‘Empire’ backbone built with boards, bluescreen

F/x help creators balance cost and creative scope

“Boardwalk Empire” is set in Atlantic City, but no one wanted to shoot it there.

The prohibition-era playground has since become a modern gambling mecca and “there’s nothing usable left,” says Richard Friedlander, prexy of Brainstorm Digital, the lead vfx shop on the HBO series. So it fell to a combination of construction and f/x to re-create the setting authentically but with an eye toward practical shooting needs.

Even before it gave the final go-ahead to “Boardwalk,” the cabler approached suppliers to discuss the show’s look and the challenges of its physical production.

“(Co-exec producer) Gene Kelly sent us a script, and we talked about how we could do this period film with the expanse and scope” that HBO wanted, says Friedlander. Production designer Bob Shaw soon joined the discussion.

The team made one key major decision early on: The main boardwalk set would be built outdoors.

“You can control things better indoors, and you don’t have to worry about the weather,” says Friedlander, “But the consensus was that the lighting would never feel real. HBO didn’t want this to seem stagey and contrived.”

The pay network leased a sizable plot of land in Brooklyn, where it built one of the biggest outdoors sets ever erected on the East Coast. The lot is large enough to contain a 300-foot reconstructed boardwalk and all the necessary support infrastructure, such as trucks, props, shops and catering.

But even 300 feet of rebuilt boardwalk couldn’t do justice to the hundreds of storefronts, amusements and hubs of activity that existed in Atlantic City in the 1920s — not to mention the long piers jutting out over the water and the ever-present blue ocean in the background.

That’s where technology came in.

“We showed them that, if they constructed a certain section of the boardwalk, we could extend it in all directions, as far as they eye could see,” says Friedlander.

To that end, HBO built a 40-foot-high bluescreen wall around the set by stacking together cargo containers like giant Lego blocks, covering them with stainless steel and painting everything blue. This allowed the producers to add CG elements and matte paintings, producing the illusion of a complete Atlantic City environment.

Rob Stromberg of Digital Symphony created about 30 such mattes, which were composited by Brainstorm and another vfx house, Crazy Horse Digital, which had previously worked on HBO’s “John Adams.”

For “Boardwalk,” Stromberg sourced pictures of Atlantic City from the 1920s through the 1970s.

“We worked closely with him to maintain consistency across all the episodes,” says David Taritero, the show’s vfx supervisor, who jumped into “Boardwalk” just as he came off HBO’s “The Pacific.”

The cabler must be confident of “Boardwalk Empire’s” prospects: It opted to build a steel bluescreen wall instead of the fabric bluescreens it used on “The Pacific.”

“Our thinking was that if ‘Boardwalk’ goes into several years, the fabric won’t last,” Friedlander says.

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