Union Visual Effects brought to life a 1970s version of London for the FX miniseries for Danny Boyle’s Sex Pistols bio-pic; Pistol. Union was the sole vendor on the six-part show set at the birth of the punk movement in the UK. The show set in economically depressed London, first aired on Hulu at the end of May 2022 in the USA and on Disney+ in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Union had previously worked with Danny Boyle on a number of projects including Slumdog Millionaire, T2 Trainspotting, and the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. Union co-founder and lead VFX supervisor Adam Gascoyne again joined Boyle on the Director’s punk passion project, helping him to recreate a grimy 1970s London and ‘showers of punk spit’ in a COVID-19 compatible fashion.
Pistol is an adaptation written by Craig Peace of guitarist Steve Jones’ autobiography, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, and tells the story of the group’s formation in 1975 and the chaotic years leading up to the death of Sid Vicious by heroin overdose in 1979. At the center of Pistol is the story of a young charming illiterate kleptomaniac, “a hero for the times, Steve Jones, who became in his own words, the 94th greatest guitarist of all time,” commented Boyle in the film’s PR release. The show stars Toby Wallace as Steve Jones, Anson Boon as John Lydon, Louis Partridge as Sid Vicious, Jacob Slater as Paul Cook, along with Maisie Williams as ’70s punk icon Jordan and Sawyer Chandler as Chrissie Hynde (founder of The Pretenders).
As is normally the case for historical work, invisible VFX was central to making the program believable. Union’s main brief for the project was to make everything look like London in the late ’70s, a goal that becomes increasingly challenging as gentrification has spread across London. “It’s really hard to find parts of London that work for the period and don’t require a large amount of VFX work,” says Gascoyne. “We worked very closely with the art department, locations, and Danny himself to find areas we could use. We found pockets of old London and used these to shoot in and then erased the modern world as much as we could.” The Union team worked on extensive environment clean-ups, removing contemporary markings and objects while adding dirt, dishevelment, and other signifiers of the ’70s era.
Pre-production work for Pistol began in August 2020 and the team completed the series in May 2022. Much of the filming occurred during the COVID lockdown. “That added all sorts of challenges around recreating the gigs with big sweaty crowds in enclosed venues – we were able to step in and enlarge crowds at some of the gigs,” says Gascoyne. “We also had the challenge of recreating the showers of spit experienced in the punk gigs of the late ’70s. Obviously, in a COVID-riddled world, there was no real spitting allowed so SFX and CGI ‘gob rigs’ were developed.”
Filming took place all over London as well as some locations in Whitby and other parts of Yorkshire, and Dover and Deal in Kent. A VFX team consisting of Gascoyne and Onset Supervisor Jake Green was present almost every day of the shoot.
While in London the team was able to film in the legendary 100 Club, where The Sex Pistols played several times. “It really added to the authenticity of the project. I don’t think it’s been decorated since they played there!” joked Gascoyne. The production also did a two-week location shoot in Texas with a small crew packed inside an old ’70s tour bus, to film the period when the Sex Pistols toured the USA. Gascoyne joked that during this time the production drove more miles than it would take to get from London to Dallas.
The seamless blending of original archive material with shot footage was important for the show, and Union developed a few film looks and transitions throughout the series to help with this. These transitions not only helped with the narrative but also captured the look of documentary footage filmed during this period. For example, footage that was filmed by Julien Temple, the British film documentarian and music video director, who is seen in the series. Temple began his career with short films featuring the Sex Pistols and continued with various indie projects, including the indie Sex Pistol’s film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980) and the documentary The Filth and the Fury (2000).
A visual device was used to assist with the film’s pacing, the team added trains into many of the shots so that there was always something moving to help keep things ‘on track’. The punk movement not only re-defined music but it had a very strong and distinctive visual style, that would influence fashion, magazine publishing, typography, and British culture for years to come. Pistol embraced many aspects of the era’s creative chaos and energy. “This is the moment that British society and culture changed forever,” Boyle commented at the time of the series’ release. “It is the detonation point for British street culture … where ordinary young people had the stage and vented their fury and their fashion … and everyone had to watch and listen … and everyone feared them or followed them.”
The punk clothing boutique ‘Sex’ owned by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren was a key location that had to be recreated digitally. Union produced a CG matte painting of the famous King’s Road around the shop, and the interiors were shot on a soundstage with a grey screen outside the windows. All of the scenes that took place inside band members’ flats were also shot on a soundstage with the window views added later in post. “Everything from dirtying down buildings to removing road markings and graffiti, we did it all,” says Gascoyne.
Working closely with Canon and Flashpack, Union helped to develop and build a Bullet Time or Temp Mort camera rig that was used to emphasize significant moments in the story. They built two rigs; one with a 12-camera array and another smaller, handheld version of the setup with 6 cameras. “Canon very kindly supplied us with 18 Canon R5s which are amazing cameras,” says Gascoyne. “This rig was used to capture frozen moments throughout the show and really added to the visual language of the piece.”
The series finale depicting the Pistols’ infamous last UK gig at Ivanhoe’s in Huddersfield was created in collaboration with ScanLAB, a creative practice that specializes in the use of ultra-high density point clouds to create digital replicas of buildings, objects, and events.
To create this shot, LiDAR scans of multiple external and internal filming locations had to be combined into one seamless scene. This meant integrating the exterior of Ivanhoe’s, scanned during filming in Deal, with the interior, a nightclub in New Cross. The band and 100 other members of the cast were then volumetrically captured on blue screen using ScanLAB’s custom point cloud capture rig and positioned virtually back within the scene.
Union provided ScanLAB with a camera move created as part of their previs process to help them plan their data gathering on set. “Using their data we could create a CG camera to render the LiDAR from so that it could be blended with the plate,” says Gascoyne. “Following collective discussion and test, we agreed on a method by which they could render in the required layers, providing data channels for us to combine with the live action plate.”
In total, over 20TB of data was captured during filming. The final scene was rendered out using ScanLAB’s point cloud engine and handed over to Union for grade and the final VFX layers, which included adding fireworks and snow to create the final shot.
Working with director Danny Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle was once again extremely rewarding for the team at Union. “The kind of camera motion, the filters, and the sheer number of cameras they use all pose interesting hurdles!” says Gascoyne. “But that is why their films look and feel so edgy and thoroughly original. We embraced the chaos, and although at times it made the shots more difficult, the end result is a truly original look and feel to the show. There was one gig where we had over 35 cameras rolling at one point! Good luck to the data wranglers with that one!”