Owens says he shares Scorsese’s "less is more" philosophy when it comes to visual effects. "Marty isn’t a kid in a candy store when it comes to effects, and neither am I," he says. "I like to incorporate effects into reality-based movies. Marty is a great visualist, and he’s passionate about the mood of a film. While he’s not scared of effects, he doesn’t think of them as glitz or wow factors. For him, they’re tools that help tell a story."

Ferretti’s thoroughly re-searched illustrations proved to be ideal guides. "When I got to Rome, Dante had already drawn 2-by-5-foot sepia-tone images of various locations and scenes," Owens recalls. "They were done in sepia charcoal and looked like 17th-century paintings. Dante had decided that was the best way to represent the look, and he just nailed it, capturing the mood, the angles, the nuance and the subject matter. They were the most beautiful production-design con-cepts I’ve ever seen. They were our main source of guidance for the master views and were utilized for most of the vistas. We even scanned copies of Dante’s drawings into our computers and referenced them all the time for our matte paintings."

To bring Ferretti’s images to life, the ILM team created several stunning pullback shots, linking real photography to 3-D digital set extensions. Sometimes the challenge was merely finding the proper speed; accelerating shots might destroy the mood, and slowing them down too much might stop the film’s momentum. "There’s a beautifully designed shot that starts on a close-up of a boxing ring, and you can’t tell where it is until we pull back to reveal that it’s on a barge in the middle of a river," Owens says. "It was a beautiful shot, but it ended up taking too much screen time, so we had to make a few modifications to keep things moving. We rearranged the continuity of the composite in order to afford a series of dissolves; it was the same concept but a more appropriate edit."

One of the most difficult shots was a series of dissolves that pull back from Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) lying dead in Five Points to an aerial, God’s-eye view of the entire island of Manhattan. "The sequence starts in a close-up and dissolves back twice to three miles in the air," Owens explains. Unfortunately, ILM couldn’t re-use many of the elements from one shot to the next, even though they were of the same exact area. "Those three shots jump back so far in the aerial perspective that we needed three completely different sets of elements," he says. "It was a tremendous challenge to create and match all of that material."

Director of photography Michael Ballhaus, ASC and his crew achieved the practical portion of the shot by creating a cable-driven camera move, which ended with the camera about 150' in the air above the Five Points set. (See story on page 36.) "We digitally extended the set a bit for that first shot because you could see the Cinecittà studio," Owens notes. The second shot had to be completely 3-D because of the shift in perspective, which meant that ILM’s artists had to model hundreds of buildings in CG to create the period urban sprawl.

For the third shot, Scorsese wanted a unique perspective: "Marty wanted to recreate one of those early-1800s aerial images, the drawings that looked like they were made through a fish-eye lens and showed the curvature of the earth," Owens recalls. "I suggested that we make it look very photo-real and then doctor it from there." The shot was always envisioned as a 2-D digital matte painting "because it was just too impractical to pull that far back in 3-D," Owens says. "We tried to incorporate pieces of photo-reference into the matte painting and we shot plates, but we were limited in how we could use them because of the subtle differences between the desired final look and the plates’ contemporary look – the water is different, the city is different, and so on. So we mostly used them as reference for perspective. We shot a lot of water, but we also created digital water because at times it was too difficult to match reality to what the filmmakers desired in some of the shots."

The pullback proved to be the most challenging shot of the entire production. "Although matching up those three shots would not be considered a reinvention of the wheel in the larger world of visual effects, in the world of matte paintings the challenge was significant," Owens says. "Marty and I went back and forth about how stylized it should look. We were trying to take three things into consideration: the cinematic style of the film’s footage, the style of artwork of that period, and how a fine artist of that time would have depicted the scene. We were trying to create more of a period painter’s view as Vallon’s soul drifted up away from the city and toward the heavens; we were edging toward an impressionistic rendering of a time past. It’s a very fine line, and a dangerous one as well. I just hope the audience’s emotions go where we intended them to go."

If there’s one sequence that characterizes the challenges of making Gangs of New York, it is its final sequence. "The view is from across the Brooklyn Bridge, looking back toward Manhattan," Owens says. "Dante did a series of five matched drawings looking across the river and then built a foreground set of a graveyard in Brooklyn. The idea was that we see Manhattan smoldering in the aftermath of the 1863 Draft Riots and then, through a progression of matched dissolves, we watch the city grow up. The final shot brings us up to the present, but that shot just happened to include the World Trade Center in its field of view."

Gangs of New York wrapped well ahead of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, and the inclusion of the Twin Towers in the final dissolve became a lightning rod for controversy. "By September 11 we had already shot the plates and were actually well into creating the shot, and suddenly it became a real issue," Owens says. "Originally it was designed as one of those quintessential views of New York, but after September 11 some worried that the sequence might take on an entirely different meaning. We wrestled with many, many different ways to approach this, including no towers, having the towers be there and then fade out, and cutting the shot entirely. In the end, I think the right decision was made. The movie is not about September 11; it’s about New York City and its people, and about how those two entities made it what it was at that time. The final shot is about the city becoming what it is today, an amazingly great city."

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.