Tag Archives: Showtime

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. 

Showtime’s Homeland: Producer/director Lesli Linka Glatter

By Iain Blair

Since it first premiered back in 2011, the provocative, edgy and timely spy thriller Homeland has been a huge hit with audiences and critics alike. It has also racked up dozens of awards, including Primetime Emmys and Golden Globes.

The show, which features an impressive cast — namely Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin — is Showtime’s number one drama series is produced by Fox 21 Television Studios and was developed for American television by Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon. Homeland is based on the Israeli series Prisoners of War from Gideon Raff.

Lesli Linka Glatter

Producer Lesli Linka Glatter is an award-winning director of film and episodic dramas. Her TV work includes The Newsroom, The Walking Dead, Justified, Ray Donovan, Masters of Sex, Nashville, True Blood, Mad Men, The Good Wife, House, The West Wing, NYPD Blue, ER and Freaks and Geeks, just to name a few. Most recently, she directed the first two episodes of Dick Wolf’s limited series Law & Order: True Crime — The Menendez Murders for NBC.

Glatter was nominated for a fifth Emmy for directing the Homeland episode “America First,” and in 2015 and 2016 she was also among the producers acknowledged when Homeland received back-to-back Emmy nominations for Best Drama. 

Glatter began her directing career through American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, and her short film Tales of the Meeting and Parting was nominated for an Academy Award. Her first series was Amazing Stories, followed by Twin Peaks, for which she received her first Directors Guild Award nomination. She made her feature film directorial debut with Now and Then, followed by The Proposition. For HBO she directed State of Emergency, Into the Homeland and The Promise.

To say her career has been prolific is an understatement. I recently spoke with Glatter about making Homeland, the Emmys, her love of post and mentoring other women.

Have you started Season 8?
Not yet. We’re not even prepping yet since we just finished Season 7. The first thing that happens is the writers, myself, Claire, Mandy and the DP go to DC to meet with the intelligence community, and what we find out from talking to these people then becomes the next season.

Is it definitely the final one?
I think that’s unclear yet. It might go on.

Do you like being a showrunner?
I love it. As a producing director I love being involved with the whole novel, the whole big picture of the season, as well as the individual chapters. There’s an overall look and feel and tone to each season, and I also get to direct four of the 12 episodes. We have other amazing directors who come in, and that creates energy and brings in a different point of view, yet it fits into the whole, overall storyline and feel of the season. We have this wonderful working environment on the show where the best idea wins, so it’s very creative. Then every year we reinvent the wheel, with a new look and feel for the show.

What are the big challenges of showrunning?
A complex show like this is filled with all sorts of challenges and joys, in equal parts. Obviously, everything starts with the material and the script, then I have my partners in crime — Claire and Mandy — who’re so creative and collaborative. The big challenge is that we try to make each season new and fresh. People might look at one of Season 7’s shows and think we have it all dialed in with the same sets, the same crew in place and so on, but we’re always going to a new place with a new crew and new sets, and we shoot for 11 days, but nine of those are usually on location, so we have very few on stage. In terms of logistics, that is really challenging. Every episode’s different, but that’s generally how it works. Then we’re exploring very relevant and timely issues. We just dealt with “a nation divided” and Russian meddling, and these are things that everyone’s talking about right now.

As mentioned, you direct a lot of shows. Do you prefer doing that?
It’s more that I see myself as a director first and foremost, although I love showrunning and producing as well. I want to be the producer that every director would love to have, since I try to give them whatever they need to tell their best stories. I have a great line producer/partner named Michael Klick. He’s the magic man who makes it all happen. The key in TV is to have great partners, and our core creative team — DPs David Klein and Giorgio Scali, our editors, production designers, costume designers — are all so talented. You want the smartest team you can get, and then let the best idea win, and we always aim for a very cinematic look.

Where do you post?
We did all the editing on the Fox lot and all the sound mixing at Universal. Encore does the VFX.

Do you like the post process?
I love it. It’s where it all comes together, and you get to look at everything you’ve done and re-shape it and make it the best it can be. Along with everyone else, I have my idea of what each episode will be, and then we have our editing team and they bring all their ideas to it, so it’s very exciting to watch it evolve.

Talk about editing. You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
We have three editors — Jordan Goldman, Harvey Rosenstock and Philip Carr Neel — because of the tight schedule, and they each handle different episodes and focus solely on those… unless we run into a problem.

You have a big cast and a lot of stuff going on in each episode. What are the big editing challenges?
Telling the best possible story and staying true to the theme and subtext and intent of that story. The show really lives in shades of gray with a lot of ambiguity. A classic Homeland scene will feature two characters on completely opposing sides of an issue, and they’re both right and both wrong. So maybe that makes you think more about that issue and question your beliefs, and I love that about the show.

This show has a great score by Sean Callery, as well as great sound design. Can you talk about the importance of sound and music.
Sean’s an amazing storyteller and brilliant at what he does, as the show has a huge amount of anxiety in it, and he captures that and helps amplify it — but without making it obvious. He’s been on the show since the start, and we’ve also worked with the same sound team for a long time, and sound design’s such a key element in our show. We spend a lot of time on all the little details that you may not notice in a scene.

How important are the Emmys to you and a show like this?
You can’t ever think about awards while you’re working. You just focus on trying to tell the best possible story, but in this golden age of TV it’s great to be recognized by your peers. It’s huge!

There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies. Are things better in TV?
Things are changing and improving. I’ve been involved with mentoring women directors for many, many years, and I hope we soon get to a point where gender is no longer an issue. If you’d asked me back when I began directing over 20 years ago if we’d still be discussing all this today, I’d have said, “Absolutely not!” But here we still are. The truth is, showrunning and directing are hard and challenging jobs, but women should have the same opportunities as men. Simple as that.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

The Molecule: VFX for ‘The Affair’ and so much more

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.”

The Molecule partners (L-R) Andrew Bly, Chris Healer and Luke DiTommaso.

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.

Ballers-before      Ballers-after

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.

The Affair
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 captFire-stageure 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.”

Lobster_Roll-before      Lobster_Roll-after

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.”

Tools
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.”

The Molecule added John Hamm’s head to this scene for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

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.

What’s Next?
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.”