Resurrecting the crazed, dark world of North America during the last four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life and presidency has been a passion for Steven Spielberg for the last 12 years. What appears on the cinema screen was a result of some incredibly delicate work for not only the cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky and production designer Rick Carter, but also the teams behind them and the VFX Supervisor Ben Morris. The scenes were recreated with hundreds of extras, with troops, dressings and props depicting wholly the real conditions of harsh cold and raw smokiness of the 1860s.
Indeed, Carter recalls a feeling of tumbling through time when Day-Lewis first came to the set: “I haven’t gotten over the first time I saw him,” muses Carter. “Daniel Day-Lewis was not who I saw in front of me. I saw the man who was the President of the United States in 1865. I saw Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t see any distinction or gap between them.” Framestore’s VFX Supervisor for Lincoln agrees. “He was like that on set,” chimes in Ben Morris from London. “Nobody called him Daniel, not even Steven [Speilberg]. And I thought it was a beautiful piece of filming.”
History tells us that Lincoln had lots of dreams during the period that the film describes. He wrote a lot about the dreams and the notes include the feedback Lincoln also received from his wife, for better or worse during that period. A lot of the writing from ‘The Team of Rivals’ by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin published in 2005, which is the book the script is based on, features descriptions of the dreams. That kind of half-light, dreamy sense of not quite being there and not having full control of where he was going. “This is where we began the visual representation of the scenes,” describes Ben Morris. “The Production Designer Rick Carter, described an ‘iron-clad boat traveling at great speed across an infinite flat plain with a horizon you never get closer to’.” The creative team of the DOP Janusz Kaminski, Rick Carter, Steven Spielberg and Ben Morris went through a whole cycle of Look Dev stages to generate that look.
The bombardment and burning of Petersburg was generated using a mixture of sprites, particles and fluid sims. “It became a really good mix of practical elements from our library that we’ve had for a while, but because of the scale of what was going on, we did a lot of particle and fluid sims in Houdini,” explains Morris. “Then we took those particles to be light sources in our Arnold renderer.” There was a series of loose concepts drawn up by Rick Carter and his team. A three shot sequence which included an over-the-shoulder of the President, then a reverse onto him watching the destruction, and we shot plates of the area on the James River at sunset, outside Richmond Virginia. “This wasn’t an ideal location, but it was close enough to surface of the water to watch how the light played and make sure of how the shot might be composed,” Morris adds. “This was originally set during the low sunset, with the sun hanging off to the side exaggerating the smoke’s heaviness. During post, Steven [Spielberg] decided he wanted the entire sequence to be based at night, to accentuate the flames,” he says, “at which point, the entire shot became digital.”
The vista was constructed from some medium rez shots the crew had taken from the river, then they could decide which buildings they were going to destroy in the sequence. “There were some full-blown 3D rigid body simulations using the Bullet Solver we’ve got some immense fiery imagery,” explains Morris. “As the shot grew, we had the sound designers come in and it became a lot of fun. Spielberg wanted projectiles to be firing over the river and he became more excited, the more he saw the shot progress. In effect, what was being created was a very large 3D matte painting, complete with the CG river surface at the bottom of frame, using the Tessendorf shaders.” [Ed: Images from the bombing of Petersburg will be included as soon as Fox releases them...]
In terms of known photographs of the period, everyone may have seen at one time or another, a vintage photo of Lincoln addressing the crowd in his second inauguration outside the Capitol Building in Washington. It’s a big wide photo that has been seen all over the world. Rick Carter had been researching the project for 12 years, with Steven Spielberg, waiting for the best time to begin production. Spielberg wanted crowd replication, rather than digital crowds. “There were five or six passes of crowd replication, an extension on the building which included a lot of wooden paneling and dressing,” says Morris.
Richmond is home to the Virginia State Capitol, a building that possesses the familiar front steps and pillars of its larger Washington equivalent, but not the dome or scale. It makes a good starting point nonetheless and Framestore used it as a basis to start building the Capitol Building. “Richmond used to be the Confederate capital, with the buildings very much modeled on the massive stone buildings seen today in Washington DC, only on a smaller scale,” Morris notes. He was sent photos from Carter, announcing the scene would be shot using the steps and the front pillars of the Richmond building, noting the need to put a CG dome on the top, and expand it at the sides. While on the shoot, Morris took a weekend trip up to the real Capitol building, taking a library of reference shots of the grandeur of the place. “From those photos, we built a scan of the building and noted it had had several domes, wings attached, as well as immense changes throughout its history,” he continues.
Taking all of these references into Maya, Morris’ crew rebuilt the Richmond capitol and the purity of the building was because the place had just been freshly painted anyway. It came to pass that in the period when the action took place, a lot of the renovation work on the Capitol building had literally just been completed, so it wasn’t a ‘fully weathered’ building then, and the look was quite correct. “Rendered out in Arnold, with the matte painting background inserted, it all came together very well,” Morris points out.
Hiding the 21st Century throughout the exterior sequences in Lincoln was a huge job for Ben Morris and his expanded Framestore team on Lincoln. A lot of the period street scenes were shot in Petersburg itself. In a street scene where Lincoln confronts his son who wants to go off to war, there was an immense amount of work. “We found these streets that are historically the same age as the period,” Morris says. “The only problem was they were absolutely chock full of power lines and poles, you name it. There was a lot of heavy lifting to get it back to period correct, with 2.5D projections. The compositors had to build their own structure to paint through. We popped the dome of the Capitol Building at the end of the street just to ground it, but there aren’t any effects in this film that scream out, ‘Look at us!’
It was all there to support the story Janusz Kaminski, Rick Carter and Steven Spielberg were telling.”