By Randi Altman
The Showtime limited series Escape at Dannemora is based on the true story of two inmates (David Sweat and Richard Matt) who escape from an Upstate New York prison. They were aided by Tilly, a female prison employee, whose husband also worked at Clinton Correctional Facility. She helped run the tailor shop where both men worked and had an intimate relationship with both men.
As we approach Emmy season, we thought it was a good time to reach out to the studio that provided visual effects for the Ben Stiller-directed miniseries, which was nominated for a Golden Globe for best television limited series or movie. Escape at Dannemora stars Patricia Arquette, Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano.
New York City-based Phosphene was called on to create a variety of visual effects, including turning five different locations into the Clinton Correctional Facility, the maximum security prison where the escape took place. We spoke with VFX producer Matt Griffin and VFX supervisor Djuna Wahlrab to find out more.
How early did you guys get involved in the project? Were there already set plans for the types of VFX needed? How much input did Phosphene have?
Matt Griffin: There were key sequences that were discussed with us very early on. The most crucial among them were Sweat’s Run, which was a nine-minute “oner” that opened Episode 5; the gruesome death scene of Broome County Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Tarsia and an ambitious crane shot that revealed the North Yard in the prison.
What were the needs of the filmmakers and how did your studio fill that need?
Were you on set supervising?
Griffin: Ben Stiller and the writers had a very clear vision for these challenging sequences, and therefore had a very realistic understanding of how ambitious the VFX would be. They got us involved right at the start so we could be as collaborative as possible with production in preparing the methodology for execution.
In that same spirit, they had us supervise the majority of the shoot, which positioned us to be involved as the natural shifts and adjustments of production arose day to day. It was amazing to be creative problem solvers with the whole team and not just reacting to what happened once in post.
I know that creating the prison was a big part — taking pieces of a few different prisons to make one?
Djuna Wahlrab: Clinton Correctional is a functioning prison, so we couldn’t shoot the whole series within its premises — instead we filmed in five different locations. We shot at a decommissioned prison in Pittsburgh, the prison’s tailor shop was staged in an old warehouse in Brooklyn, and the Honor Block (where our characters were housed) and parts of the prison bowels were built on a stage in Queens. Remaining pieces under the prison were shot in Yonkers, New York in an active water treatment plant. Working closely with production designer Mark Ricker, we tackled the continuity across all these locations.
We knew the main guard tower visible from the outside of Clinton Correctional was crucial, so we always planned to carry that through to Pittsburgh. Scenes taking place just inside the prison wall were also shot in Pittsburgh, and it was not as long as Clinton so we extended the depth of those shots.
While the surrounding mountainside terrain is on beautiful display from the North Yard, it’s also felt from the ground among the buildings within the prison. When looking down the length of the streets, you can see the sloping side of the mountain just over the wall. These scenes were filmed in Pittsburgh, so what you see beyond those walls is actually a bustling hilly city with water towers and electric lines and highways, so we had to adjust to match the real location.
Can you talk about the shot that had David Sweat crawling through pipes in the basement of the prison?
Wahlrab: For what we call Sweat’s Run — because we were creating a “oner” out of 17 discrete pieces — preproduction was crucial. The previs went far beyond a compositional guide. Using blueprints from three different locations and plans for the eventual stage set, orthographic views were created with extremely detailed planning for camera rigging and hand-off points. Drawing on this early presentation, Matt Pebler and the camera department custom-built many of the rigs required for our constricted spaces and meticulous overlapping sections.
The previs was a common language for all departments at the start, but as each piece of the run was filmed, the previs was updated with completed runs and the requirements would shift. Shooting one piece of the run would instantly lock in requirements for the other connecting pieces, and we’d have to determine a more precise plan moving forward from that point. It took a high level of collaboration and flexibility from all departments to constantly narrow the margin for what level of precision was required from everyone.
Can you talk about the scene where Sweat runs over the sheriff’s deputy Tarsia?
Wahlrab: Special effects had built a rig for a partial car that would be safe to “run over” a stunt man. A shell of a vehicle was suspended from an arm off a rigged tactical truck, so that they moved in parallel. Sweat’s stunt car floated a few feet off the ground. The shell had a roof, windows, a windshield, a hood and a driver’s seat. Below that the sides, grill and wheels of the car were constructed of a soft foam. The stunt man for Tarsia was rigged with wires so they could control his drag beneath the car.
In this way, we were able to get the broad strokes of the stunt in-camera. Though the car needed to be almost completely replaced with CG, its structure took the first steps to inform the appropriate environmental re-lighting needed for the scene. The impact moment was a particular challenge because, of course, the foam grill completely gave way to Tarsia’s body. We had to simulate the cracking of the bumper and the stamp of the blood from Tarsia’s wounds. We also had to reimagine how Tarsia’s body would have moved with this rigid impact.
For Tarsia himself, in addition to augmenting the chosen take, we used alt takes from the shoot for various parts of the body to recreate a Tarsia with more appropriate physical reactions to the trauma we were simulating. There was also a considerable amount of hand painting this animation to help it all mesh together. We added blood on the wheels, smok, and animated pieces of the broken bumper, all of which helped to ground Tarsia in the space.
You also made the characters look younger. Can you talk about what tools you used for this particular effect?
Wahlrab: Our goal was to support this jump in time, but not distract by going too far. Early on, we did tests where we really studied the face of each actor. From this research, we determined targeted areas for augmentation, and the approach really ended up being quite tailored for each character.
We broke down the individual regions of the face. First, we targeted wrinkles with tailored defocusing. Second, we reshaped recessed portions of the face, mostly with selective grading. In some cases, we retextured the skin on top of this work. At the end of all of this, we had to reintegrate this into the grainy 16mm footage.
Can you talk about all the tools you used?
Griffin: At Phosphene, we use Foundry Nuke Studio and Autodesk 3ds Max. For additional support, we rely on Mocha Pro, 3DEqualizer and PF Track, among many others.
Before and After: Digital snow.
Any other VFX sequences that you can talk about?
Wahlrab: As with any project, weather continuity was a challenge. Our prison was represented by five locations, but it took many more than that to fill out the lives of Tilly and Lyle beyond their workplace. Because we shot a few scenes early on with snow, we were locked into that reality in every single location going forward. The special FX team would give us practical snow in the areas with the most interaction, and we were charged with filling out much of the middle and background. For the most part, we relied on photography, building custom digital matte paintings for each shot. We spent a lot of time upstate in the winter, so I found myself pulling off the road in random places in search of different kinds of snow coverage. It became an obsession, figuring out the best way to shoot the same patch of snow from enough angles to cover my needs for different shots, at different times of day, not entirely knowing where we’d need to use it.
What was the most challenging shots?
Wahlrab: Probably the most challenging location to shoot was the North Yard within the prison. Clinton Correctional is a real prison in Dannemora, New York. It’s about 20 miles south of the Canadian border, set into the side of this hill in what is really a beautiful part of the country.This was the inmates outdoor space, divided into terraces overlooking the whole town of Dannemora and the valley beyond. Though the production value of shooting in an active prison was amazing, it also presented quite a few logistical challenges. For safety (ours as well as the prisoners), the gear allowed in was quite restricted. Many of the tools I rely on had to be left behind. Then, load-in required a military grade inspection by the COs, who examined every piece of our equipment before it could enter or exit. The crew was afforded no special privileges for entering the prison and we were shuffled through the standard intake. It was time consuming, and very much limited how long we’d be able to shoot that day once inside.
Before and After: Cooking fires in the upper courts.
Production did the math and balanced the crew and cast load-in with the coverage required. We had 150 background extras for the yard, but in reality, the average number of inmates, even on the coldest of days, was 300. Also, we needed the yard to have snow on the ground for continuity. Unfortunately it was an unseasonably warm day, and after the first few hours, the special effects snow that was painstakingly created and placed during the night was completely melted. Special effects was also charged with creating cook fire for the stoves in each court, but they could only bring in so much fuel. Our challenge was clear — fill out the background inmate population, add snow and cook fire smoke… everywhere.
The biggest challenge in this location was the shot Ben conceived of that would reveal of the enormity of the North Yard. It was this massive crane shot that began at the lowest part of the yard and panned to the upper courts. It slowly pulls out and cranes up to reveal the entire outdoor space. It’s really a beautiful way to introduce us to the North Yard, revealing one terraced level at a time until you have the whole space in view. It’s one of my favorite moments in the show.
There’s this subtext about the North Yard and its influence on Sweat and Matt. Out in the yard, the inmates have a bit more autonomy. With good behavior, they have some ownership over the courts and are given the opportunity to curate these spaces. Some garden, many cook meals, and our characters draw and paint. For those lucky enough to be in the upper courts, they have this beautiful view beyond the walls of the prison, and you can almost forget you are locked up.
I think we’re meant to wonder, was it this autonomy or this daily reminder of the outside world beyond the prison walls that fueled their intense devotion to the escape? This location is a huge story piece, and I don’t think it would have been possible to truly render the scale of it all without the support of visual effects.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.