Visual effects tricks usually make themselves known in splashy action blockbusters, but in The Immigrant, digital artistry plays a more subtle role by setting the tone for James Gray’s somber period drama set in 1920’s New York. As seen in this before-and-after video, Brainstorm Digital crafted a gritty urban backdrop that erased contemporary sheen in favor of historical atmosphere.
Visual effects producer Richard Friedlander explains that for the CG matte paintings inserted in many of the scenes, “We’d do a dirt/grime/aging pass on the images so that it feels very real in terms of its textures. It’s just the opposite of what digital artists would normally do on a commercial, where everything’s supposed to look shiny and glistening and perfect and beautiful. We were always making things look crappier than they start (in the contemporary footage), because these places have to feel real.”
One of Brainstorm Digital’s biggest challenges involved a four-month CGI makeover of Ellis Island. “James was concerned that Ellis Island no longer looks like it did when these immigrants came over,” Friedlander says. “It’s been turned into a museum with modern facilities and the island itself used to be much smaller. After James filmed there we had to completely replace the exterior of the building with computer-generated 3-D elements.”
To replicate 1920’s Lower Manhattan, the filmmakers shot in the Bronx, where Friedlander and his team digitally added building facades, inserted fire escapes, and replaced modern Manhattan’s skyline with low-rise buildings.
The visual effects team also re-configured a sequence set in front of the Tombs prison in Staten Island. The scene was actually filmed in SoHo to take advantage of the neighborhood’s picturesque cobblestone streets. As Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix’s characters stroll down the street, crew members hold up a green screen behind them. During post production, Brainstorm Digital replaced the green screen with renderings of the prison’s actual façade.
Brainstorm Digital, which also re-created the 1920s period for Martin Scorsese’s HBO series Boardwalk Empire, relied on Google searches and production designer Happy Massee for reference material. Director Gray also turned out to be a highly informed expert in New York City history, Friedlander says. “We’d send James an image and ask him ‘Would this have been accurate?’ And he’d say, ‘If you change this and do that, then it’s accurate.’ James Gray could have been a history professor.”