Boardwalk Empire Taps Brainstorm to Bring 1920s Atlantic City to Life

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 it deserved.

Press Release from Brainstorm Digital

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 it deserved. But with today’s Atlantic City bearing almost no trace of its storied past, the challenge was to recreate 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, the New York-based VFX studio that specializes in photo-realistic backgrounds and digital effects, for their 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 one hundred 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 their approach: computer generated 3D imagery in conjunction with 2D matte paintings, an extensive pre-visualization effort got underway. Using computer modeling, Brainstorm began problem solving the many practical, technical and artistic issues they knew filming would pose.  Brainstorm proposed that if a section of boardwalk was built, CGI and set extensions would enable their 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,” explained 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 the boardwalk vistas would require some augmentation to Brainstorm’s highly regarded creative team.  Additional matte painters contributed their talents, including one 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 recreated 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 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 tells Wired magazine, "We wouldn't have had a boardwalk or an empire."

About Brainstorm Digital VFXNew York-based Brainstorm Digital has created visual effects and title sequences for award-winning films by the most accomplished directors in the industry.  Founded in 2005 by artists Richard Friedlander and Glenn Allen, Brainstorm's current and completed projects include HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," “Going the Distance,” "Julie and Julia," "Angels and Demons," "Frost/Nixon," and "Synecdoche, New York." For more information visit www.brainstorm-digital.com or call 646-330-5245.

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