The movie Detroit is a shocking film, retelling the true story of the Algiers Motel killings, which happened during the race riots of the summer of 1967.
The killings happened in the mainly black neighbourhood along Woodward Avenue, which was being patrolled by mostly white police officers.
Those police raided the motel and severely beat several young black men and two white women who were staying there. Three black teenagers were brutally killed.
Detroit, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, painstakingly recreates this dark moment in history, transporting the audience to Woodward Avenue using invisible visual effects.
To find out exactly what was real and what wasn’t, Daily Hive spoke to VFX Supervisor João Sita and VFX Producer Cara Davies at Image Engine in Vancouver.
“Don’t trust what your eyes are seeing,” said Sita, who was responsible for liaising with Bigelow and managing the team of visual effects artists working on Detroit.
The movie was filmed in Boston, so Sita and his team, which peaked at 68 artists, were tasked with recreating Woodward Avenue.
“They had the set that was representing the block in which the riot took place, then we had to turn that into a more representative version of Detroit in those days,” said Sita.
The team created an entire CG layout for the whole street, then handed it over to their environment department, who added all the street furniture.
“Painting all the detail on top, painting all the lights inside the offices and then incorporating parking meters, light bulbs, smoke, dust, and traffic lights,” Sita said.
Sita and his team also had to incorporate shots of actors playing National Guardsmen and their vehicles into the CG shots.
“Then we went a step further, into let’s bring in the period-like cars, let’s bring in the CG trees with wind movement,” he said.
Sita’s team even made sure there were no moving cars in shots that were supposed to be taking place after the curfew imposed at that time.
“Some shots had cars on the streets and then asking about the time of the day, that would represent there was a curfew,” said Sita. “So we had to go back and park the cars.”
It’s worth noting the Algiers Motel no longer exists, and the blinking, colourful sign in the movie was actually an animated visual effects element.
“Kathryn Bigelow was very precise. She asked that it should be visible in every single shot, not necessarily the sign, but the light from the sign,” said Sita.
Sita explained they had to maintain all the elements seen in one shot, to help set the action geographically and create a much bigger sense of real time narrative.
“So, if the Algiers sign appears in a shot, it might not be in the next one, but its light, glow, and reflections will bleed into the next shot connecting it all together,” he said.
The team’s work included the Great Lakes Building, seen in the movie opposite the Algiers Motel, although in real life the building was on the same side of the street.
Sita said that was an artistic choice on the part of the filmmakers, “to allow the shots to be framed in a more art directed way, keeping in mind the composition and the dramatic effect that would be created.”
The team worked to an incredible level of detail, expanding the riots out from what had been filmed on set.
“We would have a block which would have been all damaged and trashed, but then the next block was pure clean, so we had to dirty it up, just to get more of a sense of chaos,” he said.
“We used reference photos from that time to guide us as to the amount of smoke and fire.”
Other minute details including replacing the hose firefighters are seen using, which wasn’t quite correct, and replacing a garage made of vinyl, which didn’t exist in 1967.
On top of all that, the team had to replicate the documentary style of filming used by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd.
“He keeps changing the focal length throughout the shot,” said Sita. “So he’s not aiming for the action, he’s just looking around. Then he finds something to focus on, and we were able to replicate that in our full CG shots.”
Davies says the team also worked on enhancing wounds, adding gunshots, and replacing crowds in theatre scenes, but the highlight for her was working with Bigelow.
As visual effects producer, Davies worked closely with Post Production Supervisor Tina Anderson, along with Sita and Bigelow, to ensure deadlines and expectations got met.
Davies says it was unusual for them to be working with the director herself; usually they liaise with the filmmaker’s own VFX supervisor and producer.
“But there wasn’t one on this, so we were working directly with the editor, the post-production supervisor, and Kathryn,” said Davies.
“They would tell us the story point or general vibe and that gave us the creative freedom to come up with solutions, which was pretty unique and pretty fun as well.”
Sita described the whole collaborative experience as “amazing” and working with Kathryn Bigelow as “awesome.”
“It wasn’t a show about visual effects, it was a show about story,” he said. “VFX is right there to support any story, regardless of the story you’re telling, and it’s a really awesome craft that we do.”
Davies adds that it’s worth remembering visual effects aren’t all about explosions.
“It is about the subtleties as well, to ensure that the viewer gets into the story and doesn’t get distracted by noise,” she said.
“It always blows my mind what we’re able to create and recreate and… just go back to that time period,” said Davies. “You would never know how much work goes into it.”