How Visual Effects Made Manhattan A Warzone In HBO’s DMZ

The HBO Max limited series DMZ presents a world in which the Second American Civil War tore the country in two, with the island of Manhattan serving as a demilitarized zone between the United States of America and the breakaway Free States of America.

Created by Westworld and Sons of Anarchy writer Roberto Patino and loosely based on the comic book series of the same name by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli, DMZ cast Rosario Dawson as Alma “Zee” Ortega, a New York City nurse who was separated from her son during the island evacuation. After searching for him across the United States and the FSA, she returns to the DMZ to continue her search, only to find herself caught up in another war raging between rival factions trying to control Manhattan.

The four-episode series was helmed by filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Ernest R. Dickerson, with Oscar nominee DuVernay (13th, When they see us) directing the series premiere and Dickerson (Bosch) directing the remaining four episodes. In order to turn Manhattan into a war-torn middle ground in a new American Civil War, the series turned to several visual effects studios, including FuseFX, led by visual effects supervisor Brian Kubovcik. Digital Trends spoke to Kubovcik about his team’s work on the series and how they’ve given some of Manhattan’s most iconic landmarks a war-ravaged makeover.

Eli Joshua Ade / HBO Max

Digital Trends: The series almost feels like a four-hour movie. How many shots did your team work on across the four episodes?

Brian Kubovcik: In all episodes, I think our shot count was probably around 400. Between 350 and 400 shots.

It’s certainly a feature shot number, even if the series doesn’t necessarily feel like a VFX-heavy project. What was the general vibe of the show, in terms of how visual effects would be used?

World building was the most important thing. This story should feel intimate, but we also had to build the scope of it, and you have to have those big moments to establish where we are. As we progressed through the pre-production of the pilot and then into the subsequent filming of episodes two through four, it was really apparent that New York, where the story takes place, was not the place where we should turn it. This actually hampered the creative vision for this one, as everything in New York is constantly changing and evolving, with new buildings rising left and right. Everything looks very new and polished there. There are portions that still seem a little more worn, but in general there is always new construction.

An early image of an intersection in the DMZ series before visual effects.
A post-visual effects image of an intersection in the DMZ series.

So that’s why he ended up filming in Atlanta?

To the right. There are opportunities in Atlanta to find worn-out buildings that fit the storylines – as a base for our story to play out – but when you go big and wide, then you can tell the story with visual effects and expand the world. You can use visual effects to show what Manhattan might look like during an evacuation during Civil War II, and the aftermath. You can ask, “What does it look like when he’s torn apart by war and nature takes him back?” »

How did you decide where filming ends and where the visual effects take over?

Well, we started off by asking, “What’s the point of the story? What’s the story we want to tell?” I lived in New York for 13 years, so I knew a lot of the blocks or corners intimately where they wanted to tell a particular story. Roberto Patino had a very clear vision of what it needed to be. He’s also a New Yorker, and he knew where he wanted to be in that space at all times.

So in the case of the Manhattan Bridge, for example, we knew that’s where the story wanted to be. This is where the separation between the DMZ and the United States lies. So we went to a place in Atlanta and did some scouting. A lot has been done by the production designer and the cinematographer to find those moments and find those corners that can imitate certain places in New York and to find out where we can do something practically to sell a specific corner and where we have to build in visual effects.

A first image from the DMZ series featuring actors in front of a blue screen.
An image from the DMZ series featuring actors against a background created with visual effects.

When you wanted to showcase specific architecture or landmarks, how did it work with the visual effects?

We went to New York as a team and scanned the colonnade of the Manhattan Bridge with lidar, for example. For the surrounding buildings, we built CG versions of very specific corners, and then we had lower Manhattan assets that we would move into space to help tell the story. There’s the reality of the city, but there’s also the reality of the story and what seems grand in the setting. So taking a few liberties to move things around to make it feel like New York, even though the actual location may have more buildings, sells the scope to those who don’t know New York as intimately, and makes it feel like to be big. Most people know the most important landmarks, but they don’t know what the Manhattan Bridge is and don’t know about the Colonnade. So it was about balancing what looks like New York to those who don’t know it, and what rings true to people who know the area.

What were some of the guidelines you had for taking these places and making them feel like they had been through a war?

Making it feel war-torn was all about taking existing structures, chewing them up or tearing things down, and having overgrowth and nature take over. This is really where we found the DMZ-ification of it all. “DMZ-ifying” became the term we would use as well. We’d be on set and there’d be a really clean white wall in Atlanta, and they’d look at me and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, let’s DMZ-ify that.’ It’s water stains, maybe bullet holes, or sometimes a toppled building, but in most cases it’s vegetation. We used vegetation to represent the idea of ​​these warring factions, these organisms that we are, fighting each other, as nature takes over. It’s a beautiful dichotomy that we’re so imperfect and nature will eventually win out.

An early image of Chinatown from the DMZ series before creating visual effects.
An image of Chinatown from the DMZ series after visual effects have been applied to it.

Was there an element that was particularly difficult to work on?

The hardest things for us were Chinatown and Manhattan Bridge. Those two things we spent a lot of time on in a very short window, because it was towards the end of the post-production schedule. In our story, Wilson Lin (Hoon Lee) and his team locked themselves in Chinatown. They’ve maintained their power grid, so it’s inherently a different look to the rest of the DMZ. Chinatown is one of the only places where you can see lights. It was a really interesting way for us to tell a story, and there’s a lot of shots there, because the first floor of Atlanta was designed to look like Chinatown, and then we expanded it [with visual effects] for all these buildings. When you see lower Manhattan in the background, it’s blacked out and you can see pieces of the destroyed One World Trade Center. It’s really subtle, but this stuff sells the idea that this crew has maintained their lifestyle and are very tight-knit while far away, outside the walls, things have descended into a post-apocalyptic world, essentially.

What about invisible visual effects? Are there any shots that people would be surprised to learn were created with visual effects?

When you look at the final moment of Manhattan Bridge, the amount that was actually practical was very, very shortened in the scene. A lot of it felt like it could be behind closed doors, but the majority it was us taking the picture [with visual effects]. These pictures of which I am really proud because they required a lot of effort. Just for the episode four ending sequence, it took a crew of about 40 people to complete those shots in the amount of time we had. And across all episodes, we had almost 80 different crew members working on all four episodes.

An image from the DMZ series featuring actors in front of a blue screen.
An image from the DMZ series featuring actors against a city background after creating visual effects.

Finally, I have to ask: what was it like working with Ava DuVernay? She’s such an amazing filmmaker.

We had a very close relationship before that and through the production pilot and [episodes] two to four with Ava DuVernay. We have worked on several projects with her: Quail in black and white and When they see us. Working with her again was great. She was in the first episode and she has such a strong creative eye. She’s always thinking about the next thing she wants to see – and that’s what you want. You want those challenges. You want to be able to tell stories.

Roberto Patino is just phenomenal too, and also just a great human being [and] a great person to work with. Spending time with him on set from episodes two through four was truly awesome. He really is a great collaborator.

The four episodes of DMZ are available now on HBO Max.

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