The invisible effects of ‘Winning Time’

An excerpt from issue #5 of befores & afters magazine.

In order to properly tell the story of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team from the late 1970s into the 1980s, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty creators Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht sought to depict that era as accurately as possible. This meant shooting on film, or shooting with old broadcast cameras, and ‘living’ and ‘loving’ the resulting grain.

For the visual effects teams on the show, which were led by visual effects supervisor John Heller, that also meant living with the grain when crafting exterior views of era-correct basketball stadiums, or filling up the inside of stadiums with crowds based on game-play plates shot on partial court sets.

In this excerpt from issue #5 of befores & afters magazine, reps from two of the visual effects vendors, Pixomondo (responsible for much of the on-court action augmentation) and FuseFX (which largely handled stadium exteriors), explain how they went back in time on the show.

PIXOMONDO’S OLD-SCHOOL BASKETBALL ACTION

b&a: How did Pixomondo’s work on Winning Time break down?

Michael Shelton (visual effects supervisor, Pixomondo): We were responsible for all the basketball play, everything inside the arenas. We had four major locations. We had The Forum, which is where the Lakers play. We had Boston Garden for the Celtics, the Philly Spectrum Center for the 76ers, and the San Diego Arena, which was the Clippers’ home at that time. And then we had a one-off shot for Milwaukee Stadium, where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was playing before he was brought on to be a Laker. What we were responsible for was all of those environments, plus the crowds that had to go in to fill those stadiums.

Plate.
Final by Pixomondo.

Every time they would shoot, they would have a percentage of people there in the stands, but this was shot during COVID, so there was a major limit as to the number of bodies that we could get in there to fill out the stadium. We said to them, ‘Just shoot your film. We’ll figure that part out later.’ We didn’t want to put handcuffs on them–’Oh, we don’t want to put people that are 10 feet away from the camera.’ We just said, ‘Shoot your film.’

b&a: Were they stadiums that you would augment and enhance, or was it more greenscreen environments?

Michael Shelton: Production built one single court that was a regulation size basketball court. Then they had one generic lower level seating area. That was built on one side and most of the shooting favored that one side. We had the tunnel entrances, where the teams would come out, and then a section in the middle, where we had our crowds, and then everything above that would be our 3D models of each environment.

Every stadium was built around this generic on-set setup. We actually had found a company that had surveyed The Forum before it went through this major remodel. We knew we would have to tweak it because we ultimately had to fit the LiDAR scan of the set that was built within the bowels of the stadium. But then for others, we’d say, ‘Hey, the shot is Boston Garden? Cool, cool, load that up.’

b&a: How did you go about the stadium builds themselves?

Michael Shelton: We had been given reference by the art department and we had done our own research as well to look at all the nuances, not only for modeling, but also when we got into lighting. The thing about The Forum, for instance, is that it’s just this very big wide open cavernous arena with very distinct architecture on the roof. It’s supposed to be a big sunburst, so you have these big beams that are painted gold and it was very important to the filmmakers and to the DP that we pop that out. They just loved the detail up there.

Meanwhile, Boston Garden is the working man’s arena. It’s gritty. It’s got atmosphere. It’s half-smoke, half-something else up there. So, every stadium really had its own personality.

We’d put in things like making sure each light wasn’t perfectly aligned with each other. Or, some of the bulbs would be dimmer than others. We wanted to introduce these imperfections, because sometimes CG is just such a perfect tool. You have to get it dirty and then rub it on the gravel and stuff like that. That’s where realism comes from.

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FUSEFX GOES TO THE FORUM

b&a: What were the main visual effects FuseFX worked on for Winning Time?

Wayne England (visual effects supervisor, FuseFX): The supportive VFX we provided for HBO’s Winning Time included many of the usual suspects like car comps, set extensions, crowd duplication, clean-up and a good dose of specialty unique effects. Our largest in scope VFX shots, however, were the collective representing the period specific exterior of the Lakers stadium, The Forum. For the production, HBO built a small component section of the stadium as a practical live-action set. So the vast majority of our exterior stadium shots were rooted in 3D set extensions of that practical set.

b&a: When you had to do exterior shots of The Forum, was that a mix of augmenting real footage, or completely CG environments?

Wayne England: Our extensions beyond The Forum live action set ranged from large to small in scope. There was an exception shot though, for episode 10’s victory celebration: a top down view of the entire stadium, parking lot, surrounding foliage, approximately 400 cars and about 4000 extras (including the LA Lakers on the roof of The Forum), all of which was realized as a 100% CG shot.

All our other set extensions of The Forum combined variations on the themes of the in-camera stadium set build, parking lot, cars and extras. For example, in episode 5 there was a shot in which the camera starts low amid live action cars and extras walking toward the stadium (seen far screen-right). As the camera progressed in its journey upward while revealing more of the stadium, we gained more vantage upon the approximately 900 additional CG cars and 100 digi-doubles seamlessly integrated amidst and beyond the relatively modest number of practical cars and people.

With the night time lighting of the parking lot lights of our set extension and the illuminated extents of the large and looming Forum at the end of the shot, it felt a particularly beautiful and cinematic moment, especially with the final touches of the shots own period filmic look, cira 1979.
The plates themselves were all shot on film and so came to us semi prepared, but there was a definite stylized period look of the show, involving subtle amplifications of the appearance of the various film formats of the time. This particular aspect of applying the period look became an interesting study associated with the show as a whole.

b&a: I particularly like that, the look and feel of the whole series–the film look with film grain–but I was thinking for some of the visual effects work that would’ve been particularly tricky.

Wayne England: There was a lot of free range the show gave itself in terms of all the ways in which they represented the period, ranging from old 16mm film, 60’s and 70’s TV, 8mm hand-held, to the unique washed out look of 70’s projector TVs. We established a default period film grain look early on, based upon a specific grain provided for us to match. In DI, the same grain was applied with final levels.

One filmic effect shot involved Pat Riley using an old 60’s projector in his garage, projecting onto a wall scattered with hanging tools. Arriving at this specific ‘home projected’ period look involved really honing in on details such as lens flicker speed, filmic noise, the aged coloration and center-to-edge black level and white level falloff values, along with the edge falloffs effects of the projector bulb.

Another example from episode 5 was a powerful series of car comp close up shots of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. While driving, he was contemplating the civil rights movement and how he came to be a Muslim.

We saw his mind’s eye ruminations as reflections projected upon his glasses and/or the windshield. While establishing the look of these shots, we received a request from the showrunner that the TV footage of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichaell should look just as it looked on the televisions of the day in the 60s.

Having researched TV footage of Kennedy and other period shows and news captured on 60’s TVs, we found ourselves accentuating the horizontal scan lines, softening the image, while upping the black levels and bringing down the white’s, so that Kareem’s recollected imagery would appear just the right expression of that 60’s TV appearance.

Issue #5 of befores & afters magazine.

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