each specific scene, up until the point where a matte painting could cover the rest of the background. After each shot was lit to fit the respective scene that followed, the matte painting team led by Billy Stockwell added all the extra details and textures needed to give it the final look.
“We had our own library of elements that could be used in all the shots: dirt around the chimneys, puddles in between the cobblestones or flowers hanging on balconies, are some examples,” Tomi adds. “Most of these are so small in frame you might not be aware of them on a first watch, but we knew we had to put time and effort into it, as it helps make the full picture more believable. Another necessary piece in this puzzle was our digital crowd tool, built by Crowd Supervisor Nile Hylton. It contains people, horses and carriages that can populate the environment and bring the city to life.”
HBO’s The Gilded Age finds its setting in 1880s New York City. Visual Effects Supervisors Lesley Robson-Foster and Douglas Purver collaborated closely with other departments to orchestrate street and city views that often started with partial set builds on a backlot. DNEG, under Visual Effects Supervisor Becky Graham, did the main visual effects work.
“Our production designer and his team were a giant wealth of research and resources,” Purver begins. “All of the buildings that were partially built on our backlot were fully drawn. These drawings were based on real buildings that either still exist in New York City or had plenty of historical photographic reference, which helped the team in its research. Once we had the drawings, I then went around New York City to gather extensive photography of the existing or similar buildings for reference and textures, and provided those to DNEG for them to start their build.”
“For locations other than the backlot, I relied on historical records for finding buildings that fit in with our period,” Purver continues. “It is one of my favorite side benefits of the job, having to dive into the history of a period you are working in. Sometimes, you will find a building that has been modernized in some way that you need to ‘de-age.’ This was the case with the Barnes & Noble building in Union Square, which served as the base for our big electrification scene in Park Row. There were dormers and other details that were added in the 20th century that we removed to bring it back closer to its original design.”
DNEG developed an AR app that assisted with backlot filming, utilizing early versions of the CG building top-ups. “Lesley and Douglas were able to use this on set to help with shot scoping and design and getting a feel of how the street would look, giving a sense of how high the rooflines would be for lighting,” Graham says. “We had a few big establishing shots with a large amount of set top-up and extensions. These were great for setting the scene for multiple sequences and shots.”
“For the scenes in the residential streets, as we moved further away from Central Park, the street became less built up and more under construction to give the sense that this is very much a growing city,” Graham notes. “Once we had a basic street plan layout, we did some concept frames to establish how to populate the street with pedestrians, horses, carriages, chimney smoke and dust – any signs of life. Douglas provided us with an array of on-set elements to use in the mid and background of shots, these were used extensively and provided a basis for some CG crowd, which was used in the deep background of shots.”
“All the buildings we used in our extensions were either extensively photo referenced or scanned via photogrammetry. This usually meant we had to bring life back into all of these buildings we found. They had all aged for more than 100 years than they needed to represent, and so damage, staining and modernized elements all had to be addressed. We also had to keep in mind that coal was the biggest energy source at this time and was burned almost constantly. This added a different type of texture to our buildings and the air quality. It was something we often found hard to balance in keeping with the show’s style and what reality might have actually been.” —Douglas Purver, Visual Effects Supervisor, The Gilded Age
for DNEG, as Graham further outlines. “We had to follow some strict social etiquette which matched the era, such as upper-class ladies should always be accompanied by either an upper-class gentleman or another lady, not walking alone. We didn’t want to cause any unintentional scandal.”
What was equally as important to portray correctly was how ‘clean’ the buildings needed to be. Today, perhaps audiences would imagine 1800s buildings to be weather-worn and rustic, but of course back then they were pristine, especially if newly built. “On the backlot, we were matching the practical build, so that gave us a very clear guide on how clean those buildings should be,” Purversays. “Sometimes the street did feel a bit too perfect, so we would add muddy puddles and horse droppings at times to help break it up.”
“When possible, I much prefer to build from reality,” Purver adds. “So, all the buildings we used in our extensions were either extensively photo referenced or scanned via photogrammetry. This usually meant we had to bring life back into all of these buildings we found. They had all aged for more than 100 years than they needed to represent, and so damage, staining and modernized elements all had to be addressed. We also had to keep in mind that coal was the biggest energy source at this time and was burned almost constantly. This added a different type of texture to our buildings and the air quality. It was something we often found hard to balance in keeping with the show’s style and what reality might have actually been.”
AROUND THE WORLD, ON THE GROUND AND IN THE AIR
Rather than just one historical location, the 2021 France Télévisions/ZDF/RAI production of Around the World in 80 Days visits several locations, such as 1870s London, New York and Paris. A number of VFX studios including MPC, MacGuff and Lightseed contributed period VFX under Visual Effects Supervisor Jean-Louis Autret and Post-Production Supervisor Christina Crassaris.
Several 1870s environments/locations were featured in Around the World in 80 Days, with only two different shooting countries as the basis for the shots. Visual Effects Supervisor Jean-Louis Autret breaks it down:
London and Paris: “We shot almost everything in downtown Bucharest as the buildings there have these very familiar features of Paris streets and some London vibe as well. The main challenge was obviously to avoid modern features and deal with many locations to connect in order to recreate a believable 19th century Paris. MPC re-created the destroyed Hotel De Ville, in particular.”
Tuscany: “The balloon crashes next to a steam train our heroes are trying to catch. The train establishers were shot in Romanian landscapes with a proper steam engine. I went to Tuscany several months after that to shoot plates matching our shots. MPC was in charge of these establishers and interior train scenes, while Mac Guff studio was dealing with a major scene when the train crosses a bridge about to collapse.”
Yéménite Desert: “We shot most of the episode at Atlantis Dunes to recreate the desert, while Cape Town studio’s backlot was used for Al-Hudaydah city and the port of Aden. MPC made some set extensions in these locations.”
Rural India: “We mainly shot in a huge backlot near Cape Town. This backlot was basically an entire village with everything we needed. However, some of the buildings needed some extensions such as domes to really sell an Indian Quarter. Lightseed took care of this.”
Hong Kong: “This was shot in downtown Cape Town. The colonial buildings of the city are quite close to the British colonial Hong Kong. The bay was created from scratch based on references. The big challenge was to make it look like a busy harbor. Lightseed took care of that part, too.
Rockies: “The city of Battle Mountain was shot on a backlot at Castel Film Studio, the scope was truly amazing and saved us more resources to work on beautiful Rocky Mountains landscapes. MPC created these matte paintings.”
“The largest use of bluescreens [on Bridgerton] was in the final episode scene in the Featherington back garden. The scene involved all the main cast and hundreds of background actors. The rigging team put up six bluescreens to cover an area of 120 feet across and 20 feet high. We needed this to replace the entire view from the garden with 1800s London and add a full fireworks show in the sky for the grand finale.”
—Victor Tomi, Visual Effects Supervisor
For aerial views of Paris, for instance, the shots began with bluescreen plates of the characters in the balloon shot at Castel Film Studio in Bucharest. “The MPC team came up with excellent concepts based on actual Paris stock footage at different heights,” Autret outlines. “We realized that most of the footage could be used with only minor touch-ups.”
“With the help of CG clouds below the balloon, anachronisms were almost unnoticeable in the stock footage,” reveals MPC Visual Effects Supervisor Hugues Namur. “Considering the overall budget for the VFX in the show, we offered the production to take maximum profit of pre-existing footage or elements, meaning most of the result relies on casting the right background elements for the live-action plates. We of course gathered a lot of material, including post cards and paintings around 1870.”
Another scene sees the main character Phileas Fogg (David Tennant) embark from New York on a transatlantic boat back to London with an under-construction Brooklyn Bridge in the background. “Based on references collected by Production Designer Sebastian T. Krawinkel, we were able to locate on an actual period New York map where that dock would be and create a realistic view that would follow the story,” Autret says. “We shot the city streets on a backlot and the ship deck on a soundstage in Castel Film Studio. MPC extended some of the building from the backlot, and their environment team built almost from scratch a very dramatic view of the New York docks facing the Brooklyn Bridge under construction.”
Namur adds, “It could be enough to provide an appropriate vintage feeling but, at the time, boats were often parked along the piers and not along the river, meaning we finally considered showing more of the docks and Manhattan buildings in the distance. As the light conditions were changing through the different scenes, it had to be managed in CG rather than 2D, and we offered to customize generic models to arrange a believable scenery of the old New York City harbor.”