How did you get involved on this show?
We got a call one afternoon in January of last year, where a producer said, « Hey, do you want to come meet Peter Berg in one hour? » So Brian Drewes – my co-founder at Zero – and I went over there and had a 15-minute meeting with Peter and what felt like 12 producers, and we got the job in the room.
How was this collaboration with director Peter Berg?
This was the first time we’d worked with Pete or any of these producers, actually. It’s always good to work with new people, and it was surprising how it came about. With a film this big, there’s usually at least some common connection, but honestly on this one, we hadn’t worked with anyone involved previously.
What was his approach and expectation about the VFX?
It was clear that his passion for the story was to tell the triumph and not so much the tragedy. We undertook copious amounts of research before shooting a single shot, so that the story could be told with as much reality as possible. I think the fact that we’re in Boston helped as well.
I’ve had meetings with Pete Berg where we watched hours and hours of stock footage, news footage, iPhone footage, and everything we could get our hands on of what really happened that day.
Every costume, character location, and piece of debris on the street was researched. Very few things were done for creative dramatization. We did as much as possible to match what really happened, and that’s something that Pete said from the very beginning. I think of it as we basically shot what happened if we could go back in time, knowing where everything was going to be, and point our cameras in the right place. And that’s really what we did: we shot a documentary three years later of this event and everything that happened after.
Can you describe your work from pre-production, on-set and then during post?
My main job is to work very closely with the Pete, Tom Duffield, the production designer, and Tobias Schliessler, the cinematographer, to determine the best way to shoot a scene that takes place at a real location, but can’t be shot at said location. From the beginning, the challenge was, what amount of fabricated set can we get away with and where can recreate an entire section of Boylston street? We had to decide what becomes VFX and what remains practical. After many meetings with Pete and the team, we had the plan fully thought out so that when it came to post, all that was left was executing.
How did you organize the work at the Zero VFX offices?
Well, Zero has an office in Boston, which really did play a part in our ability to deliver the VFX of the film. During dailies when we were looking at shots and sometimes questioning the reality of it, the whole crew would get up and we’d walk down the street and go to the finish line, and we’d look from where the camera is and ask, « What are we seeing? What are we missing? »
We did that constantly throughout. We have over a terabyte of still photography of Boston that we used to model and create our buildings, and that was a big deal. The Boston office was in constant communication with our team in Los Angeles, who were on hand to support with the more simulated effects. The combination of workforces helped to bring the realism to every shot.
We had hundreds of hours of footage to reference for everything from where the debris was on the ground to how big the explosions were, from how much smoke hung in the air after to how the flags blew. All of that required artists with an eye for reality, and we didn’t have a lot of room to stylize because this isn’t that kind of movie. It was about doing it for real and not making it pretty for the sake of making it pretty.
Can you tell us more about the filming of the delicate sequence of the attacks?
Out of the respect for the survivors, the first responders, the victims, and the victims’ families, everyone – including Pete and ourselves – wanted to be as accurate to what happened as possible. That being said, we also understood and were sensitive to the fact that we don’t want to reenact this horrible event in the place where it occurred. It’s only been three years, there’s still a lot of fresh wounds here, and a lot of people’s lives are still very affected by it.
To have special effects, fake bombs, put in that same location again would have been very insensitive, and we didn’t want that. But we also didn’t want anyone to ever know that we didn’t shoot it there, because out of that same respect of not wanting to have everyone see this attack again in our city, we also wanted to make sure that people watching the movie feel like we shot it in the true location. Even the people who live here and work here would think we might have.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of the Boston environment?
Creating the Boston environment was such a big part of the film. We had to build 4 million square feet of Boston that also allowed the camera to go anywhere. We couldn’t limit Pete to, « OK, here’s your city, but you can only point your camera down this side of the street. » The camera had to go anywhere and be any focal length, we had to be able to shoot seven cameras at a time, and we ensured no limitations due to VFX; this gave Pete the freedom he needed.
We worked with the production designer, Tom Duffield, the special effects team led by Matt Kutcher, and the cinematographer, Tobias Schliessler, to make sure everyone was on the same page for the overall goals. We ended up creating a very small set, an hour outside of Boston, where we built about 7% of the storefronts in basically one section of Boylston Street near the finish line while the rest was wrapped in green screen.
We digitally created millions of square footage of that day in Boston, including digital buildings, digital trees, digital sidewalks, digital road, digital cars, digital people, digital runners, digital first responders, digital victims, digital signage, and even digital grass. Every minute detail was created.
How did you manage the matchmove and lighting challenges for this sequence?
The integration department definitely had its hands full with this one. Pete likes to shoot with multiple cameras, almost all with zoom lenses and handheld to give viewers the sense of really being there in that moment. We weren’t able to manage tracking and lighting through individual setups; we couldn’t go in and add tons of individual tracking marks or camera movements, so it was really a huge back-end effort by our artists to track all the cameras digitally.
When we built the set, we laid out Boylston Street from north to south, even though the actual Boylston Street is not laid out this way. Shooting it like this gave us the most even lighting and continuity with lighting between shots. In post, we were able to paint in shadows and alter the sun’s position. This worked well because Boylston Street is very shady due to the high buildings, so having a set with even sunlight allowed us more flexibility to paint in all of the necessary shadows.
What was the main challenge with the attacks sequence and how did you achieve it?
The unique challenges were when we shot with seven cameras, and the way Pete shoots, it was very documentary-style. We didn’t have one line get set and then cut and do it again; we had 20-minute-long takes where the entire action was captured in-camera and by seven different cameras. We captured everything from high up in a scissor lift down to closely following Mark Wahlberg running through the streets. This allowed us to focus on telling the story without having to stage it.
From a visual effects standpoint, to allow the filmmaker that kind of flexibility requires an immense amount of effort, pressure, and trust by the director to know that no matter where we put the camera, we are going to put a photo-real city behind it. Some of our shots did utilize real Boston, while other were almost or entirely digital.
There’s no shortage of these shots either. The pressure of not just creating a city, but creating a real and highly recognizable city that has not changed much since 2013 was a challenge. It’s one thing to do photo-real, and another thing to do photo-real and do photo-accurate at the same time. That is a tall order, as far as creating something digitally.
How did you create the explosions?
The explosions were a hybrid of both practical effects done by special effects supervisor, Matt Kutcher, and VFX. He did a great job creating live, yet very safe, explosions that actors and stunt performers could remain close to. In post, we enhanced those explosions with mountains of smoke, burning embers, falling ash, debris and more, mostly through Houdini.
Can you tell us more about your work on the fight sequence between the terrorists and the police?
The Watertown battle was recreated with the utmost attention to detail to be as accurate to that day as possible. It was a very intense action scene with the pipe bombs and rounds of bullets throughout. This was another example of special effects and visual effects working together really well; Matt Kutcher orchestrated practical yet safe explosions, like the car that blows up and flips over – all practical! We then were able to digitally add the actors, J.K. Simmons in this case, into the scene of the explosion. Muzzle flashes, augmented explosions, pipe bombs in the air, pipe bomb explosions, and wire removal from the stunts were also done by our team in post.
How did you created the various muzzle flashes and bullet hits?
We had a library of elements to use, but we also shot additional elements just for this film so that each gun was firing its unique muzzle flash. They matched reality right down to the shell casings.
There are various footages from TV, cell phones, CCTV. How did you recreated these looks?
One shot that actually isn’t in the movie anymore, but was one that he was really passionate about, had Mark Wahlberg placed into footage from the real event that was shot on an iPhone. We explored that heavily, and were actually about to shoot it after copious amounts of previs. However, after shooting the first day of the reenactment of the attack, we both realized that we’re shooting much better stuff than the iPhone footage, and we should skip that. It actually ended up being the reason we got hired, even though it didn’t make it in the final cut.
How did you create the wide shots showing the effects of the curfew?
We sent a helicopter unit out to shoot a bunch of plates of Boston. Our artists then painted out all of the people and cars out of them to portray that eerie emptiness.
The movie ends at the Fenway Park. How did you create the crowd for this sequence?
The Sox game at the end is comprised of both stock footage and a digital team running out on the field that we added to it.
Is there any other invisible effects you want to reveal to us?
There was this really dense, fog-like smoke that hung around on Boylston for a long while after the explosions due to how the street is sort of contained between buildings. Getting the actors and extras on location to interact realistically with that 3D fog was a real challenge. It took lots of matchmoving and rotoscoping. We created a new style of rendering for this film that we’re really proud of; it really helped us tie in the on-camera actors to the digital world, without having to constantly render changes we made.
Was there a shot or a sequence to prevent you from sleep?
Before you start on a film like this, especially one that also takes place in your hometown, you have to wonder if you can do it justice and be considerate. Throughout the film, I got to meet many of the people who were there that day and become quite close. It wasn’t the work that I was nervous about, it was telling the story right and giving the respect everyone involved deserved. Am I not glorifying this moment, but remembering it respectfully? At the end of the day, I’m really proud of the film we made and the work we did.
What did you keep from this experience?
My love for invisible VFX continues to grow. What was so great about this film was my family and friends who live in Boston and walk down Boylston all the time had no idea the street in the film was digital; I’m especially proud of that.
How long have you worked on this show?
We worked on it from January through October of 2016. It was a huge undertaking. It was the biggest integration task we’ve had so far as a company, in which so much of the film was going to be digital.
We spent from January through August just building our digital city, so that we could really put our cameras anywhere and have any shot they want. You could look at a building from a half mile away or from inches away; the detail, texture and geometry of it all was part of that build, and it was without question the biggest asset build we’ve ever had at ZERO.
How many shots have you done?
There were about 600 shots in the show, and a lot of them were production fixes. We did all of the major effects. Our work came out to about 20 minutes of visual effects in the movie.
What was the size of your team?
We had 56 artists and another 10 or so coordinators, producers and supervisors working on the film. As we are only an 80-person company, it was truly a group effort.
A big thanks for your time.
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– Zero VFX: Official website of Zero VFX.
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© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2017