INTERVIEW: Steven Weigle, John Bair And Aaron Raff Talk Visual Effects

The boys from Phosphene FX stopped by to chat about their work on David Simon's porno-epic The Deuce and World Trade Center biopic The Looming Tower.

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Emmy-nominated and award-winning visual effects company Phosphene FX is responsible for the amazing visual effects we have seen in The Deuce, The Looming Tower, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, amongst many, many more. Senior Visual Effects Supervisor/CCO John Bair, Visual Effects Producer Steven Weigle, and Visual Effects Supervisor Aaron Raff talked to us about their work, specifically on HBO’s The Deuce and Hulu’s The Looming Tower. Their insight into the minute details that go into recreating scenes from the past, and bringing life to stories from our history is incredibly mind-blowing and intriguing.

Their work on true stories as well as fiction help illustrate some of our favorites, and without them many of them would cease to exist. We talked about their specific research techniques, and what goes into recreating scenes of the past, and the challenges that are presented as a result. Whether it’s 1970’s New York City or a pre 9/11 New York City, Phosphene FX has done it all! Check out our in-depth conversation below to see what they had to say!

How did you tackle creating the effects for The Looming Tower? And what challenges did you face in creating pre-9/11 NYC?
STEVEN: Our work on the show was varying from episode to episode. We had punctuated moments much like the real life story the show is tracking. We had very dramatic scenes that needed visual effects augmentation. Our work ran the gamut, especially in terms of the pre-9/11 scenes. There are some episodes where we added/adjusted the skyline of New York to match how it would appear before 9/11. We did things like added in the Twin Towers in distant shots in the earlier episodes just to kind of help set the mood of the show. And then obviously as the series progresses, the attention focuses more on closer shots that require pretty extensive CG built of the plaza and lobby of the World Trade Center. Those shots were a really great collaboration between production and visual effects.

For the lobby in particular, that was a large set that was built on a stage where the art department built a practical floor and elevators, and visual effects stepped in the rest of the way of by construction a digital recreation of the rest of the lobby and integrating that. Doing something like that required a lot of back and forth with the production team and art department to really make sure everyone was on the same page, and everyone felt good about the approach we were taking. The plaza was a film challenge just to find a location in New York that had a large open space like that where we could film and augment. That was, again, a big collaboration between the production team and location department to arrive at something that suited the needs of production.

Because the story of The Looming Tower is based on a real moment in time and real-life events, did you find you felt more pressure to re-create a time that everyone remembers or was it an advantage to recreate moments that are so well-remembered?
STEVEN: I think it depends right. On a show like The Looming Tower I think there’s a great deal of pressure because of the context in which people remember the World Trade Center. There’s a lot of emotion surrounding it, and despite the fact that 9/11 is a shared experience, people still experienced it differently. There was a lot of pressure on the production and the team here to do something that had fidelity to the events without being exploitative. I think, at the very least, everything was considered and we arrived at good solutions to show the events as they were without being exploitative. And with regards to The Deuce, it has large visual effects scenes where we are recreating 1970s New York, Times Square 42nd Street, and I think that had a different pressure that John can talk more about.

JOHN: The thing with The Deuce is that working with David Simon, Nina, and his whole team, historical accuracy, if not being perfectly accurate, then emotionally accurate is highly important to them. So getting into details like that, the art department does a tremendous amount of research to make sure we are recreating that era and that moment in time accurately. On our end, we have to become mini experts on that period of time as well and do our own research. Because an area like that, specifically 42nd street, movies were changing on a daily basis and even construction with that many storefronts and different theaters.

Everything was changing so quickly that any reference we find is such a microscopic snapshot of a very specific period that we are trying to be faithful to – an exact moment in time, a specific week in 1971. It’s pretty challenging and tricky and the amount of photographic reference we’re used to today, with everything photographed and detailed on social media and beyond, it didn’t exist back then. Frankly, photographs that were accurate to a specific period of time were far and few in between so we had to pour through everything – photographs, personal and professional. Looking at films that were shot in that area and scanning through them to catch something that we could dive into. That was a trick there so we could reasonably say this is a pretty close approximation of this exact moment in time.

Hi Aaron! Tell me a little bit about the work you did on The Looming Tower!
AARON: I was the visual effects supervisor, and Steven was the visual effects producer. We were brought on before they started shooting, during pre-production. We talked to the filmmakers about key moments that they wanted to show or scope – a historical event in the show, where the scene would broaden out to CG effects like the U.S. Embassy bombing in Nairobi. Later in the season, we see the USS Cole and then some other events like the Y2K celebration in Times Square, and then ultimately seeing the World Trade Center before the attack.

The story and the tone of the show was very street level, about the characters and walking around with the people. These moments where we broadened out and saw the scale of the events that took place were sort of selected with the filmmakers to be planned well ahead head of time. And that was our role, how we would film things and what research we could use and what archival footage we could leverage and research to make sure the shots were accurate and tied into the show.

Because a lot of the scenes where we would see these things when they were played out on the show, we would cut between the actors and also archival footage and news clips. So that when we could cut from real footage to our scene and our visual effects reconstructions, they would have to tie together seamlessly. That was a unique challenge that we were presented with on the show.

How do visual effects differ when you’re working with a real story (The Looming Tower) versus something that is semi-fictional (The Deuce)?
JOHN: With a show like The Looming Tower it’s trying to be exactly accurate. With The Deuce, based on some of the challenges in research that I mentioned previously, it’s more about trying to be as sure as we can that it’s reasonably accurate. But still, because The Deuce is partially fictionalized in a way that makes being as accurate as we can on our end equally important as a show like The Looming Tower. We want everything else to be as accurate as possible so the fictional part feels like it could be real too.

To elaborate a little bit more on projects beyond these two, getting into things that are less real where there is a little bit of a fantastic element to it. For example, we’ve done hallucination sequences for True Detective and The Sinner where the sequences are really trippy, and meant to be a little bit of eye candy and pleasing in that way. But we still strive to have them feel photographically real, where it looks like it could have been something photographed if it was actually happening yet it’s something that’s so fantastic that it has to be imagination or hallucination.

Does your creative approach differ tremendously from one project to the other?
JOHN: In a way they all start off the same way in that we always have a close relationship with production, especially the art department. With shows of this nature, there is a huge component of period accuracy and trying to be faithful to a moment in time. I think that being very close to the art department is incredibly important. Both of these jobs are great examples, but on any job we really do tons of research on our own and have to educate ourselves to be aware of everything that was happening in the period and would be meaningful historically to any of these scenes. Just so that we can not only do a good job, but also be able to suggest things to production and add something to the shots that even the filmmakers weren’t considering – to really set the tone and nail the recreation and be technically accurate and faithful emotionally to what they are trying to do.

Boardwalk Empire was such a phenomenal show, along with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. And then of course, there’s The Deuce. Is doing period specific shows something you guys enjoy more so than other types of shows?
JOHN: I think it is! In a way it’s sort of like whatever the trends are in storytelling often dictates what we are proficient at. It’s not rapidly changing but currently there is a huge interest in shows that are largely New York-centric, and frequently, ones which are stepping back historically. We’ve covered anything from the ’50s to the ’80s and ’90s in New York City and it’s something we’ve become well suited to. We certainly enjoy it and learning more and more about the history of New York’s very specific little time periods is super exciting and makes the work fun. So yes, we definitely enjoy it and I think we’ll also be looking forward to whatever the next trends are in storytelling in film and television.

For the marquees that were added in for scenes in The Deuce, did you have to check to see what was coming out at that time and adjust the titles accordingly to represent the feel of the ’70s and the vibe of the show?
JOHN: Yes, we did! On the production end, they provided the titles for us and we offered suggestions, one would be like, let’s have two movies playing at this theater, so they’d send us another name. Tons and tons of research was done to help find movie titles. Tricky thing about finding them is that you can either find the movies that were playing in a photograph or possibly in a newspaper. Most of those movie theaters, they didn’t advertise in any way, they’d find a movie, put it up and that was that. There was no record besides photographs or newspaper clippings. We’re reasonably accurate and faithful to what would have been playing or what could have been playing.

In The Greatest Showman, there are such a variety of characters involved. How much of it was visual effects over makeup? And what are some challenges you faced?
STEVEN: For our work on The Greatest Showman we were primarily responsible for the crowd tiling or crowd augmentation scenes where Jenny Lind was performing to large theaters that production didn’t have the capacity to have enough background actors to fill out. In fact, there were also a few shots where we augmented miniature sets of extremely large theatres where the director and some of his team built those miniatures and photographed them and we augmented them with crowds to make it seem like Jenny was performing to larger and larger crowds as the story progressed.

Those scenes for crowd tiling were particularly challenging because of how that show is photographed. They used Alexa 65 cameras, which are incredible cameras, and capture an amazing amount of tonal depth and range – but it does mean that our work has to be pixel perfect and super accurate. Those scenes also have really delicate lighting grays and atmospheric light and constantly changing atmosphere so even when we were doing these shot, that on the face of it are relatively straightforward as visual effects shots, there was a lot of minute details and considerations that we had to do to make sure held up in every frame. It was really important to everyone in the process, both on our team as well as the director and show side visual effects team that every frame be picture perfect.

Are there certain elements that you guys add to a show that fans may not acknowledge as viewers?
AARON: I can use The Looming Tower as an example with that. Like you said, there are the set pieces but that’s actually a small proportion of the overall shots we did on that show. We did 330 visual effect shots in that series, and most of them, I would say, are invisible effects. There is stuff that sort of make the shot better or fill the frame with parts that you couldn’t film practically or that you would never really notice. There are a couple scenes where you see the Al-Qaeda operatives in their training camps and they’re standing on a side of a mountain and these are filmed in a rock quarry in South Africa.

What we would do with visual effects is that we would fill the side of the frame with distant mountain ranges so it would appear they were out in the Afghanistan Hindu Kush. In the corner of the frame, when they filmed, you might see a parking lot–we would replace it with a craggy rock face. It’s filling in and tweaking the scenes to put the viewer in the location the shots are supposed to be.

There’s other little things we do on Looming Tower and a lot of other shows. There was a scene in the aftermath of the Nairobi bombing where some of the FBI agents were visiting a hospital and some patients had wounds and injuries and amputations. When they would film the actor, they would put a green sleeve on them and we would use visual effects to make it look like their arm had been amputated. We do little things that are sort of impossible to film in a way but when you’re watching it should just sell as reality.

JOHN: To elaborate on what Aaron said about invisible effects, which is a huge component of what we do, where sometimes there are shots that are clearly visual effects, even if they are completely mean to be photorealistic, where it is obvious we didn’t film at the World Trade Center or 1970s New York. But beyond that, there is just a huge amount of visual effects that are being added to shots that the general viewing public isn’t aware of that is happening constantly.

A lot of it has to do with schedules and budgets and that also ties into our relationship with the art department where very early on we have to determine how to help the overall production decide the most cost effective way of doing things. Is it to build this entire thing or to do all visual effects? What happens, in most cases, is a collaboration and sort of a shared job between the two where frequently the art department will build part of something at the ground level and something that’s surrounding the actors and objects that they are interacting with things that are very tangible and practical and close to camera. We’ll often take those elements and extend them.

Like Aaron was talking about, in Looming Tower, a good example of that is the World Trade Center lobby where they built 12 feet from the ground, and beyond that it was all CG. A similar example in The Deuce would be on 42nd street, where there was a street location in New York we would return to frequently to film. And the art department would change all the storefronts, set dress the entire street, get period cars in there, people in perfect wardrobe, so the entire street would look like the 70’s up to about 8-10 feet high, and beyond that the buildings are fine but they all need to be replaced. So everything on 42nd street above about 12 feet high is CG, just because it is not practical or possible to redress an entire building, let alone an entire street. Those effects often disappear and just become integrated into the shots and are not readily apparent that they are effects at all.

What’s next?
We’re currently working on the second season of The Deuce which we are deeply ensconced in right now. We’re very excited about that! We’re also working on the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – getting right back into that and it looks very fun so far. We’ve just started working on Motherless Brooklyn which is a featured directed by Edward Norton. We’re sort of in the middle of working on Succession for HBO and we also did some work on Life Itself with Dan Fogelman which Amazon is putting out in theaters later this year.

Find out more on Phosphene FX’s official site, or check out their Twitter.

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