On Gangs of New York, production designer Dante Ferretti and ILM team up to transport viewers back to Manhattan's tumultuous past.

To recreate the roiling ambience of 1850s Manhattan for Gangs of New York, director Martin Scorsese turned to production designer Dante Ferretti, the five-time Academy Award nominee who had collaborated with him on Bringing Out the Dead, Casino, Kundun and The Age of Innocence. The task was as awesome as the film’s scope, and a team of visual-effects artists at Industrial Light & Magic spent almost two years digitally augmenting several key sequences. The imagery was being refined right up until the film’s release last month.

Drawing on a wealth of experience that includes the films Interview with a Vampire, Titus, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and City of Women, Ferretti first rendered the entire dramatic canvas of Gangs of New York in a series of large, stunning sepia-tone drawings. "What was in Fellini’s brain was pure fantasy, but Martin’s movies are always close to reality," says Ferretti, who tapped both ends of this artistic spectrum to contrast the decadence of the upper classes with the squalid existence of the poor. "I’m a chameleon, and each movie is another color. I change colors, but I don’t change mentality – I’m like a mercenary."

Ferretti used color – and its absence – to make essential distinctions about the class conflicts at the heart of Scorsese’s film. "There are many levels of society – the politicians and upper classes, the middle class and the lower class – and we used color only for the upper class," he explains. "Their world is [depicted in] red, ochre and yellow, all blended together in a very vulgar way. They dress very colorfully but in very bad taste. The upper classes in The Age of Innocence were more elegant, whereas these people are more nouveau riche. The colors are a little stronger, and everything is a bit overdressed. But for the poor, life is very monochromatic, like tintypes. I didn’t use any color in their world except for some in their costumes – no color, no hope."

Before doing a single drawing, Ferretti steeped himself in period photographs and research. He then unleashed his imagination. "I want to know every single detail," he affirms. "I try to be like an architect living in that period, so if something needs to be changed, I can change it with the same kind of mentality. I like to keep my fantasy rooted in the right period because the audience has to believe what they see. I insist that they be part of the story. I don’t want them to feel like they’re in a movie, but rather that they’re in reality."

The hallmark of a fine production designer is the ability to go beyond simply capturing reality. For Gangs of New York, Ferretti tried to reveal the persona of the city circa 1850. Rather than simply recreating the city photo-realistically from pictures, he envisioned a 19th-century New York that visually embodied Scorsese’s themes. "That is the most important thing," Ferretti insists. "It’s easy to recreate something when you have pictures and research, but if you recreate everything exactly as it was, it’s boring. I’ve done three or four movies set in New York, so I know the city pretty well. But this project is a bit different because it’s very ‘low life,’ and it was important to visually convey the problems of these poor immigrants who came from Ireland by ship. In Five Points, there were 500 families living like animals in an old, abandoned brewery. Your heart can be broken by that kind of life."

For Ferretti, who is never inclined to think small, recreating the immigrant enclave of Five Points demanded a sizable chunk of Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, where the production was filmed. "I’m a bit of a megalomaniac," he chuckles. "I don’t like restrictions. Cinecittà is a big place, so I like to think big. Why? I don’t know, maybe because it’s not my money. I’m kidding!

"We built the most important sets, which included Five Points, a piece of Lower Broadway and a section of Upper Manhattan," Ferretti says. He also had Cinecittà’s 350'x120' water tank transformed into a section of the New York harbor. "We built two full-sized ships and put a huge bluescreen behind them to facilitate the CG background," he recalls. "We also built many interior sets on soundstages, including the Old Brewery, the Chinese pagoda, an upper-class mansion and even Tammany Hall. When [historical adviser and Low Life author] Luc Sante came to see the set, he said, ‘It’s unbelievable. I feel at home.’ That was a very good compliment."

But as big as Cinecittà is, Ferretti couldn’t build all of Manhattan there, and no partial recreation of the city could match the grand scale of Scorsese’s vision. "We built about 30 percent of the city that you see on film, and the rest was the work of ILM," Ferretti says. "They extended our sets to create a panoramic view of New York – otherwise, the film would be claustrophobic. You can’t see the line dividing the reality from the fantasy if the work is good, and ILM did some very good digital shots."

Working under visual-effects supervisor Michael Owens, ILM artists actually created 45 CG shots, combining 2-D and 3-D matte paintings to digitally flesh out the crowded boroughs and extend the sets as far as the filmmakers’ minds could see. Owens had worked with Scorsese before, on Bringing Out the Dead, but Gangs of New York posed some very different challenges. "Dante built huge, fantastic sets, but at times Marty wanted to show more of the expanse of New York in the 1800s," says Owens. "We probably did 10 vistas, a smattering of a dozen smaller extensions and some typical bluescreen traveling mattes to expand the look and breadth of the story’s locations. We were just trying to give the film the scope that Marty wanted, which Dante had indicated through his drawings."

Lengthy discussions with Scorsese, coupled with Ferretti’s elaborate illustrations, paved the way for a seamless collaboration between the physical production and the visual-effects crew. "Before filming started, Marty explained to me at length what the movie was about," Owens recalls. "His knowledge of and passion for the history of New York is just phenomenal. Combining that and his extraordinary visual style with Dante’s magnificent sense of design and richly dark, earthy paintings created concepts that were just wonderful. Dante understands Marty really well. Marty would describe different parts of a scene or a style, then Dante would throw out some abstract ideas, and then we’d mold something together."

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.