By Randi Altman
Director Philip Harder’s Tuscaloosa is a 1970s coming-of-age story that follows recent college graduate Billy Mitchell as he falls in love with a psychiatric patient from his dad’s mental hospital. As you can imagine, the elder Mitchell is not okay with the relationship or the interest his son is taking in the racial tensions that are heating up in Alabama.
As a period-piece, Tuscaloosa required a good amount of visual effects work, and Minneapolis-based Splice served as the picture’s main post and VFX house. Splice called the newly launched and local boutique Nocturnal Robot for overspill and to help turn current-day Minnesota, where the film was shot, into 1970s Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Nocturnal Robot’s owner, editor and VFX artist, Jeremy Wanek and artist Conrad Flemming provided a variety of effects, from removing foliage to adding store signs and period cars to rebuilding a Tuscaloosa street. Let’s find out more.
How early did you get involved?
Nocturnal Robot got involved as the edit was nearing picture lock. Splice was bidding on the project’s VFX at the time and it became apparent that they were going to need some support due to the volume of complex shots and constrained budget.
Splice was the main VFX house on the film, and they provided editing as well?
Yes, Splice handled the edit and was the main hub for the VFX work. Clayton Condit edited the movie, along with Kyle Walczak as additional editor. The VFX team was led by Ben Watne. Splice handled around 50 shots, while my team handled around 20, and then Rude Cock Productions (led by the now LA-based Jon Julsrud) jumped in toward the end to finish up some miscellaneous shots, and finally, The Harbor Picture Company tackled some last-minute effects during finishing — so lots of support on the VFX front!
What direction were you given from the client?
Phillip Harder and I met at Splice and went through the shots that concerned him most. Primarily, these discussions centered on details that would lend themselves well to the transformation of modern-day Minnesota, where the movie was shot, to 1970s Alabama, where the movie takes place.
Were you on set?
We were brought in well after the movie had been shot, which is usually the case on a lot of the indie films we work on.
Before and After: Period car addition
Can you talk about prepro? Did you do any and if so in what tool?
No prepro, just the discussion I had with the director before we started working. As far as tools, he loved using his laser pointer to point out details (laughs).
Speaking of tools, what did you use on the show, and can you talk about review and approvals?
Our team was very small for this project, since my company had just officially launched. It was just me, as VFX supervisor/VFX artist along with VFX artist Conrad Flemming. We did our compositing in Adobe After Effects, sometimes using Red Giant tools as well. Digital cleanup was via Adobe Photoshop, and planar tracking was done using BorisFX Mocha Pro. We did 3D work in Maxon Cinema 4D, as well as Video Copilot’s Element 3D plugin for Adobe After Effects.
I would stop by Splice, there Kyle Walczak (who was doing some additional editing at the time) would transfer footage over to a hard drive for me. Then, it was a simple workflow between me and Conrad. I worked on my Mac Pro trash can, while Conrad worked on his PC. I sent him shots via my Google Drive. For review and final delivery we used Splice’s personal FTP site.
Before and After: Foliage removal
A lot of the review process was sending emails back and forth with Phil. This worked out okay because we were able to get most shots approved quickly. Right after this project we started using Frame.io, and I wish I would have been using that on this one — it’s much cleaner and more efficient.
Can you talk about what types of VFX you provided, and did they pick Minnesota because the buildings more closely resembled Tuscaloosa of the ‘70s?
Phil picked Minnesota because it’s where he lives, and he realized that present-day Alabama doesn’t look much like it did in the 70s. In Minnesota he could pull the resources he had access to and stretch his budget further. They shot at a lot of great timeless locations and brought in some period cars and lots of wardrobe to really sell it. They did an incredible job during production, so VFX-wise, it was mostly just enhancing here and there.
Can you talk about some of those more challenging scenes?
There were two shots in particular that were challenging, and we handled each case very differently. I had lengthy discussions with Phil about how to handle them. If you watch our VFX reel, they are the first and last shots shown.
In the first shot, we see our two lead characters pull up to a restaurant. Phil wanted to change the environment and add a parking lot of period-appropriate cars. He had some images that were photographed in the ’70s and he wanted to composite them into the live-action plate the crew had shot. It was really interesting trying to blend something that was nearly 50 years old into a high-quality Alexa shot. It took a lot of cleanup work on the old images since they were littered with artifacts, as well as cutting them up to fit into the shot more seamlessly. It also involved adding some CG period cars. It was a fun challenge, and once it was all put together it created a unique look.
Before and After: Bama Theater
In the second challenging shot, the live-action plate featured a modern-day Minnesota street with a few period vehicles driving down it. We needed to transform this, as you’d expect, into a 70s Alabama street — this time featuring the Bama Theater. This involved a lot of detailed work. I had Conrad focus most of his attention on this shot because I knew he could pull it off in the limited time we had, and his attention to the period’s details would go a long way. There wasn’t a lot of reference material for us to analyze from the ’70s that was taken on that particular street, so we did our best looking at other images we could find from the time and area.
Phil had a lot of notes and details to help us along. We had live-action plates shot on the Red camera to build upon — some buildings, period cars, the extras walking around and a handful of other small objects. But because so much had to be reconstructed, the shot had to be put together from scratch.
Some of the things we noticed in images from the ’70s that we implemented were removing lots of the foliage/trees, adding the fancy signs above stores and adding the stoplights that hung on wires, among other details. It also involved adding lots of CG cars to the environment to fill out the street and add some movement to the foreground and background.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.