By IAN FAILES
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By IAN FAILES
Visual effects artists are regularly called upon to craft exotic landscapes, alien worlds and – sometimes – real-life locations. That was the case for Phosphene VFX, which re-created the original Penn Station in New York for Edward Norton’s 1950s crime noir Motherless Brooklyn.
This work, which involved an almost completely computer-generated rendition of the iconic station, would ultimately result in a VES Award nomination for the Phosphene team (John Bair, Vance Miller, Sebastian Romero and Steve Sullivan) for Outstanding Created Environment in a Photoreal Feature.
Production Visual Effects Supervisor Mark Russell first oversaw the making of an animatic for the Penn Station scenes of Edward Norton’s character walking around as part of an investigation. “From that point, we found some good angles that we knew we’d want to use on the day of shooting,” related film’s CG Supervisor Vance Miller and Phosphene’s VFX Supervisor John Bair. “We wanted to have a little bit of freedom with moving the camera around, so we did realtime pre-visualization, meaning that we built a very rough model of Penn Station that could be dropped into the background on the set.”
The set itself was a partial build on a stage fitted with a significant amount of greenscreen, with Phosphene ultimately collaborating with production designer Beth Mickle on a historically accurate design that matched the unique features of the station, while also tapping into Norton’s desire to show a ‘romanticized’ version of the famous building.
For the shoot, almost the entire floor of the station was staged in one pass, notes Miller and Bair. “There were a few things that were built on set like lockers, benches and a couple stands where people could gather and mull around, but everything else from the ground up to all the walls around it were CG.
“The production team provided us with the floor plan and we based all the proportions on that,” add Miller and Bair. “In addition to the core structure, we put a lot of time and effort into the shooting day, planning movement and lighting on the people. We knew where the giant windows were going to be, and what time of the day we wanted the scene to be in. With that information, we then determined how the light entered the room and built the CG model around that so shots of people going in and out of pools of light would match the CG.”
Ncam’s camera tracking toolset was utilized on set, allowing Phosphene to drop in its rudimentary CG model behind actors set on greenscreen. The stage, which was around half the size of Penn Station, allowed for the filming of Norton and several extras. Shooting extras was a major coordination exercise, with the final shots also including extras filmed in separate element shoots, and some digital doubles.
Phosphene re-created Penn Station mostly as one large asset – sometimes it was changed slightly per camera angle. Historical photography was a crucial reference source for the build. “We were really drawn to pictures of the station when it was on the verge of opening,” advises Miller and Bair. “It was in pristine condition without a huge crowd in there, so we were able to see what the floor looked like, what the walls looked like and how it looked in a perfect state. We started from there and then added a little bit of weathering and wear and tear.”
Large, separated shafts and beams of light filling up sections of the station floor were one of the signature elements added to the shots. By planning in advance the time of day they wanted the scene to be shot, Miller and Bair reveal, “we knew which direction we were going to be facing and what side to have the sun coming from. We had at least three large pools of light hitting the floor. They provided kind of generic cut-out shadows that weren’t perfect, but there were pools of light that the actors would walk in and out of.”
Once the visual effects team placed the architecture and 3D model around the actors in post, they could match the sun to make sure that those pools of light worked. Atmosphere and dust in the ‘air’ of the station were also added to provide an authentic feel to the shots.
While much of Penn Station became a digital creation, one element in particular remained very real: a pigeon seen frolicking on the station floor. Still, it did require some animal expertise, as Miller and Bair observe. “There were two takes of the pigeon, and it was not behaving in terms of performing and flying in and hitting its mark. They brought in an animal wrangler, but animals are still unpredictable. Thankfully, it wasn’t the main thrust of the whole scene, but it held up well for what it needed to do.”