Cinefex Vault #1: Angels in America

by Joe Fordham

Cinefex Vault - Angels in AmericaIn the early years of the new millennium, Cinefex launched an experiment – the Cinefex Weekly Update. Readers had the option to submit email addresses and receive, every seven days, a free Cinefex mini-article, plus a column of ‘Film Clips’ highlighting effects-related news, filtered through a Cinefex perspective.

Writer Joe Fordham illuminates a corner of the Cinefex Vault.

From January through December 2004, we published 49 issues of CWU until we decided to call it a day. Sadly, the weekly turnover was not sustainable on top of our editorial workload. The CWU archive existed online for a while, but when we gave our website a shakedown, that too went the way of the dodo. Gone were all those stories – career profiles, book reviews, deleted fragments from our print articles, and new stories on productions we couldn’t fit in the magazine, including Team America: World Police, Blade Trinity, The Terminal, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kill Bill and, yes, even Catwoman.

Twelve years later, Cinefex Blog has unlocked a time capsule and resurrected a sample of those stories from the Cinefex Vault. This week, we present CWU article #1, written by our founding father Don Shay, which delves into the work of visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund on HBO’s haunting mini-series, directed by Mike Nichols, based on Tony Kushner’s epic stage production, Angels in America.


Heavenly Days – article by Don Shay

An alluring angel (Emma Thompson) visits a despairing AIDS-stricken man.

An alluring angel (Emma Thompson) visits a despairing AIDS-stricken man.

When Richard Edlund received a call from HBO asking if he was available to work on a project called Angels in America, the four-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor hesitated only long enough to ascertain that director Mike Nichols would be at the helm. The television miniseries, adapted by Tony Kushner from his own two-part Pulitzer Prize-winning play, was a six-hour examination of the burgeoning AIDS plague in the mid-1980s, and Edlund found himself drawn in by the treatment of the subject and the intelligence of the writing.

Edlund flew to New York, where the production was being mounted, to meet with Nichols and the producers; but ultimately a younger, less-experienced supervisor was hired instead. Three months later, however, HBO called again. The first half of the production was in the can, and Nichols was dissatisfied with the effects in progress. Would Edlund consider taking over?

Although most of the visual effects would appear in the second half of the production, the first featured a hallucination sequence in which Harper Pitt (Mary Louise Parker), the pill-popping wife of a closeted gay man, finds herself in a fantasyland Antarctica dressed with an icebound sailing ship and other oddities. The sequence, filmed on a greenscreen stage, had been poorly designed from an effects standpoint. “They had built a miniature ship that was maybe ten feet long — not very detailed — and they had just put it on the floor of the Angels in Americaset,” said Edlund. “Of course, it looked like a miniature sitting on the floor of the set. They even had little kids dressed up in Eskimo garb to force the perspective, but they looked like kids. Also, they were getting video dailies, rather than film, and they couldn’t tell that there were focus problems.”

Edlund took the sequence to R!OT in Santa Monica, where Michele Moen, who had worked for him at Boss Film Corporation, was now visual effects art director and lead painter. “Michele has a great eye,” Edlund asserted, “and I needed someone whose aesthetic sense I could trust.” Working with unsteady plate photography for a lead-in shot that craned up from a New York sidewalk and then descended on the Antarctic setting, Edlund and the R!OT team produced a digital painting-enhanced transition, then went on to rebuild the subsequent sequence. “We had to get rid of the ship model, so we rotoed the actors whenever they walked in front of it and painted in all the backgrounds — including the ship, which gave the sequence some visual interest.”

Director Mike Nichols examines practical angel wings on a greenscreen stage.

Director Mike Nichols examines practical angel wings on a greenscreen stage.

The show’s most flamboyant effects come when AIDS patient Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) is visited by an angel (Emma Thompson) who crashes through his bedroom ceiling and hovers above him. Thompson was fitted with enormous feathered wings and flown practically on the set via a custom-built rig. “It was better to shoot Emma with the wings on the set, rather than put the wings on later,” said Edlund. “There was a lot of smoke on the set, and shards of light, which would have made it difficult to add the wings after the fact.”

To spare the actress the discomfort of hanging her on wires for multiple days of filming, the special effects crew suspended Thompson, upright, on a bicycle seat rigged to move her up and down and side to side as she hovered and delivered her lines. Fans on the set blew her hair and costume. R!OT did extensive roto and paint work to remove the mechanical flying rig and cables used to support both the rig and the rhythmically flapping wings.

Director Mike Nichols confers with actress Emma Thompson.

Director Mike Nichols confers with actress Emma Thompson.

The sequence climaxes, as it were, with the female angel seducing the gay man as they hover slightly apart in midair. Flames sear the garments off both characters in discreet head-and-shoulders shots requiring the digital team to burn 3D clothing from the undraped performers. Wide shots of the naked figures in orgasmic frenzy featured Justin Kirk and an Emma Thompson body double. “We made castings of the actors and built body pans so they could lie on their sides, facing each other, and be shot in profile from above,” said Edlund, “with the floor painted green beneath them.” Edlund photographed Thompson in closeup, then turned the material over to the R!OT crew, which replaced the body double’s head with the actress.’ “I had shot Justin and the body double a few feet apart, so they could move their arms around, but they were pushed closer together in the composite and their arms were rotoed where they overlapped. We incorporated some orgasmic body action, since the actors couldn’t do any of that in the rigid body pans, and layered in fire elements and the angel’s wings, which were shot separately.”

Director of photography Stephen Goldblatt with the angel wing rig on set.

Director of photography Stephen Goldblatt with the angel wing rig on set.

Late in the film, Prior pays a visit to Heaven, a cross between modern-day San Francisco and the remnants of ancient Rome, run by angelic bureaucrats. The principal action was photographed at Hadrian’s Villa, a 2,000-year-old structure outside Rome, which was enhanced with digitally painted backgrounds. “Mike wanted to impart visually that this was a bureaucratic, dysfunctional place,” recalled Edlund. “We were talking about how to do that, and I said: ‘Remember Orson Welles’ The Trial, where there was a room filled with this vast typing pool?’ And he said, ‘Exactly!’ So they got 60 desks equipped with old Olivettis and Underwoods, and a bunch of angels in gray suits with little wings. We multiplied them eight or ten times by shooting tiles, then comping them into the background.”

Working with an acclaimed director on a prestigious, high-profile project was a heavenly experience for Richard Edlund. “It was a rare opportunity to be involved in something other than a bubblegum movie,” Edlund commented. “Mike Nichols and the actors were terrific. Angels in America is one of my all-time favorite filmmaking experiences.”

Photo copyrights © 2003 by HBO, © 2016 by Cinefex.