Friday, May 23, 2008

Recreating New York

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.


Toby O'B said...

I always refer to these types of shots as the "New York Of The Imagination". Most times it happens in little details - like in "Hannah And Her Sisters", when Woody Allen decides to consult a Catholic priest. They use as the establishing shot the Little Church Around The Corner and then show the priest.

However, that church on E. 29th Street is not of the Catholic denomination.

The long corridor of the Hotel Edison was used in two different movies but not exactly as it is in real life. In 'The Godfather', Luca Brasi walks up the hallway but then turns down a corridor with two elevator banks facing each other. The Edison only has the one. And in 'Bullets Over Broadway', Jack Warden and John Cusack walk down the hallway and have a doorman open the door to let them out. You can hear the street sounds once he does so, but he's opening the door to Sophia's restaurant in reality! (The camera was positioned in the actual doorway.)

Folks in Peoria won't notice these details, but then I wouldn't notice the differences in movies that are set in their hometown....

Bobby D. said...

NYC changes so quickly -- one day in the 1980s 3rd Ave is all little brownstones and by summer's end it is all chrome and glass skyscrapers. I walked up 3rd almost every day back then and it was like watching a movie--the transformation was swift and unreal.

But NY is all about real estate when you come down to it--such a tiny space --not much more than a mile across to put millions and millions of people. I grew up with a thousand neighbors on my little block.

The scariest transformation for me is the Martinique Hotel-- it was a squalid death trap of a welfare crackhead hotel --rat infested and disgusting. Now it has been renovated and is a tourist hotel--I would never stay there. The newspapers used to report on the deaths of children in that hotel--falling out windows, down stairwells, killed by neglectful parents --It creeps me out to walk past it now, all cleaned up, welcoming tourists who are totally unaware of it's hellish past.

but that's NYC --it;s all about real estate.
Maeve Brennan writes about this same subject-- the constant transformation of 1950's NYC. beautiful buildings demolished, building & tearing down.

it is the place to be in the construction trades.

I enjoyed gangs of NY very much, but I viewed it for entertainment purposes, knowing quite a bit of the history already. There was quite a buzz around it --people around here were gearing up to criticize it before seeing it.

I liked Scorsese's Age of Innocence -- the brownstones were a few blocks from where I was living at the time. I thought the film's details showed his respect for both Wharton and old NY

Bobby D. said...

Oh, the only detail that made me laugh--is in Sleepy Hollow--where Johnny Depp is riding his horse from NYC to Sleepy Hollow-- on the wrong side of the river! that always gets me--but then I know it was shot in England or someplace so what could they do? They certainly couldn't have Depp riding alongside the Hudson River with the Metro North train zipping past him. I can just see him riding past Target and Starbucks...

Toby O'B said...

When I saw Red Skelton at Carnegie Hall in his last years, he said the crane should be the New York bird - there was one on every corner!

I used to live on 94th between 2nd and 3rd with a large empty lot across the street.... I can bet that's long gone!

Terence Towles Canote said...

I've never been to New York, but from news footage, movies, and my own knowledge of the city, I know it has changed a lot. It is amazing how different a photograph of Times Square from 1935 might look from taken, say, in 1975.

Anyway, I like that term, Toby, "New York of the Imagination." I suppose that could even apply to highly fictionalised version of NYC, such as Gotham City in the Batman comic books (DC Comics might say otherwise these days, but we ALL know it is New York...)