The Wolf of Wall Street was a visual-effects masterpiece, heavily laden with storytelling and visual elements that were so well done that every scene looked authentic. Brainstorm Digital certainly did a great job in pulling the rug from under our feet with its recent VFX reel, highlighting the studio’s work on the film.
The innovative, Brooklyn-based effects company opened in 2005 and has risen to the top of its game, creating Emmy award-winning visuals for Boardwalk Empire, as well as effects for many other movies, notably The Road, Angels & Demonse and Burn After Reading.
Headed by VFX producers Richard Friedlander and Glenn Allen, with senior VFX supervisor Eran Dinur also manning the helm, The Wolf of Wall Street proved to be their most exciting and challenging project to date. They open up about the difficulties faced working on such a large-scale project, and how more and more of the established directors like Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard are utilizing visual-effects as a storytelling tool.
3dtotal: Thanks for taking the time out to talk to us today and congratulations on your work on The Wolf of Wall Street. It was only after watching your reel that we realized how much VFX work had gone into it. How was it working on this feature?
Brainstorm Digital: Basically, it was a great experience for us and we found that the particular work requested was really demanding but it enabled us to rise to the occasion and do what we think is some of our best work.
We felt it was a great collaboration; we worked very closely with Rob Legato who was the primary visual effects supervisor who always works with Martin Scorsese.
3dt: Rob Legato is a bit of a legend in the industry. It must have been great working with him?
BD: He is. We knew him all the way back when we worked with him on Apollo 13; he was at a company called Digital Domain at the time, and we struck up a relationship. We worked directly with Martin Scorsese on a pilot for Boardwalk Empire and Rob was so impressed with our work that that he brought us into the fold for The Wolf of Wall Street.
BD: Everything was reviewed by him. Of course he had input on everything, usually related through Rob Legato.
The only time we ever had direct interaction with him was on set, and it was the same on Boardwalk Empire. Usually on location scouts we’d present him with mock-ups or pre-viz, either when we were looking at locations or when he was actually filming.
“That became a very big challenge; to take apart the original shot
and remove the players”
3dt: How often do you get to go on location?
BD: We’re on the shoot whenever our work will be involved with the particular scene or sequence, and then we are also involved with the shooting of many of the places that we needed after the fact, so we would go out with our own visual effects unit with Rob Legato and film the various components that we needed. Some of them were filmed without us as some of them were close to the end of the schedule.
3dt: Do you have any favorite moments from The Wolf of Wall Street or achievement you are particularly happy about?
BD: There are quite a few shots where we basically had to replace the entire environment. I think the toughest one was – if you watch the reel – the one with the tennis players playing tennis and then it reveals it is a low-security prison. The tennis court and the players were shot in Brooklyn, and initially the idea was that we were going to extend the camera movements and create a whole prison environment, which in itself is a massive undertaking: a big 3D environment shot.
At some point very late into production Scorsese decided that he wanted the camera to go faster (the original camerawork that was shot). Now obviously you can’t just speed up the whole shot because the players are going to be faster than real life. That became a very big challenge; to take apart the original shot and remove the players.
Rob Legato shot new players on green screen in LA because we couldn’t use the original ones, except for Leo, and we replaced them all, redid the camera in CG to make it go faster and recreated the whole tennis court, not just the environment around it, in CG. So that became a very big challenge and not something I think we’ve ever had the chance to do. And it was all at the very last moment, and I think it came up really nice.
3dt: Were you pushed for time on that then?
BD: That shot kind of went on through the entire production because right at the start I think it was the first one where we started doing pre-viz and planning the camera movements. Originally it was supposed to be a much longer shot with the camera going backwards so people could see the entire prison from high above. We worked on many other shots throughout the production, with new changes coming in, and finally there was that big change of speeding up the original camera.
3dt: You’ve won Emmy awards in the past, but missed out on a VFX nomination for The Wolf of Wall Street at this year’s Oscars. How important is this kind of recognition to you?
BD: Of course it’s always nice to get recognized for your work and it helps to publicize the company and attract new and additional business.
The Wolf of Wall Street was not really considered a visual effects movie and I think that’s one of the things that has surprised so many people and why there has been so much interest in our work. We’ve revealed that there was a lot of visual effects work on the film, but it’s seamless and invisible, and it shows how it has become a key tool for filmmakers today, especially the more sophisticated filmmakers like Scorsese.
“Scorsese utilizes visual effects as a storytelling tool in the same way as he utilizes editorial capabilities”
He really bought into the technology and was able to utilize it without drawing attention to itself, enabling him to tell his story and come up with the visuals that were either impossible to get or it was just more economical to put it together on the computer than have a film unit fly around the world with all the actors.
dt: The amount of man-hours that must go into creating some of the shots, sometimes it seems like it would have been cheaper to just go there and film it…
BD: Your average cost for a film production in the US is probably anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 dollars a day, so you can imagine the cost of travel and setting up and shooting and wrapping it up. Just one day of shooting could potentially be a week of pre-shoot and the wrap-out and with all the cast and crew and housing, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s an expensive couple of days for just a couple days of shooting. It’s not cost effective.
The other thing is Scorsese utilizes visual effects as a storytelling tool in the same way as he utilizes editorial capabilities. When he’s editing a sequence together he’s also looking individually at the imagery in advance with his DP, his production designer, his visual effects people, to see what kind of imagery he can come up with to appropriately tell the story or portray something about the character or situation.
The same way he uses music, he uses visual effects. And a lot of other directors have tapped into that too. We find that more of the established filmmakers, like other directors we have worked with such as Ron Howard, are utilizing it more than some of the newer directors. You would think that some of the new directors would be into some of the new technology but we’ve pretty much found the reverse: it seems that the more established directors, the masters of storytelling, are the ones using it.
3dt: They’re realizing there’s no limit to the imagination…
BD: Right, exactly. It’s always been part of filmmaking, it’s just become more sophisticated and there are better tools now, but right the way back to the beginning of filmmaking it’s always been ‘How do we create something for film that doesn’t really exist?’ It’s always been there.
3dt: The movie was Oscar nominated in many categories, including Best Film. But not Visual Effects! Is this important to you, and out of the nominees, who do you think are most deserving? (Nominees list: Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek Into Darkness.)
BD: I think they’re all deserving, but we, like other people, feel very strongly about Gravity.
What makes Gravity stand apart from the other ones, although everybody did an amazing job – they’re all great companies that do amazing work – was the innovation in the way they filmed Gravity. The way they used the lightbox, and the way they figured out how to do a whole movie in zero-G without using wires; I think that deserved to win just for that: for the innovation.
3dt: Are there any other movies from the last 12 months you have been impressed with, VFX-wise?
BD: One of our artists here saw The Hobbit with their 48 frames-per-second.
3dt: Did he notice a difference?
BD: According to him, yes there was a difference. He couldn’t really pinpoint it apart from saying that everything was sharp and there was less motion blur, but how that affected the story, I’m not sure why they did that. Because they could.
3dt: Is there much difference between working on a feature film to working on an ongoing TV show?
BD: Well, it’s not too different. Boardwalk Empire was 12 episodes, so it was like working on 12 mini movies, but typically overall, we spent over 10 months on The Wolf of Wall Street, not including the shooting, and that was about the length of time that we put into Boardwalk Empire. TV shows have a quicker turnaround than features which is pretty much the only difference. The quality and level of the work is the same; we do the same quality on every show – which is the best.
3dt: What are you working on at the moment or what do you have in the pipeline that you are really excited about?
BD: We’re working on a remake of Annie starring Jamie Foxx. They finished filming in the summer and we’re working on that now. We’re bidding on some other things we can’t really talk about. We did some work on the Louis CK show called Louie.
We’ve also been working on The Drop, James Gandolfini’s last film. We also did a television promo for Da Vinci’s Demons second season – that was a full green screen shoot about Da Vinci falling from the sky and his flying device crumbling. It was all shot against green screen and we did 3D work on the wings and background.
3dt: Your website indicates you only have 8 employees, is this correct?
BD: No, it varies, we have a core team of people and we’re always fluctuating up and down depending on how many projects we have going concurrently.
We try and keep the team as small as possible, because if it gets too big things get out of control and too chaotic. We have a very tight-knit team that works very well together, quickly and efficiently. Many places just throw a lot of people at it when they have a large project or complicated shots and we find that’s not necessarily the best solution.
We’ve been able over the years to have a really efficient operation, and team, headed up by Eran Dinur as the supervisor.
3dt: Irrational Games are among many VFX companies that have gone out of business lately. Is it a tough business to stay alive in?
BD: There’s a lot of VFX companies that have gone out of business, especially here in New York – it is very competitive. We are constantly negotiating with studios, they get a lot of competitive bids that are forcing prices down!