Making Angels

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How Production and Post Sold a Fantastical Tale

HBO's epic seven-hour miniseries,Angels in America, is not only unorthodox in terms of its content, but also in terms of how it was made. The show, directed by Mike Nichols and based on two award-winning Tony Kushner plays (Kushner also wrote the teleplay for HBO), is split into two, 3 1/2-hour parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. The miniseries revolves around a severely ill AIDS patient named Prior (played by Justin Kirk) and his encounters with a mystical angel (played by Emma Thompson), who declares him a prophet in a world where AIDS challenges the existence and purpose of God.

Director Mike Nichols asked his team to turn Emma Thompson into a flying angel in a way that would be both visually believeable and yet reminiscent of a classical painting.

From a technical point of view, the project was challenging in almost all respects — it required more than 400 digital effects supervised by Oscar-winner Richard Edlund after he joined the project midstream; a sophisticated digital dailies approach spearheaded by DP Stephen Goldblatt, ASC; and a crucial digital intermediate performed at EFilm, Hollywood. Yet, the often mundane and under-appreciated art of wire removal may well have been the most important technical achievement of the entire massive project. That's because filmmakers, per Nichols' edict, were required to turn Thompson into a flying angel on-set in a particular way that was both visually believable on the one hand and painterly/mystical on the other.

For two crucial sequences, Thompson wore a huge rig featuring gigantic angel wings as she sat on a suspended bicycle seat hanging from the ceiling grid of a sound stage at New York's Astoria Studios. Barraged with smoke and wind and cleverly backlit under Goldblatt's direction, she recited Shakespearian-like dialogue into the maelstrom.

Then, Richard Edlund's effects' team faced the unenviable task of removing every trace of the rig — a particularly complicated request considering both the size and amount of the wires and the amount of smoke swirling around Thompson.

With stars like Al Pacino and Meryl Streep part of the project, the miniseries had to be shot out of order over several weeks, causing Goldblatt to build an elaborate digital database of images.

“It was yeoman's work, honestly, to perform that amount of wire removal,” Edlund says of the effects' team he supervised at Riot, Santa Monica. “This is the most difficult wire-removal project I have ever been associated with. They shot those scenes so that we had to not only remove the wires, but also to animate smoke back in and make it mix seamlessly with real smoke. There were also times when the wind machines blew [Thompson's] costume into a wire, or where you would see the bulge of the bicycle seat — all that had to be repaired. Another sequence in which Meryl Streep plays Ethel Rosenberg — there were about 50 to 60 shots that had to be repaired because you could see the wig line on her head. Meryl is very expressive and acts with her forehead in a way. So that turned into an animation project — to subtly fix her forehead [work done at The Post Group, Toronto].”

The Production

The challenge of transforming Thompson into an angel wasn't limited to the visual effects department, however. The effect is primarily sold by the scale of Thompson's winged beauty descending violently into her prophet's apartment by literally breaking through the roof and then towering over him. This impression and sense of scale was largely created in-camera, after the option of creating all-CG wings was rejected. According to Goldblatt, filmmakers took their cue from Kushner's original stageplay in terms of the physical scale and interplay between the two characters.

“We watched recordings of the stage version a few times, and for me, it was helpful to see the scale of the angel in the scenes and understanding what that meant practically for us,” says Goldblatt. “You could see how high she had to be over the actor on the bed, with her full [12ft.] wingspan. The [first] scene is about 15 minutes long, with lots of dialogue, and she's flying the whole time. We opted not to do it against greenscreen. Instead, we did it on set, relying on visual effects mainly for the wire-removal work. The solution was to build two versions of the apartment set — the normal scale apartment and another that is about three to four times larger. Later in the film, when the Angel confronts him in his hospital room, we did the same thing with that set, as well.”

Director Mike Nichols (left) and DP Stephen Goldblatt collaborate on a sequence.

Goldblatt's camera team used a 35ft. Technocrane mounted on a forklift platform to film the Angel's arrivals, with Goldblatt extensively backlighting the actress. “A strong, amber backlight was on her at all times,” Goldblatt emphasizes.

Goldblatt shot the miniseries with the lowest-contrast stock he could find — Kodak Vision Expression 500T 5284 — except for two night sequences shot on Vision 800T 5289 stock.

“It was important to maintain the same grain structure throughout the entire piece,” the DP explains. “This stock was very flattering to skin tones, and it gave me a great sense of flexibility since it was slightly flat. Knowing that we would be doing a digital intermediate, it gave me the widest range of highlights to shadows as I could possibly get. This was done with a full plan to use the DI, aesthetically and technically, as a crucial piece of the final look.”

Given the size and scope of the production, Goldblatt demanded and received from Mike Nichols what he calls “unprecedented” involvement in all aspects of the project, from the earliest read-throughs during preproduction in December 2001 through completion of the digital intermediate earlier this year. Serving as the fulcrum of his two-year effort was Goldblatt's insistence on personally creating and maintaining what he calls “a visual database” of the entire project.

Dark, somber lighting was used for numerous interior scenes.

To build this database, Goldblatt personally took digital photos (using first a Canon G-2 digital camera and, later, a Nikon D100) of “every significant setup, every day” throughout preproduction and 150 days of shooting in New York and Rome. The DP shot those pictures on set, personally loaded and indexed them into his Apple G4 computer, and used Photoshop to color-correct them, tweak contrast, saturation, density, and so on, to his satisfaction. Each night, he emailed key images to the project's dailies colorist, Martin Zeichner at New York facility MTI/The Image Group, who was responsible for creating DVD and Digibeta dailies for Nichols, HBO executives, and the rest of the filmmaking team. Colorist Steve Scott at EFilm also referenced those pictures during the DI phase, as did Richard Edlund's effects' team at Riot throughout the post cycle

“This was more elaborate than any reference material I had ever kept [on past projects],” says Goldblatt. “But it was necessary. There was no way to shoot this project in continuity, especially with the big stars like Al Pacino and Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson. We had to shoot their scenes when they were available. Therefore, we were always going backward and forward in time each week, often shooting portions of sequences that were started months earlier. We needed some clear reference of what our lighting and colors were when we shot those parts earlier. So I kept this visual record, which helped with dailies, helped with shooting sequences out of order, helped with shooting effects plates, and helped with the digital intermediate.

“Since we had budget constraints, film dailies were not really practical. But creating DVDs with this kind of color reference for the color-timer was the next best thing. They gave Mike Nichols random access to jump from scene-to-scene as he pleased, and they kept everything consistent. It was a big job creating these images and keeping track of them, but well worth it.”

Goldblatt's obsession with image consistency and quality control was so total that he even went to Mike Nichols' home in New York during the shoot to calibrate Nichols' computer monitor to match his own. The visual database project went so smoothly that his pictures became, in essence, the unit publicity photos for the project and have been published around the world. In December, in fact, Goldblatt was scheduled to hold two exhibitions — one in Los Angeles and one in New York — to exhibit the still photos he took during the job. Goldblatt adds that he fully intends to use this process on future projects and is already preparing to do so on his next film, an upcoming theatrical release directed by Nichols called Closer.

The visual effects team put out numerous digital fires, including digitally removing wig lines from Meryl Streep’s expressive forehead.

“We are doing film dailies for that project, but I'm still going to use this approach,” Goldblatt says. “I'll email my photos to the color-timer at Deluxe [London], where we have already set up a calibrated monitor in their color-grading room. Even though they'll be color-timing film dailies for us, it makes so much sense to give the color timer a guide each day, now that we have technology to get that guide to him quickly and efficiently in the form of digital photos. The principal of sending images from the day's shoot immediately to the color timer seems so obvious to me now that, frankly, it's kind of odd that it wasn't being done routinely before now.”

Visual Effects

Edlund joined the project midway through production, making it his first television gig since he won an Emmy for Battlestar Galactica back in 1979. Edlund says that he and co-visual effects supervisor Ron Simonson first had to overhaul numerous effects' plates from the first half of the miniseries that Edlund claims were not properly shot for visual effects purposes. Simultaneously, he had to supervise all effects created for the second part of the miniseries.

All told, there are about 415 effects shots Angels in America — about half of the invisible variety and half dedicated to fantastical, painterly sequences involving angels, heaven, living mannequins, a fantasy at the North Pole, and so forth. But, Edlund says, the invisible “repairs” for the first half of the miniseries were his biggest challenge.

“There is one scene in the first part of the show, for instance, in which two guys are seeking promiscuous sex in Central Park, when a dramatic moment happens,” he says. “That scene required an incredible amount of work. Because of the camera movement, it was originally shot with all the actors standing still. This gave the impression they were more like photo cutouts, so we had to animate movement into the limbs of the real actors. Before that, they shot the original street scene at 24fps and had the cars going at a tenth speed of what they would normally move, but that didn't look like a busy street by Central Park when you did a speed-up, and there was no motion blur on the cars. To solve that problem, Stephen [Goldblatt] had his Steadicam operator go back there and basically run across the street with cars traveling near him at normal speed. We had to do all kinds of speed adjustments as the camera goes into the park, near the guys next to a tree. Finally, we had to build some CG foliage and track that into a preceding plate, so that when the camera came up on the two guys by the tree, you glimpsed them through that foliage first, so you don't see how stiff their bodies are, and then you go right to the closeup.”

But Angels in America also features sequences that are far more in-your-face in terms of obvious visual effects designed to advance the story. Take the so-called “secretarial pool” in heaven, for instance — a painterly, endless landscape of winged, angelic bureaucrats typing — trying, and failing, to keep a Godless heaven organized. “Cookie-cutter secretaries going on, seemingly to infinity,” Edlund quips.

The New York shoot took place in summer and spring. Foliage, light, and texture then switched to fall during the digital intermediate.

“We tiled it,” Edlund explains of the scene, shot at an ancient villa near Rome. “We had 40 desks with extras wearing wings, and we shot a bunch of tiles greenscreen, and then we moved the desks, shot another tile, and so on, with each tile about six rows deep. Once we had enough tiles, we knew we could clone the desks and create this look. Then, our matte painter [Riot's Michelle Moen] used the tiles to create this majestic scene of thousands Angel secretaries going back forever, until they disappear in the haze.”

Edlund's team also played a crucial role in selling the so-called “Plasma Orgasmata” sequence in which Thompson's Angel copulates in mid-air with her chosen prophet — the gay, dying Prior. This sequence concludes the larger arrival sequence of Thompson's Angel, with viewers seeing the strange coupling from a side angle, in mid-air, with a naked body double for Thompson moving in a sexual, thrusting manner while fluttering on her side. There was no way to get the movement perfectly realistic in-camera, Edlund says, so CG surgery was required.

“We suspended the two actors in body pans and shot them against greenscreen,” says Edlund. “But we filmed them separated in the air far enough so that their arms did not cross over each other's bodies during this rhythm, knowing full well we could move them closer together later and still use rotoscoping and greenscreen to have them cross over during the sequence. Next, we had to put Emma's head onto the double's body. To connect them clean, we put Emma on an incline board at 45 degrees, leaning forward, with wind machines lufting her hair up, and then we shot her head as a separate element. Then, we had to graft her head onto the other body, taking movement out of one place and putting it in another place. The body pans limited the movement of the actors, so to make the [sexual movements] work, we had to combine elements from trick photography and CG morphs here and there. We digitally removed the body pans and animated some of the thrusting movements and then crossed over the body parts. We also digitally put fire into Emma's hair — a fire that burns off her clothes. Therefore, we had to build 3D clothes in Maya and burn it off a CG armature that is only on screen for a second or two. One of our Riot animators, Dan Sunwoo, wrote a special program to give us a gaseous kind of fire that we combined with real fire elements [with real and CG fire rotoscoped into Thompson's hair by compositor Stefano Trevelli, working on an Inferno]. That was a very complicated, and peculiar, effects' sequence.”

Digital Intermediate

The digital intermediate phase at EFilm for Angels in America took about 10 weeks. Because the process involved incorporating 20 reels of film into EFilm's network, colorist Steve Scott believes Angels to be the largest digital intermediate project to date.

The DI's biggest contribution came in two areas — first, allowing filmmakers to transform New York summer and spring exteriors to fall colors in seamless fashion, and second, permitting them to turn the planned heaven sequence from color into black and white, with selected slices of color for key images used in certain shots.

“[Steve Scott] and I did early tests during preproduction and realized we could shoot scenes in spring and summer and use green leaves from exteriors as keys to matte in autumnal colors,” says Goldblatt. “We couldn't wait for fall to shoot, so important scenes, like the scene in Washington Square, where Prior meets his former lover, Louis [Ben Shenkman], who asks him to take him back — that was shot at high summer. But when you see the show, the scene has this beautiful yellow/brown autumn look to it. The DI was very useful in this sense.”

Scott adds this fall for spring/summer switch was done extensively during the DI phase. “All our color corrections are animatable, so we can move them up, change them dynamically as you move through a shot,” he explains. “You can have a bit of flair in one area and then take that flair or contrast down in the next area. There is a funeral scene, for example, in which the lights caught the camera in such a way that everything went green. We were able to key into those green areas and bring down skin tones and do an animation just as the problem occurred — we could counteract it or bring out contrast and density to perfectly match the problem frames to the rest of the shot.”

The DI also played a key role in enhancing the look of Thompson's angel, as well as erasing the redness, resulting from a bad cold, from her face. “Stephen wanted the angel sequences to go beyond what they got in the effects phase,” Scott says. “He wanted an ethereal look to the angel. So we added additional glows to the wings and added detail or focus or sharpness to her eyes to make them brighter and more alluring. I also used our noise-reduction filter selectively to smooth out skin tones. Sometimes, we would add a slight bit of blur to the background to better focus her in the frame. The goal was to make this look more painterly, more like a Renaissance painting than a Matrix kind of thing.”

But the DI was even more crucial during the key heaven sequence late in the miniseries — a sequence in which the entire Romanesque look of heaven appears as a bleached black-and-white, except for Prior's cloak, which is dark red, and a few other points of color. Originally, the plan called for the sequence to be seen in color like the rest of the miniseries. Nichols felt something was missing, however, and eagerly endorsed Goldblatt's suggestion of using a monochromatic palette for the sequence instead.

“By that time, the visual effects budget had been exhausted,” Goldblatt explains, “so it fell to us to make this change entirely in the digital intermediate process, and it worked wonderfully.”

Scott explains that the DI process took advantage of existing effects' elements to effect the biggest change Nichols wanted for the sequence — to make Prior's robe appear blood red on this otherwise black-and-white landscape.

“Richard Edlund's team at Riot had done the compositing and had mattes for the robe already in hand, so we just imported them, modified them a bit, and used four different alpha channels for four different mattes [of the robe and fire elements], letting [the robe] appear red in this monochromatic heaven,” Scott explains. “Then, though, they felt the robe was getting too noisy, so we put a noise reduction filter through the matte and that helped make the robe's fabric seem silky smooth. We also did work to allow fire to retain its glow in heaven and to make the tips of the Golden Gate Bridge that punch through the clouds appear golden.”

EFilm first scanned the Angels footage on its Imagica (Imager XE), pin-registered scanner at “virtual” 4k resolution, providing Scott with a greater degree of data from the original negative than would be possible with a 2k scan. (For more information on how the EFilm scanning process works, see the November 2003 issue of Millimeter for an article on the DI work done at EFilm on the Coen brothers' film, Intolerable Cruelty. Angels in America immediately followed Intolerable into the EFilm system, and Steve Scott was the colorist on both projects.)

Using EFilm's proprietary color-correction system, Scott then spent weeks tweaking the imagery to satisfy Nichols and Goldblatt, often pushing his tools beyond their normal usage.

“Stephen, for instance, wanted to sharpen Emma Thompson's eyes beyond what he captured on set,” explains Scott. “We did not have a specific sharpening filter for this kind of application. So, I played with the softening filter and ended up putting it in the negative range, and I discovered we could sharpen images that way. I took that filter and did an articulated matte, following her eyes and adding subtle sharpening and increasing grain just slightly. I was able to go in and make subtle use of our degrainer with the same matte I did the desharpening with. The degrainer does not affect hard edges — it just smooths gradations in between. That was our sharpening filter — a softening filter put in negative, or reverse, if you will.”



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