As Iris Dement sang in Our Town, “Nothing good ever lasts.” Such is the problem confronting production designers and directors everywhere when they visually seek to recreate a lost historical period, or the feel of a town or neighborhood long since transformed by developers.Such, especially, is the case in Los Angeles, where the term postwar architecture can refer to buildings and mini-malls erected after the first Iraq war. So then, for the makers of Lords of Dogtown—the new Sony Pictures release celebrating the birth of freestyle skateboarding and skateboarders in Venice, California—the challenge was to create not only that part of LA, but the ramshackle ruins of the Pacific Ocean Park Pier, all circa 1970. Thirty-five years-worth of historical distance—or in LA development terms, several epochs’ worth.Enter Gray Marshall.Marshall, along with producer partner Margaux Mackay, formed Gray Matter FX, a digital special effects house that specializes in what Marshall himself likes to term “invisible” work—past examples of which include the unobtrusive-but-effective digital additions to films like Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, The Life Aquatic, and HBO’s Starring Pancho Villa as Himself. Now, though, he was charged with bringing back into existence the fabled amusement park ruins that were Pacific Ocean Park, what he describes as the “dangerous playground” used by surfers out in the water, and then, their land-based doppelgangers and alter-egos—those budding lords of Dogtown—who were using then-new polyurethane wheels, empty swimming pools and the pier’s evocative ruins to create an entirely new vocabulary of skateboarding.“We got involved early,” Marshall explains, helping to budget shots, and then “plan what they’re going to be.”Those plans quickly fell into two major categories: the recreation of the pier, the remains of which burned down during the very Dogtown era in which the film unfolds, and the more modern digital task of “face replacement.” The term may sound like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel, but in fact, involves putting the faces of lead actors on the bodies of stunt doubles, doing trick moves in those empty pools—creating a more convincing visual look than the standard method of intercutting close-ups with the long-shot scenes of the stunt folk at work.Director Catherine Hardwicke came up with the term “team measles” for the stunt crew, a reference for the tracking marks that were put on the skaters’ faces, so the actors’ visages could move accurately with their new digital bodies.For the pier, Marshall knew that Hardwicke—who came from production design before breaking through as a writer/director on Thirteen—was not seeking to be absolutely accurate in recreating the pier, but instead, wanted to evoke the fact that “these kids were playing in a minefield.” Her only instructions, really—besides a nod to historical accuracy—were to “make it look broken, wooden and rickety.”So even though a full, “3D, CGI pier” was built within the ones and zeroes of the computer, most of the suggested/recreated pier was only glimpsed as convincing background while surfers plied their Zen trade in the adjacent waters.But three decades later, those “adjacent waters” are in fact the swells off San Diego County’s Imperial Beach, and it was its functional and still-surviving pier that had to be digitally dressed to look like Venice of yore. Most of that location footage was captured in a single week, where Marshall accompanied director, cast and crew to shoot five to seven pages in that span of time. The problem was that most of those water-set pages were shot with 16mm cameras with no tracking info available, and often, no record of which lenses were used, according to Marshall.So Marshall and his crew—of the 56 total shots they worked on for Dogtown—had their work cut out for them. That was especially true for 3D supervisor Tom Lynnes and 3D match mover Messrob Torikian.“Tracking software only got us 50 percent of the way there,” Marshall notes, of the “wild” footage. The rest had to be gone over shot-by-shot to get the best matches with the salt-sprayed, bobbing footage.In the end, matching the shots and matching pixels with a good old-fashioned matte painting by Bob Scifo, the Gray Matter crew was able to convincingly recreate Venice during the tail end of the Nixon years.And while DP Elliot Davis “stayed involved” to shepherd along color and timing, Marshall sees Gray Matter’s work as an extension of “production design,” with Hardwicke’s background in the same discipline lending itself to a handy shorthand with her effects supervisor. But since so much digital work is done in post, Marshall acknowledges that production designer input is hard to maintain, since they can “rarely stay,” and are usually off to their next project.Marshall recounts that he and Mackay “both came from live action, before we met at Digital Domain,” so quite often, when someone asks if something can be done digitally, he often advises them to “do it for real.”Thus, the stunt work, the skating in Lords of Dogtown is the real thing, abetted only by some of Gray Matter’s “invisible work” to recreate the intangibles of memory, and the passing of time.
Written by Mark London Williams