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'Shutter Island': VFX Method to the Madness

Rob Legato and CafeFX's Ben Grossman explain channeling Hitchcock for Martin Scorsese's gothic spellbinder.

Check out The Shutter Island trailer and clip at AWNtv!

Scorsese wanted to evoke Vertigo and Portrait of Jennie, and The Basement, CafeFX and New Deal provided the vfx. All images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

The multi-talented Rob Legato, who created what he calls "Jim Cameron Capture," the extraordinary virtual cinematography system that allowed the director to shoot Avatar as if it were real, reunited with Martin Scorsese to make Shutter Island.

Adapted from Dennis Lehane's page turner about a web of deceit inside a fortress-like hospital for the criminally insane off the coast of Massachusetts in 1954, the visual effects supervisor helped Scorsese conjure a B-movie feast -- and much more.

"It was so fascinating to work on the movie," Legato suggests. "My version of what Marty was doing is that this is his version of Vertigo: not doing Alfred Hitchcock, but it's a very mature work that delves into the psyche of someone above and beyond the plot. And that's Marty's favorite Hitchcock film as well."

Shutter Island contains nearly 650 artful vfx shots, which were divided between The Basement (run by Legato and partner Ron Ames), CafeFX and New Deal Studios. CafeFX added cliffs and water and did compositing work; New Deal Studios built the miniatures, including the lighthouse and the mysterious Ward C.

The most complicated and riskiest effect was the ash woman dream sequence.

The movie starts in the fog, and it conveys the notion that perhaps we're coming out of a dream. "I was the second unit director as well, and I had three boats with Navy jet foggers on them and blasted the crap out of the water and made sure I was driving in the direction of the wind so that the wind would let the thing emerge from this cloud of smoke," Legato explains. And when it didn't cover all the way, I had a Flame artist come in and patch a few areas so that it was a complete fog bank. And it has an appropriate artificial quality to the way the CG was done. There's a fine line between making it mostly look correct but not all correct, so it has a Hitchcock quality to it, though it was never stated directly.

"As far as the island itself, it was very difficult to make a matte painting that didn't look like a matte painting. We shot a real island in Maine and then added our version and Marty kept saying, 'Don't make it look like Skull Island.' And where we shot a lot of the cliffs in Maine for the second unit and visual effects work we used to populate the island. It's really more the art of it than the technique and that goes for the whole movie.

"We shot at [the defunct] Medfield State Hospital and 'islandized' it to make it look like the same property and made the cliffs show up there and the lighthouse. And we had rocks that were built in Canada to shoot these various pieces. Again, Marty didn't want to do anything outrageous with helicopter camera moves. He'd rather do almost locked off pieces for an effect, not for anything else.

"The hard stuff for us was trying to integrate the miniature lighthouse that we did into real water. And anytime you work with Marty, you look at all the references in his visual canon and then, when you think of things, you tend to fall into these visual compositions and these ideas. That's his subtle direction. You subconsciously do what he does, which is to come up with this stuff but not as homage to Hitchcock like the commercial we did (The Key to Reserva)."

The fire was an afterthought and an update of Legato's work on Interview with a Vampire, with assistance from the same Stan Winston crew.

According to Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Grossman, CafeFX got most of the heavy CG and the all-digital work. "Marty and Rob embraced the old-school mentality, which I still think is the good school, which is get as much practical as you can and only go digital when you have to," Grossman suggests.

"Even all-CG shots contained lots of photography to texture the environments. All of our matte paintings were photographically based; even some of the CG models that we built were based on a miniature first. And a lot of the environments were based on collages from different locations that were either shot as digital stills or motion picture footage. A lot of it was pretty challenging even from a design standpoint. I think what kept it all going was there was no production or post-production delineation."

The dream and flashback sequences, not surprisingly, involved the greatest amount of work. "There's only one real visual effect in the whole movie and that's the ash woman, where you show what's going on in [Leonardo DiCaprio's] head than in real life."

In this dream sequence, DiCaprio has a bizarre encounter with his wife (Michelle Williams) in their apartment, in which the room bursts out in flames and she turns to ash.

"The fire gag was an afterthought," Legato continues. "All of a sudden, it was like: 'Why don't we set the room on fire?' We were always going to have the ash. I've certainly done this gag before where you build a black room and then set rubber cement fires everywhere and you just keep on building it until you get a stylized fire. The big trick that you're seeing, which is a further update of what I did on Interview with a Vampire, with the same guys -- Stan Winston's crew, which is now at Legacy Effects -- is build an ash dummy in various pieces and assemble them and literally set it on fire and had it smolder and then added a bunch of CG intermediary stuff, filling in the cracks and adding more dust and debris. And both Marty and I were nervous about this effect because it was the only one that was blatant. This isn't pretending to be real. So that was the only risky visual effect."

Grossman says that when her back is on fire, there's an intricate background shot that's intended to evoke Maxfield Parrish, which only lasts two seconds.

New Deal helped with this Vertigo moment that also evokes the memorable staircase in The Red Shoes.

"But it took 18 different exposures of motion picture footage stitched together from three different camera perspectives," Grossman explains. "For the foreground, we took some pretty complicated digital ash systems in Houdini that married together the whole sequence so we could control the whole shot. When she turns around, Legacy Effects built a prosthetic art piece so it could be physically art directed. We set that on a motion control turntable, shot eight passes of that with different incarnations of red light and different lighting for the environment, little pieces of practical ash and clean plates. Then we projected every single piece of that footage onto a more precise body matchmove that has every twist and turn of her waist and shoulders. And we added digital smoke and cinders and we did a digital cloth version of her dress and then seamed that all on to her digitally, and once you've got all these elements comp'd together, you've got 50 footage elements for this very brief shot."

For a Dachau flashback, they built a set in a furniture plant in Boston. But they had a tough time dealing with the frozen bodies and not making it look too real. "Marty had this image in his head," Legato recalls, "maybe he saw it in a photograph -- of the bodies being frozen and caught in mid freeze."

Meanwhile, CafeFX did a lot of work on the authenticity of the Dachau environment: controlling snow and making those piles of bodies look just right for Scorsese. "It was a very important thing," Grossman adds. "He really took that set very seriously: it had a heavy weight that he carried just because the subject matter was so heavy. It was a delicate balance with Dante Ferretti designing and redesigning those bodies, and Marty wanting us to change them quite a bit and augment them. He didn't want them to be grotesque or to cheapen the experience of a concentration camp with in your face gore and guts. He wanted to convey the minimal amount to convey the horror of the experience.

"It's always danger when you get into visual effects and you're exploring a look and that's what we had to do here, but it was more fun than usual. It's a great experience to see a filmmaker so concerned about every individual frame and there was never any shortcutting that you sometimes get in a commercial movie."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.