CafeFx Brings History To Life For HBO Films “John Adams”

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Last Updated: April 28, 2008 5:09 pm GMT
(Santa Maria, California--April 28, 2008) Feature film visual effects facility CafeFX produced extensive visual effects for HBO Films’ epic seven-part miniseries “John Adams,” which premiered on Sunday, March 16, 2008.

The work is a vivid and authentic evocation of time and place, seamlessly underlying the drama that unfolds over John Adams’ lifetime.

Adapted from David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, one of the best-selling American historical biographies of all time, and directed by Tom Hooper, the miniseries recounts Adams' role in the Continental Congress, his life as an ambassador in Paris and London and his influence over the early American republic. Executive producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, the creative team behind the Emmy Award®-winning and Golden Globe-winning 2001 miniseries “Band of Brothers,” present the epic miniseries.

“John Adams” was shot in Richmond, Virginia, and in Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area for the Boston, New York and Philadelphia scenes and in Budapest, Hungary for most of the European locations. CafeFX created virtual set extensions, matte paintings and 3D visual effects to augment HBO’s sumptuous art direction and Gemma Jackson’s production design.

Working from old maps, paintings and a Paul Revere etching of the Boston Massacre, as well as reference materials from their own historical research, CafeFX recreated Boston of the 1770s and the blockade of British ships across Boston Harbor. The visual effects work also includes a wintry scene at Grosvenor Square in London, Philadelphia in 1776, a painterly depiction of the canals in Amsterdam, the royal court at St. James’s Palace, and an historic launch of the Montgolfier hot air balloon in Paris.

HBO’s visual effects supervisor Erik Henry, who worked previously with CafeFX on “Snakes on a Plane,” and “Gothika,” and HBO’s visual effects producer Steve Kullback collaborated with CafeFX visual effects supervisor Jeff Goldman, CafeFX visual effects producer David Van Dyke and their team on the production of 320 feature film-resolution shots. Due to the epic nature of “John Adams,” two million feet of film were shot hand held, without the use of cranes and helicopters to maintain the human and historic perspective. Visual effects production often involved careful camera tracking, under the guidance of CafeFX’s 3D matchmove supervisor Kevin Hoppe.

The set for eighteenth-century Boston and Long Wharf, with the rigged masts of ships seen in the background, was augmented digitally with the addition of authentic architectural detail of everything above the second story of the existing buildings, as well as the incorporation of entirely CG buildings. Goldman, a Boston native, used old maps of pre-landfill Boston detailing all the tiny islands in Boston Harbor to accurately portray the fleet of British ships that closed the port. Each ship was a hybrid of historic tall ships, placed individually so that reflections cast on the water would be accurate. The development of CG water was critical in order to faithfully convey the protected nature of the harbor and its calm seas. The CG ship development and animation was completed under CafeFX’s CG lead Mike Fischer. Autodesk Maya was used to animate the CG characters on the decks and the motion of the small boats that row to shore from the frigates.

Grosvenor Square, the garden square in the exclusive Mayfair district of London that was home to John Adams when he was the American ambassador, appears in a scene where the ground and trees are blanketed in snow. Since nearly all of those grand homes were rebuilt in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the modern day Bedford Square, one of London’s best preserved examples of Georgian architecture, stood in for Grosvenor Square. In this sequence and another of Peacefields, Adams’ Massachusetts homestead, CafeFX meticulously defoliated spring trees of their leaves and draped tree branches, rooftops and window ledges with drifts of newly fallen CG snow via matte paintings.

When in 1778 Adams is appointed Minister Plenipotentiary to France with a mission to secure French financial and military support for the American Revolutionary War, he secretly departs on the frigate Boston in the middle of winter and in the middle of war. His harrowing ocean voyage is marked by dangerous Atlantic storms and a naval battle against the British warship Martha. The movement of the transport ship being tossed by the waves was achieved through camera moves, not gimbals, and the water is stock footage of a real ocean storm. CafeFX reprojected the footage to correct the direction of the waves and augmented that and the practical water cannon used on set with CG spray and mist. A volley of cannon fire was enhanced with digital cannonballs, drifting smoke, cannon blasts, and cannon hits. Skies were replaced to create a moody, stormy atmosphere. Again the CG ships are a hybrid of the transport vessels and tall ships of the time.

The canals of Amsterdam are a picturesque background for Adams’ visit to Holland to solicit funds from bankers, politicians and merchants for America’s war. The row of charming houses with their unique architecture and steeply pitched gables at the edge of the canal has a painterly quality, but the recreation is actually a photographic matte painting by CafeFX’s Brandon Kachel. Many iterations of architectural photo reference from Erik Henry were generated until a pleasing combination of facades was determined and perspectives matched. The reflections of the houses and barges sailing past are repeated in the CG water, while a mix of CG and greenscreen-extracted people were strategically placed to give life to the city.

When Adams returns to France in 1783 to forge commerce with other European nations, he witnesses the launch of the Montgolfier hot air balloon from the Jardin des Tulieries, a flight watched by nearly all of Paris and an event commemorated in many paintings and etchings. The famed gardens were first created digitally by CafeFX and rendered from XSI in mental ray and the virtual crowd populated in XSI’s Behavior. Crowd simulation development and rendering was headed by CafeFX’s Votch Levi. The magnificent Palais des Tuileries seen in the background was created by matte painter Bob Scifo at Illusion Arts.

Adams is sent to London in 1785 as the nation's first minister to Britain and has a dramatic audience with King George III at the royal court of St. James’s Palace. Adams’ humility is in stark contrast to the pageantry of the event and the splendor of his surroundings. London’s Hampton Court Palace and greenscreen sets built by HBO in Hungary were used for the interior shots, as St. James’s is still a working palace. The gilded frescoes, Flemish tapestries and stately furnishings adorning the palace chambers are impeccably composited into the virtual geometry of the rooms. The fresco seen above the sweeping staircase was created by CafeFX’s Manny Guizar, under the supervision of Steve Arguello, and mapped onto the walls and ceiling.

Visual effects for St. James’s Palace are particularly notable as the sequence was filmed after CafeFX began working on the series. Knowing that this was to be a 100% greenscreen shoot in Hungary, CafeFX had the luxury of time to pre-visualize the virtual recreation of the palace and what the sequence would look like from a blocking standpoint. The production team developed a series of still images based on the digital set and derived from measurements and photography shot at Hampton Court Palace. Each still was designed to give the director an idea of what the final composed frame would look like from various vantage points and camera angles within the virtual rooms. The resulting photographic guides, which remained very true to the composition of the original pre-vis, allowed greenscreen setups and actor blocking to be accomplished in much less time.

CafeFX compositing supervisor Edwardo Mendez and compositing leads Mike Bozulich and Robin Graham were responsible for the flawless execution of these hybrid shots.

Said CafeFX’s Goldman, “It was great to team up with Erik Henry for another tour of duty and “John Adams” was a wonderful show to work on. In contrast to other projects where visual effects sometimes are the show, it was refreshing to develop work that was essentially created to be invisible and in complete support of the story telling. Even more inspiring was the importance and reality of the content of the series. If we’ve done our job well, the audience will believe that they are actually witnessing events that in reality took place over two centuries ago.”

Erik Henry said, “As has always been the case, CafeFX delivered at the highest level. The entire staff went above and beyond because we all saw that “John Adams” was something special. Author David McCullough himself said his favorite sequence was CafeFX’s “Boston Crossing” in Episode Three. This series will shape for decades to come, the way the American public view the essential and selfless work of one of our forefathers. CafeFX’s dedication to such an important task will be appreciated by millions of Americans for years to come and never be forgotten by me.”

CafeFX is currently in production on visual effects for THE BATTLE OF RED CLIFF, THE HAPPENING, and LOVE RANCH and recently completed SPEED RACER, NIM’S ISLAND, JOHN ADAMS, THE KITE RUNNER and SPIDER-MAN 3.

About CafeFX

CafeFX is an award-winning feature film visual effects facility offering visual effects production and supervision, CG character creation, and 3D animation. Founded in 1993 by Jeff Barnes and David Ebner, CafeFX is located in a 36,000-square-foot studio on an eight-acre campus in the heart of Santa Barbara County. The company’s credits include SPEED RACER, THE KITE RUNNER, SPIDER-MAN™ 3, PAN’S LABYRINTH, THE DEPARTED, SIN CITY, KING KONG, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and THE AVIATOR.

Its commercial and music video division, Santa Monica-based The Syndicate, is a creative design, branding services and digital production studio, specializing in live action direction, visual effects, animation, motion graphics, and telecine.

CafeFX and The Syndicate are held by umbrella corporation the ComputerCafe Group, which has also established Sententia Entertainment, a long form production company. With a focus on both live action and animated projects, Sententia is poised to capitalize on years of experience in the feature film market while developing a catalog of properties utilizing the proven strengths of sister companies CafeFX and The Syndicate. Among Sententia’s credits are the Academy Award®-winning PAN’S LABYRINTH and DANIKA.

For more information please call 805-922-9479 or visit www.cafefx.com


JOHN ADAMS
Visual Effects by CafeFX

Visual Effects Supervisor Jeff Goldman

VFX Producer David Van Dyke

CG Leads Steve Arguello Mike Fischer

CG Artists Manuel H. Guizar
Votch Levi
Zach Mandt

Compositing Supervisor Edwardo Mendez
Compositing Leads Mike Bozulich
Robin Graham

Compositors Martin Hall
Linda Henry
Michael Pecchia
Richard Reed
Joe Reese
Adam Stern
Daniel Sunwoo
Steve Wilson

3D Matchmove Supervisor Kevin Hoppe

Matte Painter Brandon Kachel

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