By Randi Altman
We are all used to medical dramas about heroic, well-dressed, beautiful doctors saving lives against all odds. But Cinemax’s The Knick turns this typically procedural genre on its head. This Steven Soderbergh-directed series — yes, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning filmmaker — stars Clive Owen as the ultra-talented but far from perfect surgeon John Thackery. Yes, that’s the Academy Award-nominated Clive Owen.
The Knick takes place the turn of the 20th Century and focuses on New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital and its staff, who are practicing some pretty “creative” medicine on their patients. With any period piece there are many opportunities for visual effects: removing anything modern that might appear in a shot, set extensions, etc., but that’s not where it ended on The Knick. For its effect work, the producers chose New York City’s Phosphene as its main VFX house, which provided 121 shots over the course of 10 episodes.
Phosphene started with a special effects face cast provided to them by production. They used Agisoft PhotoScan to convert photos of that cast to a detailed 3D model. Lead CG artist Vance Miller then lit and rendered a physically accurate version of Abigail’s nose-less face in V-Ray. CG artist Kim Lee animated all of the twitches and stretches of the nose cavity that occur as she speaks.
“Using NukeX, I integrated these renders of Abigail’s nose cavity onto the footage of the actress, maintaining photoreal lighting across shots that had Abigail moving her head from side to side and passing through light and shadow,” explains lead digital artist Aaron Raff. “The effect had to be seamless since Abigail’s altered face stayed at the center of the frame for an extended dialogue scene.”
In addition, sometimes there was a need for interaction of the surgical instruments within the nose cavity. For those shots, Phosphene created CG extensions for the practical surgical instruments. Phosphene then animated the side flaps of the nose to match the interaction of the CG instrument tips.
To dig a little deeper into their work on the show, we threw some questions at the Phosphene staffers who worked on the show.
How early did you get involved in the process?
VFX producer/compositing supervisor Beck Dunn: For something like Abigail, which required a lot of planning, we were involved well in advance of the shoot. We worked with production’s VFX supervisor, Lesley Robson-Foster, to develop the best approach.
We were also involved early in the process for a series of set extension shots in Episode 1. For these shots Phosphene VFX supervisor John Bair and myself were on set helping production’s VFX team to photograph the location and ensure all the materials needed were gathered for the shots.
How did you work with the show’s VFX supervisor in terms of review and approval of shots and getting the looks she wanted for the VFX? Was she open to suggestions?
VFX executive EP Vivian Connolly: We have developed a great creative short-hand with Lesley Robson-Foster with whom we also collaborated on Seasons 3, 4 and 5 of Boardwalk Empire. She and her team are unbelievably organized, thorough and completely collaborative in their approach. Phosphene would either post shots for review, or Lesley and her team would stop by Phosphene to review shots on our 4K preview system.
What was the most challenging shot/scenes that you worked on this season?
John Bair: Abigail’s missing nose was a huge challenge because of how photoreal the cavity and flesh had to play, and due to how seamlessly the facial augmentation had to integrate into her performance.
What shots are you most proud of?
Aaron Raff: We are very proud of our work on Abigail. This was a challenging set of shots as we needed the CG to integrate seamlessly into her face as she spoke and moved her head in and out of shadow… at 4K resolution.
We are also proud of our work on the intersection shots in Episode 1. There was a lot of movement going on in these scenes and we wanted to make sure the set extension fit in with the real buildings. Along with the various digital storefronts, signs and grimy chimneys, many small details were added here to help ground the shot in 1900, such as rail tracks added under the carriages, wheels replaced and telegraph posts added. (See our main image above.)
Can you talk about the tools you used to create the VFX?
Raff: Tools used were Agisoft PhotoScan, 3ds Max, V-Ray and NukeX. Because this was the first 4K series Phosphene worked on, we had to make sure we could handle the large amounts of data without a hitch, including setting up a 4K monitor and playback system to provide realtime previews.
Do you think the recent tax incentives for post production helped keep the work in New York?
Connolly: We have seen a major upswing not just in quantity but also in quality of VFX work in New York since the implementation of the tax incentives. For mid-size companies like Phosphene, this means being able to shift away from an entirely freelance model to a more traditional staff model. This consistency of talent enables us to ensure work at the highest level, which is what our clients have grown to expect from us.