Shutter Island

Practical, miniature, digital and often surreal effects helped tell the story of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, in which U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) investigates the disappearance of a criminally insane hospital patient. Overseen by vfx supervisor Rob Legato, New Deal Studios & CafeFX completed the lion’s share of work for the film. We talk to New Deal’s Matthew Gratzner & Ben Grossmann from CafeFX.

New Deal Studios

Matthew Gratzner, visual effects supervisor, New Deal Studios

fxg: New Deal completed both miniature and digital effects for the film. How did you decide which was the best approach for each effect?

Gratzner: I think the film exploited what we do best which was to make photographic images look real. We used every tool we could as long as it worked. Part of that is to keep the audience guessing about how something was done. It wasn’t just miniatures – we did matte paintings, compositing, some animation, as well some first unit, second unit and visual effects photography.

Blue screen model shot

fxg: One of your signature shots is the establishing helicopter view of Ward C. Can you take us through that shot?

Gratzner: On the island, there are a number of buildings within the Ashecliffe Hospital on Shutter Island. There’s a Ward A, B, C and D. Most of the buildings are mid-19th century brick buildings, but the one building that houses the most dangerous patients is Ward C. Rather than it being on the main hospital grounds, it’s actually a separate building built as a Civil War fort. It’s been converted into a prison for the criminally insane. So it was actually a little disturbing to be shooting there at three in the morning, especially when the electricity wasn’t working really well!

Dante Ferretti, the production designer, constructed a section of the perimeter wall of the fort and a section of the facade wall, which went up about 18 feet and was probably 60 or 70 feet long. The idea was to shoot all the close-ups and interior shots within this partial set piece. What we were going to end up doing was build a portion of the miniature and do an extension. I looked at the design of it and realised they really needed to get the illusion that it was built on the side of a cliff. I proposed doing an aerial shot that was more dynamic where you would see the fort, the cliff and the water. So I pitched doing some previs and we designed the shot to make it feel like more of a helicopter move. Our digital supervisor Bob Chapin did the previs and essentially took our digital models of Ward C which were done in Rhino and brought them into Maya as Object files for the previs. Once we got that approved we took the previs and could export all the camera data into our motion control rig and photograph the model. The tricky part was that the scene takes place the morning after a hurricane. So there’s all this unbelievable foliage and debris. The roof is torn up and you have about 80 inmates and orderlies cleaning the debris.

The final shot

The miniature was built in 1/35th scale, which essentially made a person about two and 1/16th inches tall. The model itself of the compound was about eight feet across and the entire tabletop was 16 feet across. Everything you see in the shot that’s foliage or vehicles is actually a miniature. The water was a photographic lock-off that was tracked in for the camera move. All the people were photographed as separate elements. Obviously we couldn’t shoot the people from 300 feet away with motion control, but we pulled it back as far as possible and shot about 65 to 70 takes of live action people walking around with branches and climbing ladders and what not. We had a full scale Jeep that was driving a little bit. Then they had to be photographed on cards and scaled down. We ended up shooting with quite a bit of a longer lens so when we scaled it down the perspective worked. Each one of those people had to be hand tracked in and the camera was high enough for the parallax to work when we re-scaled them. The other trick we did to add some more life to the shot was to put in a construction crane scooping up some tree branches and logs. That was a miniature but the giant claw and foliage was CG, animated by Tony Chen.

The model

fxg: There are some other shots featuring exteriors of Ward C. How were these accomplished?

Gratzner: The same model is featured in three other shots. The director wanted to reveal more of Ward C but the challenge was that the model was built in 35th scale, which is really quite tiny and was only constructed for the aerial reveal. For a shot of Teddy and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) walking up to the Ward, we ended up using doubles and going out to a field and using full-scale Jeeps and tonnes of foliage and dressing and 30 extras doing all the clean-up work with bluescreens in the background. Then we comped the model and miniature wall behind them.

The model makers

Then there’s the shot of Teddy and Chuck driving past the Ward in a military truck. We photographed doubles in a truck driving past and composited the Ward on a hilltop. For one last shot that was made up on the day, you’re inside the vehicle looking past them. It was literally actors sitting inside the truck not moving in front of a bluescreen with fans on them and grips shaking the truck. The shot was created in previs to get the timings right, after which we photographed the model and comped it into the background. Normally I would have built the walls much larger to an 1/8th scale, maybe, but it still held up really well. Everything in the film happens in overcast daylight and in Los Angeles you get overcast daylight about three times a year. So we had to shoot in this location with the sun behind a hill with just enough light to make it feel overcast and not enough light to see any hard sun. We shot it as a moving shot. We didn’t have enough time to do a thorough dust down of the road and the dust from the car was a lot worse than we thought it would be. So we had to isolate the background, take the plates, project it onto a cyclorama – so the pan is a post-pan. The truck in the lower part of the plate is correctly panning and the background is tracked and then the dust is all digital. There was also a sign in the original photography but Marty felt like we didn’t need it in the end, so we had to paint that out.

On Set

fxg: Can you talk about the stairway extension shots inside of Ward C?

Gratzner: The central part of Ward C had this steel stairway, nicknamed the M.C. Escher stairway because it was supposed to be this endless steel construction and from certain angles you couldn’t tell which way was up or down. For that we built a quarter scale model that was about eight feet tall and about 8×8 wide that matched the first unit set down to the door knobs. We went through all the first unit shots, tracked them, took our digital model, put it in the background to line up the tracking and exported all of that data to our motion control rig. Then we could take our photographed elements and composite them into the background. In some cases, Marty wanted it to be much much deeper than it really was. We built two sections; one was the basement that was very terrifying because it had stone stairway with no hand railing. We did multiple passes on the stairway by continually moving the camera back and then linking them together to make it much longer.

They had done huge wet downs because it had just rained in the movie, so throughout all the scenes we see drips coming down. To tie the first unit and miniature shots together and to really heighten the reality and scale and perspective, we added a lot of CG drips that would go from the first unit photography and travel all the way down to the bottom where our miniatures featured. So we were trying to give the illusion that there was a four or five or six storey depth to this set. Bob Chapin did an amazing job of adding in those drips where they would go through things like shadows.

On Set With Motion Control

One shot where Leo gets into a fight with an inmate inside that stairway was really tricky. There’s a camera on a high crane tracking past the grating and you’re watching the action through the grating as Leo is getting slammed against the wall. That shot was a real challenge because it had to be hand-tracked. There’s grating and meshing rocketing past the lens and seeing greenscreen. Not only did we have to pull those, we also had to track it with amazingly complicated geometry, mesh upon mesh overlapping in different perspectives. But what was fantastic was that we had the computer model so we were able to throw that into the plate, track it and comp it right and export that data into the motion control photography – and it worked!

fxg: How did you achieve the lighthouse shots?

Gratzner: For the lighthouse exteriors they just had a 16 foot tall skirting area with the door and a perimeter fence. That section was filmed in camera in Massachusetts with the ocean and the skies and Leo right there for close shots. Any time it was wider, you needed to see the full lighthouse. We built a 1/12th scale model of the exterior lighthouse. The original design had a dome faceted rooftop and was done in a very copper finish, but it didn’t feel threatening enough. So we ended up designing something with a more faceted flat roof that was all rusty and dripping with stains and looked like the black oxide paint had been like that for 100 years. It was very scary and derelict-looking. The model was about 10 and a half feet tall and sat on a rock that was three foot tall and 25 feet wide. That model was used for shots of Leo swimming up to it.

All the models are built first in Rhinoceros, a 3D CAD based software. The crew chief Scott Schneider designed all the models based on concept art and blueprints. Then the computer models go to the digital department to use for tracking and line ups. Then we would use the digital models for the blueprints of our miniatures and also use them to grow with rapid prototyping machines certain components like window frames and very large lens – the Fresnel lens – inside the lighthouse. Those are all grown with a wax prototyper and molded and cast out of various materials.

Greenscreen plate

fxg: Was some work also done for the interior lighthouse shots?

Gratzner: Yes, for the most part the first unit sets only went up to about 18 to 20 feet tall. Well, the interior of the lighthouse had to be at least 100 feet. We ended up building a quarter scale model that was about 35 feet tall. It had an exact match to first unit’s spiral staircase. The real staircase was manufactured with this elaborate metalwork. It had to be a seamless match and then for a couple of shots we replaced the entire full-scale staircase, only because they couldn’t get high enough for the correct perspective. We ended up using a small portion of the set, basically a door and Leonardo and then comping that into our physical miniature.

We also had to augment the top section of the lighthouse interior – the lamp room, the giant lens and the interior of the roof. For the first unit shoot, they had Ben Kingsley’s office which is essentially below this giant top portion of this lighthouse. They built this set with some steel I-beams and grill work but above that was nothing. They didn’t have the time or money to complete that top section. So that was all bluescreen and then we ended up taking our quarter scale model of the interior, tracking it in and compositing it. There was a giant steel framework and in some of the shots, because of the focal length of the lenses, the mesh was soft and the bluescreen was hard to pull, so we ended up painting out all the mesh and going with digital mesh and putting our model above that.

Final Shot

There’s also a sequence of Leo running up the stairs of the lighthouse. It’s supposed to be almost a Vertigo Hitchcock moment where he’s running and running and not really getting anywhere. The stairs are spinning and the background’s spinning at a different rate. To achieve this, they photographed Leo running on a full scale stairway and the grips spinning it as he’s running in place. The background was all greenscreen. We would then photograph our interior miniature as a series of texture maps, and Bob Chapin built a digital version and re-projected all of the textures onto the digital model of the interior, digitally lit that and tracked it back in. That was spinning at a different rate than Leo was spinning. The whole background, then, was a digital model with miniature projections. The shot is very surreal.

fxg: That seems to sum up the nice mix between practical and digital in your work.

Gratzner: Definitely. And then for the last shot in the film we decided to do something completely practical. There’s a shot panning off a series of rocks to the lighthouse. The choice was to shoot this like an old school in-camera shot. So we packed up our twelfth scale lighthouse and all the rocks. ‘Packed up’ meant crating them up, getting a 40 foot flatbed for the rocks and driving it all up the coast to an area north of Malibu where we found a cliff-side beach. We took an 80 tonne construction crane and got all the parts down onto the beach and the grip department built an aluminum truss staging area. We had to fight the tide as it would come in and we’d have to move the model back. It took 30 people to do it. In the end we basically did a classic in-camera hanging miniature. There were no splits or composites. Even for the seagulls flying around, I had a PA 100 yards away throwing a handful of bread to get the seagulls at the right scale and perspective. We lined up the shot so that the miniature lighthouse and rocks blended into the real ocean and rocks. Rob Legato shot it on a D-21 ARRIFLEX digital HD camera. It’s one of my all-time favourite shots I’ve ever worked on. It was really the most raw form of a visual effect – it’s basically a big trick.


Ben Grossmann, visual effects supervisor, CafeFX

fxg: What kind of approach did you take the effects work in Shutter?

Grossmann: Well, most of the work we did was in the area of environment creation, set extensions and ‘special effects’ – almost magic effects where Marty was creating a visual re-direct or doing some kind of gag that disconcerts the viewer that has some sort of unrealistic property to it. So it looks like it should be a real shot but something’s not quite right about it.


fxg: Can you talk about the disintegration shot of Michelle Williams’ character in the apartment?

Grossmann: In that sequence, the ‘Apartment Dream’, Teddy is having a flashback in the context of an apartment he used to live in with his wife Dolores, played by Michelle Williams. She died in an apartment fire, so he is grasping onto these fleeting moments with her in this flashback. In the course of his exchange with her you start to see a lot of ash float down in a very strange way – you don’t really know what it is but it starts to build the context for her starting to disintegrate and finally her ending in a pile of ash, and the apartment being consumed by fire. Then Teddy wakes up in the middle of a storm.

So in that particular shot where he is embracing her and she collapses, we didn’t really know at the time we were shooting it exactly what that should look like. We had a general direction and we knew what the idea was. We shot the entire apartment totally clean for most of the shots and occasionally we’d use a special effects gag to blow some crumbling cinders and ash around the room, especially in close shots but rarely in wides. One of the reasons we did it digitally, too, was that you never really know how it would be edited. You never really know when you’re going to go back and forth in time and when large segments might be cut out. So trying to maintain the consistency of ash across the edit just wouldn’t have been possible practically.

They’re in an embrace with Teddy behind her. Dolores starts to freeze a little bit and settle into a limited range of motion. For the purposes of temping, we just dissolved her off – you can see that in some of the early trailers – just to get the timing right. When we shot it on the day, we had Leo stand there with her in an embrace, and then at a point we would call out, Michelle would drop down, slip through his arms and exit frame right. Then we’d call another action and then Leo would react as though she had just fallen through his arms. That gave us enough of a combination of a performance and clean-plate that we could retarget all of the actor’s performances to whatever disintegration animation we would do later. Eventually we painted out Michelle Williams and morphed Leo’s performances with various pieces of the footage and eventually created new performances that represented them in the same time and space.

We thought about doing the shot all digitally at first, and then decided that for the purposes of creative flexibility we’d try and use some practical elements. So we went to Legacy Effects and got a model of Michelle made and created a lot of practical gags to build her up as solid material. Then using control wires and blow torches we’d set the model on fire and then we’d just pull out the wires and watch this thing crumble to ash. It was a very difficult thing to do practically and we shot it twice over two separate shoot days. Each gag required a lot of prep time. It would take days to build one of the maquettes and then hours to prep it and then ten seconds to shoot it! We shot these and then had a library of elements we could use. We took them all back into the computer and made a digital representative of them, augmented that with rigid body and other simulations and dynamics that would spawn little dust and debris. So we essentially built a digital copy of what we had shot practically and mixed and matched the two. We designed the smoldering, searing effect that goes across her body and matched that in her geometry of her. We spent a lot of time on the nuances of every little crack that crawls along her face or her neck and across her dress. There’s some practical smoke, digital smoke, all-digital falling ash and a fair dose of colour correction.


fxg: Later on, Teddy is seen in the apartment as it’s consumed by fire. How did you do that?

Grossmann: That was a fairly heavy combination of miniatures, pyro and compositing. He’s standing there looking at his hands and he’s in an apartment completely on fire, which of course was shot not on fire. We built about a three-quarter scale matte-black portion of the set in different pieces and took them out at night at New Deal Studios and set them on fire and matched the camera and shot individual elements. In the end we had over 40 different elements of fire that were all specifically matched to an individual piece of furniture or set decoration. Then in compositing we’d key out the flames and comp them back in. So you’d have a shot that might have 40 plates, plus a bunch of performance enhancements and clean plate composites just to create a burning room for a two second shot.


fxg: What kind of visual effects were involved in the cliff sequence?

Grossmann: As they’re searching for more clues, Teddy and Chuck run up to the promontory of a sea cliff overlooking the ocean and we shot that in a field in Massachusetts. Dante Ferretti built a small little rock outcropping about four or five feet high. We shot a lot of coverage in that area and put in some bluescreens. So they could stand on the rocks and then all the environment around them was going to be finished digitally. When they walk out onto this promontory and the camera cranes out it reveals the lighthouse. When they walk out, the camera starts on them close to the woods, then cranes back out and the entire right two-thirds of the frame is a combination of CG models, CG textures, re-projected matte painted elements and re-projected elements onto CG geometry. We shot elements for that in Maine and in California and took some things out our own library.

After they see the lighthouse there’s a whole lot of back and forth between Teddy and Chuck which was shot all just on bluescreen. We photographed some practical trees, but decided they didn’t have the movement we wanted them to have. So we took them as reference and created digital trees to blow wind through the leaves. In order to create the continuity of the scene, the trees are mostly digital, with the second row just photographs brought to life in compositing.

Then Teddy leaves Chuck and runs out to the lighthouse. Once he gets there, the lighthouse was a miniature by New Deal. It was sitting on top of plates that we had photographed of specific formations of rocks that had waves crashing on them in California. That was composited on top of plates of bodies of water we had shot in Maine and foreground cliffs shot in Maine on a different location on a different day. So we had to combine footage of opposite coastlines of America, and then planting a miniature onto it and then adding effects elements of CG water and CG seagulls. Then to add some life to the lighthouse and to give a sense of the scale, we also went back and photographed security guards from the mental institution and comped them into it.


fxg: How did you then achieve the shots where Teddy climbs down the cliff?

Grossmann: When Teddy leaves the lighthouse to go back to Chuck, he realises Chuck’s not there and thinks he has fallen over the cliff. Anything you see of Teddy and Chuck near a cliff – I think there’s one shot that has a stunt person at the edge of a cliff who’s real – but then everything else is pretty seriously digitally enhanced. Teddy thinks he sees Chuck’s body down on the rocks. That shot is multiple plates of photography in Maine, digital photography from our balcony with someone wearing the right wardrobe for Chuck. Teddy starts to climb down the cliff to get to him. All of that is Leonardo DiCaprio shot on a 15 foot piece of cliff wall. Anything that Teddy is holding onto is a practical piece and anything around that with a camera move or a descending spider-cam is all photographic textures projected onto CG geometry with CG environments. We created an entire dome that would work in 180 degrees so no matter where the camera was pointed we had live footage that was inside a giant sphere, a lot of which was done in Nuke. We’d line that up for each shot and we had live footage of waves crashing, CG seagulls and the shore line. Also, they wanted to have a shot of the intake form that blows by him. That was a digital piece of paper.

When he gets down to the base of the cliff, he’s standing down there in the water looking for Chuck. Again, it’s one of his hallucinations. What he thought to be Chuck turned out to be a coincidental chunk of seaweed and rock that looked like a person’s body and gets washed away by a wave. We created that effect by art directing some various pieces of seaweed that looked like Mark Ruffalo lying against a rock. That was straightforward compositing stuff. To get all the water interaction for Leo, we built a dump tank. It was a backyard pool tank area about five feet deep and filled with practical rocks and two giant dumpster-sized water containers. What we would do is release one dump tank and see the water crash through the set.


fxg: He then encounters some rats – how were those shots accomplished?

Grossmann: Teddy has a hallucination where he is suddenly surrounded by rats creating a sense of claustrophobia and enhancing the drama. We did put some practical rats in the tank with Teddy but you can’t quite get the performance. So we had some trained rats for close interaction, but then to really get the hundreds of rats, we went back and created a replica of that set in bluescreen and got a bunch of trained rats and shot hundreds of passes of rats swarming all over the place. We comped them in literally one by one or say five at a time. Every shot was a huge logistics operation. We’d have rock A and B and C and then every letter of the alphabet so we had rat pass A for rock G, say. It was insane.

One particular shot in that sequence was pretty funny. We had a sky shot in Florida, composited over an ocean plate shot in Maine, combined with rocks with waves shot in California, then waves crashing on the rocks that Teddy is standing on shot in Massachusetts, rats in Massachusetts and California and Teddy shot on bluescreen. Not counting digital work. And the elements were all shot eight months apart.


fxg: What were some of the other visual effects you worked on?

Grossmann: We worked on the great hall shots for Ward C. It was a very eerie arched room and rain drops everywhere. Dante couldn’t built a set that Bob Richardson, the DP, could light that Marty wanted to see. So the compromise would be that Dante built one wall and Bob would light everything on a greenscreen and we would create it entirely digitally.

For the Dachau concentration camp we did a lot of CG work, environments and set extensions. One shot is a massacre of the Nazi guards. It was a giant 15 second long dolly shot of American soldiers killing Nazis lined up against a fence. That was the very first shot filmed on the whole movie. We added tons of muzzle flashes and bullet hits. Marty basically said ‘I want this shot to be impossibly long’. We couldn’t put blood squibs on that many people and muzzle flashes so we added those in along with smoke and debris and muzzles and bullet hits and dust and dirt.


We had a long post schedule on Shutter Island – about 58 weeks and completed about 400 shots. I think one shot is a good anecdote – it was the first shot that looks down where Teddy sees Chuck’s body lying on the rocks and a wave rushes over it. We got through 50 versions of that shot with so many permutations of Chuck’s body position, his wardrobe and how the wave goes over. In the end, we went back and used version seven because it was the best one!

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