Brett Ratner’s new action-comedy film, Tower Heist called for extensive CG environments, and visual effects work, which was divided up between a variety of New York VFX houses including Phosphene, Gravity, and the facilities of Company 3 and Method Studios, both subsidiaries of Deluxe Entertainment Services. The film, which is possibly the biggest film effects project ever completed in New York, is about working stiffs who seek revenge on the Wall Street swindler who stiffed them. After the workers at a luxury Central Park condominium discover the penthouse billionaire has stolen their retirement, they plot the ultimate revenge: a heist to reclaim what he took from them.
The film’s exteriors were shot at Trump International Hotel & Tower in Manhattan and in Queens, while most of the interiors were shot with green screens at Cine Magic Riverfront Studios (Brooklyn, NY).
The Phosphene visual-effects team, under the direction of creative director/VFX supervisor John Bair, augmented and manipulated the physical environment in approximately 70 complex 3D CG set extensions.
“New York’s VFX infrastructure and community is growing at a very fast pace, and it has been amazing to be able to take on a film this size and show the worldwide film community how capable the New York visual-effects talent pool is,” said Vivian Connolly Phosphene co-founder and VFX executive producer. “We are experiencing a trend of wonderful directors finishing their films here and feel incredibly fortunate to be part of the growth of the visual-effects community in the city.”
“John Bair and his company, Phosphene, with a very small group of artists, were able to deliver shots for Tower Heist with absolutely no compromises and perfect execution. It would have taken any other huge VFX company months to pull off what Phosphene did in a matter of weeks with perfection,” said Ratner.
For the exterior of the tower (in real life, the Trump International Hotel & Tower at Columbus Circle on Manhattan’s Westside), Phosphene created a luxurious outdoor environment for the film’s Wall Street billionaire, Arthur Shaw. Removing the array of satellite dishes and technological equipment on the existing building, Phosphene replaced the roof with an expansive swimming pool – with a floor that sports a painted $100 bill – and a roof deck. These digital replacements were vital for the numerous aerial shots, as well as shots that required the addition of city vistas behind the film’s actors.
“The trickiest shot is the film’s opening, a sweeping tracking shot which begins with a tight shot on the $100 dollar bill,” explained Bair. “As the camera pulls up we hear a splash, the edges of a pool come into view, a swimmer moves through the frame and water ripples over the bill on the pool’s bottom. As the camera continues to pull up, it is revealed that the pool is on top of a residential tower. Pulling back still further, the rooftop disappears into a vast aerial view of Manhattan at night. We shot the swimmer on set; the building rooftop was filmed from a helicopter. Then we built a CG pool and CG water and married the elements, making sure they flowed seamlessly together. It is a powerful opening.”
The largest number of scenes that required Phosphene’s work were those in which the characters traveled into the tower’s elevator shaft. Three floors of shaft were constructed on the set. The actors traveled up and down the length of the 60-story shaft riding atop an elevator cab. Additionally, they climbed ladders and over the grid work in the shaft, all of which required either a complete CG environment or a massive extension of the environment to make it look as if it is actually a 60-story building and a three-unit-wide shaft. “The challenge was making sure that all the shots were completely integrated, that they were consistent from all angles and that the space feels cohesive,” Bair continued.
Phosphene VFX producer Renuka Ballal added, “We worked closely with the edit as the cut developed because the speed at which the characters and elevator cab travel through the elevator shaft is the core of the scene’s tension. There were so many moving parts – literally, moving cables, wheels and additional elevator cabs – that we had to be mindful to ensure we were accurately conveying the velocity of the set piece. These are specifics that may not be strictly evident to the typical viewer, but which completely sell the shots and make a huge emotional impact when watching the film.”
Phosphene relied on Nuke, 3ds Max with a V-ray rendering engine and After Effects CS5 and PCs running Windows 7 64-bit to execute the project.
The Phosphene creative team, led by company creative director/VFX supervisor John Bair, visual effects executive producer Vivian Connolly and visual effects producer Renuka Ballal, included visual effects associate producer Lea Prainsack, lead CG artist Vance Miller, and lead compositors Thomas Panayiotou and JD Yepes.
Gravity produced more than 200 visual effects shots for the film including digital set extensions, photorealistic CG buildings, a CG car, CG stunts, CG face replacements, digital matte paintings and simulations. Under the direction of Yuval Levy, Gravity’s digital effects supervisor, and Karin Levinson, vice president of features and television, the team provided director Brett Ratner and visual effects supervisor Mark Russell with a series of pre-visualized sequences and style frames that illustrated the most climactic scenes of the film. These previs scenes became the blueprint for the shooting of the heist sequences.
“Working with Gravity from the beginning on the previs gave us a head start in making these sequences work down the road,” said Russell. “They had a very early understanding of what Brett and I were after, and they were able to build on that even before the shooting began.”
The majority of Gravity’s visual-effects work focused on the sequences involving the heist in which characters played by Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy and Matthew Broderick steal a classic Ferrari from a corrupt billionaire’s penthouse apartment through an exterior window on the 65th floor. Prior to the actual heist sequence, Gravity created a complex series of green-screen window comps, so that views of Manhattan as seen from inside the penthouse and another of the tower’s most opulent apartments would be completely authentic.
The visual-effects team digitally re-created a section of Manhattan at Columbus Circle to provide the sweeping 220-degree backdrops that may be seen from two apartments. Additionally, Gravity created a photorealistic CG Tower, matching the Trump International Hotel & Tower, to supplement the partially constructed façade that was built on a NY soundstage. Employing a combination of live- action plates, digital imagery and CG elements, Gravity placed the action of the film at the top of New York’s most expensive real estate, all during the Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“Some of our most complex work on the film was creating a photoreal CG Ferrari and CG doubles for Stiller and Murphy, which were seen during a CG ‘stunt’ as the car is being lowered down the side of The Tower,” said Levy. “Our visual-effects team also created an overhead point of view of the heist as though observed from a helicopter during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. We blended scenes from the actual parade along with both CG and stunt elements, which were shot on the stage. This allowed us to create a view of the heist and the parade as they would appear if actually witnessed from above.”
Meanwhile the New York facilities of Company 3 and Method Studios made efficient use of their close and collaborative relationship for the post work on the film. Company 3 was responsible for the digital intermediate and Deluxe handled the lab processing. Method Studios handled 138 visual effects shots.
“This is an excellent example of the synergy our companies strive to provide our clients,” said Stefan Sonnenfeld, Company 3 president and co-founder, and president of Deluxe Creative Services Group. “It’s especially exciting because it demonstrates how we take on complex and challenging feature films in our New York operation.”
By completing 138 visual effects shots at the same Manhattan location where Sonnenfeld performed the DI color grading, the filmmakers were able to take advantage of having the creative teams and the media under the same roof and sharing a single color pipeline. The two groups share a theater and use the same projector for both visual-effects reviews and DI grading. The close proximity also provides the ability to pass material through common servers, making the process significantly faster.
As visual-effects shots took shape under the direction of Method’s visual effects supervisor Greg Liegey and his team, Sonnenfeld could immediately contribute his input about the color as well.
“As we developed the visual-effects shots, the filmmakers could review exactly what they would later see in the DI theater,” said Method Studios’ executive vice president Dan Glass. “If there were questions about how a shot would look during the final grade, we consulted with Stefan, who was right there in the building. If Stefan wanted to see how a shot was evolving and possibly augment or modify his pre-grade, he did that as well. This created efficiencies that saved the production time and eliminated any surprises throughout the DI grading process.”