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August 13
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

WHEN THEY SEE US: Era-Specific Visual Effects Filmmaking

By IAN FAILES

Around a month after it had released Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, Netflix announced the miniseries had been streamed by over 23 million viewers in that period. The show tells the story of five youths who were eventually exonerated of the 1989 brutal attack of a Central Park jogger.

Given its initial 1980s setting, the miniseries relied on a number of digital augmentations for scenes set in New York. This included changes to plate photography signage, vehicles and buildings. There were also times when visual effects – from FuseFX – was called upon to remove unwanted artifacts from the shoot and help deliver the emotional story.

Snow was added to this scene from When They See Us.

“There were many aspects to modern-day New York that could not be changed practically. From streetlights and billboards to security cameras and bike lanes, visual effects were essential for making a complete transition to late ’80s/early ’90s New York City.”

—Greg Anderson, Visual Effects Supervisor, FuseFX

For shots in New York where signage and cars and other decals needed to be era-specific, FuseFX aided the production in planning what could be filmed for real and what needed to be augmented, added or replaced.

“The process for planning these environmental adjustments started during pre-production,” says FuseFX Visual Effects Supervisor Greg Anderson. “We worked closely with the production designer and art department to determine what elements on the street would or should be changed practically versus with visual effects.

“There were many aspects to modern-day New York that could not be changed practically,” adds Anderson. “From streetlights and billboards to security cameras and bike lanes, visual effects were essential for making a complete transition to late ’80s/early ’90s New York City. We also worked with props in determining where period-specific picture cars would be parked or driven. Finally, once in post-production, we worked closely with the director to find the best ways to not only address any remaining period-based issues in the environment, but to also create the appropriate visual mood she was after.”

Era-specific augmentations made up the majority of FuseFX’s work for the mini-series.

“It was essential that this scene [outside a restaurant covered by scaffolding] looked 100% practical, so we executed over 200 different internal iterations, checking the most minute details of our work against the real thing. I don’t think any of us want to see scaffolding again anytime soon!”

—Greg Anderson, Visual Effects Supervisor, FuseFX

Scenes in Harlem, especially, required the removal of any yellow cabs from the plates since they generally were not around in the relevant time period. Instead, there were ‘gypsy cabs’ that would have made up the landscape. These were black town cars used by various local car services, seen most frequently in black and Latino communities.

Says Anderson: “Ava was very specific about the importance of showing this, so our CG cars replicated the look of those from the time. Also, Harlem in 1989 was predominantly inhabited by people of color, so we shot and used only people of color against greenscreen to populate the sidewalks and streets.”

A conference meeting scene that features era-appropriate buildings.

Among the augmentations made by FuseFX for era-specific reasons, one shot also required visual effects intervention for more practical reasons. This was for a scene in which the camera cranes over a streetscape as one of the characters, Korey, stands outside a restaurant after returning from prison. The plate was filmed at a real location, but it happened to be covered by scaffolding, which ultimately had to be removed by FuseFX.

“This shot was the most complex of the project and one of the most difficult shots I’ve ever worked on,” states Anderson. “While the goal of visual effects is always to create work that is completely seamless and ‘invisible’, this one shot really pushed the limits of that.”

Scenes in Harlem were enhanced to include more cars and decals from the period.

“[Director] Ava [DuVernay] was very specific about the importance of showing [the ‘gyspy cabs’ in Harlem in 1989], so our CG cars replicated the look of those from the time.”

—Greg Anderson, Visual Effects Supervisor, FuseFX

Removing the scaffolding was not as easy as simply painting it out and replacing the missing background pieces, however. It was made more complex by the fact that the camera move was over 30 seconds long and that around a dozen people were walking behind the scaffolding while the camera was moving.

“The change in parallax meant that each frame of the sequence had a slightly different perspective, so every frame was unique,” explains Anderson. “Thus, there was no suitable paint option to fix this. Instead, the entire background was rebuilt and tracked in CG, which included the interior of the restaurant, as well as the building exterior and sidewalk. The pedestrians were all rotoscoped, with the features that were covered by scaffolding painstakingly repainted. Then, their legs and feet were matchmoved in CG to re-create their shadows onto the now CG sidewalk.

“It was essential that this scene looked 100% practical,” continues Anderson, “so we executed over 200 different internal iterations, checking the most minute details of our work against the real thing. I don’t think any of us want to see scaffolding again anytime soon!”

Watch a breakdown of FuseFX’s work for When They See Us.

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