It is a fact of life that cities change over time. In fact, most cities change drastically even over a few decades. This can present a problem for filmmakers trying to recreate a specific city at a particular time. This problem is perhaps even greater when it comes to New York City, which due to its sheer size tends to change more than many other cities. For that reason, when shooting period pieces filmmakers have had to come up with various means of recreating the city at a particular point in its history.
This is especially true when a film is set over one hundred years ago. Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York was set in the "Five Points" district of New York City in the early 1860's. Quite naturally, New York City has changed a lot in those 141 years, so that shooting on location would do no good. Scorsese then had to find other means of recreating Lower Manhattan circa 1863 and 1864. Having wanted to make a film about the gangs of New York in the 19th century since the Seventies, Scorsese had already done considerable research on the city during that era. His production designer Dante Ferretti would do further research, including examination of period photographs. Finally, the sets were built at Cinecitta Studios in Rome. Among these sets were recreations of Five Points, part of Lower Broadway, and part of Upper Manhattan. Even New York's harbour in the era was recreated. The water tank at Cincetta was filled and then enhanced with a bluescreen behind it for the CG background. CG (courtesy of Industrial Lights and Magic) was also used to enhance the sets. ILM ultimately created 45 CG shots, using both two dimensional and three dimensional matte paintings, in order to capture the size and scope of New York City in the 1860's. Ultimately, one can debate the over all quality of Gangs of New York and even debate its historical accuracy with regards to the portrayal of events and people in the film, but one thing that has not been debated its rather accurate recreation of New York City around 1863 and 1864.
Another film which faced the problem of recreating New York City from a specific era was Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of King Kong. The movie begins and ends in New York City in the year 1933. Filming on location in New York City itself was impractical for the simple reason that the city has changed enormously since the release of the original King Kong in 1933. Indeed, even the iconic Empire State Building has changed over the years. To this end, Jackson and his team decided to recreate several blocks of New York City from 1933 on a vacant lot in Seaview, a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand. Production designer Grant Major went so far as to recreate the finer details of photographs from the era, feeling that they had to make their version of New York believable. Ultimately, sets were build for Time Square, Herald Square, various city streets, and a low rent district. Jackson's New York City of 1933 would further be enhanced by CGI and miniatures.
The Empire State Building itself presented problems. Not only would filming atop the building be impossible, but even if it was, the building has changed a good deal since the Thirties. Today the top of the Empire State Building is filled with radio antennas and microwave stations; in 1933 it was still pristine. They then had to recreate much of the Empire State Building. Most of this was done through CGI, but sets were built of lobby, stairways, the observation deck, and the cone atop which Kong meets his fate. To do so the filmmakers went beyond visiting the actual skyscraper. They also examined a large number of photographs from the era.
Both Gangs of New York and the 2005 version of King Kong concerned themselves with realistic recreations of New York in their respective periods. This was not the case with the 2003 movie Down With Love. Set in New York City in the early Sixties, the movie is an homage to the sex comedies of the Sixties, particularly those starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Because of this it is not an actual recreation of New York City in 1962, but instead a recreation of New York City as presented in the sex comedies of the era. The film was then shot largely on the New York City backlot of Universal Studios. To further recreate New York City as filtered through the sex comedies of the Sixties, extensive use was made of CGI, 3-D matte paintings, and footage from the period. Since Down with Love portrayed a movie fantasy version of New York City, many of the city's landmarks were actually moved blocks away from where they are in reality. In one shot, the Chrysler Building can be seen behind and to the left of the Pan Am building. Kim Novack's apartment presents a view from which she can see the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and the Chrysler Building! While Down with Love presents a wholly unrealistic version of New York City from 1962, it does present a convincing recreation of the Big Apple as it was portrayed in the Rock Hudson and Doris Day comedies.
There can be little doubt that New York City will continue to change and evolve over the years. As a result, filmmakers wishing to make period pieces will have to find various means to recreate the city during given eras. If they have any concern for accuracy, this will mean a good deal of research. Fortunately, the development of CGI has helped filmmakers a great deal. The days when cities were unconvincingly recreated on studio backlots or, worse yet, inside studios, are long gone. Today a filmmaker can rebuild New York City as it was in 1863, 1933, or even a 1962 that never actually occurred.