Tag Archives: Phosphene VFX

How VFX house Phosphene has been working remotely

By Randi Altman

In our ongoing coverage of how studios are working remotely, we reached out to New York City-based visual effects house Phosphene. Founded in 2010 by Vivian Connolly and John Bair, Phosphene specializes in photorealistic VFX for film and television, and is particularly known for their detailed CG environments and set extensions.

This four-time Emmy-nominated (Mildred Pierce and Boardwalk Empire Season 3, Season 5, Escape at Dannemora) studio’s more recent work includes The Plot Against America, The Hunters, A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood and Motherless Brooklyn.

The Plot Against America

Like many others, Phosphene tasked with developing secure remote workflows, so we reached out to director of IT Jimmy Marrero and head of operations and strategy Beck Dunn to find out more.

How is Phosphene weathering this storm? Do you have most of your folks working remotely?
Beck Dunn: We were fortunate to be able to switch to remote work very quickly and are extremely grateful for our team who had been preparing for this major change. We are grateful we are in a position to support staff and productions who are able to continue working remotely.

Can you talk about what it took to get artists setup from their homes and walk us through that workflow?
Jimmy Marrero: Luckily, we’ve had experience with using PCOIP technology in the past and were in a good place to transition smoothly to remote work. We had a good number of workstations already set up with PCOIP remote workstation cards. We also leveraged AWS to create cloud workstations that are connected to our office via a VPC (virtual private cloud). This gives us the capability to securely increase our capacity for work way beyond any physical hardware limitations.

What tools are you using to make sure these folks stay connected?
Marrero: We all communicate with each other via chat using an open-source tool called Rocket.Chat. Producers connect via BlueJeans video conference.

For anyone setting up a remote pipeline, I would also recommend taking advantage of cloud-based software like Slack for communication, Trello for organization, and AnyDesk to allow IT to help troubleshoot any issues that might occur during the setup process.

What about security and working remotely?
Marrero: Security was the driving force for us to investigate the advantages of PCOIP technology. Having remote workstation cards installed at the office allows us to stream encrypted screen information directly to the artists monitors and eliminates the need for any data to be hosted outside of Phosphene’s internal network.

Using PCOIP combined with only being able to access our network via VPN with two-factor authentication, we were able to address many security concerns from our clients, which was a key factor in our being able to work remotely.

PCOIP technology also allows us to easily use all the tools on our internal network, with no change in set up, or compromise to security. Once logged in, artists are able to access Nuke, Hiero, 3dsMax, Houdini and Deadline as though they are in the office.

What types of work are you guys doing at the moment?
Dunn: We can’t talk about any of our current work, but one project we recently finished is HBO’s The Plot Against America, created by Ed Burns and David Simon. The show is based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel depicting the lives of US citizens in an alternate history where Franklin D.Roosevelt loses the 1940 presidential election to Charles Lindbergh.

Phosphene worked with show-side VFX supervisor Jim Rider on a wide range of visual effects for the show, including creating period-accurate aerial views of 1940’s Manhattan, exteriors of Newark Airport and a British Navy base, and extensive crowd duplication shots inside Madison Square Garden. In total, Phosphene delivered 274 shots for the limited series.

The Plot Against America

Any tips for those companies who are just starting to get set up remotely or even those who are currently working remotely?
Marrero: Be nice to your IT department. (Smiles) Working remotely has many moving parts that need to all work perfectly for things to go smoothly. Expect delays in the beginning as all the kinks are worked out.

What has helped staffers get settled into working from home?
Dunn: I’ll let them speak for themselves.

VFX producer Matthew Griffin: I found it really helpful to set up a dedicated mini-office rather than just working on a laptop from the couch. When I sit down at my workspace, I feel like I am still “going into” the office. Holding team meetings via video chat and maintaining rituals like having my morning coffee at the same time also helps me to stay in a familiar rhythm. We also have a dog, so walking him at the end of the day makes the workday feel complete. I close the laptop, walk the dog, and once I’m home, it’s like my commute is over and it’s time to relax.

VFX producer Steven Weigle: Producers are used to working remotely for short stints, so this hasn’t been an entirely foreign experience. I did recently add a KVM switch to my home setup, to use my full-sized keyboard, mouse and monitor to control my work laptop but be able to switch back to my personal machine with the click of a button. It’s a small, basic upgrade but it helps me maximize my desk space while still separating my “work brain” from my “home brain.”


Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years. 

Phosphene’s visual effects for Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora

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.

Matt Griffin

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. The series was also nominated for an Emmy for its Outstanding Visual Effects in A Supporting Role.

We recently 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.

Djuna Wahlrab

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.

The upper courts overlook the town.

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.

Sweat preparing for escape.

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.

Tarsia’s death: Replaced stunt car, added blood and re-animated the victim.

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.


Added snow, cook fire smoke and inmates to upper tier.

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.

Some shots outside the prison involved set extensions.

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.