Building an Empire
January 5, 2011

Building an Empire

CGI becomes an important building block as digital artists reconstruct 1920s Atlantic City
Though gangsters, politicians and corruption drive the drama in HBO’s new hit series Boardwalk Empire, writer-creator Terence Winter was determined to give the 1920s Atlantic City location the starring role in the period drama it deserved. But with today’s Atlantic City bearing almost no trace of its storied past, the challenge was to re-create the authentic period details and the scenic, expansive views the boardwalk provided.

Nearly two years prior to the series’ premiere, co-executive producer Eugene Kelly approached Brainstorm Digital, a New York-based VFX studio that specializes in photorealistic backgrounds and digital effects, for advice on how to visually bring the glitzy, Prohibition-era boardwalk to life. “We knew the series presented a huge challenge. Practically nothing existed of the original architecture that lined the boardwalk nearly 100 years ago,” says Richard Friedlander, president of Brainstorm Digital. “Without the major use of visual effects, the series might not have been possible, at least on the scale Kelly and executive producers Winter and Tim Van Patten were hoping for.”

Once Brainstorm sold HBO on its approach—computer-generated 3D imagery in conjunction with 2D matte paintings—an extensive previsualization effort got under way. Using computer modeling, Brainstorm began problem-solving the many practical, technical and artistic issues the crew knew filming would pose. The Brainstorm group proposed that if a section of boardwalk were built, CGI and set extensions would enable the digital team to accurately create the various storefronts and landmark hotels, the expansive coastal boardwalk views, and numerous piers jutting into the sea.

The first risky, though well-calculated, decision was choosing to construct and film on an outdoor set. “One issue was lighting,” explains Friedlander. “If we filmed indoors, the consensus was the lighting would never feel real. Real sunlight and weather conditions were important to the visual realism.

Though multiple locations were considered, the set was ultimately located in a large, open lot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. After several months of set construction, the first of more than 30 large, steel shipping containers were lowered onto the lot, painted blue, and stacked like building blocks to create the massive backdrop to accommodate the CGI work that would replace the existing backdrop—the Manhattan skyline in one direction and Greenpoint in others.

Brainstorm worked closely with series’ historical consultant, Ed McGinty, and production designer, Bob Shaw, to determine exactly what would be seen beyond the physical sets and practical locations. “The production did an amazing job of locating small bits of period-accurate locations that we could digitally build upon,” says Friedlander. “No visual stone was left unturned.”

The production and Friedlander also felt that the boardwalk vistas would require some augmentation to Brainstorm’s creative team: Additional matte painters contributed their talents, including one person who focused exclusively on creating the coastal skies. Most significant was enlisting the matte paintings and CG art direction of Robert Stomberg, whose impressive list of credits include several HBO mini-series (The Pacific, John Adams) and feature films, including Avatar, for which he received the 2010 Academy Award for best art direction.

In addition to Atlantic City, Brainstorm also re-created expansive views of 1920s Chicago and New York City’s Times Square. Every detail from the specific buildings, automobiles, trolleys, Broadway signage, and ads, down to the costuming of the pedestrians, are period accurate.

“Pretty much everything in these shots are digitally generated, except for a few people and pigeons,” says Friedlander. Sharp-eyed viewers will enjoy the detailed accuracy of a distant zeppelin flying above the New York skyline.

“Many TV series confine themselves to traditional interior sets in order to establish the period,” explains Friedlander. “Boardwalk encompasses both interior and extensive exterior shooting, adding the CGI component, which is not typically seen on TV. Visually, it even exceeds what is currently contained in most of the feature films being made today.”

Though Boardwalk depicts a period nearly 100 years ago, it took the intervening years to develop today’s advanced level of digital technology and artistry to visually immerse the viewer in a long-lost time and place. Without Brainstorm's creations, Winter says, “We wouldn't have had a boardwalk or an empire."