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Recreating 'Nighthawks' with CGI

05 Aug 2016

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“Re-imagining a famous realist painting was never the obvious marriage for CGI and photography, which is probably why I chose it,” explained photographer Tim Max Hetherington.

CGI and photography working together

"For me, the lonely characters and all-night diner portrayed in ‘Nighthawks’ has always been a scene in a film, and we know the artist, Edward Hopper, loved going to the movies. I wanted to create the next moment in that scene, but as a photograph".

With the cinematic theme and film-like scene, we partnered with Tim to explore the unique qualities of both photography and CGI, recreating complex elements originally painted on canvas.

“From the start it became apparent that re-creating the café scene into 3D was a challenging process. We were faced with the ‘Artists perspective’ which meant it was like decorating a 500 year old house - there was not a straight edge anywhere to be found. Therefore trying to model all the components had to be done whilst matching the perspective of Edwards Hopper’s eye. Richard, our CGI Artist, did a great job figuring it all out!”, said our Head of CGI, Stuart Boote of the challenge.

“By using many picture references we were able to understand the structure of the café and sidewalk and build the elements seen through the lens. Some other off-screen parts helped give us light positions, shadows and reflections to the main stage. Richard used image references to create the textures and materials of the individual parts in the scene, often having to improvise and add that extra detail whilst keeping a sympathetic eye to the original artwork. The balance was not easy.“

As painters often do, Hopper played fast and loose with his angles and lines. So creating a 3D scene that 'obeyed' some rules of perspective but remained faithful to the proportions of his painting involved considerable experimentation.

Creating the scene inside the diner, Tim photographed real models for the recreation, demonstrating how photography and CGI can be combined and work together. Adding solidity and authenticity to the overall composition, they sit well wrapped in a CGI environment.

Tim explains, “Hopper's characters in ‘Nighthawks’ are so distinctive and so well-known, finding the right people took me quite some time.”

"I envisaged Hopper's painting as though it was the beginning of a cinematic developing shot and I wanted to create the end. Bringing in the car adjusts the dynamic without destroying the calmness of the original composition."

American Classic Car specialist Steve Bromyard, brought in one of from his own collection. Although technically much younger (at a mere 50 years old) than the painting, his AMC Marlin looked perfectly at home next to the New York sidewalk.

Tim continues, *I have shot plenty of cars in studios but this time we had to follow the strictest ever layout based on a 3D grid and map created by Stuart and Richard. They gave me precise angles, focal lengths, heights and distances for the car, the bar and each person.”

Lighting each aspect revealed just how much Hopper cheated with shadows and highlights to create the mood he wanted. Tim opted for one main source and a Mola light shaper for the characters and bar with just silver board to lift shadows. The car was a different matter, and he had to figure out how Hopper’s brightly lit interior would flood onto a far pavement and what it would do to the vehicle.

Stuart commented, “Starting any new partnership always brings about challenges and obstacles that need to be overcome, but this is what a creative process requires and it’s part of the reason why we love it. The team involved to create the image was not large but everyone had key skills and experience that brought the right elements to the project. For example, the final stages where all the elements are pulled together, required Phil, our Principle Retoucher, to blend all the content of the project and interpret the creative direction.”

“Ultimately we try with any project to understand what the final outcome will be then apply the most creative, effective and suitable solution. So whether it be photographed hero elements, CGI environments and stock library skies, it should all work harmoniously to answer the brief. Although for Tim initially it was a new process, it has come together how we planned and importantly the focus has been maintained on both sides to create and deliver a great image.”

Tim concludes, “Bringing all these components into one overall image has required my skills as a photographer, a CGI artist and a retoucher for the final grading, but the end result has been worth it. It has been an amazing collaboration and has really opened my eyes to the possibilities for other projects.”

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