The Looming Tower was an especially challenging VFX endeavor. From our earliest discussions with the production team, we understood that historical research and accuracy were going to be paramount. Many of the visual effects in the show are intercut with archival footage, so it was essential that Phosphene’s work be seamless.
When it came time to recreate pre-9/11 World Trade Center in episode 109, we felt the added pressure of paying respect to the true events of the day, while still meshing with the tone of the show.
VFX Supervisor Aaron Raff worked with production during prep and developed pre-visualization of the Twin Towers, to ensure that the dimensions and perspective of the towers remained geographically accurate relative to all filming locations.
The process involved storyboarding sequences to find the exact camera angles we’d need to tell the story, then pre-visualizing and refining the scene prior to shooting, so we would know exactly where to move the camera on the day.
Aaron Raff, VFX Supervisor
Our goal was not to make any one scene look more spectacular than real life, but simply to re-create settings as they were in the most historically accurate way we could.
In one iconic shot, we see our main character grab a pastry from a coffee cart, then stride across the World Trade Center plaza heading to work in one of the towers.
Since this shot would be the only time we see the towers up close, our focus was on creating a sense of place that was both evocative and accurate. After extensive scouting, we settled on filming around a large office plaza in downtown Manhattan. Despite what this location offered, the plaza itself was still less than half the depth of the actual WTC plaza. So, in addition to the CG recreation of the towers themselves, this plaza required an extensive digital set extension in order to create a big enough space for the towers to sit it.
Immediately after we see the plaza, we cut into a shot of the lobby, which was perhaps the most important collaboration between art department and VFX. It became obvious early on that due to the scope and unique architecture of the WTC lobby, it would not be possible to find a practical location that could double for the space. The actual lobby was an enormous volume that included a bank of elevators, a mezzanine, marble walls, and large windows capped with iconic arches.
Together with production designer Lester Cohen and his team, we developed a plan for art department to recreate a practical floor and a bank of non-working elevators at ground level. VFX then extended the elevator banks above ground level, added the mezzanine, and created the metal and marble windows and arches of the far wall of the lobby.
Further, VFX also created a digital matte painting of the environment outside of the lobby, using photo reference of the period accurate surrounding buildings, and plates of background extras.