Led by VFX supervisor Sven Martin, the studio handled all visual effects production on Philipp Stölzl’s colorful feature film adaptation of the stage musical of the same name.
Leading design company Pixomondo has shared with AWN another revealing VFX breakdown reel; this time, they’re showcasing their work on I’ve Never Been to New York, Philipp Stölzl’s colorful feature film adaptation of the stage musical of the same name. Their work earned a Deutscher Filmpreis Best VFX nomination, Germany’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. The musical comedy, about a woman suffering amnesia who smuggles herself onto a cruise ship because she remembers she’s never been to New York, is filled with songs from Austrian pop artist Udo Jürgens.
Led by production VFX supervisor Sven Martin, Pixomondo’s VFX supervisor on Game of Thrones, the studio was the film’s sole visual effects vendor, handling numerous greenscreen and bluescreen setups, a fully CG ocean liner, digital matte paintings and various set extensions. They also made use of innovative onset virtual production technology to help the director and DP visualize how VFX would integrate with the live-action on several key sequences.
“Right from the beginning, director Philipp Stölzl was very clear that he was looking for a non-realistic, stylized world,” Martin explains. “Philipp has directed numerous operas as well as music videos for artists like Madonna and Mick Jagger, and his stylized stage designs would influence the imagery of this movie.”
As an overall reference for acting, humor, and sets, Stölzl turned to screwball comedies of the 1940’s, which were filmed completely on a soundstage, using long takes, slow moving cameras (due to their heavy weight) and a colorful and positive appearance. In close connection with the art department, Pixomondo pre-planned bluescreen and greenscreen setups for the various sets used.
The opening sequence of the movie throws the audience right into this artificial and colorful world, with lead actress Heike Makatsch driving in a rear projection look through so-called ‘boring postcards’ - simplified and constructed matte paintings, executed as mixture of 3D models and classical 2D renderings.
While most of the movie was shot on sound stages, some key scenes were shot outside. The backlot at Studio Babelsberg, near Berlin, was used for both German and New York City harbors. The New York street backlot in Sofia, Bulgaria was used for most street scenes. Once principal photography wrapped, a small unit flew to Manhattan for a one-week shoot, to acquire reference photos, textures and background plates. Digital environments were used to present wide views of both harbors in Germany and New York City, involving full 3D builds based on concepts done by Pixomondo’s visual effects art director/visual effects supervisor Max Riess. Further digital sceneries include a virtual Brooklyn Bridge, rolling airplane on the runway of J.F.K. and digital extension of Manhattan.
Some of the film’s most complex VFX sequences involved a digital ocean liner. “Because the director actually wanted to make the audience see the artificial extensions or additions, not hiding the studio look at any point, we decided early on not to shoot on a real ocean liner but to build a massive set piece on a sound stage.”
To help the director and DP visualize how the ship’s extensions would look set against the massive bluescreens, Martin’s team used on-set live compositing, merging a full 3D ship with the monitor output from the Alexa camera. For harbor shots on the backlot, Pixomondo used its iPad Augmented Reality app for the first time, placing the ocean liner right into the frame and enabling the director to find framings interactively.
After extensive research, artists began asset creation under the guidance of Pixomondo CG supervisor Piet Hohl. The hero ship model started as digital re-creation of the SS United States but got reduced and simplified to match the sun deck set created on a sound stage. Only minor weathering textures were used to help sell the scale.
Pixomondo compositing supervisor Mark Spindler took care of full CG shots showing the SS Maximiliane on her way to New York. While the setup was very clean and saturated already, the director and DP asked Pixomondo to remove any digital grain and lens degradation on these full CG shots to heighten their nature.
Since a huge portion of the film occurs on the ship’s open sun deck around the pool, Pixomondo came up with pre-rendered sky-and-ocean domes and textured geometry to execute shots completely in compositing. Each scene had its own distinctive sky look, from kitsch sunsets to starry night skies.
The arrival in New York at night is based on plates captured by a drone and augmented to be shinier and with more glitter than reality gives you. Fake reflections of the skyline in the water and sky replacements lifted the shots to a hyper-reality to present the ideal image the passengers on board were dreaming of.
Commented on the project’s main challenges, Martin concedes, “The director’s vision - merging modern and classical styles - was actually the toughest challenge. How do we make digital extensions or shots connect with the real footage, but not making them look badly executed? It’s a fine line. A glass painting looks amazing and appealing in the context of an old movie but might fall off against a high-resolution image of a modern camera.”
“‘Go less realistic,’ ‘reduce the detail,’ ‘add more color,’ ‘make it much more over the top’, and ‘it can be kitsch’ might have been the most-used director comments given on our first versions,” Martin concludes.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.