Here’s how Atomic Fiction, led by visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie, reproduced Philippe Petit’s daring high-wire act between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on August 7th, 1974 for Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk.
The Walk was originally intended to be achieved via performance capture, back when Zemeckis was producing such films at ImageMovers Digital. Baillie was at ImageMovers then and continued the dialogue about how the film would be made after starting Atomic Fiction with Ryan Tudhope. “We always knew it was going to be a set build of the rooftop of the World Trade Center Towers in some scale and then a sea of greenscreen,” says Baillie. “The debates were really, how much of this set piece do we build, and do we shoot this outside or inside on a stage?”
Some of those questions were solved using previs, a process that began several years ago. “We used previs so we could tell where the characters would be running around on the roof,” explains Baillie. “We ended up building a 40 foot x 60 foot x 12 foot tall section of the corner of one of the rooftops, which was the south tower where most of the action happens. We would build right to the extent of where people would be walking and not an inch more. Everything else was visual effects set extension. The height was really a factor to make sure there was enough height for the camera to get underneath Joe or his stunt double as they were walking on the wire, enough to get any up angles that were necessary.”
The VFX supe was happy that the shoot was on a stage (at the MELS film stages in Montreal) to avoid the problems of changing light and weather. DOP Dariusz Wolski rigged an area of space lights in the ceiling to replicate the sky. “Dariusz and his team were able to give a very broad, soft illumination from a cloudy sky,” says Baillie, “or in the case of sunrise they could shut off half the ceiling of these lights and leave the other half on and then kick on a light that was coming from the sun. He could really work with the lighting and the ceiling system to create the bounce light of the sun off the clouds to give it very natural light. It would have been incredibly hard for us to do amazing visuals had the lighting lighting on set not been so good.”
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