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June 25
2024

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

THE FINELY-CRAFTED LOOK OF RIPLEY IS A BLACK-AND-WHITE AFFAIR

By OLIVER WEBB

Images courtesy of Netflix.

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, and stunningly told in black and white, Steven Zaillian’s eight-part Netflix limited series Ripley stars Andrew Scott as a grifter living in New York during the 1960s who is hired by a wealthy man to bring his vagabond son home from Italy.

Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley in Episode 101 of Ripley. Creator/director Steven Zaillian envisioned from day one that the show was going to be in black and white.

Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley in Episode 101 of Ripley. Creator/director Steven Zaillian envisioned from day one that the show was going to be in black and white.

Zaillian envisioned from day one that the show was going to be in black and white, so it was essential to develop a unique but efficient workflow for the internal VFX team and VFX vendors. “Early on, we even considered a workflow in which vendors would deliver two deliverables of every single shot submission, one in color and one in black and white,” VFX Producer Joseph Servodio notes. “However, since we had over 2,000 shots, you can only imagine how much media management that would create for the vendors, VFX team and Editorial. Ultimately, what made the most sense was to work on the shots in color, then our team presented them to Steve, predominately within cut context in our black and white look. Occasionally during reviews, we would flip back to the color look just as a quality check. Since black and white tended to be more forgiving, we would sometimes be able to see flaws in the color that we otherwise didn’t catch in the black-and-white viewing.”

“[W]hat made the most sense was to work on the shots in color, then our team presented them to Steve [director Steve Zaillian], predominately within cut context in our black and white look. Occasionally during reviews, we would flip back to the color look just as a quality check. Since black and white tended to be more forgiving, we would sometimes be able to see flaws in the color that we otherwise didn’t catch in the black-and-white viewing.”

—Joseph Servodio, VFX Producer

VFX Supervisor John Bowers joined the show during the post-production stages. “I was brought in by Executive Producer Ben Rosenblatt, who I have worked with for 11 years now,” Bowers says. “The show needed someone who could collaborate hands-on in New York with our director, Steven Zaillian, to take sequences to final, and someone who could translate his notes about overall look and feel into concrete visual terms.”

There were 2,146 visual effects shots in Ripley, most of which consisted of train windows, bus windows and apartment windows, as well as environment extension work.

There were 2,146 visual effects shots in Ripley, most of which consisted of train windows, bus windows and apartment windows, as well as environment extension work.

The VFX team worked on shots in color, then presented them to Zaillian cut in the context of a black-and-white look. Above: In Ripley, Tom (Andrew Scott) is sent to Europe to bring back a wealthy man's wayward son.

The VFX team worked on shots in color, then presented them to Zaillian cut in the context of a black-and-white look. Above: In Ripley, Tom (Andrew Scott) is sent to Europe to bring back a wealthy man’s wayward son.

EDI, led by VFX Supervisor Gaia Bussolati, was in charge of the part of Ripley set in northern Italy. Since everything was based on previous footage or existing locations, it was important for EDI to find documentation about Sanremo in the ’60s and the paintings of late 16th-early 17th century Italian artist Caravaggio.

EDI, led by VFX Supervisor Gaia Bussolati, was in charge of the part of Ripley set in northern Italy. Since everything was based on previous footage or existing locations, it was important for EDI to find documentation about Sanremo in the ’60s and the paintings of late 16th-early 17th century Italian artist Caravaggio.

Since Bowers was joining a show that was already in progress, he was able to watch rough assembled cuts. “The visual effects when I joined were in varying states of completion,” Bowers notes. “Our director had actually been working on the show for years at that point, having started writing Ripley in 2019. My job was to come in and ask him as many questions as I could to understand his vision, both in general terms and for specific sequences and shots. We also always knew that Steve’s vision was to present the show in black and white. We did VFX work in color throughout, but editorial was cutting in black and white, so we were always designing shots with an eye towards how clearly elements and compositions would appear in their final form. It was coming in and understanding the conversations that had already happened between Steve and his editors and figuring out from that point how to carry it forward to final.”

“We also always knew that Steve’s vision was to present the show in black and white. We did VFX work in color throughout, but editorial was cutting in black and white, so we were always designing shots with an eye towards how clearly elements and compositions would appear in their final form.”

—John Bowers, VFX Supervisor

Bowers focused on period photography from the time, as well as black-and-white films from the ’60s. “Steve would frequently make reference to films from the period, for example La Dolce Vita, which was an important cultural touchstone for him,” Bowers explains. “A recurring visual motif throughout the show is Caravaggio paintings, which create visual drama through their use of light and dark. We took inspiration from that as well, but honestly, for shots where we were designing camerawork from scratch – like our big CG sequence in Episode 3 – the most important reference point was Robert Elswit’s cinematography from the rest of the show.”

Andrew Scott, who plays Tom Ripley, is in frame for almost every shot of Ripley. Shots were always designed with an eye towards how clearly elements and compositions would appear in their final black-and-white form.

Andrew Scott, who plays Tom Ripley, is in frame for almost every shot of Ripley. Shots were always designed with an eye towards how clearly elements and compositions would appear in their final black-and-white form.

Fellini's lauded Italian film La Dolce Vita (1960) was an important cultural touchstone for Zaillian. From left: Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley, Johnny Flynn as Dickie Greenleaf and Eliot Sumner as Freddie Miles in Episode 102. (Photo: Stefano Cristiano Montesi)

Fellini’s lauded Italian film La Dolce Vita (1960) was an important cultural touchstone for Zaillian. From left: Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley, Johnny Flynn as Dickie Greenleaf and Eliot Sumner as Freddie Miles in Episode 102. (Photo: Stefano Cristiano Montesi)

There were 2,146 visual effects shots in total, most of which consisted of train windows, bus windows and apartment windows, as well as environment extension work. “Episode 3 had 400 shots in it, with as many shots in one 16-minute sequence as existed in some entire episodes,” Bowers says. “We had teams working all over the world: EDI in Italy, Wētā FX in New Zealand and Redefine in Canada, India and Europe. In order to coordinate a team on that scale, you really have to have a consistent vision and clear communication. We always wanted to make sure that we were prioritizing and making progress on our most challenging shots, especially in Episode 3. With different vendors working on different things, we often had to work in batches to present the director with coherent sequences that were nearly complete before soliciting his feedback. It was risky, but for some sequences, it was the only path to success.”

The use of light and dark in Caravaggio's paintings influenced the shots designed from scratch, inspiring Robert Elswit’s cinematography. (Photo: Philippe Antonello)

The use of light and dark in Caravaggio’s paintings influenced the shots designed from scratch, inspiring Robert Elswit’s cinematography. (Photo: Philippe Antonello)

Chris White was Wētā FX’s VFX Supervisor on the show. “We were given a rough cut of the show when we began work,” White explains. “You could quickly tell it was a beautiful show with solid compositions and lighting. The visual effects would also need to support this aesthetic – with attention to the subtle details of highlights, shadows, environment and composition. Creative reference is always an instrumental part of the process and gives us a clear target. Because the series had so many beautiful shots, we went through the season cut and requested footage of other shots to reference. We used the series cinematography as our first inspiration. I studied chiaroscuro at university many years ago, so I drew on my memories of those studies, along with references from the old masters and noir photography.”

“Steve would frequently make reference to films from the period, for example La Dolce Vita, which was an important cultural touchstone for him. A recurring visual motif throughout the show is Caravaggio paintings, which create visual drama through their use of light and darkness. We took inspiration from that as well, but honestly, for shots where we were designing camerawork from scratch – like our big CG sequence in Episode 3 – the most important reference point was Robert Elswit’s cinematography from the rest of the show.”

—John Bowers, VFX Supervisor

Wētā FX’s work for the show included two types of shots: the boat action sequence, where each shot had a unique action, and a series of shots in a static location on the water. “For the action shots, our animation team crafted dynamic boats that could simulate motion through the water,” White says. “For the static shots, we invested in an automatic setup. Once the look of the sequence was established, we could run multiple shots through a setup and tweak each shot to taste. The setup was crafted as a primary lighting and comp scene, establishing the base look. The digi-double shots were the most challenging, but they also brought the most satisfaction. They needed to be spot-on likenesses to the actors, with the complexities of underwater clothing simulation, bubbles, hair motion and lighting while preserving detail. The way light exits skin underwater differs from in the air, so particular attention had to be paid to underwater digi-double rendering.”

The overall look of the series and its classic black-and-white aesthetic was one of the highlights of the show for Wētā FX VFX Supervisor Chris White. (Photo: Philippe Antonello)

The overall look of the series and its classic black-and-white aesthetic was one of the highlights of the show for Wētā FX VFX Supervisor Chris White. (Photo: Philippe Antonello)

For Bowers, the 16-minute boat sequence in Episode 3 was the most challenging sequence in the entirety of the show. “It’s the most important story point of the show. Everything in the first two episodes leads up to it, and everything that happens in the remaining five episodes happens because of it,” Bowers explains. “If people know just one thing about The Talented Mr. Ripley, it’s usually this murder scene. The success or failure of the show as an artistic endeavor really depended on the realism and the artistry of this one scene; that was the challenge for us, and those were the stakes. On the technical side, every shot of either Tom or Dickie underwater was a digi-double, and those were quite close-up angles. Andrew Scott, who plays Tom Ripley, is in frame for almost every shot of Ripley, so the audience would be intimately familiar with his face and expressions by this point in the show. To then hand off to a digi-double? In a close-up of his face, underwater? We had to get that exactly right.

A main concern of production was related to the locations. All the required elements couldn't be found in one location at a time, so EDI focused on designing locations by assembling different components from different sources, like a “collage,” with great attention to detail.

A main concern of production was related to the locations. All the required elements couldn't be found in one location at a time, so EDI focused on designing locations by assembling different components from different sources, like a “collage,” with great attention to detail.

A main concern of production was related to the locations. All the required elements couldn’t be found in one location at a time, so EDI focused on designing locations by assembling different components from different sources, like a “collage,” with great attention to detail.

Continues Bowers, “Wētā FX did fantastic work throughout that sequence. The underwater effects they created to make the environment feel literally immersive was really outstanding work. There was one full-CG shot in particular – near the end of the scene – where the camera is pointing straight down into the water, and Dickie’s body is sinking down into the depths. That was definitely the most challenging visual effects shot to create in the entire series. It needed to feel still and quiet and sort of melancholy at the end, but we still wanted to have the feeling of the camera being 15 feet underwater and really present. The first version of that shot that we presented for creative approval was version 223, and the final comp was version 557, so it went through quite a lot of iteration.”

EDI was responsible for all of the Caravaggio shots, working on around hundred, spread over six of the eight episodes of the series.

EDI was responsible for all of the Caravaggio shots, working on around hundred, spread over six of the eight episodes of the series.

EDI was responsible for all of the Caravaggio shots, working on around hundred, spread over six of the eight episodes of the series.

A recurring visual motif throughout the show is Caravaggio paintings, which create visual drama through their strong contrast of light and dark.

A recurring visual motif throughout the show is Caravaggio paintings, which create visual drama through their strong contrast of light and dark.

A recurring visual motif throughout the show is Caravaggio paintings, which create visual drama through their strong contrast of light and dark.

Gaia Bussolati served as EDI VFX Supervisor on the show. “We started work on this project in mid-2021. The inspection and pre-production began in June. We were involved from the very beginning,” Bussolati says. “Thanks to our well-established relationship with American supervisors and studios, the production’s head of post-production visited us and asked us what kind of structure we had, if we had supervisors who could stay on set and follow their director, considering that there would be other main suppliers involved in the project. We were then told that we would take care of the part set in northern Italy.”

“We always wanted to make sure that we were prioritizing and making progress on our most challenging shots, especially in Episode 3. With different vendors working on different things, we often had to work in batches to present the director with coherent sequences that were nearly complete before soliciting his feedback. It was risky, but for some sequences, it was the only path to success.”

—John Bowers, VFX Supervisor

Wētā FX’s work for the show included two types of shots: the boat action sequence, where each shot had a unique action, and a series of shots in a static location on the water. (Image courtesy of Wētā FX and Netflix)Wētā FX’s work for the show included two types of shots: the boat action sequence, where each shot had a unique action, and a series of shots in a static location on the water. (Image courtesy of Wētā FX and Netflix)Wētā FX’s work for the show included two types of shots: the boat action sequence, where each shot had a unique action, and a series of shots in a static location on the water. (Image courtesy of Wētā FX and Netflix)

Wētā FX’s work for the show included two types of shots: the boat action sequence, where each shot had a unique action, and a series of shots in a static location on the water. (Image courtesy of Wētā FX and Netflix)

Wētā FX’s work for the show included two types of shots: the boat action sequence, where each shot had a unique action, and a series of shots in a static location on the water. (Image courtesy of Wētā FX and Netflix)

When Bussolati and EDI came onboard in the pre-production stages, they received the scripts for all the episodes, which they then read in order to understand the mood of the series. “The main concern since the very beginning seemed to be related to the locations. Even the simplest, Atrani, which was the best preserved, did not seem to have all the elements that could reveal the director’s vision. So we realized that the work ahead would have been designing locations by assembling different components from different sources. Like a collage. The director’s vision was very clear; he knew what he wanted, and this was translated into a work with great attention to the smallest detail.”

Since everything was based on previous footage or existing locations, it was important for Bussolati and EDI to find documentation about Sanremo in the ’60s and Caravaggio’s paintings. “Our aim was to create the most realistic output for the story and the context, so any reference was based on real references. This meant a lot of historical and iconographic research on our end,” says Bussolati. EDI was  responsible for all of the Caravaggio’s shots and worked on around hundred, spread over six episodes out of eight of the series. “We were also responsible for the St. Louis of the French Chapel in Rome, The Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence in Palermo and David with the Head of Goliath at Villa Borghese in Rome,” Bussolati adds.

For the action shots, Wētā FX's animation team crafted dynamic boats that could simulate motion through the water. For the static boat shots, Wētā invested in an automatic setup. Once the look of the sequence was established, they could run multiple shots through the setup and tweak each shot to taste. (Image courtesy of Wētā FX and Netflix)For the action shots, Wētā FX's animation team crafted dynamic boats that could simulate motion through the water. For the static boat shots, Wētā invested in an automatic setup. Once the look of the sequence was established, they could run multiple shots through the setup and tweak each shot to taste. (Image courtesy of Wētā FX and Netflix)

For the action shots, Wētā FX's animation team crafted dynamic boats that could simulate motion through the water. For the static boat shots, Wētā invested in an automatic setup. Once the look of the sequence was established, they could run multiple shots through the setup and tweak each shot to taste. (Image courtesy of Wētā FX and Netflix)

For the action shots, Wētā FX’s animation team crafted dynamic boats that could simulate motion through the water. For the static boat shots, Wētā invested in an automatic setup. Once the look of the sequence was established, they could run multiple shots through the setup and tweak each shot to taste. (Image courtesy of Wētā FX and Netflix)

If audiences remember one thing about The Talented Mr. Ripley, it’s the murder scene. According to VFX Supervisor John Bowers, the success or failure of the show as an artistic endeavor depended on the realism and artistry of this one scene.

If audiences remember one thing about The Talented Mr. Ripley, it’s the murder scene. According to VFX Supervisor John Bowers, the success or failure of the show as an artistic endeavor depended on the realism and artistry of this one scene.

“We were given a rough cut of the show when we began work. You could quickly tell it was a beautiful show with solid compositions and lighting. The visual effects would also need to support this aesthetic – with attention to the subtle details of highlights, shadows, environment and composition. Creative reference is always an instrumental part of the process and gives us a clear target. Because the series had so many beautiful shots, we went through the season cut and requested footage of other shots to reference. We used the series cinematography as our first inspiration. I studied chiaroscuro at university many years ago, so I drew on my memories of those studies, along with references from the old masters and noir photography.”

—Chris White, VFX Supervisor, Wētā FX

“In Episode 3,” Bussolati continues, “we worked on recreating Sanremo, since the original scene was shot in Anzio. We also worked on other paintings, including Picasso’s, which can be seen both in Atrani and Venice. Sanremo’s scenes on the boat were shot with blue skies and sunshine. But the narrative was intended to start with a slightly cloudy sky and end with an almost stormy one to match in continuity with another vendor’s following sequence. This implied a very careful work on each and every nuance. A couple of other interesting scenes were related to Caravaggio’s paintings. The one in the St. Louis of the French Chapel in Rome was shot in Naples with a greenscreen, and then we have rebuilt the chapel based on photo reliefs and database images. Then The Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence in Palermo, was quite challenging, since the original painting was stolen in 1969 – it is in the world list of the 10 most important stolen masterpieces. According to the story, there was still the original, so we had to reproduce the brushstroke, the cracks, the texture of the canvas, and this was done thanks to an accurate analysis of documents and historical references.”

Dickie’s body sinking down into the depths was the most challenging visual effects shot to create in the series, according to VFX Supervisor John Bowers. Underwater effects were created to make the environment feel literally immersive. (Image courtesy of Wētā FX and Netflix)Dickie’s body sinking down into the depths was the most challenging visual effects shot to create in the series, according to VFX Supervisor John Bowers. Underwater effects were created to make the environment feel literally immersive. (Image courtesy of Wētā FX and Netflix)

Dickie’s body sinking down into the depths was the most challenging visual effects shot to create in the series, according to VFX Supervisor John Bowers. Underwater effects were created to make the environment feel literally immersive. (Image courtesy of Wētā FX and Netflix)

Dickie’s body sinking down into the depths was the most challenging visual effects shot to create in the series, according to VFX Supervisor John Bowers. Underwater effects were created to make the environment feel literally immersive. (Image courtesy of Wētā FX and Netflix)

Bowers enjoyed collaborating with the vendor side VFX supes at all the various companies that were working on the show. “Working with Gaia at EDI, Chris White and Francois Sugny at Wētā FX, Tehmina Beg and Eric Sibley at Crafty Apes and Teddy Wirtz at Powerhouse: just a great group of creative problem-solvers that were able to take sometimes vague, or seemingly contradictory direction, and work together to come up with solutions. That was, for me, the great pleasure of the show.”

Every shot of either Tom or Dickie underwater was a digi-double. The digi-doubles needed to be spot-on likenesses to the actors, with the complexities of underwater clothing simulation, bubbles, hair motion and lighting while preserving detail.Every shot of either Tom or Dickie underwater was a digi-double. The digi-doubles needed to be spot-on likenesses to the actors, with the complexities of underwater clothing simulation, bubbles, hair motion and lighting while preserving detail.Every shot of either Tom or Dickie underwater was a digi-double. The digi-doubles needed to be spot-on likenesses to the actors, with the complexities of underwater clothing simulation, bubbles, hair motion and lighting while preserving detail.

Every shot of either Tom or Dickie underwater was a digi-double. The digi-doubles needed to be spot-on likenesses to the actors, with the complexities of underwater clothing simulation, bubbles, hair motion and lighting while preserving detail.

Every shot of either Tom or Dickie underwater was a digi-double. The digi-doubles needed to be spot-on likenesses to the actors, with the complexities of underwater clothing simulation, bubbles, hair motion and lighting while preserving detail.

For White, the overall look of the series and its classic black-and-white aesthetic was one of the many joys of the show. “As someone who used to shoot black-and-white photography, I found the most enjoyable part of the show to be crafting images that reflected that aesthetic,” White says.

For Bussolati, the joy was in the depth of detail and quality of the result. “We really loved the passion for the detail, the story, and we loved to work on historical documents about Italy, in particular about the landscape, the art and the buildings such as the churches. We’re really glad that this series is getting the great worldwide success it deserves.”



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