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Interview: Getting The Look Of The Looming Tower Right

Some projects engender a sense of responsibility. A certain fealty to the source. The Looming Tower was just such a project. In telling the story on the lead up to 9/11, you would anticipate the makers to approach the material with a certain amount of restraint. It’s simply not a topic you would want to sensationalize.

From the screenplay, the direction, and the performances, too much flash would diminish the subject matter. In The Looming Tower, that perspective extended to the visual effects team. To make the explosions overly spectacular would have a negative impact on the tone of such a somber tale.

I spoke with The Looming Tower’s Visual Effects Supervisor Aaron Raff and Visual Effects Supervisor Steven Weigle about the inherent challenges working with such material, and their effort to honor the subject matter.

In working on a project like The Looming Tower, what were your main goals in terms of visual effects?

Aaron: We figured out early on in our conversations with the showrunners and the directors, that the role visual effects would play in this kind of show and in this specific series, was to pick very select moments where we could place the show within the events it’s showing. A lot of the action takes place inside rooms and through conversations, and there were going to be a couple of moments where we needed to have the camera zoom out to show the gravity of the situations we were depicting. A lot of times the visual effects shots can be wide shots of an area. For example: In the early episodes when we see the devastation of the US Embassy bombing in Nairobi, there were a couple of wide shots, (we thought) if we just show the scope of the devastation here, then all of our smaller stories on the street level between the characters will really be grounded and make sense. That sort of philosophy carried out to the other terrorist attacks that we see depicted throughout the show. There will be a couple of moments where we go wide and see the true scale of things we were dealing with. In the later episodes when we see the USS Cole battleship, a lot of the drama of that scene is very close and we see the young Al-Qaida operatives who were barely teenagers. We were up close with them, and then we see the sailors on the Cole, and there’s just a couple moments where the camera pulls way back, and we see the giant disparity between a huge destroyer and the tiny boat the terrorists were piloting, we needed visual effects to see the full scale of that battleship.

The Cole bombing scene was done on actual water. How difficult was that to do?

Aaron: Leading up to filming it, we tossed around a couple of different ways to do it. Obviously, it’s hard to do scenes out on the water, and it’s hard to do a full CG boat without getting into blockbuster CGI territory. The solution we came up with was to contact the Moroccan Navy and use one of their smaller frigates. We filmed scenes out on the water using an actual ship which had some similar dimensions to the USS Cole, but as less than half the size overall. But it was big enough you could film some tight shots with the sailors, and when we pulled back, we made the ship that they filmed adapt to our CG model of the USS Cole. So, what you’re looking at in the shot is a hybrid where that’s our CG ship, but there are sections that are the real ship that we filmed on. When we film visual effects, we try to get as much as we can in camera to get as many real-life details as possible to create the bedrock for the CG, and this was a good example of that. The water lapping up against the side of the ship was real in camera, and we just made it bigger and match the exact dimensions of the Cole. When you are looking at the shot, it’s a mixture of real and CG.

In watching the show, there was a real grit to the depiction. Almost an avoidance of making things look to spectacular. I assume that was intentional?

Aaron: Absolutely. There’s a strong strain of documentary style in the show, cutting with actual archival news clips. When we use visual effects to put our characters into those scenes, it couldn’t be jarring against the archival footage. It has to integrate. So, we needed to downplay anything that would look overly beautiful or too symmetrical. It had to be naturalistic in the flow of the archival footage.

Much of the focus seems to be about the aftermath of destruction, and less about the moment of. It felt more somber that way to me.

Steven: I think that’s true. The show is very much about consequences, and lead up to action, not those explosive moments. I think the show didn’t want to dwell on things that could be flashy or exploitative, and (instead) keep things on a human level.

This is very heavy subject matter. Did you feel that weight while you were working on it?

Aaron: I think even compared to other projects we felt an (added) importance in getting the details right. Even those that might not be apparent upon viewing. The amount of research we put into getting the scenes right, it made this project a little bit different, in that the seriousness we took into it. There’s just a couple of shots where we show the World Trade Center before the attacks, and just depicting the space of the plaza, which is a giant piece of concrete, and figuring out the dimensions and how to portray it as 100% accurate – we could have skimped or exaggerated that in some way. We just felt it important to get that right down to the benches and the planters and getting every detail right. It felt important for its own sake, outside of just making the shots look good.

I imagine there’s a real sense of responsibility on a project like this.

Steven: It was important for everyone on the team, from the showrunners and directors, down to every member on the crew. Especially with these World Trade Center shots, there’s a great deal of emotion intrinsic to depicting the World Trade Center, because of what happened to it, and specifically what happened to it within the confines of this show. Aaron touched on it earlier, how important it was to research it on our own as well as (taking in) the research that was provided to us by the production. They, of course, had their own team trying to get all the details right from a story perspective. There was a weight in doing the show, but that weight was borne by everyone. When we are executing those shots, sometimes you get lost in the details of it, and get lost in the work, and sort of forget for a moment the context of what you are doing, but there’s always something that pulls you back into that context. It was always there.

There was a real judiciousness in showing the World Trade Center that made it more impactful when you did see it. Emotional even. I got the sense there was a deliberate holding back.

Aaron: You’re absolutely right. That was a big discussion amongst the directors and showrunners. What are the moments that we save it for? When we see it, it’s often just sort of in the background rather than featured in the middle of the shot. It was played off of naturally to remind you of the way the city looked. There are only a few moments where they are really featured.

Steven: In fact, where we see them they exist in the shot as they would have if you were at the exact location of filming. There was not cheating going on. There was no “we want to have the towers in the background of the scene” regardless of where it was shot. All the scenes where you see the tower we did place them where they would have been seen from the space relative to the filming location.

Aaron: They picked the filming locations based on where the towers would be in the shot.

One of the strengths of the show is despite the inevitability of the outcome, you find yourself rooting against it happening. In particular, during the retirement party scene of Jeff Daniels’ FBI Agent, John O’Neill, he’s looking out at the Towers, knowing that being in charge of security there is his next job, but not knowing that it’s going to be his last job. That moment of finally lingering on the Towers for just a little bit served the material well. 

Steven: In a way, it reflects not just the building up of our emotions towards it, but the characters didn’t give too much focus to the towers themselves. That’s part of the shock and surprise to this. They knew that there was an attack impending and they were chasing the right guys, they just couldn’t possibly imagine the form it would take. In the characters minds, it was just another office building.

There are times when you watch movies with big effects in them, it can feel like they exist for their own sake. But here, it felt very much like the visual effects were very much part of the storytelling process. Did you feel that on this project?

Aaron: Absolutely. Part of that comes in with the early conversations with the showrunners, as they were thinking about the storytelling moments and how the visual would play into the character development. At the end of episode three, we’re at a training camp in Afghanistan and we see some kids playing soccer as cruise missiles come in. that the US is firing at night. We are seeing it from the point of these young kids playing in their camp. The depiction of these cruise missiles you can do a million different ways. You can make it very realistic with smoke and flame coming out of the missiles, but there was a desire by showrunner Dan Futterman to see them almost as a twinkling in the sky. Almost like stars or something ethereal. They could plausibly look that way, and sort of realistic, but it’s also seeing it from the eyes of the kids.

Steven: This almost magical thing in the sky before they hit.

Almost like fireworks before the horrible result. 

Aaron: When you know in these moments you want to paint and create your tone using these visual effects, that’s the most exciting for us. Because we’re not just filling in the background, we’re informing the tone of the scene.

I suppose it seems strange to think of something that happened roughly 20 years ago as a period piece, but our world changes so fast now. What were some of the smaller challenges you had in recreating the time period?

Aaron: The period accuracy they were going for was interesting, considering it was the mid-90s. Right now, there isn’t a lot of TV that take place during that time period. There are these tiny details. All the television shows are created in post (production) to screen the content of what’s supposed to be on the TV. That was one little detail. Getting the right grain of the CRT TVs from the 90s. And then in bigger scenes, we have to do a lot of period corrections. In episode 5 they show the Y2K celebration in Times Square. They went out onto a rooftop and filmed it on location, but of course, that led us to doing a lot of period corrections because the area looks so different now. For the wide shot that looks down on the crowd, we had to go back to the old ABC footage the Dick Clark party and look at all the little structures and the streamers and balloons, so we could recreate all of that with CGI. It’s interesting how much things have changed in tiny ways.

Can you describe how you two work together?

Steven: Aaron is ultimately responsible for the creative side of the work. As the producer, I mind more of the budget and to some extent the client interaction side of things. Those lines can blur a little bit. But on the creative side you need one voice guiding the show and that’s the supervisor (Aaron).

Aaron: Zooming out to our relationship with the show, we interface with the directors, and the production designers, and the art department for a lot of these scenes. In the early phases we look at storyboards with the cinematographers and the directors, and we talk about all the angles that are going to best sell these scenes, and we might go back and create some mock ups to share with production. Ahead of that we are working with the art department to build the sets. Sometimes it’s a collaboration where they physically build a chunk of the set. Like they built the floor of the World Trade Center, and there’s one shot where O’Neill is walking through the lobby. So, the art department built this big marble floor and a couple of elevators up to a height of about ten feet, and then we’ll walk through before filming to make sure it’s shot in a way that it lends itself to us filling in the CG. Throughout post we are working with the director and making sure everything matches visually.

Television budgets for big projects like this are greater than they used to be, but they still lag behind film. Did you find it challenging from a budgetary perspective to do everything required for a show with such specific needs?

Steven: I don’t know that the budget was so much of a challenge. Certainly, the show cared about what they were spending, at the same time, there were moments they really wanted to depict, and we did have a lot of back and forth about ways to do that economically. Ultimately, if there was something the show wanted to depict, we found ways to make it happen. The Word Trade Center plaza and lobby shots were great examples of that. The lobby in particular. We knew that was important. It is a single shot, but it was so important to the storytelling. We had a number of meetings with the production team and the art department to figure out how we were going to pull that off. That involved renting out an extra stage. The art department building a practical floor. An enormous amount of green screen, and a section of elevator banks up to about the 10-foot mark that CG extended and placed in the other walls, the mezzanine, and the world outside the windows. That was a significant amount of effort, but ultimately, it was important to the story. You’re right that the budgets tend to be tighter than they are on film, but it’s also the schedules also tend to be tighter as well. I would say that was a little bit more of a challenge, and I think we felt a little more pressure on the schedule side of things.

Of the shots we’ve discussed, which was the hardest to pull off?

Aaron: The one shot of O’Neill walking through the World Trade Center lobby. Even though it’s just a couple of seconds onscreen, we talked about the shot months ahead of time. Storyboarding, walking through it, doing different versions of mock ups to make sure we knew how wide we needed to go. What the windows needed to look like. Which side of the building he entered, so we could set the scene outside of the windows. We wanted it to be plausible and not look like a shot we created out of nowhere. We wanted it to look like the lobby actually was and convey so much with that one shot. Between all the time discussing it, the art department building this huge set, and then in post, we just pored over every picture we could get our hands on of what the inside of the lobby looked like to make it look like it really did. To make sure that the light was bouncing off the marble just right and that you would get the right glints off the metal and the glass. That was one we could have done quicker if we were just using our imaginations to make something that looked nice, but it was important to get the little details right. That ended up being our biggest shot.

I’m sure there was a lot of pleasure in doing work of this caliber, but I can imagine in the effort to try to get these finite details down, there was some fingernail chewing too.

Steven: There was a lot of satisfaction that came out of doing a job like this. The effects can be fun. A lot of the other work we do is a little more straight forward, “gee whiz”, kind of cool stuff. I think because of the gravity of The Looming Tower that may have been a little bit muted, but it was a really satisfying project to be involved in. It was also the type of team that we were working with that made you want to spend the extra hours getting it right.

Aaron: All the care about details we were talking about we saw reflected in everyone working on that show. That kept us going also, to see how intelligent and serious the team behind it was.

The Emmys are being announced on the 12th. Are you guys feeling a hopeful sense of anticipation?

Aaron: Uh, we hope a lot (Laughs). There’s a lot of great shows and a lot of great visual effects on TV. This show feels like something special and we definitely feel like we put in the best that we have in it. It would be an incredible honor. But we don’t want to jinx ourselves.