VFX Supervisor Jeff Baksinski on Turning Seattle into New York and San Francisco for the Show's Emmy-Nominated Pilot

"Imagine my iPad filling up with swastikas like crazy," says VFX supervisor Jeff Baksinski. He's remembering the process of researching Nazi styles and designs for the pilot episode of Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle, which imagines an alternative post-WWII history where the Axis won the war and the United States has been divided up into German- and Japanese-led territories.

The show has a great pedigree (it's based on a speculative-fiction classic by Philip K. Dick) and Baksinski's work on the pilot with Zoic Studios in Culver City, CA, and New York has earned an Emmy nomination. But he remembers the subject matter leading to some uncomfortable moments, especially when scouting locations to help give the show's digitally transformed bizarro America a basis in reality.

"That was the trippiest part of that show," Baksinski recalls. "People would be like, 'Oh, we're going to be part of an Amazon show? That's cool. What's our building going to be?' And we'd say, 'The Nazi embassy.' And they'd say, 'Nope.' Literally, as we were shooting, locations dropped out from under us."

It wasn't just the Nazi associations that made things difficult. When the production scouted locations for its Chinatown settings — part of a fictional universe where San Francisco is under Japanese occupation — many shop-owners were similarly appalled. "They were like, 'Get out!' They were not going for it."

Shooting in Seattle

The show was going out of its way to get buy-in from everyone involved partly because it was shooting on locations in Seattle — the company town for Amazon.com subsidiary Amazon Studios, which produces the show and was striving to be a good neighbor. "It was a very good production from that standpoint," Baksinski says. "It was a little bit hard because you don't have the gear and the crew or a huge [filmmaking] infrastructure. A lot of the old-time cars we used were driven up from Los Angeles, although they did find a couple of local collectors, And all of the buildings got replaced [digitally] because we had to knock everything back to 1962."

That was one area — architectural design — where the VFX team really got to shine. "We had our artists here in L.A. with a huge library of architecture books in order to get the design work done," Baksinski says. "Here's a building. Would this building even have been built if the Japanese took over in 1945? Here's another building. Would this building have made it to 1962? The guys did a lot of architectural studies and redesigned buildings to say, 'This is what a Japanese-occupied San Francisco would look like.'

"We did a ton of work, but it all goes by in a split second and no one notices it. The reality is we changed, I would say, 80 percent of the buildings in this show, getting rid of the more modern buildings and replacing them with new architecture. All of our artists got into this mode — what's the next cool thing I can put in here? What statues would be there? What cars would they be driving? What would the airplanes look like? It was a very fun and creative show."

If You Can Make It There …

The pilot announces itself with a bold flourish. The opening sequence begins inside a movie theater and then follows a character out the door and onto the street. The camera follows him until the show's first big reveal — a wide view of Times Square, with many of the billboards and other visual features familiar from period photography replaced by or intermingling with Nazi propaganda. It's an alarming visual, and it's one that had to land seamlessly, lest the credibility of the entire series be called into question in the first 10 minutes of the pilot.

The difficulty was ratched up by the simple fact that Seattle, of course, has neither a Times Square or a commercial area that resembles it. "Seattle has a lot of hills and slopes that were pretty good for making it into San Francisco but pretty lousy for making it into New York," Baksinski explains. "But they found these giant industrial warehouses with huge parking lots, and that whole New York sequence is him strolling across a football-field sized parking lot. We rebuilt everything else."

No Green Screen

Interestingly enough, despite the large number of background replacements, The Man in the High Castle didn't use many green screens. Baksinski says it's really a matter of personal preference. "I actually don't like using green screen," he says. "On a feature, it's one thing, because you have time to plan and figure it all out. But on a TV show, where you've got to do a lot of set-ups in any given day, there's just not much time for planning."

Instead, Baksinski likes to make friends with DPs, discussing ways that backlights and rimlights can be used to make life simpler in VFX, allowing a combination of keys and roto work to isolate characters from the background. Fortunately, cinematographer James Hawkinson, known for his work on Hannibal, was on the same page. "He started out saying, 'I like these paintings, and this kind of light, and this kind of look,'" Baksinski says. "This project was going to be contrasty and dark and moody and gritty — and if you light stuff with green screen and you don't do it right, you flatten the image out and it looks like a big videogame. That's not what Jim was going for and not what [director and executive producer] David Semel was going for. And with Seattle's 40 mile-per-hour winds and pouring rain at any given moment, you could kill someone out there, putting up that much green. So I finally told those guys: no green. Let's work a little harder to light it."

In addition to the vision of Hawkinson and Semel, Baksinski credits the expertise of production designer Drew Boughton. "His team was amazing," he says. "They were doing art concepts like crazy — cranking out [physical] signage but also giving us all the digital files so we can use them in the CG world.

"Everyone was working at a certain level of seriousness. Within the first week, you knew you were on something special. That's why the pilot came out the way it did — all of the teams across the board knew this was going to be something new, and something good."