How Imaginary Forces' Invisible Image Tweaks Help Tell This Story

HBO is known for shows that make big statements, and Boardwalk Empire announces itself every week with a sweeping, timeless main-titles sequence that establishes the character of Nucky Thompson and the tumultuous times evoked by the show's period setting. Cinema 4D maker Maxon and writer Meleah Maynard took Film & Video behind the scenes at Imaginary Forces, where the show's deceptively simple opening-titles sequence was created. Read on to learn more.

Creating a visual metaphor that tells a sweeping story while capturing the feel of a particularly tumultuous time in history in just minutes is no easy task. But Imaginary Forces bills itself as a creative agency that likes a good challenge. Time after time they have proven how adept they are at constructing narrative titles and other sequences for film and broadcast, including Minority Report, Terminator Salvation, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Mad Men.

So, when asked, they took the job of creating main titles for HBO's epic series Boardwalk Empire. Using footage they shot of the actor Steve Buscemi at the beach; a lot of whiskey bottles; and visual effects created in Cinema 4D, Maya and After Effects, they designed and produced a sequence that illuminates the show's central themes. It also makes clear that Buscemi's character, Nucky Thompson, rules the boardwalk in tumultuous, prohibition-era Atlantic City just after World War I.

Shots of the bottles floating and bobbing in the water were not as easy as they look, says Imaginary Forces director Karin Fong.

"It was a total collaboration with the guys at HBO, and Terry [Terence Winter, the show's creator and executive producer] really wanted to give a sense of the change happening during this very pivotal decade in history," says Imaginary Forces' Karin Fong, who co-directed the titles with Michelle Dougherty. They considered a lot of different ways to do this. Their early ideas centered around the elaborate 1920s boardwalk set that was built in New York City for the show.

Then, Tim Van Patten, one of the show's executive producers, came up with the metaphorical framework for the approach the team took by pointing out that Buscemi's charismatic character is the one constant in what is essentially a storm of change. "We always make storyboards for our title sequences, and with this one, there was so much to think about," Fong recalls. "Women get the vote, World War I is over, alcohol is illegal. We all knew that if we were going to go with a grand metaphor it had to be something that would last."

It's possible to imagine other ways to make clear that Buscemi's Nucky Thompson stands apart from the world he lords over, but none seem as spot-on as the one the team chose. Standing on the seashore with the surf lapping at his dress shoes, Thompson casually smokes and scans the cloudy, foreboding horizon as a bounty of unopened whiskey bottles tosses about in the waves and washes up on the sand around his feet before he ambles back up to the boardwalk unscathed. "It's like he sees the tides bringing his future to him in the form of liquor," says Fong.

What starts as a bright morning quickly turns into a stormy time-lapse sky as actor Steve Buscemi gazes out at a sea brimming with whiskey bottles.

The same way good writing feels effortless when you read it, visuals that look easy can sometimes be much more complex and difficult than they appear. So how hard is it to create what looks like a whole lot of whiskey bottles floating around in the waves? Much harder than you'd think. In fact, the bottles were the team's biggest challenge for a lot of reasons, says Jeremy Cox, Imaginary Forces' visual effects supervisor.

A seagull in flight caught by chance at the end of a long day of shooting looks at home against a backdrop of a pier created in Maxon's Cinema 4D.

For starters, during the two-day shoot at the beach, the bottles were shot without labels. Later, though, it was decided that the bottles did need to have labels. And one more thing-they also needed to have caps rather than corks. "My initial plan was to do a 3D track on the bottle and a 3D label and cap," Cox explains. "But that didn't work, so I did a single-frame render of a label and cap in Cinema 4D and tracked it in 2D to composite onto the bottle in After Effects. It worked surprisingly well."

While bottles in the foreground of the scenes were shot on location, bottles seen rolling and floating further out in the water were made in Autodesk Maya and composited in Adobe After Effects. Close-ups of a bottle bobbing in the water were shot in a tank, and cutaways to bottles crashing against the underside of a pier were shot in California. There was just one problem. At the time, piers all over California had rubber barriers over their wooden legs so the wood wasn't visible. "We used After Effects to comp in wood texture on all of the pier legs, and then we combined two different waves to make the water look choppier," says Cox.

Bottles in the foreground of scenes were shot on location, while bottles seen from afar were created in Autodesk Maya and comped in Adobe After Effects.

About halfway through the titles, there's a shot that appears to rotate around Buscemi's character's head as he scans the horizon. That's not really what happens. What had been planned as a shot with an expansive, arcing camera move around Buscemi against a time-lapse sky evolved into a rotation around Buscemi as he sat on a turntable in front of a green screen.

The plan might have worked had it not been for one thing, says Cox. It wasn't humanly possible for Buscemi to keep his eyes from scanning the room as the table turned. "To his credit, I don't think anyone could have kept their eyes still in that situation," says Cox. "But we couldn't make his darting eyes look like they were looking out at the water, so I took fixing that problem as a personal challenge."

The solution? First, Cox and his team did a 3D track rotation of Buscemi's head. Next they took the shot plate and projected it out of the camera so it became a texture on the low-res geometry of the actor's head before shooting it as it rotated. "So the camera was rotating with him, essentially, as if there was no motion at all on his head," Cox explains. Footage of Buscemi's fixed gaze was taken from After Effects and projected back onto the rough geometry and re-photographed. "This was definitely one of the more interesting problems I've faced that I've been able to solve," he adds with a laugh.

With the legs of California piers encased in rubber at the time of shooting for some reason, Imaginary Forces used After Effects to give them a realistic-looking wood texture.

Other shots that look seamless are anything but, says Fong. Sand is often paired with water that was shot at a different time. Images of time-lapse clouds were gathered from several sources and comped together. And, at the end of the titles, a final wave that seems to come in and wash Buscemi's shoes clean is actually water in reverse. "We shot straight down on Steve's feet with receding water and then reversed it so there was no residual water on his shoes," Fong explains. "We wanted to construct this arc of a beautiful morning with the light changing as a storm approaches, but he walks away unscathed by the tumult."

In just a few minutes, Imaginary Forces covers Boardwalk Empire's central themes and makes clear that Buscemi's character is above the storms of the times.

Stylistically, it's fun to apply cinematic techniques to titles turning visual language into shorthand for the entire stories, says Fong. While it's important to create something that makes sense for a show, there is a lot of room to take on broader themes and bigger metaphors. "Titles are a signature for a show, really," she says. "They're kind of an intense appetizer before the main course, and they draw people in and set the mood."

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For more on Boardwalk Empire, see David Heuring's story on how the show shot on Super 35 film.

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at her website: