For the critically acclaimed Cinemax series, The Knick, helmed by Academy Award-winning and Emmy-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Side Effects, HBO’s Behind the Candelabra) and starring Academy Award and Emmy-nominated actor Clive Owen (Closer, Children of Men, HBO’s Hemingway & Gellhorn), Phosphene, the lead VFX house, created effects that ranged from complex character augmentation to detailed period set extensions, medical enhancements and period anachronisms.
Cinemax, owned and operated by HBO, has recently committed to a second season for the period drama, set in downtown New York in 1900, and centers on Knickerbocker Hospital and the groundbreaking surgeons, nurses and staff, who push the boundaries of medicine in a time of astonishingly high mortality rates and zero antibiotics. The original drama series premiered exclusively on Cinemax in August.
Among numerous other highly complex and creative effects, under the direction of Creative Director John Bair and VFX Executive Producer Vivian Connolly, Phosphene’s talented team created an impressive CG face replacement for Abigail, a central character played by Jennifer Ferrin, substituting the actor’s nose with a CG version to simulate a face disfigured by Syphilis.
On her collaboration with Phosphene The Knick VFX Supervisor Lesley Robson-Foster said, “We solved a tricky series of shots together using a combination of CGI, special effects prosthetic elements and compositing. Phosphene has a very talented group of artists and Abigail’s nose was a real challenge. I was very pleased with the result, as was Steven Soderbergh.” VFX Producer Parker Chehak added, “No one ever said ‘cool’ or ‘nice work’ when they saw those shots. They always said ‘EW!’ ‘ Mission Accomplished.’”
Abigail’s missing nose had to be both visually striking and subtly personalized. Phosphene started with a special effects face cast provided to them by production. Phosphene’s Lead Digital Artist Aaron Raff explained the process. “First, we used PhotoScan to convert photos of the cast to a detailed 3D model.” Lead CG Artist Vance Miller then proceeded to light and render a physically accurate version of Abigail’s nose-less face in V-Ray. CG Artist Kim Lee painstakingly animated all of the slight twitches and stretches of the nose cavity we see as Abigail moves her face and speaks to Dr. Thackery. Raff continued: “Using NukeX, I integrated these renders of Abigail’s nose cavity onto the footage of the actress, maintaining photo-real lighting across shots that had Abigail moving her head from side to side and passing through light and shadow. The effect had to be seamless since Abigail’s altered face stayed at the center of the frame for an extended dialogue scene.” In addition, the creative needs of the show sometimes called for interaction of the surgical instruments within the nose cavity. In those instances, Phosphene created CG extensions for the practical surgical instruments. Phosphene then animated the side flaps of the nose to match the interaction of the CG instrument tips.
Phosphene Visual Effects Producer/Compositing Supervisor Rebecca Dunn stated, “The sequence in which Thackery inspects Abigail’s wounded nose was one of the earliest we worked on and was the most demanding visual effects sequence completed for Season 1. Phosphene’s VFX team met early with Lesley Robson-Foster and Parker Chehak to determine the best way to approach this effect which had to appear highly realistic, always maintaining a fine balance between showing Abigail’s disfigurement whilst letting the natural beauty of her character shine through. Phosphene’s previous collaboration with Lesley and Parker working on Richard Harrow’s facial disfigurement in Seasons 3 and 4 of ‘Boardwalk Empire’ gave us some great experience in how to approach the visual effects for Abigail’s nose.”
An original 10-part series, The Knick was created and written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (Raising Helen, Big Miracle), who also served as Executive Producers, along with Gregory Jacobs (Behind the Candelabra); Steven Soderbergh, Michael Sugar (Rendition), and Clive Owen. Supervising Producer Steven Katz (Shadow of the Vampire) wrote episodes 5 and 9; Producer is Michael Polaire; Associate Producer David Kirchner; Director of Photography Peter Andrews; Editor Mary Ann Bernard; Associate Editor Corey Bayes; and Post-production Supervisor Samara Levinstein.
Being the first 4K television series undertaken by Phosphene, major technology upgrades were implemented to ensure that they were able to handle the large amounts of data without a hitch, including setting up a state of the art 4K monitor and playback system to provide real-time previews. This enabled Phosphene to review VFX at full resolution in-house. In addition Phosphene utilized tools such as 3ds Max, V-Ray for 3ds Max, NukeX, and Agisoft PhotoScan.
The film-to-tape assignment was handled by Colorist Martin Zeichner at Deluxe (New York, NY) with Sam Uber as Conform Editor.
Phosphene is a New York-based independent design and visual effects house led by founders/co-owners John Bair and Vivian Connolly.
In 2010, Bair and Connolly launched Phosphene with visual effects for Barry Levinson’s “You Don’t Know Jack,” Phillip Noyce’s “Salt,” George Nolfi’s “The Adjustment Bureau,” Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver” and Brad Anderson’s “Vanishing on 7th Street.” Phosphene next designed and executed elaborate CG environments for Brett Ratner’s action-comedy “Tower Heist,” Stephen Daldry’s two-time Academy Award nominated “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” and Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult.”
Phosphene was a VFX partner on “The Bourne Legacy,” 2013 Golden Globe nominee “Hope Springs,” and Stephen Frears’ “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” before teaming up with director Sebastián Cordero to create over three hundred shots for the acclaimed science fiction thriller “Europa Report.”
Later, Phosphene partnered with Bill Condon and DreamWorks on “The Fifth Estate” and with Alfonso Cuarón on the Warner Bros./NBC pilot “Believe” and was a visual effects partner on Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” John Turturro’s “Fading Gigolo” and Josh Boone’s “The Fault in our Stars.”
The company recently completed FX work for Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” and Tom McCarthy’s “The Cobbler” and is currently working on Drake Doremus’ “Equals,” the Netflix TV drama series “Marco Polo,” HBO’s fifth and final season of “Boardwalk Empire,” ABC-TV’s series “Forever,” and Craig Zobel’s “Z for Zachariah.”
Phosphene received a Visual Effects Society Award and an Emmy nomination for their work on “Boardwalk Empire.” And, in addition to their Emmy-nominated work for Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” Phosphene was the VFX partner on all four seasons of “Treme,” NBC’s “30 Rock,” ABC’s “Pan Am,” CBS’s “Blue Bloods,” FX’s “The Americans, Cary Fukunaga’s “True Detective” and Ryan Murphy’s “The Normal Heart” for HBO. In a departure from their television and film work, Phosphene designed and animated a six-minute projection for the Broadway production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
Phosphene is located at 180 Varick Street, Suite 1621, New York, NY 10014. For further information contact [email protected]; Phone (646) 350-3370; Fax (212) 671-1734; or visit www.phosphenefx.com.