When director Ron Howard approached turning the stage play “Frost/Nixon” into a now Oscar-nominated “best feature film,” he knew that one challenge would be to take it out of box and into a more cinematic world. With a limited budget, however, he couldn’t afford all the bells and whistles associated with a blockbuster action-adventure.
Instead, he turned to Brooklyn-based VFX boutique Brainstorm Digital to put Frost in Australia and create an obsolete jet. Brooklyn may seem like an odd venue for a VFX facility, but partners Richard Friedlander and Glenn Allen note that it’s located in the hip neighborhood Dumbo, at the base of the Brooklyn bridge, close to Manhattan. Since its establishment three years ago, Brainstorm Digital has made its name in providing invisible effects to an impressive list of story-driven films, including “Synecdoche, NY” and “Burn After Reading.” Its work will also be seen in upcoming films “Duplicity,” “Limits of Control” and “Adventureland.”The connection to “Frost/Nixon” came out of Friedlander and Allen’s 10+ years on Ron Howard’s editorial team, and a relationship not just with Howard but producers Brian Grazer and Todd Hallowell.
Whereas Brainstorm Digital had worked on multi-vendor films including “Cinderella Man” and “Da Vinci Code,” “Frost/Nixon” would be the first one where they did all the effect– 180 of them.The movie starts out following David Frost trying to re-activate his stalled career. In one scene, he’s anchoring a lightweight show in Sydney, Australia, reporting on a guy doing a Harry Houdini stunt over the Sydney harbor. “One proposal we came up with was to either get stock footage or get high-res material shot in Australia and composite it with the action shot in Marina Del Rey,” said Friedlander.
Coincidentally, Friedlander and Allen knew someone working in Sydney, who shot the high-res digital stills and sent them via FTP. The production company did the shoot in Marina Del Rey, a massive small boat harbor in Los Angeles, and sent the elements to Brainstorm Digital where they did a test composite. “The footage was all hand-held so one of the biggest challenges was tracking,” said Friedlander, who said they used PF Track and Shake for compositing (the facility also has Nuke).
Another budget-saving shot was of a 747 British Airways jet. “That type of jet doesn’t exist anymore,” said Friedlander. “They had an interior shot of a sequence taking place while David Frost is flying. We did the exterior shot. All we had was some stills given to us by British Air.” The model was built in Autodesk Maya and also composited in Shake.
“The work we did on “Frost/Nixon” was a little more sophisticated than what we’d done for Ron up until that point,” said Friedlander. “Up until then, we’d done fix-it work and removals. This was the first movie where we had a chance to prove our talent and skills to him.” Friedlander is also proud of the company’s three VES Awards nominations for its work on “Synecdoche, NY,” and is currently working on “Angels & Demons.”
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