How visual effects made Manhattan a war zone in HBO’s DMZ

The HBO Max limited series DMZ presents a world in which the Second American Civil War has torn the country in half, with the island of Manhattan serving as a demilitarized zone between the United States of America and the seceding Free States of America.

Created by Westworld and Sons of Anarchy writer Roberto Patino and loosely based on Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli’s comic book series of the same name, DMZ casts Rosario Dawson as Alma “Zee” Ortega, an NYC medic who was separated from her son while evacuating the island. After searching for him throughout the USA and FSA, she returns to the DMZ to continue her search, only to find herself caught in another war raging between the rival factions attempting to control Manhattan.

The four-episode series was helmed by filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Ernest R. Dickerson, with Oscar nominee DuVernay (13th, When They See Us) directing the series premiere and Dickerson (Bosch) directing the remaining four episodes. In order to turn Manhattan into the war-torn middle ground in a new American Civil War, the series looked to several visual effects studios, including FuseFX, led by visual effects supervisor Brian Kubovcik. Digital Trends spoke to Kubovcik about his team’s work on the series and how they gave some of Manhattan’s most iconic landmarks a war-ravaged makeover.

Eli Joshua Ade / HBO Max

Digital Trends: The series is almost like a four-hour film. How many shots did your team work on across all four episodes?

Brian Kubovcik: Across all episodes, I think our shot count was probably in the 400 range. Between 350 to 400 shots.

That’s definitely a feature-length shot count, even though the series doesn’t necessarily seem like a VFX-heavy project. What was the general vibe going into the series, as far as how visual effects would be used?

World-building was the biggest thing. This story should feel intimate, but we also needed to build the scope of it, and you need to have those big moments establishing where we are. As we made our way through pre-production in the pilot and then in the subsequent shooting for episodes two through four, it was really apparent that New York City, where the story takes place, was not the place that we should shoot it. It actually hampered the creative vision for it, because everything in New York is constantly changing and evolving, with new buildings going up left and right. Everything feels very new and polished there. There are portions that still feel a bit more worn, but in general, there’s always new construction.

So that’s why it ended up filming in Atlanta?

Right. There are opportunities in Atlanta to find worn buildings that suited the storylines — as a base for our story to play around — but when you go big and wide, you could then tell the story with visual effects and expand the world. You can use visual effects to show what Manhattan might look like during an evacuation in the Second Civil War, and also the aftermath. You can ask, “What does that look like when it’s war-torn and when nature takes it back over?”

How did you decide where filming ends and visual effects take over?

Well, we started by asking “What is the story point? What’s the story we want to be telling?” I lived in New York for 13 years, so I was intimately acquainted with a lot of the actual blocks or corners they wanted to tell a story at specifically. Roberto Patino had a very clear vision about what this needed to be. He’s also a New Yorker, and he knew where he wanted to be in that space at all times.

So in the case of the Manhattan Bridge, for example, we knew that’s where the story wants to take place. That’s where the separation is between the DMZ and the USA. So we went to a place in Atlanta and did location scouting. A lot was done by the production designer and the director of photography to find those moments and find those corners that can mimic certain places in New York and to find out where we can do something practically to sell a specific corner and where we need to build in visual effects.

When you had specific architecture or landmarks you wanted to feature, how did that work with the visual effects?

We went out to New York as a team and actually lidar-scanned the colonnade at the Manhattan Bridge, for example. For the surrounding buildings, we built CG versions of very specific corners, and then we had lower Manhattan assets that we would shift in space to help tell the story. There’s the reality of the city, but there’s also the story reality and what feels grandiose in the frame. So taking some liberties to move things around to make it feel like New York, even though the actual location might have more buildings, sells the scope to those who aren’t as intimately acquainted with New York, and makes it feel big. Most people know the bigger landmarks, but they don’t know what the Manhattan Bridge is, and wouldn’t know about the colonnade. So it was about balancing what looks like New York to those who aren’t familiar with it, and what rings true to people who know the area.

What were some of the guidelines you had for taking those locations and making them look like they’d gone through a war?

Making it feel war-torn was about taking the existing structures, chewing away at them or knocking things down, and having overgrowth and nature taking back over. That’s really where we found the DMZ-ification of it all. “DMZ-ifying” became the term we’d use, too. We’d be on set and there would be a very clean, white wall in Atlanta, and they would look to me and I’d go, “Yeah, we’re going to DMZ-ify that.” That’s water stains, maybe bullet holes, or sometimes a building knocked down, but in most cases, it’s vegetation. We used vegetation to represent the idea of these warring factions, these organisms that we are, fighting each other, while nature is just taking back over. It’s a nice dichotomy that we are so flawed and nature will win in the end.

Was there an element that was particularly challenging to work on?

The most challenging stuff for us was Chinatown and Manhattan Bridge. Those two things we spent a lot of time on in a very short window, because that was toward the end of the schedule in post-production. In our story, Wilson Lin (Hoon Lee) and his crew walled themselves off in Chinatown. They’ve maintained their power grid, so it’s inherently a different look than the rest of the DMZ. Chinatown is one of the only places we can see lights on. That was a really interesting way for us to tell a story, and there’s a large shot count there, because the first floor in Atlanta was made to look like Chinatown, and then we extended it up [with visual effects] for all those buildings. When you see lower Manhattan in the background, it’s blacked out and you can see chunks of One World Trade Center taken out. It’s really subtle, but that stuff sells the idea that this crew has maintained their lifestyle and are very close-knit while in the distance, outside the walls, things have fallen off into a post-apocalyptic world, essentially.

What about invisible visual effects? Are there any shots people would be surprised to learn are created with visual effects?

When you look at the final Manhattan Bridge moment, the amount that was actually practical was very, very shortened in the scene. A lot of it felt like it could be in camera, but the majority was us taking over the shot [with visual effects]. Those shots I’m really proud of because they took an enormous amount of effort. Just for the ending sequence in episode four, it took a team of around 40 to complete those shots in the time frame we had. And over the course of all the episodes, we had close to 80 different members of the team who worked across all four episodes.

Finally, I have to ask: What was it like to work with Ava DuVernay? She’s such an amazing filmmaker.

We had a really close relationship leading up to it and through the production pilot and [episodes] two through four with Ava DuVernay. We’ve worked on multiple projects with her: Colin in Black & White and When They See Us. Getting to work with her again was great. She was on episode one, and she has such a strong creative eye. She’s always thinking of the next thing that she wants to see — and that’s what you want. You want those challenges. You want to be able to tell stories.

Roberto Patino is just phenomenal, too, and also just a great human being [and] a wonderful person to work with. Getting to spend time with him on set in episodes two through four was really great. He’s a really great collaborator.

All four episodes of DMZ are available now on HBO Max.

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