The story behind ‘Cloverfield’s’ classic Statue of Liberty shot

…and why it was different in the teaser trailer.

In the summer of 2007, Paramount Pictures ran a teaser trailer for an unnamed film with the release of Michael Bay’s Transformers. It featured a group of New York friends at a party who suddenly witness a massive explosion and then see the head of the Statute of Liberty careening down a city street.

That teaser, which went majorly viral, was of course later revealed to be for the Matt Reeves’ monster movie Cloverfield, produced by J.J. Abrams. Eventually the ‘found-footage’ film released in January 2008 would go on to be a huge hit. But there were two fascinating things about that intense teaser; the first is that it was filmed largely while the production was still in prep as a test-bed for the hand-held VFX requirements of the movie.

The second fascinating fact was that, although the majority of the visual effects for the final film were handled by Double Negative (now DNEG) and Tippett Studio, the visual effects for the Statue of Liberty head teaser were done by Hammerhead Productions (a fact even mentioned in the official production notes).

It’s certainly not unusual for a different studio to tackle teaser trailer shots or for shots and elements to change from teaser to final – in fact, it happens regularly simply because these teasers need to get out there, quickly. But it is interesting to see what the differences were between the original teaser (above) and the final scene from the film (below).

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Directors and filmmakers often have enough work on their hands in just making their films without having to think about any promotion or marketing materials, including teaser trailers. In the case of Cloverfield, the teaser trailer served as both a major ‘tease’ about a mysterious film project and a test for actually achieving the kinds of visual effects that would be required for the mostly hand-held film.

Reeves explained more about the origins of the teaser trailer in a 2008 post-release interview with Rotten Tomatoes:

Well we had a twelve-week prep which is already very short for a movie of this size with all of its visual effects, but it was out of necessity for the amount of time we had to deliver the film. At that point, when we started, we didn’t have a script still. Drew and I had been meeting on weekends – he was writing on Lost during the week – and he was basically off during the first eight weeks of that prep writing the script while we were making the teaser trailer. We spent the first eight weeks of our twelve-week prep basically just making the teaser trailer.

And it became a kind-of think-tank workshop to try and figure out how to make the movie because we were shooting a handheld visual effects movie which is very unusual. Initially our visual effects people came to us and said, “Maybe you need to shoot this on Steadicam,” and I said, “If this movie is going to feel authentic to the people it’s being made for, they’re going to smell Steadicam in a second, we can’t do that.” So we used the teaser trailer to learn how to do that, but as a result we were only shooting the movie about a month after that so when the teaser trailer came out on July 4th we’d only been shooting for about a week and a half.

The visual effects for Cloverfield would ultimately be supervised by Kevin Blank, Eric Leven (Tippett Studio) and Michael Ellis (Double Negative). But given how quickly the teaser was required, the VFX for the Liberty head shots – based on plates filmed on the Paramount backlot – were handled by Hammerhead Productions, which worked on three shots, as detailed on their website.

A still showing Hammerhead’s work in the teaser trailer.

If you look at the teaser and compare it to the Liberty work done for the final film by Double Negative, there’s certainly a couple of differences, and clearly DNEG had more time to add in more detail. This is explained by Ellis and DNEG CG supervisor David Vickery in an interview they did after the film’s release with Studio Daily.

Here’s Ellis on the kinds of things DNEG was able to add to the Liberty head shot for the final film.

Hammerhead [Studio City, CA] did the original shot. But they only had a couple of weeks to do it, and I don’t think anyone was very happy with it. We reworked the shot, rebuilt the head, changed a lot of things about it, made it much more dynamic, and we also knew that [director] Matt [Reeves] wanted to focus on the head for quite a long time. In order for it to stand up to that scrutiny, we had to put a lot of work into it. We spent a long time creating the model itself, and then painting all the dust and the debris and the erosion and burnished copper showing through. We also spent a long time creating smoke sims and dust and debris thrown up from it as it goes by. We didn’t use any practical elements for that. It was all simulations for the dust and dirt to make it work properly in the scene.

DNEG's work on the Liberty head shot

A breakdown of DNEG’s work on the Liberty head shot, as seen in the Studio Daily story.

And Vickery provided more detail about just how much work went into the Liberty head.

It was one of the first shots we started work on, and pretty much the last one we finished. It’s obviously such a massive American icon that everyone who saw the shot in any sort of working state had an opinion of how it should look. “Make the head a little bit bigger!” We got to version 70 or 80 of the shot by the time we got to the end of it. We painted and repainted the textures over and over again. It didn’t matter how finished we thought it was. It always needed one more tweak to make it the perfect shot that it needed to be.

We started with Hammerhead’s geometry. We got that, and then we found some amazing reference on the Internet, these huge 4K and 5K wide black-and-white stills of the Liberty head when it was being cleaned a few years ago, with scaffolding up all around it. We were able to see how all the panelwork was welded in places and riveted in others, and also the rivulets of grime – even after it had been cleaned it was obvious that it had weathering for a hundred years. As with all these things, there’s a certain amount of creativity.

When we started out, we built it perfectly to scale. But I think it’s only about 11 ½ feet from ear to ear. And we put this in our scene and rendered it and everyone thought it was tiny. People were saying, “Ah, you can have 15 people standing in the crown!” I don’t think that’s true. People imagine it being bigger than it is. So it ended up being about 50 percent bigger than reality. By the time we chucked it down the street and bounced it off the walls and bent the crown and the spikes, it occupied a much smaller space anyway. But it was a really challenging shot for us, and really rewarding.

I have to say I distinctly recall seeing that teaser and loving it, and then later seeing Cloverfield in a packed theatre 10 years ago and everyone being absolutely buzzed afterwards – the film is a wild ride (I also remember thinking, ‘Those roto, tracking and matchmove artists are AMAZING…’).

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