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May 12
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

RECREATING THE 1850s WORLD OF A GREAT AMERICAN POET FOR MODERNIZED DICKINSON

By CHRIS McGOWAN

Images courtesy of Apple TV

The Apple TV comedy-drama series Dickinson portrays the poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) as a rebellious young woman from a prominent Massachusetts family in the 1850s. She struggles to pursue her dream of publishing her poetry despite pressure from her conservative father and society. Dickinson presents the period with impeccable detail but adds a thoroughly modern sensibility that includes lots of hip-hop and pop songs, a little twerking, and loads of contemporary dialogue. Emily’s father Edward (Toby Huss) says, “My God, you will ruin the good name of Dickinson!” – which we would expect. Meanwhile Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) has lines like “We hang out, like, all the time.” And her brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe) describes a house as “so pimp.”

The series, created and co-written by showrunner Alena Smith, debuted season two in January and a third season is in the works. Silas Howard and Stacie Passon were the directors who lensed the most episodes. Dickinson is set in Amherst, Massachusetts, where the poet lived her entire life. To help recreate the era, the filmmakers called upon Molecule VFX for visual effects and its Visual Effects Supervisor Lotta Forssman, who worked on both seasons.

Forssman grew up in Sweden, where she didn’t learn much about Emily Dickinson or her poetry. She recalls, “It wasn’t until I went to college here [in the U.S.] that I was introduced to her and her world. One of the aspects I love most about working as a VFX supervisor is getting to immerse myself in different topics and stories.”

Dickinson was little-known during her life, with the first volume of her poems published only in 1890, four years after her death. She came to be recognized as one of America’s greatest and most original poets. Molecule VFX helped conjure up Emily’s world, from ornate house interiors from the early 19thcentury to a printing press, a giant hedge maze and visuals associated with her poems, such as ghost horses pulling a “death carriage.”

Forssman worked closely with Production Designer Neil Patel to use visual effects to extend the physical sets he built for the show. She says, “Neil and his whole team are extremely talented and great to work with. We have a constant dialogue, dividing up what is being practically built versus where VFX can help. I make sure to take as much information and images of what is built, and make sure our work blends into the world created on set.”

In Season 1, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) takes a ride with Death (Wiz Khalifa) in a carriage pulled by Houdini-simulated smoke horses, setting the tone for the ethereal, wispy look of Dickinson.

“We went up to Amherst to shoot a lot of textures and plates of the real [Dickinson family] house. The house had gone through a few renovations and additions since Emily lived there. We worked together with Loren Weeks, the Season 1 production designer. His team built an L-shaped facade on our location, which we extended to be an accurate build of what Homestead was at the time of her living in the house. Homestead was recreated as a 3D model. Our matte painter uses Mari to add texture, and comp adds the finishing touches.”

—Lotta Forssman, Visual Effects Supervisor, Molecule VFX

Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) and Death (Wiz Khalifa) are brought together to visually illustrate one of Dickinson’s most famous poems “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.”

“Our team was tasked with the challenge of making CG hedges that seamlessly blended into real hedges. We kept as much practical as possible to keep the actors’ interaction. We spent a lot of time refining this sequence. In the end, I think that it is the challenging sequences that create some of the best work. To finish off the scene we also worked on an overhead drone shot revealing the endless maze. This was one of my favorite shots this season.”

—Lotta Forssman, Visual Effects Supervisor, Molecule VFX

The Victorian-style interiors in Dickinson are gorgeous and colorful and have reportedly inspired many a design lover to binge the series. Season 1 was centered around Dickinson’s home, known as the Homestead, which was built in the Federal Style and still exists. “Emily’s Homestead house was carefully researched in Season 1,” Forssman explains. “We went up to Amherst to shoot a lot of textures and plates of the real house. The house had gone through a few renovations and additions since Emily lived there. We worked together with Loren Weeks, the Season 1 production designer. His team built an L-shaped facade on our location, which we extended to be an accurate build of what Homestead was at the time of her living in the house. Homestead was recreated as a 3D model. Our matte painter uses Mari to add texture, and comp adds the finishing touches.”

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily portrays a rebellious young woman from a prominent Massachusetts family in the 1850s, struggling to pursue her dream of publishing her poetry despite parental and social pressures.

Season 2 was set more in the Evergreens, an Italianate Villa next door where Emily’s brother and sister-in-law lived. “The VFX approach on the Evergreens is the same,” Forssman notes. “Homestead worked out great in Season 1, so it was easy to plan for the addition of Evergreens to the estate. Neil Patel and his team designed and built the first-floor facade. The biggest difference is the real Evergreens up in Amherst had gone through a few more changes, especially in paint and finishes on the house. So, therefore, there were less textures to grab from the actual Evergreens and more for us to rebuild.”

Both houses had illumination from the era. “The lighting is beautifully handled by Tim Orr, the DP,” Forssman explains. “For a period show like this, you only have a certain [number] of light sources. At daytime it is natural daylight and at night it is candlelight, fire, lanterns or moonlight. For VFX, the nighttime lighting can require a bit more work. When you have candle or fire flicker it takes some finessing of our composites to blend the VFX in seamlessly.” One of the Evergreens’ establishing shots at night comes to mind, observes Forssman. “In the establishing shot, torches illuminate the path up to the house. The torches cast a subtle flickering light on the facade that we need to extend. Our artists matched the lighting and flicker from the plate to our extended facade. It would of course have been easier if the light had no brightness variation, but it ended up looking great,  and the light from the torches helped sell the VFX.”

“The lighting and cinematography in Dickinson are beautiful and [gave] us such a great canvas for our work,” Forssman adds. “We spend a lot of time making sure that the VFX fits invisibly into the scenes. I grab a lot of lighting references and HDRIs on set when needed.”

To create the period, Dickinson also featured many exteriors from the historic houses in Old Bethpage Village Restoration in Long Island, New York. Forssman found the location “perfect” because it worked so well for the show, even “without VFX helping. On other period shows we usually have to have a bigger cleanup allowance for removal of modern items. Season 2 of Dickinson was about 400 shots and not much of that was period cleanup. This keeps our work focused. We can really put all resources to the bigger VFX in the show.”

For Forssman, the biggest challenge was botanical. “When reading the scripts for Season 2, the Hedge Maze stood out to me as being a bit of a challenge. How much could we build and where would VFX take over? We needed enough hedge maze practically for Emily to run around and get lost in. Early on it was decided to plant real hedges on location. We additionally had a few wild hedges to place to camera. VFX was initially mainly extending the openings of the maze and removing any trees above our hedges to sell the scale of the maze. In the end, we also ended up extending the actual height of the hedges to increase the sense of entrapment. Our team was tasked with the challenge of making CG hedges that seamlessly blended into real hedges. We kept as much practical as possible to keep the actors’ interaction. We spent a lot of time refining this sequence. In the end, I think that it is the challenging sequences that create some of the best work. To finish off the scene we also worked on an overhead drone shot revealing the endless maze. This was one of my favorite shots this season.”

The printing press was another one of Forssman’s favorite VFX extensions of practical elements. “There is a lot I am proud of. The team at Molecule VFX created some beautiful sequences. One of my favorite shots is the printing press.

Location shots of the interiors of ornate historic houses on Long Island, New York didn’t require VFX help with cleanup and removal of modern items, which allowed resources to be used on bigger effects for the show.

 

The shot was such a great collaboration between many departments. The end result was a really close match to the first image Neil and Stacie Passon, the director, brought to our initial meetings. The art department built two printing presses and rigged them with special effects so that all the moving parts worked. The printing presses have operators, so rather than recreating them in CG, we had one of them on wheels. That press became another set piece that we could tile together with the background. The camera move was a dynamic crane shot revealing Sam Bowles (Finn Jones) and the world surrounding him. To tile both people and presses we used the motion control Techno Dolly, which allowed us to repeat the camera move. The finished touches were made in comp where we pieced all the tiles together, added CG parts to the presses and cleaned up the environment. Even in post it was a great collaboration between our 3D, comp and matte painting departments.”

Frederick Law Olmsted (Timothy Simons) and Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) pause by a giant hedge maze conjured by Molecule VFX. VFX was initially mainly extending the openings of the maze and removing any trees above our hedges to sell the scale of the maze. CG hedges were blended into real hedges.

“[The Old Bethpage, Long Island location was perfect for the show, even] without VFX helping. On other period shows we usually have to have a bigger cleanup allowance for removal of modern items. Season 2 of Dickinson was about 400 shots and not much of that was period cleanup. This keeps our work focused. We can really put all resources to the bigger VFX in the show.”

—Lotta Forssman, Visual Effects Supervisor, Molecule VFX

In an illustration of one of Dickinson’s most famous poems (“Because I Could Not Stop For Death”), Emily takes a ride with Death himself (Wiz Khalifa) in a carriage pulled by ghost horses. Forssman recalls that the latter are “Houdini-simulated smoke horses with 3D harnesses that pull the carriage. The work is a huge collaboration between our 3D, FX and comp departments. At the first ghost-horse meetings in Season 1, there was a lot of imagery and mood boards developed prior to starting any work. One picture in particular kept coming back as our main inspiration. It was a silhouette of a face shaped out of fine, wispy cigarette smoke. That imagery really set the tone for the ethereal, wispy look. We shot the carriage on set being pulled by a smart car. The smart car has about a horse length between the carriage and itself, which helps cleanup of the rig. The smart car also has interactive lighting rigged from it that illuminates the ground and carriage. We wanted the horses to have a nice, ethereal glow at night.”

Forssman describes how Dickinson’s words themselves became another visual element: “We started off by doing an extensive analysis of Emily Dickinson’s handwriting. Her handwriting changed a lot throughout the years. It is also unique and recognizable. We wanted to be true to her style and punctuations.” The graphics team created two fonts, one cursive and one print, both with varying letters and ligatures. “The poetry is then animated on screen in After Effects in what we call our ‘ghostly font’ effect. Throughout the show we have this smoky, beautiful, ethereal theme that we keep coming back to in our visuals.”

About working on the series, Forssman comments, “The whole crew of Dickinson is very collaborative and positive. Ideas are always welcomed. Diana Schmidt, a producer on Dickinson, really facilitates this great positive atmosphere. She brings everyone together very early in the process and is so involved in all discussions. I am really lucky to be a part of the crew she put together.”

Ben Newton (Matt Lauria) and Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) in a nightime scene. Lighting sources were limited for the period show, with natural daylight in the daytime and candlelight, fire, lanterns or moonlight at night to illuminate Dickinson.

Lantern-lit Henry (Chinaza Uche), through a ‘disruptive’ fictional narrative, explores mid-19th century Black activism in New England when he starts an underground abolitionist journal.

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