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June 25
2019

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THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE: A World Made With the Help of the Digital Backlot

By IAN FAILES

In many television series it can be prohibitively expensive to build a complete set of the desired location. There’s also the logistical challenges, sometimes, of shooting in an actual location, filling it with crowds or period-accurate set dressing and vehicles.

Enter the digital backlot, a common methodology used in TV (and film) for filming scenes largely against blue or greenscreen and then filling out the action with digital or augmented environments.

On season 3 of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, VFX studio Barnstorm VFX was called upon to create several such environments to help tell the story of the alternative-reality, post-World War II in which the U.S. is divided into the Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States.

Watch Barnstorm VFX’s The Man in the High Castle Season 3 breakdown, which includes a number of digital backlot shots.

“For the New York City streets scenes, for example, we knew we couldn’t go to New York City to shoot this. And then we couldn’t really find a good location in Vancouver to shoot it because there were just too many things – bike lanes, trees, things that just would never work. So very early on with those sequences we decided that it would be much easier to have a completely blank slate to work with.”

—Lawson Deming, Co-founder, Barnstorm VFX

Kinds of digital backlots

In the show, each digital backlot approach differed slightly, as Barnstorm co-founder Lawson Deming outlines. “For the New York City streets scenes, for example, we knew we couldn’t go to New York City to shoot this. And then we couldn’t really find a good location in Vancouver to shoot it because there were just too many things – bike lanes, trees, things that just would never work. So very early on with those sequences we decided that it would be much easier to have a completely blank slate to work with.”

Barnstorm VFX co-founder Lawson Deming.

In that case, Barnstorm completed a largely CG environment. Meanwhile, some other scenes involved a military person landing on the deck of a battleship by helicopter. While the ship itself was always going to be a digital creation, the helicopter was initially intended to be practical.

“The chopper they were going to film with was a firefighting helicopter,” says Deming, “and they were going to put vinyl skin on the outside to make it look like a military helicopter, and then there were a bunch of fires happening and the helicopter had to go work and fight fires. So on fairly short notice we changed to the idea of doing the helicopter digitally and the actor had to ‘emerge’ from that – he was just shot against greenscreen.”

Original plate for the helicopter arrival shot.

Final shot, with a CG helicopter.

“The chopper they were going to film with was a firefighting helicopter … then there were a bunch of fires happening and the helicopter had to go work and fight fires. So on fairly short notice we changed to the idea of doing the helicopter digitally and the actor had to ‘emerge’ from that – he was just shot against greenscreen.”

—Lawson Deming, Co-founder, Barnstorm VFX

Re-creating (and creating) the environment

Knowing that what is typically filmed in digital backlot shots is just a placeholder for the real thing, Barnstorm had to ensure that they had accurate measurements of the shot sets, and similarly accurate surveys of the environment, vehicle or place they were creating digitally.

“For the helicopter scene,” notes Deming, “we had measurements. We knew how high it was off the ground. We knew the height of the lip of the opening. We knew the size of the opening. There’s a moment there where the actor puts his hand on the side of the door as he’s getting out of the helicopter. We made sure that we had an opening in the green box that had been built that was just the right size that he could actually do that, and his hand then would be physically touching the digital helicopter that we built.”

The New York City street shot had the challenge of taking plate photography that did not have tall buildings in it (which impact the plate lighting) and re-creating the scene appropriately. “Obviously, there’s only so much you can do about that,” says Deming, “but we shot intentionally in overcast lighting to the best that we could and then we try to match.”

To get the look of a New York City that has actually been ‘re-worked’ a little by the Nazis, Barnstorm referenced old imagery of the city landscape, but then would add in construction cranes and more brutalist architecture.

An important step, too, was making sure anything the studio added digitally did match to any physical components that were crafted by the show’s art department – “items like telephone booths,” identifies Deming. “The art department built telephone booths and fire hydrants and various sorts of street furniture for New York for the scenes. So we made digital versions of all those things as well.

“And then,” adds Deming, “we just went crazy on details, details on everything. Lane markings for traffic, signage on the sides of the streets. We created all sorts of things, down to – and I don’t think anybody sees it – but there’s discarded cigarettes, cigarette wrappers and stuff like that in the gutter. Not too many, because it’s a fascist state and they would fine you at the very least for that! But all those kinds of details we sort of peppered in there.”

Shots on the deck of the battleship were filmed against greenscreen.

The final scene, with digital ship and environment.

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