On January 27, 1991, Houston took the stage in Tampa Stadium to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV. That performance is one of the film’s key moments, with director Kasi Lemmons aiming to not only capture Houston’s concert on the field but also the world-wide reaction as 79 million people watched her on their televisions at home. Accuracy was key; however, the venue was demolished in 1999.
“We did lots of research,” recalled production designer Gerald Sullivan. He and his team sifted through hours of footage and stills from various sources, including the NFL and personal photos from the Houston family. “We even got hold of the original architectural plans,” he added. The blueprints enabled the VFX team to rebuild the stadium virtually and even generated aerial shots. Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, stood in as a physical location, with the shoot taking place overnight in chilly November.
“It was like two in the morning,” said Naomi Ackie, who portrays Houston in the film, explaining what made the scene so challenging. “She sings so powerfully, and it was really hard to pretend to reach that — because, obviously, she’s singing — but, still, to make it convincing. It was a very cold, long night, but we got through it at the end.”
Lemmons praised Ackie’s re-enactment of Houston’s movements, saying the actor came to set “completely prepared,” as usual, mirroring the “meticulous” preparation of the crew. “It’s not easy to wrap your head around the amount of work and preparation that she had to do, and then to be able to come to set a kind of release your preparation and you’re just in the moment; you’re just living and breathing Whitney Houston. It’s kind of a phenomenal achievement, and I was completely blown away.”
But re-capturing Houston’s performance presents only half of the picture. What they needed next was an audience.
“When you’re wanting to capture that much excitement, during COVID — this epidemic where you can have 150, maybe 300 people — you’ve got to move them around and plan clever angles,” Lemmons said, noting another challenge.
The solution, Sullivan explained: “We’d fill parts of the stand, and the effects team would tile it around in the architecture.” The creative team knew the angles within both stadia were similar, the slope was a match, and the measurements of the football field had been the same “for decades.”
Academy Award-winning VFX supervisor Paul Norris and VFX producer Tim Field had worked together on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” another biopic featuring an iconic performance and crowds. They used that experience as a jumping-off point for a new approach to volumetric capture.
“We didn’t want to do the same again but expand on the visual effects we had done,” Field enthused, saying they started working on their plan from day one. “It led to nine months of development even before the film was greenlit.” The process began with capturing one extra in ten different costumes, giving ten different performances, multiplying them and developing a way to move the camera 360 degrees around them. “That allowed us to design really cool shots,” he explained. “It also meant we were free to be far more flexible in the edit to create shots where we could extend the plate photography.”
Recreating each performance involved capturing almost 200 extras. In post production, the Super Bowl and American Music Awards performances took the longest to complete, clocking in at around six months each.
While principal photography involved three cameras, there were still occasions where pick-up shots were required to enable editor Daysha Broadway to complete certain scenes. She also spent a lot of time on location, working closely with the second unit.
“It wasn’t a case of fixing problems,” she recalled. “We wanted to make it as big as possible and get that emotion. We also had to add to sequences not necessarily planned out two years earlier, but the cut had evolved.”
To get what they needed, Norris rewatched all of Houston’s performances featured in the script. He then spent two weeks in Boston capturing extras, filming three days of footage per concert, with each extra’s performance giving them two minutes of content.
“I used the archive footage to work out the ratios of actions we needed for each performance,” he said. “As Daysha went through the edit, she pointed out where we needed to have more or fewer clappers if it was too busy or not busy enough, and so on.”
The team also had to recreate the advertisements on the screens in the background of Houston’s performance. One was a campaign for local radio station Q105 that involved the slogan “Just Q It,” a play on Nike’s iconic “Just Do It.”
“I remember asking during one of the VFX reviews, ‘Shouldn’t that say, “Just Do It?”’ but it had to be exactly as it was,” Broadway explained. Norris added, “Even with the Malboro and Coca-Cola logos, it was based on what was seen during the performance that day. It had to be authentic as possible down to the very last detail.”