LINCOLN is the second collaboration of Ben Morris with Steven Spielberg after WAR HORSE. In the following interview, he explains his work at Framestore on this film.
How did you approach this new collaboration with director Steven Spielberg and what were his expectations about the visual effects?
During the final weeks of post on WAR HORSE I got a call from Kathy Kennedy saying Steven really enjoyed the collaboration with Framestore and the quality of work we’d produced, so much so that he wanted to extend the offer to get involved with LINCOLN. At the time we were simply excited to get the call, as we knew how long the project had been in development, but specifics of what the work might involve were not immediately available. From the earliest conversations with Rick Carter and Steven it was clear that our role would focus on ensuring the audience were transported back to 1864 and stayed immersed in the drama of the script portrayed by the incredible ensemble cast.
What have you done on this movie?
We recreated the newly built Capitol Building in Washington for a number of different scenes; developed a full CG shot portraying the devastating aerial bombardment of Petersburg; provided some weapon enhancements for the opening battle scene and rounded this out with lots of cleanup on exterior plates shot in Petersburg, doubling for 1860’s Washington DC because of its well preserved period architecture.
In addition we designed and executed the opening dream sequence of Lincoln standing on the deck of the USS Monitor at night.
Can you explain to us the design and the creation of the opening dream sequence?
In his diaries Lincoln described a series of recurring dreams in which he stands on the deck of a dark, ironclad boat traveling at great speed over a mirror-like body of water. Even though the boat is traveling at a great speed it never gets any closer to the distant horizon – possibly a visual metaphor for Lincoln’s struggle to navigate the seemingly impossible task of getting the 13th Amendment passed by Congress.
Based on this written historical text, Tony Kushner’s script pages and some additional ideas from Rick Carter we prepared a series of mood-boards and a basic previs to show Steven. He responded positively to the visuals and began to discuss shot composition ideas and what the night sky might look like. In particular, we referenced some incredible time-lapse photography of star fields reflected in large flat lakes in the Australian outback.
We always knew the dream environment would be an entirely digital creation, so Rick built the minimum set required for Daniel to stand on in front of a wraparound greenscreen.
Can you tell us more about the particular look of the dream?
The key visual components of the dream environment were the surface of the water the boat is traveling over and the star field in the sky. On top of this, a number of different 2D processes were applied to the base comps, utilizing practical water elements, simulated lens aberrations, vignetting and varying levels of film grain, sampled from the different production film stocks used by Janusz.
The ocean surface was a CG render using our in-house Tessendorf surface shading tools and required many iterations to achieve the correct sense of speed without losing the reflection of the stars in the structure of the waves. The star field was created using an in-house Nuke plugin based on a real NASA dataset of the night sky. Having tried many iterations of time-lapse star movement, we threw in a comp version in which Lincoln is actually traveling through the stars – this totally hit the mark with Steven and became the template for the rest of the scene.
As with many VFX design challenges, creating the dream sequence was a voyage of discovery which was the first thing we started work on and ultimately the very last shots we delivered on the show.
How did you create the Capitol Building?
On a quiet weekend during the shoot I took a trip to DC and took hundreds of photos of the real Capitol building. Using our in-house photogrammetry tools I built an accurate 3D ‘scan’ of the present day architecture. We then undertook a period of research in consultation with Rick Carter as to what the Capitol would have looked like in 1864. Having built and textured a CG Capitol, the final stage in the process was joining this CG model to the Richmond Capitol building shot on location during principal photography. Rendered in Arnold and finessed with some digi-matte detailing, the shots were composited in Nuke.
How did you create the city of Petersburg under attack?
This was an entirely digital shot. Based on a production concept provided by Rick Carter we modeled the basic terrain of the river banks and hill on which the town was built. We then referenced period photographs of Petersburg before and after the attack and built a kit of basic 3D models for domestic and commercial buildings, churches and riverside warehouses. Once the town was laid in 3D we rendered a first pass of night lighting and handed this to our digi-matte lead who painted a more detailed concept to present to Steven. Reviewing this concept we were able to define which buildings were on fire, which were collapsing and where the main artillery explosions were going off.
The CG river surface was rendered using a pre-comp of the CG town on fire to incorporate appropriate reflections and atmospherics.
Can you tell us more about the smoke and fire for this shot?
The smoke and fire were a combination of simulated CG elements from Houdini and Maya and a load of 2D elements from our library. The exploding bombs were cunningly reused SFX elements I shot during WAR HORSE a year earlier in the UK.
How did you create the final shot showing Lincoln in front of a huge crowd?
The crowds were achieved as traditional replication shots. Starting with the initial plate of Daniel giving his performance to a non-existant crowd, we wrangled the 200 strong extras into 5-6 different layers which we comped together in Nuke.
Can you tell us more about the clean-up work?
The cleanup work was relatively straight forward and mainly featured in the scene of Lincoln talking to Seward in the back of an open carriage in Washington. The plates were shot on location in old Petersburg and featured real architecture from the period and sadly lots of modern day telegraph wires, poles and the odd aerial and radio mast.
Cleanup was mainly done in Nuke, often projecting painted patches onto 3D geometries based on photogrammetric scans I captured during the shoot.
What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
The biggest challenge was the Dream Sequence. In a film so grounded in the physical reality of the 1860’s it was important that the Dream didn’t take the audience out of the film and transport them into another world, but simply immerse them deeper into the troubled mind of Lincoln during the final days of his life.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
Ironically, it was the Dream…
What do you keep from this experience?
An overriding sense of pride for the crew at Framestore and for myself to have worked « invisibly » on a film with such beautiful visuals and totally captivating performances.
How long have you worked on this film?
A little over 8 months.
How many shots have you done?
A mere 36 shots…
What was the size of your team?
About 25 in total.
What is your next project?
I am working on the sci-fi epic JUPITER ASCENDING with the Wachowski’s, but that’s a different story…
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
– Framestore: Dedicated page about LINCOLN on Framestore website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2013