Uncut Gems – How do you dangle Adam Sandler out of a NYC window?
The directing duo; Benny and Josh Safdie, are a pleasure to work with on set and during post-production. They set the bar high and their latest project, Uncut Gems, is another unique film to add to their growing body of work. My team, at Mechanism Digital, was excited to work with the Safdies. Like all films, we looked forward to learning a few tricks and embraced some happy accidents. Our NY studio was brought in on set to supervise the visual effects, shoot VFX plates, then execute about 100 shots for the film. Both on set and during the few weeks of conform and color, there are a lot of moving parts that require fast and crafty decisions which could impact the finishing schedule and costs. Looking back, my team remembered three pivotal VFX shots which required a little extra creative brainstorming.
First shot which stands out in our minds during shooting was when Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler, was being hung out of a window high above the 47th street diamond district.
We were provided a beautiful set-piece fabricated to look like the brick exterior of Howard’s 10th floor office window, except it was only 10 feet off the ground with green screen all around it. So far, this looked like an easy shoot. Adam came in and was characteristically blasting classic rock tunes on his portable speaker while camera and lighting were making some final adjustments. Upon shooting the first take, an unexpected issue became painfully obvious. As the two big hit-men threatened Adam by dangling him out the window (held by a safety cable/harness) the force of the three men struggling was causing the walls of the facade to wobble back and forth. Cut… watching playback, I discussed with Benny and Josh how the wobble made the bricks to look like rubber and our VFX artists may not be able to match the real building’s solid facade. We decided to take-five while they had a carpenter fly in to brace the structure from behind to reduce the flexing of the thin wood. 20 minutes later we were back at first position and the actors were wrestling Adam upside-down through the window again…. Cut.... The set was wobbling less, but I had to warn that it still may slide around when we tracked it onto the real building to appear 10 stories up. We were now behind schedule and I had to decide: Should I recommend the carpenters come back in and we wait another ½ hour, losing precious crew time on set, or figure out how to solve the wobble in post? After thinking through digital approaches, including tracking and warping, I was confident we’d be able to solve the problem back in the studio, even if we had to completely roto the actors and replace the set piece, which in fact turned out to be our end solution. The shot came out great and we were able to absorb the cost in the overall budget, which meant no surprise overages for the filmmakers and we learned a good lesson to watch out for in the future.
Another shot towards the end of production involved a recreation of a court-side interview with Kevin Garnett, aka "KG", of the Boston Celtics during the 2012 playoffs.
We needed a background plate of a basketball venue to fill in the blue screen background. We searched through stock footage but couldn’t find the right crowd or angle to match the low camera looking up at the towering KG. Next, we considered animating CGI extras, but this is incredibly expensive for a single shot. I asked if anyone had access to an event at Madison Square Garden event, after all, it was during March Madness. Josh jumped up, “I have an idea! I’ll be in Boston this weekend. I can ask my buddy, who is connected with the Celtics, and ask if he can get me seats to the game. I bet I can just walk out on the floor and shoot some footage on my iPhone. Would the resolution be high enough?" "Sure!", I said, "The background was going to be in soft focus anyway, just try to hold the camera still for a few seconds, that’s all we need." The lower quality of the iPhone was fine, once we converted it to LOG color space. Josh even got to enjoy a basketball game to see his home team win.
A third challenge, or “opportunity” as we like to call them, was a scene on the streets of NYC following Howard and his father, Judd Hirsch, to his car.
The editor noticed, in several shots, across the street was an obvious Citi Bike station, which hadn’t existed during the film’s setting, and asked if we could paint them out. In addition to the hand-held camera following the actors, the bigger issue was the pedestrians on the other sidewalk walking behind the bikes. I explained to the editor and directors, the idea of rotoscoping and rebuilding the crowd’s legs between the spokes of each wheel was out of the question in terms of labor costs. Josh and Benny were debating whether they could live with this inconsistency and played down the whole scene to see how much the bikes stood out. This is the first time we had the chance to see the whole sequence alongside the offending shots. We noticed other angles of the scene revealed a construction site lined with orange and white barricades along the street. Our suggestion to hide the bikes by compositing a few more construction barricades at a fraction of the cost was a big relief to the directors and producer. Our digital artists were also relieved we wouldn’t have to roto spokes!
Sometimes solving a problem on set or in post is not a straightforward textbook example. As VFX Supervisors, we’re there to help the entire team make quick, creative, confident decisions to keep the director happy with the final look while keeping production on budget and schedule. Believe it or not, we do look for unique situations where we actually save everyone money by saying those dreaded words, “We’ll fix it in post!
Lucien Harriot – Mechanism Digital an award-winning studio in NYC helping filmmakers tell memorable stories.