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July 01
2020

ISSUE

Summer 2020

Turning Back Time in THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA

By TREVOR HOGG

Upon learning that some radical Republican senators wanted famous aviator Charles Lindbergh to run against Franklin D. Roosevelt for the presidency of the United States, novelist Philip Roth wrote The Plot Against America, a revisionist history of what life would have been like for his Jewish family living under the White House leadership of an international celebrity with anti-Semitic views and sympathy for the Nazi government. The Wire and Generation Kill creator David Simon and Ed Burns, producer of The Wire, have adapted the drama into a six-part limited series for HBO with a cast that features Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector, Winona Ryder, John Turturro, Ben Cole, Anthony Boyle, Azhy Robertson and Caleb Malis. Overseeing the digital transformation of present-day locations were Visual Effects Supervisor Jim Rider (Fahrenheit 451) and Post-Production Producer Claire Shanley (The Deuce) with Nina K. Noble (Treme) serving as an executive producer.

There was not a lot of architecture from the 1940s still existing in New York and New Jersey. (All images courtesy of HBO.)

Air conditioners, satellite dishes and modern traffic lights needed to be painted out of live-action plates.

“The main difference when we started to put this project together was the challenge of shooting in New York and New Jersey for a 1940s period piece,” notes Noble. “There is not a lot of architecture from that period still existing and that meant increased travel time between practical locations and the necessity to use visual effects more generously than on previous projects.” The novel provided extensive information about the characters and their environments. “Additionally, we reviewed photos and interviewed local residents about the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, in particular.”

Rider and his team used period maps to build Lower Manhattan for the Lindbergh flight. Storyboards and previs were created for when Charles Lindbergh (Ben Cole) flies the Spirit of St. Louis over New York City while on a campaign tour and lands at Newark Airport. “The storyboards and previs helped us to figure out which shots we needed to get and the best strategy to shoot them,” explains Rider. “Greenscreen was wrapped around a replica cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis, which was on a rigged gimbal that could be rotated within the lighting environment, and we did an aerial helicopter shoot replicating his tour. Even though what we were flying over has changed considerably since the 1940s, what reality we were able to get out of the real photography was invaluable because we could hang our hat on the realities of the city and then make the necessary changes. At the end of the day, we did a complete CG Lower Manhattan.”

The mandate was to get as much practical elements in camera. “Whenever possible, we like to create a real environment for our actors to inhabit, so our general approach is to build practical sets on location 12 feet or so high and leave the rest to post,” says Noble. “There were period elements like airplanes that must be created, but also decisions had to be made regarding period cleanup and CG crowds.

Nina K. Noble, Executive Producer

Claire Shanley, Post-Production Producer

Jim Rider, Visual Effects Supervisor

“We always have to weigh the time and labor required to accomplish these things practically versus the cost and impact to the post schedule if we do it later, but first understanding what the results will be in each scenario. Reality and authenticity are the goal first and foremost, and then we consider the financial efficiency of each alternative.”

It was not a difficult decision selecting the visual effects supervisor for The Plot Against America. “We had been working with Jim Rider since the early days of The Deuce, our HBO series set in the 1970s and ’80s,” explains Noble. “He understands what’s important to us and has the expertise to be able to offer different ways to tackle the practical visual challenges we faced on The Plot Against America. Our main visual effects vendor, Phosphene, has been an enthusiastic partner since Treme, which was set in post-Katrina New Orleans and was done without a full-time visual effects supervisor. We did not have all of the scripts when we started prep on Plot, so the budget was an estimate based on Jim’s experience on The Deuce, combined with the story The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. We assumed that the amount of cleanup [removal of air conditioners and satellite dishes] would be similar. Episode 2 turned out to be the most expensive episode for visual effects, since we were depicting Lindbergh’s flight around New York City and then landing at a 1940s Newark airport with hundreds of spectators.”

Old movie theater newsreels are used as a means to anchor the story for viewers. “That was a strategic move [on the part of David Simon] as it reminds us on how people got news in the 1940s and what visuals they saw at the time,” remarks Shanley. “We had the challenge of integrating production footage of our Lindbergh (Ben Cole) with archival newsreel footage. It is presented in the visual idiom of the time. What would we see of a political candidate in 1940? How would they be photographed? What sort of voiceover would that have? What kind of music would be playing? How would that be cut together? What story elements is that giving us as well?”

The Newsreel Theater where the character of Shepsie Tirchwell (Michael Kostroff) is a projectionist.

The marquee signage about the presidential campaign of Charles Lindbergh is added digitally.

Archive footage can be costly and not easily accessible. “We have an incredible archival researcher who has been able to identify footage that was unique and accurate,” explains Shanley about referencing old footage formats that have long since disappeared. “The newsreels that we’re working with are from the period. Some of the film masters were scanned once to a format that would terrify you! Other times there were ones we could work from which was a huge gift. We couldn’t remove every pixel of dust and scratch because, in reality, those reels were shown many times a day for stretches of time. There was never a pristine print by the time it got to the theater where Shepsie Tirchwell (Michael Kostroff) is a projectionist. It also had footage that was shot in a war zone so the negative would reflect that as well.”

Across the entire series there were around 800 visual effects shots ranging from 80 to 200 per episode created by Phosphene, LVLY VFX and The Molecule. “It was a case of matching skills to our needs,” observes Shanley. “We had an incredible experience working with our primary vendor, Phosphene, on The Deuce. When you’re trying to get a lot done in a short period of time, that pre-established understanding of the aesthetic priorities is important. Phosphene was responsible for asset heavy work. We also worked with LIVLY VFX on The Deuce, and they have an expertise in texture mapping and cleanup. The Molecule was our third vendor.”

The post-production schedule overlapped with principal photography and began in earnest at the beginning of November 2019, concluding in early March 2020. The tight schedule did not allow for extensive greenscreen as the production crew had to quickly get in and out of locations. “For general location work there would be no greenscreen,” states Rider. “It was straight rotoscoping and tracking. Where possible we would shoot plates for additional cars. We had to recreate a number of large crowds, with one being at Madison Square Garden and another in Manhattan for a big funeral scene.”

Greenscreen was wrapped around a replica cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis which was on a rigged gimbal that could be rotated within the lighting environment.

A CG Lower Manhattan was created as the area has changed considerably since the 1940s.

“We also did a large greenscreen shoot at an airport on Long Island,” reveals Rider. “The 1940s terminal at Newark Airport still exists, but it wasn’t feasible to film there, so we completely created that building in CG. We had crowds and principal actors on greenscreen. We shot a number of crowd tiles for our ground-level work, but for aerial shots you’re seeing digital doubles. We wanted to show that thousands of people are coming to see Charles Lindbergh. Shooting from a helicopter, 150 people gets small really fast. The idea was that Lindbergh is landing at Newark Airport with the Spirit of St. Louis, so we filmed at a small airstrip in Upstate New York where they have a perfect replica of the plane. We brought our Lindbergh actor, so when you see the final product it is a combination of a complete CG environment and elements that were shot at Long Island and Upstate New York.”

Editorial had a significant role in the development and integration of the visual effects, with Joe Hobeck (Homeland) cutting scenes in Washington, D.C. and Madison Square Garden while Brian Kates (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) assembled the Lindbergh flyover sequence. “Brian cut the sequence taking pieces of Lindbergh and potential pieces of the background to map out the story in a way that flowed editorially,” notes Rider.

“I would see that we were using a piece of foreground of our Lindbergh greenscreen where the sun appears to be coming from the wrong direction,” adds Rider, “and I’d say, ‘I might be able to find another section that tells the story that you want to tell that hangs together better visually.’ I would take what he had edited and create new temps that had background and foreground more in sync visually in terms of lighting and angles. I would give them back to editorial to put into the cut. We did that a number of times.” There was a constant back and forth between visual effects and editorial. “As we would refine a cut, depending on the shot, we would work out in either After Effects or Avid temp to give a sketch of what we intended the work to be,” remarks Shanley. “Enough was done practically that we weren’t caught in a situation where we needed a build to come in from visual effects.”

Madison Square Garden from the 1940s needed to be recreated for a presidential campaign rally for Charles Lindbergh.

Extras were shot against greenscreen to produce crowd tiles.

Simon and Noble prefer to capture practical elements in-camera as often as possible. “David and Nina brought in enough background and stunt people to completely photograph the riot,” remarks Rider. “The biggest visual effects component was general cleanup of the area.” Buildings, street lights and store signage needed to be altered to reflect the 1940s. “Even a location that you would think there isn’t any visual effects work very often has a complete ground and road replacement.” The mountaintop scene in Episode 6 was shot day for night. “What that enabled our DP Martin Ahlgren (House of Cards) to do is shoot it in such a way that we could get a proper exposure for the foreground and the valley around us and still have it read photographically and beautifully. The sunshine was played as moonlight. The sky was completely bright, so we had to do a full sky replacement.”

A limb amputation was done in CG. “One of our characters is missing a leg, and I worked closely with the makeup department. That was done with a prosthetic stump below the knee of the actor, and then below that his shin and foot were wrapped in custom-made greenscreen sock,” reveals Rider. “We also did a full 3D body scan of him because there are other places where his greenscreen leg is crossing with his existing leg. In a number of cases we had to create a CG intact leg.” On-screen smoke and the fire in Episode 6 were provided by Special Effects Supervisor Doug Coleman (The Knick). “I’ve known Doug from a number of projects, and we were often on set together. He was instrumental in creating a hydraulic motion gimbal for the Spirit of St. Louis cockpit that enabled it to bank and roll in a realistic way. Doug also produced a fire rig to simulate a burning building, and we were prepared to do visual effects enhancements as needed, but it ended up not being necessary because what he had created looked so good on camera.”

A small number of extras are part of a scene that takes place at Madison Square Garden.

As massive crowd is replicated to fill the frame.

A logistical challenge was conducting principal photography at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. “It’s a location that is always open to the public,” explains Rider. “We had to eliminate and replace non-period people. When you’re inside the Lincoln Memorial there are strict rules about filming. You are only allowed to have five people in there including the camera operator at any one time, which meant we couldn’t even shoot our whole family together. Rigged camera equipment is not permitted, so it had to be handheld with Steadicam. We would shoot a scene with two of our main actors and they would literally step out. We would keep rolling and the children would step in where they should be. Visual effects had to stitch that together later as well as taking out and replacing the non-period people with period ones shot at another time.”

“I’m proud of the work on the whole show,” states Rider. “Due to some location restraints we ended up shooting a street in Paterson, New Jersey to double as West 24th Street in Manhattan. Forty percent of what we’re seeing was worthy of being on camera, and the rest of it was inappropriate for 1940 and certainly didn’t look like New York City. We recreated the entire view of West 24th Street looking towards Madison Square Park with the Met Life Building beyond it. Even though it is a relative short shot of the show, I’m proud of how that came out.

“My favorite is the entire Lindbergh flyover sequence, as Phosphene did an amazing job of creating the 1940s aerial view of New York City. There were so many components involved and required so much planning that to see it completed was satisfying.”

Success was achieved by adopting a different approach to how the various departments interacted with one another. “There has traditionally been a separation of production and post, which is not helpful in making the best creative and financial decisions,” observes Noble. “Encouraging and facilitating collaboration during all phases has helped us achieve high-quality results on ambitious projects like The Plot Against America.”

Azhy Robertson, Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector and Winona Ryder star in the HBO miniseries The Plot Against America. (Photo: Michele K. Short)

John Turturro portrays Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, a supporter of Charles Lindbergh. (Photo: Michele K. Short)

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