Union VFX is a remarkable example of a relatively small company, with less than 50 staff, who have managed in a few short years to build up an incredibly loyal connection to some of Britain’s best contemporary directors. In the world of London post houses there are many options for directors such as Danny Boyle, James Marsh, or Stephen Frears, yet these directors and others, repeatedly return to Union VFX with their films such as
- The Lady in the Van
- Steve Jobs
- The Theory of Everything
- 127 Hours
- Far From the Madding Crowd
Union is proud to have been the sole visual-effects studio behind these prestigious film projects. They are all quality high production value features done outside the Hollywood ‘tentpole/blockbuster multi-vendor comic book franchise’ model. Danny Boyle likes them so much that in addition to getting Union to help him on the 2012 Olympics opening ceremonies and his TV pilot Babylon, he is currently working with Union VFX on the highly anticipated Trainspotting 2. Boyle and Union’s vfx supervisor and co-founder Adam Gascoyne worked together on the 8 time Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire. in 2008.
Union was started as an independent visual-effects facility in 2008 by Adam Gascoyne and producer Tim Caplan to provide a creative service for feature film and television productions. A goal that would be repeated by countless new startup effects companies across the British Isles.
What makes Union stand out is the strength of the bonds it makes with such successful and prestigious directors. The new film Florence Foster Jenkins is an example of this. Stephen Frears, whose previous films include Philomena, were also handled by Union VFX
Union’s Adam Gascoyne and Tim Caplan team has grown to approximately 50 staff including, amongst others, Simon Hughes. Hughes had previously worked at Cinesite, Double Negative and Image Engine on such films as Gladiator, several of the Harry Potter films, and the Academy Award-nominated District 9. Since joining Union, Simon Hughes has completed Theory of Everything, 71 and Suffragette.
The new film Florence Foster Jenkins, shot in Easter 2015, and was delivered just prior to Christmas that year. The film is set in the 1940s and pivotally for the story happens in New York with key scenes at Carnegie Hall. The grand theatre, built in 1891, is one of the most prestigious venues in the world for both classical music and popular music. As such it is rarely empty and certainly was not an option for principle photography.
While some of the Union team did travel to New York to get reference stills, the city was recreated in visual effects based on plate photography in the Hammersmith Apollo in London. While a great theatre, the Apollo was designed by Robert Cromie in the Art Deco style of the 1930s and is not a good double for the famous Carnegie Hall. The production team added a fake interior wall to define the bottom of the hall and allow for closer shots to be done without visual effects. While the stage and the front seating is from the London plate photography, everything else inside, including the crowd and set extensions, is added digitally. Carnegie Hall has 3,671 seats, divided among its three auditoriums.
Above : some behind the scenes video of the main shoot and the Carnegie Hall set in the Apollo.
Given the tight budget, Gascoyne worked out 9 angles in the theatre that would be digital set extensions and then by sticking to those pre-defined angles, the VFX team could cleverly make it seem like there was more production value for the same budget. As Gascoyne has worked with director Stephen Frears since Philomena (2012), there is a lot of trust in maximising the dramatic impact for the budgets the team have to work with.
“I work very closely with the art director and the DOP…we have a little team now that he (Frears) trusts to get on with the bits he doesn’t quite want to deal with,” laughingly comments Gascoyne. “The legalities of visual effects he’s quite happy I just get on with….he gives me the task to solve the problems and work out solutions with the other key members of the crew”.
The exterior of the theatre also needed to be created as well as the classic long straight New York streets.
The team used Maya with Golaem for the concert footage. There were about 100 extras on the day and these were both crowd replicated for closeups (running up the stairs, for example) and digitally added to for the wider shots. The extras were shot on a blue screen step stage from “almost every possible angle and every possible permutation,” says Gascoyne. “We then built a script in Maya that distributed them based on the camera position, which was quite complex and took a couple of weeks to do”.
For the exterior they also wrote a Nuke gizmo with some AI to provide independently animated traffic. “If you look closely, you can see some New York taxis almost crash into some other cars, which I guess kept it pretty real,” jokes Gascoyne. The team renders using Arnold for its great realism. There were also some distance cars added as 2D flat cards in Nuke.
The film was shot on the Alexa, RAW and then delivered in a standard 2K master. The grade and look of the film was something that DOP Danny Cohen had very much in mind from the outset of the film. The lensing, camera movement and framing was reminiscent of classic 1940s Hollywood films.
For the shot above, the team shot day for night in Liverpool. The car lights were on in the plate photography to help with the transition. Initially it had been planned to just shift the time of day to dusk for a different part of the story. But in editorial it was decided to use it elsewhere and push the day for night further, matching to reference photography taken in New York at night of Carnegie Hall.
In one sense, this film could be argued to be a sweet spot for Union VFX. It involved detailed work with a well-known and trusted director, doing extensive invisible environment work to add production value to a film no one would see as an ‘effects’ film.
“We get asked that a lot: what sort of work do we specialise in,” explains Gascoyne. “The company was set up, as the name suggests, to work with directors and clients that we have built up over years. But those guys do all types of films. So our type of work is based on what they are doing…what Danny Boyle or Stephen Frears are doing…and every movie they make is different.”
“So yes, we have done a lot of environments recently but that is based on the projects. Now we are doing a lot of CG water for James Marsh’s new film based on Donald Crowhurst,” explains Gascoyne (see side bar). This new film is scheduled to be released in January. Marsh had previously worked with the Union team on The Theory of Everything.
Union VFX does some emergency ‘911’ work, but collaborating with the director from the outset as the primary effects ‘demystifier’ is what Gascoyne is most proud of. It is that goal of long term multi-film collaboration as to why he and Tim Caplan set up the company and it seems to be working.
Images Credit Pathé & BBC Films.
Note: If you are an experienced artist, Union VFX is looking to expand.