How the Coen brothers used new-school effects to create old-school Hollywood in Hail, Caesar!

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Joel and Ethan Coen have never bothered pinning themselves to a single genre, nor have they been afraid of wearing their love for Hollywood itself on their collective sleeve — but their latest film Hail, Caesar! takes things to an entirely different level. A film about Old Hollywood, set inside the fictional Capitol Pictures in the 1950s, it doesn’t just take pains to create the look and feel of happy-go-lucky musicals, aw-shucks westerns, and Roman epics; Hail, Caesar! begins adopting those stylistic traits itself, resulting in a movie that at times seems it could have been made in that very same era.

Core to that stylistic effort was the work of visual effects supervisor Dan Schrecker and his team of artists at Psyop Film & Television. A longtime collaborator of Darren Aronofsky who’s also worked on everything from Joy to Moonrise Kingdom, Schrecker found himself with an interesting challenge with Hail, Caesar!: seamlessly replicate the style of visual effects used 60 years ago, from unconvincing matte paintings to a faux-miniature Russian submarine, using the digital tools of today. A few days before the film hit theaters, I jumped on the phone with Schrecker to talk about how he and his team pulled it off.

Bryan Bishop: I’m going to ask a question that I hope you take as a compliment: what exactly in this film did you guys actually do digitally, because I can’t tell?

Dan Schrecker: When we started working on it and were talking to Joel and Ethan [Coen], we had three areas of visual effects. Your sort of standard, modern-day effects, where we just had to do things that weren’t possible to shoot. Those were things like the lasso, when Hobie (Alden Ehrenreich) is waiting to meet Carlotta (Veronica Osorio) [and does some roping tricks], and some of the stuff like the arch on the Appian Way. That arch was a partial build on set that we extended, and there’s a bunch of other stuff like that.

And then you had things that were essentially period effects, so you had things like the matte painting of Rome. When George Clooney rides up on the hill and looks out over Rome, and it cuts to what’s essentially a painting, which is a direct reference to some shot from [the Robert Taylor epic] Quo Vadis, where they did the same thing in 1950. So we’re recreating some of the look from that era. And then the third was this sort of gray area, where the movie goes along the line between the movies within the movie and what they’re making at Capitol Pictures, and reality starts to blur, and you really see that at the end when it starts to go day-for-night, [an older technique where night scenes are actually shot during the day and given a blue tint].

It culminates, really, in the sub sequence [at the end], which was shot and designed to look like a Ben-Hur battle sequence, where they basically shot it in a tank, hung a backdrop in the background, and that was what it looked like in 1950. And here we did the same idea. We added some digital work to make it look seamless, but you’re into that weird gray area of Is it real, or is it movie?

There’s a lot of screening rooms in this movie, too. Josh Brolin’s character watching the movies his studio is making, visiting Frances McDormand who is cutting one of them on an old Moviola editing console…

All of the screening rooms, every time you see a movie projected, that was something we did, including a matte painting for the curtains to the screening room, and that carried through to the premiere, when Hobie and Carlotta go to the premiere. And that reached its apex for us in the Moviola sequence. It’s a standard monitor comp, but within the footage that’s appearing we did a rear-screen projection gag. There’s a scene with Jack Huston where he’s sitting in the back of a car, and that was shot green screen, but then recreated to look like a rear-screen projection which is what they would done. So it’s sort of a bad driving comp, intentionally.

Most times you’re trying to make something look as lifelike as possible, and here you’re trying to make a stylized version of people trying to make things look lifelike 50 years ago. How did you break down how you were going to accomplish these gags; was there ever talk about doing that car sequence as an actual rear-projection shot?

Well part of it was the practicality of it. It’s just so easy to hang a green screen there, and it’s relatively easy to make it look like a rear-screen projection because all you’re doing is a bad green screen composite. You don’t track it. You don’t color-correct it. You make sure the edges look good, but there’s not much more to it. So part of it was what was feasible and practical to shoot. And a good example of that was the whole sub sequence, because we did a lot of research there looking at practical miniature subs. Because if they were going to do this for real in the ’50s, they would have shot a miniature. So we looked at a lot of sub movies from the period, and even all the way up to Das Boot, which is sort of the apex of that style of film. And we looked at these movies from the ’50s, and they’re pretty silly looking. It was important to Joel and Ethan that it didn’t look silly — we couldn’t really make it look bad; we had to keep it real — but hearken back to some of those techniques.

Hail, Caesar! visual effects (UNIVERSAL)

So what we did was a full digital solution on the sub. Full CG sub, full CG water simulation — but with enough little details to make it look like a miniature. So the scale of the water and the depth of field stuff we tricked out to give the impression that this is how they might have done it back then. And again, we’re totally in this weird gray area, where it kind of looks the reality of the film, and it kind of looks like the fake movies they were making.

There were a few shots where there was a practical sub, so the art department built a sub set. Anytime you saw Channing Tatum climbing on the sub and Dolph Lundgren standing on top of the sub, that was all a real set. We had to extend that set digitally for some shots, in addition to the fully CG shots.

So wait a second: you shot no miniatures for the submarine reveal at all?

No miniatures. It’s all digital.

That’s crazy. There are moments where you key in on certain details, and I was in the theater fully thinking, "That’s so cool they shot miniatures for this."

If you have a practical set and need to extend it, it gets tougher to tie that miniature in and extend it that way. So the flexibility of doing a full digital solution made a lot of sense to us. Especially because Joel and Ethan wanted to maintain a certain level of flexibility when they got into post. Miniatures, you lose a lot of flexibility, because you really need to know what you’re doing, and you shoot and you shoot, and that’s what you get. Whereas with digital, you have a little more room to play around.

Let’s take a step back to that first really obvious digital matte painting, when George Clooney looks out over Rome in the Hail, Caesar! movie-within-the-movie. It seems like there’s a real affection for these old techniques there, and you mentioned the Coens didn’t want the effects to be funny. Can you walk me through how a shot like that gets pulled off?

It was important that the sub not look silly. The whole point of that Rome matte painting was that it was ridiculous. I can’t judge if it was ridiculous in 1951 when Quo Vadis came out, but if you look at it now it’s the exact same thing. It really is a direct reference. They ride up, look out, and then it cuts to this silly painting. So we had that reference; the art department did some concept art that we riffed on. And then we started working on it and did some early versions that were promising. And then the second iteration we did was actually too good. We took the idea that we were working with, and we polished it up, and put it in front of [Joel and Ethan], and they were like, "Whoa, whoa whoa, that’s too good. It doesn’t sell the joke enough. You’ve got to make sure that it really feels silly for that moment."

"The whole point of that matte painting was that it was ridiculous."

Taken alongside the rear-projection gag, it almost seems like part of making this project work was to approach it as if the visual effects industry hadn’t learned anything in the last 50 years.

To some extent. The rear-projection was a specific one-off, really consciously recreating that look. And it wasn’t even that they hadn’t learned how to do it in the ‘50s; they just couldn’t. Green screen didn’t really come along until Star Wars. And rear-screen projection, they kept using it well into the ’80s. If you watch Seinfeld, any driving scene in Seinfeld is still done with rear-screen projection. So it really was like the standard effect for the day.

There was one thought I didn’t finish when discussing the Moviola — and this is a modern-day visual effect because it couldn’t be shot — which is when the film burns. We looked originally at doing at CG solution, and there was no CG solution that can really recreate that effect, because it’s very specific and cool and organic. And we found a guy just trolling the web on Vimeo, who did this. This was his art; he would burn film and then shoot it. So we tracked him down in Scotland, and he was more than happy to work on a Coen brothers movie. So we worked with the Coens, found the exact frame that burned, and then printed it up and sent it over to him. And then he shot it in 4K and sent it back to us to composite into the Moviola. So all that film burning is real, and it’s really using that exact frame.

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