With its star-studded cast and sprawling narrative, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass heads back to the ’70s to tell the story of Whitey Bulger – the brother of a state senator and one of South Boston’s most infamous criminals.
It was fitting, then, that Zero VFX – with one of its two offices in Boston – was called upon to re-create the bygone era of the city it calls home.
From augmenting crowd shots to swapping one season for another, Zero’s work on the project was far- and wide-reaching. Nevertheless, despite its contribution, Zero lived up to its name, leaving no trace of its fingerprints across the production.
“We managed to implement a diverse range of invisible effects across Black Mass, working directly with the plate photography,” says Sean Devereaux, VFX supervisor for Zero on the project, and more than willing to spill the family secrets.
“It was challenging, but I think 99.9% of the people who see it will never know we touched a single frame of it.”
The Zero team worked on 375 shots in total, straddling period enhancements, shot corrections, and violence augmentation. The name of the game was realism, which, while adding to the drama of the film, was a challenging task.
“The director, Scott Cooper, wanted the film to be totally true, in every way possible, to the time it took place,” explains Devereaux. “That meant shooting on location in Boston and sometimes in front of buildings that wouldn’t have existed in the time period. It was up to Zero to remove those buildings from the plates.”
Another factor to consider was that Black Mass was shot in late spring, whereas most of the scenes in
Black Mass take place in a much colder late winter. Zero’s team of seasoned supervisors, producers, and artists took on the monumental task of swapping seasons.
Utilizing a diverse array of tools – including Autodesk’s Maya, The Foundry’s Nuke, and Adobe’s Photoshop, Devereaux and his team went about transforming mild spring to a stark winter. This involved creating CG snow. “Any time you see snow in the film, it was added by us,” says Devereaux. Also, it entailed removing the thick foliage from the trees visible during footage.
“There’s really no way to just take off leaves from a tree – you have to replace the entire background,” explains Devereaux. “A lot of our shots became over 80% digital in order to accomplish that, with entire backdrops of green foliage changed to snow-tipped branches.”
All of these changes were impressively created without the aid of any greenscreens. For Devereaux, this wasn’t necessarily an issue, as it gave the director much more creative freedom in how he approached each shot for the film.
“I want to give the director as much time as possible to figure out how he wanted his shot to look, and as soon as you put that greenscreen up, you’re instantly limiting his ability to have more time with the cut,” explains Devereaux. “In avoiding that, yes, it meant we had to focus on rotoscoping, but it allowed the director more freedom in the editorial process. At Zero, we want to engender that creativity, not distract from it.”
Devereaux states that the most VFX-intensive shots faced during the production were those set within a moving vehicle. “They did take the most resources,” remembers Devereaux. ”We had to replace absolutely everything outside of the windows, including the reflections, which required a lot of careful, meticulous work from our artists.
“Thankfully, VFX Supervisor Paul Linden was on set,” he continues. “He did a great job on set, ensuring that the transition between on-set shooting and postproduction was as smooth as it could possibly be.”
From Drawing a Crowd to Drawing Blood
In addition to the CG snow, the crowd extension – achieved by duplicating extras – became another important element in the Black Mass VFX process.
“There were no CG people involved in Black Mass’s crowd extensions,” explains Devereaux. “It was a case of simply duplicating extras from multiple takes. We achieved the effect in 2D using assets captured from other takes and angles. The result was totally seamless.”
Zero didn’t just need to draw a crowd, but also draw blood. Black Mass is, after all, a violent film, and that meant a great deal of arterial spray being used to enhance the special effects occurring in the original plates.
Zero’s work didn’t just include enhancing the violence, but also toning it down. “If you’re a sucker for authenticity, you know bullet holes don’t have smoke come out of them when you shoot somebody, but squibs sometimes cause that,” says Devereaux. “As such, a lot of our work involved squib cleanup. It was about making things look more real while also enhancing the impact of the violence.”
Throughout the Black Mass project, reality was the name of the game. Yes, entire buildings were removed, and an epic reversal of Mother Nature was achieved. But despite these feats Zero’s involvement needed to remain as low key as possible.
“We did a lot of work, but what I’m really proud of is that, of all the work we’ve done at Zero, Black Mass truly is one where you’ll never know we were there,” concludes Devereaux. “We’re invisible – it’s an illusion in every sense of the word.