By Randi Altman
Luke DiTommaso, co-founder of New York City’s The Molecule, recalls “humble”
beginnings when he thinks about the visual effects, motion graphics and VR studio’s launch as a small compositing shop. When The Molecule opened in 2005, New York’s production landscape was quite a bit different than the tax-incentive-driven hotbed that exists today.
“Rescue Me was our big break,” explains DiTommaso. “That show was the very beginning of this wave of production that started happening in New York. Then we got Damages and Royal Pains, but were still just starting to get our feet wet with real productions.”
Then, thanks to a healthy boost from New York’s production and post tax incentives, things exploded, and The Molecule was at the right place at the right time. They had an established infrastructure, talent and experience providing VFX for television series.
Since then DiTommaso and his partners Chris Healer and Andrew Bly have seen the company grow considerably, doing everything from shooting and editing to creating VFX and animation, all under one roof. With 35 full-time employees spread between their New York and LA offices — oh, yeah, they opened an office in LA! — they also average 30 freelance artists a day, but can seat 65 if needed.
While some of these artists work on commercials, many are called on to create visual effects for an impressive list of shows, including Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, House of Cards and Bloodline, Showtime’s The Affair, HBO’s Ballers (pictured below), FX’s The Americans, CBS’ Elementary and Limitless, VH1’s The Breaks, Hulu’s The Path (for NBC and starring Aaron Paul) and the final season of USA’s Royal Pains. Also completed are the miniseries Madoff and Behind the Magic, a special on Snow White, for ABC.
The Molecule’s reach goes beyond the small screen. In addition to having completed a few shots for Zoolander 2 and a big one involving a digital crowd for Barbershop 3, at the time of this interview the studio was gearing up for Jodie Foster’s Money Monster; they will be supplying titles, the trailer and a ton of visual effects.
There is so much for us to cover, but just not enough time, so for this article we are going to dig into The Molecule’s bread and butter: visual effects for TV series. In particular, the work they provided for Showtime’s The Affair, which had its season finale just a few weeks ago.
Viewers of The Affair, a story of love, divorce and despair, might be surprised to know that each episode averages between 50 to 70 visual effects shots. The Molecule has provided shots that range from simple clean-ups to greenscreen driving and window shots — “We’ll shoot the plates and then composite a view of midtown Manhattan or Montauk Highway outside the car window scene,” says DiTommaso — to set extensions, location changes and digital fire and rain.
One big shot for this past season was burning down a cabin during a hurricane. “They had a burn stage so they could capture an amount of practical fire on a stage, but we enhanced that, adding more fire to increase the feeling of peril. The scene then cuts to a wide shot showing the location, which is meant to be on the beach in Montauk during a raging hurricane. We went out to the beach and shot the house day for night — we had flicker lighting on the location so the dunes and surrounding grass got a sort of flickering light effect. Later on, we shot the stage from a similar angle and inserted the burning stage footage into the exterior wide location footage, and then added a hurricane on top of all of that. That was a fun challenge.”
During that same hurricane, the lead character Noah gets his car stuck in the mud but they weren’t able to get the tires to spin practically, so The Molecule got the call. “The tires are spinning in liquid so it’s supposed to kick up a bunch of mud and water and stuff while rain is coming down on top of it, so we had our CG department create that in the computer.”
Another scene that features a good amount of VFX was one that involved a scene that took place on the patio outside of the fictitious Lobster Roll restaurant. “It was shot in Montauk in October and it wasn’t supposed to be cold in the scene, but it was about 30 degrees at 2:00am and Alison is in a dress. They just couldn’t shoot it there because it was just too cold. We shot plates, basically, of the location, without actors. Later we recreated that patio area and lined up the lighting and the angle and basically took the stage footage and inserted it into the location footage. We were able to provide a solution so they could tell the story without having the actors’ breath and their noses all red and shivering.”
Being on Set
While on-set VFX supervision is incredibly important, DiTommaso would argue “by the time you’re on set you’re managing decisions that have already been set into motion earlier in the process. The most important decisions are made on the tech scouts and in the production/VFX meetings.”
He offers up an example: “I was on a tech scout yesterday. They have a scene where a woman is supposed to walk onto a frozen lake and the ice starts to crack. They were going to build an elaborate catwalk into the water. I was like, ‘Whoa, aren’t we basically replacing the whole ground with ice? Then why does she need to be over water? Why don’t we find a lake that has a flat grassy area leading up to it?’ Now they’re building a much simpler catwalk — imagine an eight-foot-wide little platform. She’ll walk out on that with some blue screens and then we’ll extend the ice and dress the rest of the location with snow.
According to DiTommaso being there at the start saved a huge amount of time, money and effort. “By the time you’re on set they would have already built it into the water and all that stuff.”
But, he says, being on set for the shoot is also very important because you never know what might happen. “A problem will arise and the whole crew kind of turns and looks at you like, ‘You can fix this, right?’ Then we have to say, ‘Yeah. We’re going to shoot this plate. We’re going to get a clean plate, get the actors out, then put them back in.’ Whatever it is; you have to improvise sometimes. Hopefully that’s a rare instance and that varies from crew to crew. Some crews are very meticulous and others are more freewheeling.”
The Molecule is shooting more and more of their own plates these days, so they recently invested in a Ricoh S camera for shooting 360-degree HDR. “It has some limitations, but it’s perfect for CG HDRs,” explains DiTommaso. “It gives you a full 360-degree dome, instantly, and it’s tiny like a cell phone or a remote. We also have a Blackmagic 4K Cinema camera that we’ll shoot plates with. There are pros and cons to it, but I like the latitude and the simplicity of it. We use it for a quick run and gun to grab an element. If we need a blood spurt, we’ll set that up in the conference room and we’ll shoot a plate.”
They call on a Canon 74 for stills. “We have a little VFX kit with little LED tracking points and charts that we bring with us on set. Then back at the shop we’re using Nuke to composite. Our CG department has been doing more and more stuff. We just submitted an airplane — a lot of vehicles, trains, planes and automobiles are created in Maya.”
They use Side Effects Houdini for simulations, like fire and rain; for rendering they called on Arnold, and crowds are created in Massive.
Not ones to be sitting on the sidelines, The Molecule recently provided post on a few VR projects, but their interest doesn’t end there. Chris Healer is currently developing a single lens VR camera rig that DiTommaso describes as essentially “VR in a box.”