Making “Angels”

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

HBO’s epic 7-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.

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.

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 the 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 the sound. Barraged with smoke and wind and cleverly backlit under Goldblatt’s direction, she recited Shakespearian-like dialogue into the maelstrom.

Then, Edlund’s effects’ team at post facility Riot 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.

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. With her 12-foot wingspan, Thompson had to be high over the actor on the bed. The first scene was about 15 minutes long, with lots of dialogue and with Thompson flying the whole time. Goldblatt opted not to do it against greenscreen but instead did it on set, relying on visual effects mainly for the wire-removal work. Two versions of the apartment set were built — the normal-scale apartment and another that was about three to four times larger. The same solution was used when the angel confronts her prophet in his hospital room.

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

Goldblatt’s camera team used a 35-foot Technocrane mounted on a forklift platform to film the angel’s arrivals, with Goldblatt extensively backlighting the actress. He 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. He explains that the stock was flattering to skin tones and provided him with a sense of flexibility because it was slightly flat. Knowing that they would be doing a digital intermediate, he says the stock gave him the widest range of highlights to shadows as he could possibly get.

Given the size and scope of the production, Goldblatt demanded and received from Nichols what he calls “unprecedented” involvement in all aspects of the project, from the earliest read-throughs during pre-production in December 2001 through completion of the digital intermediate earlier this year. Serving as the fulcrum of his 2-year effort was Goldblatt’s insistence on personally creating and maintaining what he calls “a visual database” of the entire project.

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 pre-production and 150 days of shooting in Rome and New York. He 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 e-mailed key images to the project’s dailies colorist, Martin Zeichner at 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 Edlund’s effects’ team at Riot throughout the post cycle.

The shoot took place in summer and spring.

Such a database was necessary because the project couldn’t be shot in continuity. Goldblatt and his team had to shoot scenes when the actors were available. As a result, they were always going backward and forward in time each week, often shooting portions of sequences that were started months earlier. They needed some clear reference of what their lighting and colors were when they shot those parts earlier. Keeping a visual record helped with dailies, helped with shooting sequences out of order, helped with shooting effects plates and helped with the digital intermediate.

In addition, because there were budget constraints, film dailies weren’t practical. Creating DVDs with this kind of color reference for the color-time gave Nichols random access to jump from scene to scene as he pleased while maintaining consistency.

Visual effects

Edlund joined the project midway through production. He 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 in the miniseries — 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. However, Edlund says, the invisible “repairs” for the first half of the miniseries were his biggest challenge.

The miniseries 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. Edlund explains that the scene, which was shot at an ancient villa near Rome, was tiled. There were 40 desks with extras wearing wings.

Foliage, light and texture then switched to fall during the digital intermediate.

Edlund shot a bunch of tiles greenscreen and then moved the desks, shot another tile, and so on, with each tile about six rows deep. Once Edlund had enough tiles, the matte painter used the tiles to create a majestic scene of thousands of 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.

Edlund explains that the two actors were suspended in body pans and then against greenscreen. Edlund and his team 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 that they could move them closer together later and still use rotoscoping and greenscreen to have them cross over during the sequence.

Next, they put Thomspon’s head onto the double’s body. To connect them clean, they put Thompson on an incline board at 45 degrees, leaning forward, with wind machines lufting her hair up. Then they shot her head as a separate element. Next, they 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, they had to combine elements from trick photography and CG morphs here and there. They digitally removed the body pans and animated some of the thrusting movements and then crossed over the body parts.

They also digitally put fire into Thompson’s hair — a fire that burns off her clothes. Therefore, they had to build 3D clothes in Maya and burn it off a CG armature that was only on screen for a second or two. One of the Riot animators wrote a special program to give them a gaseous kind of fire that they combined with real fire elements, with real and CG fire rotoscoped into Thompson’s hair by a compositor working on an inferno.

Digital intermediate

The digital intermediate phase at EFilm took about 10 weeks. The DI’s biggest contribution came in two areas — first, allowing filmmakers to transform 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. Colorist Scott says that this fall for spring/summer switch was done extensively during the DI phase.

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.

Scott explains that Goldblatt wanted an ethereal look to the angel. So they added additional glows to the wings and added detail to her eyes to make them brighter and more alluring. Scott also used their noise-reduction filter selectively to smooth out skin tones. Sometimes, they would add a slight bit of blur to the background to better focus her in the frame.

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.

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.

Edlund’s team at Riot had done the compositing and had mattes for the robe already in hand, Scott says, so they 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 the monochromatic heaven. However, they felt the robe was getting too noisy, so they put a noise reduction filter through the matte, which helped make the robe’s fabric seem silky smooth. EFilm first scanned the 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. 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.

Goldblatt, for instance, wanted to sharpen Thompson’s eyes beyond what he captured on set, Scott says. He did not have a specific sharpening filter for this kind of application. So, he played with the softening filter and ended up putting it in the negative range, and he discovered they could sharpen images that way. He took that filter and did an articulated matte, following her eyes and adding subtle sharpening and increasing grain just slightly. He was able to go in and make subtle use of their degrainer with the same matte he did the desharpening with. The degrainer does not affect hard edges —it just smooths gradations in between. Scott says that that was their sharpening filter — a softening filter put in negative, or reverse.

Michael Goldman is the senior editor for Video Systems, Millimeter and SRO magazines, sister publications of Broadcast Engineering.