New Tech for An Old Story

Director Tom Hooper noted that it’s not often that “someone spends over $100 million” recreating the 18th century for a TV miniseries.

But included in HBO’s big budget rendition of David McCullough’s “John Adams” text was an impressive amount for special effects. “The advantage of knowing that you’re going to have a fairly substantial CGI quotient was a bit liberating because you don’t have to censor yourself for budget reasons,” said Co-executive Producer and Scriptwriter Kirk Ellis. “We had the leeway to replicate things in visual effects if we could not shoot them on practical locations.”

At press time Ellis was in the process of developing “1776”—McCullough’s sequel to “John Adams”—as a miniseries for HBO. “That’s a large scale war film that undoubtedly will also have a significant CGI component,” he said.

Special Effects Supervisor Erik Henry is entering an episode of “John Adams” as HBO’s Emmy bid in the special effects category. According to Visual Effects Producer Steve Kullback, the special effects team delivered about 600 shots, about 320 of them provided by Santa Maria, Calif.-based CafeFX.

Technological challenges were fairly straightforward with the exception of the crowd sequences, said Jeff Goldman, effects supervisor for CafeFX. This was particularly true when a Paris crowd watched a hot air balloon launch in Episode 4.

The scene combined computer-generated images and live action shot on a set in a field backed by lots of industrial buildings just outside of Budapest, Hungary. CafeFX used Adobe Photoshop and eyeon Software’s Fusion 5.2 compositing package to turn Hungary into 18th century Paris using vintage engravings and current photos of the Louvre Museum for reference. Some of the matte painting was done in-house, some outsourced to Bob Scifo at Van Nuys, Calif.-based Illusion Arts.

(click thumbnail)To recreate the crowd in this scene from HBO’s “John Adams” miniseries, CafeFX’s crew used Softimage’s XSI 6.02 for layout and rendering, and its Behavior application for crowd simulation. Autodesk’s Maya 8.5 was used to animate the “digital extras” used to populate and give life to scenes. Fusion was used for all compositing, saving much CG rendering time.CafeFX’s crew used Softimage’s XSI 6.02 for layout and rendering, and its Behavior application for crowd simulation. Autodesk’s Maya 8.5 was used to animate the “digital extras” used to populate and give life to scenes. Fusion was used for all compositing, saving much CG rendering time.

“The only option in the past for incorporating footage with moving cameras was to track them, bring them into the 3D world and then render all your elements out in 3D,” said Goldman. “When Fusion started to incorporate 3D engines, it took some of the workload off the 3D side—now all those little elements can be done in compositing.”

The initial plan to embed a live-action crowd shot on green screen was scotched due to the director’s shooting style, which sometimes had three handheld cameras going at once, making placement more complicated.

“We created little digital people by shooting reference photography of extras in period garb, and then brought them into the computer models in Maya and XSI,” said Goldman. “Using these 12 different types of people, we’d be able to clone them 10,000 times or so, doing minor changes to the color of the costumes. To place all of the people, and have them moving independently, we used XSI’s Behavior Crowd Simulation program, which allows us to use brush strokes to paint people into an environment. Then you can assign all sorts of different movements to the characters.”


Ample creativity was also employed in creating the virtual rooms in St. James Palace, where John Adams met George III in Episode 4. St. James had been largely remodeled in the interim.

“All of those environments were actually shot on green screen, and then we added the virtual rooms later,” said Goldman. “Erik Henry got a blueprint of Hampton Court Palace—shot pictures of the walls and floors—and we took the blueprint, built out the rooms in 3D, and then used his photography to recreate the textures of the walls and floors.”

In this way, CafeFX could locate a virtual camera anywhere within the rooms, using a wide angle or long lens. Creative license came into play in decoration.

“The ceilings in Hampton Court were not what they would have been in St. James Palace—they were just white,” said Goldman. “So we just converted some frescoes over from some other part and put them on the ceiling.”

Recreating the stormy seas on John Adams’ voyage to Europe in Episode 3 also required a Plan B. Stock footage shot for the film “Master and Commander” lacked the right direction, enough “storminess,” and the proper focus.

“We took the plates and projected them onto another plane, then used a virtual camera to fly over the plate at a different angle, which also necessitated fixing boat wakes [and other things] by overlapping the water to get it to look clean,” said Goldman.

(click thumbnail)In HBO’s “John Adams,” Digital Backlot recreated the British fleet’s destruction of Charleston by way of an animated matte painting.Water also proved part of the challenge for Venice, Calif.-based Digital Backlot in recreating the British fleet’s destruction of Charlestown for Episode 2 by way of an animated matte painting. Digital photos of the ocean were mixed with the Psunami plug-in, created by Digital Anarchy for Adobe After Effects, to capture moonlight reflections, said Digital Backlot’s Visual Effects Supervisor Paul Graff. Elsewhere, he said, up to 10k stitched ocean plates were implemented.

“It’s all basically layers and digital fractal patterns that animate the shot,” said Graff.

The technique was also applied to animate the smoke, which billowed in different directions and at different speeds from the burning harbor. A fractal displacement map was used to animate hi-res digital stills to mimic the look and movement captured at a California wildfire with a digital camera.

Not all shots were pre-planned. Visual Effects Designer Robert Stromberg noted that with John Adams’ snowy night ride in Episode 1, “we created a mood basically out of something that wasn’t meant at all.”

“It’s really important to calibrate ourselves artistically to play in the same tune as the director,” said Graff in explaining the blending of elements and shots in sequence. He estimated that it took about six weeks to build a library of “digital extras” (CG characters), which then were animated by motion capture data from libraries. “We drew from layered matte paintings, green screen people and objects, animated CG characters and elements in order to create the big, wide 18th century environments for John Adams.”

To do this, Digital Backlot used Adobe Photoshop and After Effects; Autodesk 3ds Max; NewTek’s LightWave; Andersson Technologies’ SynthEyes 3D camera tracker; Maxon’s Cinema 4D; and a host of plug-ins. Among the last, Graff was particularly fond of Frischluft’s Absolute Curves and Out of Focus, Trapcode’s Form 3D particle system and Zaxwerks’ 3d Flag, which populated a multitude of period ships.

But, Graff said, “At the end of the day, it’s the artist that does the trick. The software is just a tool.”