HBO Max Limited Series DMZ represents a world in which America’s Second Civil War has torn the country in half, and the island of Manhattan serves as a demilitarized zone between the United States and the free states of America.
Created Westworld and Sons of anarchy writer Robert Patin and based on the eponymous comic book series by Brian Wood and Ricardo Burchieli, DMZ Chooses Rosario Dawson as Alma “Zee” Ortega, a medic from New York who was separated from her son during the evacuation from the island. Finding him across the U.S. and the FSA, she did returns to DMZ continue the search, only to find yourself in another war raging between rival factions trying to control Manhattan.
The four-episode series was directed by Ava Duverne and Ernest R. Dickerson with Oscar-nominated Duverne (13th, When they see us) directed the premiere of the series and Dickerson (Bosch) directed the remaining four episodes. To turn Manhattan into a war-torn middle ground in America’s new civil war, the series has turned to several visual effects studios, including FuseFXled by the head of visual effects Brian Cub. Digital Trends spoke with Cub about his team’s work on the series and how they transformed some of Manhattan’s most iconic landmarks destroyed by the war.
Digital Trends: The series is almost like a four-hour movie. How many shots did your team work on in all four episodes?
Brian Kubovchyk: I think in all the episodes our number of shots was in the range of 400. 350 to 400 shots.
This is definitely the number of frames for full-length frames, even if the series doesn’t necessarily look like a project with heavy VFX. What was the general atmosphere in the series, how much will the visual effects be used?
The construction of the world was the greatest. This story should feel intimate, but we also needed to build its scale, and you need to have these important points to determine where we are. When we went through the pre-production in the pilot and then in the subsequent shooting episodes from the second to the fourth, it was really obvious that New York, where the story takes place, is not the place where we have to shoot. This has actually hampered the creative vision of this because everything in New York is constantly changing and evolving, and new buildings are rising left and right. Everything there seems very new and refined. There are parts that still feel a little more worn out, but overall there is always new construction.
So why did the shooting end up in Atlanta?
That’s right. In Atlanta, there are opportunities to find worn-out buildings that fit storylines – as a basis for our history – but if you go wide and wide, you can tell a story with visual effects and expand the world. You can use visual effects to show what Manhattan might look like during the evacuation during and after the Second Civil War. You may ask, “What does it look like when it is destroyed by war and when nature returns it?”
How did you decide where the shooting would end and where the visual effects would go?
Well, we started with the question, “What is the essence of history? What kind of story do we want to tell? ” I lived in New York for 13 years, so was closely acquainted with many of the actual blocks or corners they wanted to talk about. Roberto Patina had a very clear vision of what it should be. He is also a New Yorker and he always knew where he wanted to be in this space.
So in the case of the Manhattan Bridge, for example, we knew that’s where the story should take place. That’s where the division between DMZ and the US is. So we went to a place in Atlanta and did reconnaissance. Much has been done by the production designer and production director to find those moments and find those corners that can mimic certain places in New York, and find out where we can do something practical to sell a particular corner, and where to build in visual effects.
If you had a certain architecture or landmark that you wanted to show how it worked with visual effects?
We went to New York as a team and actually scanned by the leader for example, the colonnade on Manhattan Bridge. For the surrounding buildings, we created CG versions of very specific angles, and then we had smaller Manhattan assets that we moved into space to help tell the story. There is an urban reality, but there is also a plot reality and what is felt in the frame is grand. So allowing things to move to make it look like New York, even if the actual location may have more buildings, sells opportunities to those who aren’t so familiar with New York, and makes it feel great. Most people know the great landmarks, but they don’t know what the Manhattan Bridge is, and they don’t know about the colonnade. So it was about balancing what looks like New York to those unfamiliar with it and what seems real to people who know the area.
What recommendations did you have to take these places and make them go through the war?
Feeling destroyed by the war had to take away existing structures, chew them or destroy things, as well as overgrown and return nature. That’s where we found the DMZ-ification of all this. “DMZ-ifying” has become a term we will also use. We were on set, and Atlanta would have a very clean white wall, and they looked at me and I said, “Yeah, we’re going to confirm that at DMZ.” These are water stains, maybe bullet holes, and sometimes a broken building, but in most cases it’s vegetation. We used vegetation to present the idea of these warring factions, these organisms that we are, fighting each other, while nature is just coming back. The pleasant duality is that we have such shortcomings, and nature will eventually win.
Was there any element that was particularly difficult to work on?
The most difficult for us were Chinatown and Manhattan Bridge. We spent a lot of time on these two things in a very short window, because it was the end of the post-production schedule. In our story, Wilson Lin (Hong Lee) and his team fenced themselves off with a wall in Chinatown. They have kept their power grid, so it is essentially different from the rest of the DMZ. Chinatown is one of the few places where we can see the lights on. It was a really fun way for us to tell a story, and there’s a lot of shots because the first floor in Atlanta was made to look like Chinatown, and then we expanded it [with visual effects] for all these buildings. If you see lower Manhattan in the background, it is darkened and you can see pieces of the World Trade Center. It’s really subtle, but these things sell the idea that this crew has kept their lifestyle and is very cohesive, and in the distance, outside the walls, everything has essentially fallen into a post-apocalyptic world.
What about invisible visual effects? Are there shots that people would be surprised to learn if they were created with visual effects?
If you look at the last moment of Manhattan Bridge, the amount that was actually practical was very, very cut in the scene. In many ways it felt like it might be on camera, but most of it was filmed by us [with visual effects]. I am really proud of these shots because they took a lot of effort. Only for the final sequence in the fourth episode it took a team of about 40 people to perform these shots in the time we had. And throughout all the episodes we had about 80 different team members working in all four episodes.
Finally, I have to ask: how was it to work with Ava Duverne? She is such an amazing director.
We had a very close relationship to this and through pilot production and [episodes] from two to four with Ava Duvernay. We worked with her on several projects: Knees in black and white and When they see us. It was great to work with her again. She was in the first episode, and she has such a strong creative look. She’s always thinking about the next thing she wants to see – and that’s what you want. You want these problems. You want to be able to tell stories.
Roberto Patina is also just phenomenal and also just a wonderful person [and] great person for work. Spending time with him on episodes from the second to the fourth was really great. He is a really great employee.
All four series DMZ now available on HBO Max.
How the visual effects made Manhattan a war zone in the HBO DMZ
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