Taking NYC Back to the Jazz Age
Amazon’s newest series, “Z: The Beginning of Everything” follows the the turbulent romance of Zelda Fitzgerald, nee Sayre, and her husband author F. Scott Fitzgerald.
For period pieces like “Z,” Visual Effects teams are tasked with transforming scenes from modern day to a time in the past. In this series The Molecule used a combination of VFX and CG to take us back to the Roaring Twenties.
There’s a wide variety of shots that required time period adjustment. Sometimes we removed an air conditioning unit or security camera from a building’s facade; sometimes we overhauled an entire landscape.
One of the longest phases of creating a period piece is the research. In the weeks leading up to the shoot, Molecule employees pored over films from that era, archival photos and video, and architectural books from the turn of the 20th century.
“When we worked on buildings in particular the architecture came straight from books,” says VFX Supervisor David McElfresh.
One of our biggest building remodels was the exterior of Penn Station. Today’s Penn Station is literally a completely different building from the one that existed the 1920s. The original was considered an architectural masterpiece, complete with enormous columns, a pink granite interior, and vaulted glass ceilings. It was demolished in 1963, and what exists today is considered by many to be a sad, dark, underground holding cell for travelers who wish they could have gone to Grand Central instead.
To reconstruct the bygone transit hub, we searched for buildings that were architecturally similar. We discovered that the Federal Court House was actually modeled after Penn Station, so we filmed the Court House and place a matte painting over the street and buildings.
As we moved through the production and post-production phases, research was ongoing… but more on that later.
At The Molecule, we’re huge fans of on-set VFX supervising. As a general practice we find that it helps save production crews time and money when shots are set up with post-production in mind.
It can also be one of the most fun parts of the job. Luke DiTommaso travelled down south to supervise the scenes at Camp Sheridan, the camp where F. Scott Fitzgerald was stationed during World War 1, and where he met his future wife, Zelda Fitzgerald.
This scene was shot near Savannah, GA. We used blue screens, anticipating the need to recreate rows of army barracks in VFX later on.
Another on-set supervisor from our team, Nico Del Giudice, got to ride in a crane bucket in the middle of a very busy NYC-street for the exterior Penn Station shot.
The interior of Penn Station also had to be replicated. The Surrogate’s Courthouse, located in downtown Manhattan, is one of the most beautiful interiors in the city — and accurate for the time period. VFX Supervisor Charlotta Forssman supervised this shoot, and we set up green screens so that we could add in matte paintings and an arriving train.
CG & VFX Phase
Our VFX and CG departments worked concurrently for many of the big shots in this series – especially the large set extension shots such as the exterior of Penn Station and Camp Sheridan. They took around 6-8 weeks each, and while the CG department was modeling cars, buildings, and barracks, our VFX department was cleaning up the plates to remove people with modern clothing, modern signage, and cars.
The cars were especially fun to work on because they moved in a very specific way in the 1820s. During our research we watched a lot of Buster Keaton films for inspiration, including The Saphead (1920), Sherlock Jr. (1924), and Battling Butler (1926).
“If you look carefully in the far background of the Penn Station Exterior shot you just might spy Buster Keaton himself atop the handlebars of a motorcycle dodging traffic,” says compositing supervisor Rick Shick.
Finally, one of our favorite shots to work on was the building facade and street below the ledge where F. Scott Fitzgerald stands, smoking a cigarette. In general, visual effects are used when an on-set situation would be insanely risky if it were to be shot practically. Having an actor stand on a building ledge over a busy street was one of those times.
Instead, the actor stood on a much shorter ledge and we placed a blue screen below. We composited in the building’s facade, people, and cars on the street so that the only practical thing was the ledge itself.
The entire series is available for streaming now on Amazon Prime. If the weather is less-than-stellar where you are (like it is here in NYC this time of year), add it to your to-do list this weekend!