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'Ask the Dust': Depression-Era L.A. in CG

Leslie Iwerks looks into how visual effects masters bring 1930s Los Angeles back to life in Cape Town in Robert Townes Ask the Dust. Includes QuickTime clips!

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The Ask the Dust crew recreated 1930s L.A. in South Africa. Downtown Los Angeles was shot on a plate and incorporated into the final composite. All images © Paramount Pictures. Courtesy of Double Edge Digital.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip by simply clicking the image.

In todays congested, horn honking megopolis known as Los Angeles, with its parking lot freeways and smoggy skies above, it is hard to imagine a much simpler time and place, when orange and eucalyptus groves stretched from the heart of the city to the Pacific blue ocean, where the red cars were the primary mode of transportation, and Hollywood had hit its prime as the lure for thousands of people longing for health and wealth, fame and fortune.

Academy Award winner Robert Towne (Chinatown, Tequila Sunrise) has brought this bygone era to life once again as writer/director of the period love story Ask the Dust (opening March 10 in L.A. and NY and wider March 17 through Paramount Classics). Set under the brutally sunny skies of Depression-era Los Angeles, Townes interpretation of novelist John Fantes masterpiece focuses on a city exotic and vulgar, glamorous and raunchy a place of heat and dust. Ask the Dust stars Colin Farrell as Arturo Bandini, a son of Italian immigrants who dreams of becoming a famous novelist and marrying a beautiful blond, and Salma Hayek as Camilla Lopez, a Mexican waitress who longs to marry a white man and shed her last name. In a time when Anglo-Chicano relations hang by tattered threads, Bandini and Camilla collide with one another, fighting the city and themselves to make their dreams come true.

With all the real-life L.A. locations long gone, the crew recreated Depression-era Los Angeles under the sunny skies of South Africa. All of the key sets were constructed in Cape Town, where production designer Dennis Gassner and a host of visual effects maestros turned a South African high school soccer field into 1930s Los Angeles, replete with cable cars and period architecture. A back lot set comprised two city blocks with a cross street, ending with a faux Bunker Hill and tunnel. The back lot set reached as high as 40, with the wide establishing shots becoming a combination of 2D and 3D matte paintings composited together. The production shoot lasted 58 days with an enormous amount of planning and research detailed ahead of time. According to visual effects producer, Andrew Midgley, the number of shots initially ranged between 30 and 33, and ended up with 48 in all, including about 10 lens-flare and wire-removal fix-it shots.

Visual effects supervisor David Drzewiecki oversaw the project in conjunction with Glendale-based 2D/3D effects house Double Edge Digital taking on the majority of the key scenes. With a modest budget of $400,000 allocated for all of the visual effects, the team had to be choosy about how to best put the money on the screen. Drzewiecki quickly became the man searching for archival footage of Depression-era Los Angeles to use as reference material. What Drzewiecki discovered from the Producers Library Service collection were amazing black-and-white process plates shot by the Hal Roach company circa 1936, which became the inspiration for many scenes in the movie.

High resolution scans of large format photos also provided the foundation for the matte paintings. The main objective for the entire visual effects team was to be as historically accurate as possible, recalls computer graphics supervisor Neil Atkins. Enormous attention to detail was paid by the 2D and 3D artists, as well as the matte painters, including the ornate detail on the exterior of buildings, red car cable wires and the view of downtown Los Angeles in the background. City Hall was the tallest building in L.A. at the time, and was featured in various scenes throughout the film. There were a lot of little details we had to overcome, such as how high the telephone poles were in actuality vs. how high they visually had to be for the screen, notes Atkins. We had to achieve a technical compromise while still adhering to as much as possible to old Los Angeles. If, for some reason, we were unable to make it historically accurate, we tried to make it technically and visually appealing.

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Bunker Hill and everything on top of it, was digitally created in 2.5D with matte paintings. The Angels Flight track is comprised of a completely CG track and CG cars.

Many of the Third Street scenes looked one way toward Bunker Hill, which featured the Angels Flightfunicular railway, one of the oldest landmarks in Los Angeles. In the late 19th century, Bunker Hill was an upper-class neighborhood with elegant mansions, hotels and residences. The surrounding hillside, street and Angels Flight arch were shot on the set in Cape Town, while Bunker Hill and everything on top of it was digitally created in 2.5D with matte paintings by Bob Scifo. The 30 tunnel was built with no outlet on the other side, and any light at the end of the tunnel shots were created by matte paintings.

The Angels Flight track was originally built practical with 15' of track, but ultimately had to be completely rotoscoped out and replaced with a completely CG track and CG cars. People walking around the stairs and tunnel were composited from greenscreen. The Red Car, or ground level trolley, was a practical car that was cheated once with a digital element placed deep in the tunnel to match continuity. We added cables for the red car and spent a fair amount of time looking at details on how the cables were connected to buildings, how they were connected to each other and how the car was connected to the cables, says Midgley.

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Great attention to detail was paid by the 2D and 3D artists, and matte painters. They included the ornate detail on the exterior of buildings, red car cable wires and the view of downtown Los Angeles in the background.

Instead of using boujous tracking software package, the team used SynthEyes, the automatic camera tracking system provided by Andersson Technologies. Several shots had the camera mounted on dollies, cranes and a Steadicam tracking Bandini with the Angels Flight in the background. According to Atkins, it was a 2D/3D shot that was a particularly difficult one to track. We tracked the shot in SynthEyes, exported that camera into Cinema 4D over to the matte painter. The matte painter did his work and applied the projections to the geometry. He exported that back with all the geometry using the FBX format back into Maya. We rendered with Maya, and then composited renders of the cables and details. Of course, the cables had to land at certain spots and meet up with certain points in the camera, which ended up being a lot of registration.

The opening shot in the film is particularly noteworthy with credit belonging to several key players. Yu & Co. created the main title sequence, including the close up shots of the book on Bandinis desk up through the aerial move through the city. Double Edge created initial concepts of the Los Angeles fly-over using stock footage and photography from the period. The camera tracks forward revealing a glittery Los Angeles and City Hall in the distance, with a move that ends in a pan down to Bandinis Alta Loma apartment building, where a computer-generated and texture mapped palm tree provides the seam between the CG and live-action elements. South African company, Condor Cape Town, constructed the 3D model of the apartment building through photogrammetry, a technique of projection mapping real photographs (in this case, colorized from black-and-white to color) onto the computerized geometry of the house. According to Drzewiecki, This is the epitome of a digital artist. This one shot took Condor months to create and it became a very complex shot. There was a handful of people who did a really great job not because they were getting paid, but because of their love for the art. They are real artists and artisans.

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See the original plate, matte paintings spotlight and final composite of a home devastated in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. Light and smoke and other fire effects were added in the 2D environment using Shake and After Effects.

Another set of challenging shots took place in Long Beach at the colorful Pike Amusement Park and Rainbow Pier. We initially thought about doing it all just as a matte painting, but we ended up building a 3D roller coaster, recalls Atkins. We built the basic structure and shape of the coaster and then used texture maps to do the lattice work. It allowed us to light it, turn it, scale it and manipulate it. The matte paintings were made of the beach, and foreground people and most umbrellas were shot on set as part of principal photography to hide the join between live action and CGI. The background crowds were shot as separate elements on a greenscreen stage. A different view of the same rollercoaster model from a closer angle was seen from the living room window of Bandinis friend, Vera Rifkin, played by Broadways Idina Menzel. The shot was created from a combination of effects, including 2D and bluescreen elements, rotoscoping and 3D tracking.

As for the scene in which Bandini gets caught in the devastating 1933 Long Beach earthquake, much detail was done to replicate the demolished home of his friend, Rifkin. Midgley recalls they took a static shot of the lower level of her apartment building, including the debris on the ground, and matte painter, Dark Hoffman, took the static element and created a matte painting where they then tracked the whole second floor and above to reveal the interior of the building from the outside. Light and smoke, arching sparks on wires ripped apart, debris falling and a sheet blowing in the wind were all added in the 2D environment using Shake and After Effects.

The many years of development, the nefarious budgets and the painstaking realities of making these films can often be as shifty and difficult to live through as the Long Beach earthquake itself. But for Towne, Ask the Dust represents the culmination of a 30-year labor of love. Without any exaggeration, Ive been blessed with the best crew and the best cast on any movie Ive ever worked on in any capacity, he boasts in the production notes. They all read the script and liked it; they knew how I felt and came aboard. They all did it for the same reason I did it: for the love of doing it. And when it comes to the visual effects, it shows.

Leslie Iwerks is an award winning director, producer and author who has produced projects for Disney, Pixar, National Geographic, Bravo and IFC. She is currently in post-production on a feature documentary about Pixar Animation Studios, and her short documentary entitled Recycled Life about the thousands of people living in the Guatemala City garbage dump, is now being screened in numerous film festivals around the world.

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