'Boardwalk Empire' Special Effects Featurette Looks at Creating Old Atlantic City

An example of 'Boardwalk Empire's digitally-augmented set

HBO's original series Boardwalk Empire dominated in its freshman season. The combination of Sopranos-style crime drama, historical fiction and top-notch acting has proven hard to resist, earning the show over 10 million total views per episode. To ease your wait until Boardwalk Empire's return in 2011, the show's visual effects studio, Brainstorm Digital, has posted a video detailing some of the techniques that brought 20s-era Atlantic City to life on the small screen.

Boardwalk Empire's fantastic production design is one of its biggest draws, though some viewers might not realize it. The costumes, lighting, cinematography, set design - even the writing and directing - harken back to an age that few living people can remember. On a TV budget (even with HBO holding the pursestrings) this means that a lot of the set design has to be added in later via digital renders and bluescreen technology. There's an incredible amount of research needed to pull off a period piece successfully, and it looks like Brainstorm Digital is up to the challenge. The Atlantic City boardwalk and skyline have been painstakingly recreated, including vintage buildings and advertisements from the likes of Lucky Strike and Coca-Cola.

The small studio isn't a household name like Industrial Light and Magic, but they've managed to add some impressive titles to their resume. Brainstorm Digital's former work includes A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon and both Da Vinci Code films. In 1995, their work on Apollo 13 earned the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects. The Brooklyn-based company seems to excel when more subtle effects are required, augmenting existing sets and production designs rather than overpowering them. Their work on Empire might not have had a lot to do with its recent Golden Globe nominations, but it certainly makes the show immersive for viewers, giving the cast an excellent backdrop to play against.

There's no denying it: there's some fantastic work on display here. To get the correct lighting on exterior scenes, the show is shot in broad daylight. With a relatively cramped studio and restrictive on-location sets, adding in believable backdrops to transport the audience into Prohibition America wasn't an easy task. In the video you can see exactly where the sets are augmented with huge bluescreen walls - on one occasion, a group of painted railroad cars is placed strategically in front of the camera to allow for seamless post processing. And it is seamless: in most of the finished shots, it's almost impossible to see where the beautiful real-world sets end and the digital background begins. Other highlights include a quick shot of Richard Harrow's (Jack Huston) scarred, twisted face under the mask and a shot where an entire boat is replaced with the actors preserved inside.

You can watch the featurette here:

Boardwalk Empire VFX Breakdowns of Season 1 from Brainstorm Digital on Vimeo.

Boardwalk Empire will return for its second season in 2011 on HBO.

Source: Brainstorm Digital

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