Subtle Manipulation: The Making of J. Edgar

Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisors Michael Owens, Geoffrey Hancock and Ollie Rankin about the making of Clint Eastwood’s latest, J. Edgar…

“At first I thought it was a biopic but really what it is a human character study,” admits Visual Effects Supervisor Michael Owens when discussing J. Edgar (2011) which chronicles the half century reign of J. Edgar Hoover as the head of the FBI. “It was similar in form and need as Changeling [2008] in trying to create period moments that were not in your face but were appropriately engaging you in that era. There were several shots like that and they’re always a bit difficult to pull off well.” The Art Department made a significant contribution to the effort. “They had lots of imagery to work off of and it really did help us a great deal to figure out how to build the virtual locations like Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, and then in the 1930s.” The veteran Clint Eastwood collaborator believes, “It’s always a good thing to try to be accurate in whatever you’re presenting.” Owens assigned the task of recreating the past to Method Studios’ facility in Vancouver. “They did a great deal of work on Changeling and Invictus [2009]. We needed crowds and environments; it seemed like the right fit.”

“One of the wonderful things working with Michael Owens is that he has a great read on what Clint Eastwood wants,” states Method Vancouver Visual Effects Supervisor Geoffrey Hancock. “A number of our artists here have worked on multiple Eastwood films so we’re into a bit of a groove as to what is their preferred style.” J. Edgar had its own unique list of requirements. “One of the big challenges early on was getting a handle conceptually [in regards to] what the show needed. What were all the locations going to be? How were we going to portray them? How were we going to create them? How were we going to create them efficiently? How were we going to communicate that to the crew?” An Avid was always setup in the studio to accommodate Owens’ preference of using editorial to view material. “There was enough time in the beginning project that we could pull together references of the different time periods and locations, and then pour through them with Michael Owens.” The extra preparation time proved was beneficial in avoiding the obvious repetition of images. Architecture was studied so “we could really let the audience know one location from another.”

When Geoffrey Hancock had to leave the project, Ollie Rankin was given the task of filling in for him. “I was on the show as the Digital Effects Supervisor which meant that I was at the broader view of the entire 3D side and was responsible for asset creation, the crowd system, lighting and rendering,” explains Rankin. “Unfortunately, a couple months into the production he fell ill; I was asked to step up and take on his role which meant I was the Visual Effects Supervisor for the second half of the production.” Assisting the effort was an onset crew from Method Studios assigned with photographing every filming location and vehicle prop as well scanning the various wardrobes for the actors. “In a lot of instances,” says Hancock, “we were just another department in the production which was leveraging everything else being done so that things wouldn’t have to be reinvented in post.”

A virtual environment, CGI augmentation, and archival footage were all used to make the office scene where J. Edgar Hoover watches the 1969 presidential inauguration parade for Richard Nixon on the television set and reflects upon the same event which occurred back in 1932 with Franklin Roosevelt. “We did a lot of photographic research of the actual parade and there were certain things that Clint had specifically requested storytelling wise,” states Ollie Rankin. “He wanted there to be a visually recognizable iconography between the 1930s parade and the 1960s one.” Geoffrey Hancock explains, “We looked at things we could try to keep consistent like the actual street layout, where the sidewalks were, where people could be or could not be. In the beginning, we thought it would be similar but by the end it was very different between the 1930s and the 1960s.” The real Nixon footage influenced the design of the sequence. “Because we were trying to have a reoccurring visual cues between the two inaugurations, that was in many ways what drove the layout of our 1932 inauguration parade,” remarks Rankin who had to balance the need to be historically accurate with compositional requirements. “There were times where our historic trees had to split the difference in age and maturity between what was actually shot and what would be truly reflective of the time.” Contemplating the significance of the scene, Rankin observes, “That moment in the movie is really telling of change of Hoover’s position in power from the 1932 parade, he stands on the balcony and exchanges a wave with Roosevelt; whereas in 1969, he’s an embittered, embattled old man with no influence at all.”

“The burning of Chicago was another one that took a lot of figuring out in the beginning of exactly how we would show that,” says Geoffrey Hancock. “Would it be street level? Would there be riots? Would it be higher up to show more of the city? That evolved a lot as far as the composition and deciding what to show and what not to show. In the end, it was a very high angle matte painting with a lot of fire elements and interactive lighting.” To help construct the sequence, the Method Vancouver team referenced a previous project with Clint Eastwood and Michael Owens. “The only visual cue we had was one particular shot that both Clint and Michael liked on Changeling,” states Ollie Rankin. “Starting from that we began mocking up photo collages of period buildings and fire; we worked with one of our internal Method concept artists, who came up with a few different options for composition of the overall shot and tried out a couple of different moves. Having settled on one of those that we particularly liked, we contracted Shannan Burkley to render that matte painting to life.” Hancock chuckles, “There was never too much excitement and fire for Michael; he kept pushing for more destruction and mayhem.”

“One of the shots I was most excited about was of the nighttime Broadway District because it is a lively environment,” states Geoffrey Hancock. “There is heavy traffic [and] all sorts of people in the entertainment district coming and going from theatres. The neon signage was a new thing in the 1930s and that was played up on Broadway. It was exciting to research what was all of those old iconic signs, how they were designed and how could we recreate things that look like that.” Adding to the atmosphere for Hancock is the light reflecting off of the wet road from a searchlight turned on during theatrical premiers. When asked whether short shots are easier to construct, Hancock answers, “It is always easier to have shorter shots; there’s less scrutiny but it usually means you have more shots. In longer shots you’re playing up to people’s abilities to travel their eye around the frame and examine everything with closer detail.”

“Michael makes sure that we’re always grounding ourselves in the optics of cinema,” states Geoffrey Hancock who felt the effort paid off, especially, in the ability to emulate film stock. “A mistake a lot of people make is to forget the restraints of real filmmaking technology when they’re designing CGI shots,” says Ollie Rankin. “We worked hard to make sure our camera moves were ones that could be carried out by a real camera. Inserting the element of randomness in a virtual environment adds to its believability. “When you add a flaw or some kind of uniqueness to a digital element it suddenly becomes recognizable. Because a lot of our work is about trying to create things that can be reused, you have to balance it with the need to make them imperfect. A good example of that is our digital crowd system. We had a small cast of 12 people and a huge Wardrobe Department; they had 10 different pairs of trousers, a dozen different jackets, a dozen different hats, and for each of those trousers, jackets, and hats there are maybe 20 or more colour variations. By multiplying altogether all of those permutations you get an incredibly diverse crowd.” As for creating the populous in the 1932 inaugural parade and the racetrack sequence, Rankin remarks, “There were 30 odd crowd shots and they were all quite diverse in styles. In many cases our shot might involve only five or 10 digital people which are not traditionally considered to be a crowd shot but our pipeline here at Method is designed to be flexible.”

Lola VFX, a California-based company, was recruited by Michael Owens to handle some makeup enhancements “which proved to be not terribly problematic but nevertheless a task at hand.” The aging of Leo DiCaprio required no digital alterations but the appearance of the elderly Armie Hammer needed some modification. “We enhanced almost all of his shots as an older man. Clint in afterthought felt Naomi [Watts] didn’t look quite aged enough so we touched up her shots as an older woman. They also took Judi Dench and made her look younger for a few shots when J. Edgar is a young kid.” Owen observes, “It is a very expensive process to do it all digitally. It can be done that way. Usually, a hybrid method is better or physical makeup, assuming it is done really well. The reason is purely cost and time.”

“We had to keep our styles correct for the different eras,” states Michael Owens who had to handle approximately 400 visual effects shots. “All we had to do was make sure that their enhancements looked correct and not artificial. Lola VFX weren’t changing anything in the scene other than that. Whereas creating matte paintings and virtual environments that Method did was all in one house so it was much easier to keep track of the look.” There are hardly any practical effects in the movie. “They had gunshots but that was it.” Reflecting on how J. Edgar compares to the previous films helmed by Clint Eastwood, Owens believes, “It’s different because of the subject matter. Clint never tries to replicate himself style-wise.” He adds, “Whether it makes a billion dollars at the box office I don’t know but I think there are people who will enjoy the character study.”

Production stills © 2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
VFX images © 2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved. Images courtesy Method Studios Vancouver.

For more on J. Edgar, visit the official website, along with Method Studios and Lola VFX, and be sure to check out Trevor’s Clint Eastwood filmmaker profile, Quick Shooter.

Many thanks to Michael Owens, Geoffrey Hancock and Ollie Rankin for taking the time out of their schedules for this interview.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.