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MPC craft flawless invisible effects for Stephen Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story

October 18, 2021

LONDON – 18th October 2021 – In 2021, Steven Spielberg brings back forbidden love and fierce rivalries in the reimagining of the beloved 1957 musical, West Side Story. The story, driven by the passions of love and death, sees the growing tension between The Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, and The Jets, a gang of white Americans. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the two rivalries find themselves in a turf war, but the situation becomes complicated when young love is equated into the midst.

To deliver director Steven Spielberg’s vision for West Side Story, Production VFX Supervisors, Richard Stammers and Nick Davis, alongside MPC Supervisor Jeremy Robert and Aaron Weintraub, led the visual effects teams to deliver over 300 shots for the musical feature. VFX artists from across the globe from MPC’s London, Montreal, Toronto and Bangalore studios worked to enhance and drive the narrative. Artists worked on digital environments, complex plate stitching, CG vehicles, crowd simulations and FX simulations to create an authentic representation of 1950’s New York.

The first challenge was to create an authentic and detailed visual representation of 1950’s New York. San Juan Hill was a community in what is now the Lincoln Square neighborhood of the Upper West Side in Manhattan, New York City. In 1947 much of San Juan Hill was erased due to 20th century sweep of “urban renewal” to create Lincoln Center, displacing thousands of families. In the 1950s, the neighborhood was almost completely torn down to build the Lincoln Center.

One of the main priorities of MPC’s team, as well as one of their biggest challenges, was to re-create this demolished neighborhood. During Pre-Production, an extensive amount of research was carried out in San Juan Hill to ensure it was accurately represented throughout the feature.

The opening shot, made up of 2500 frames, shows an aerial view of the remains of San Juan Hills, looking over the Hudson river. This was crafted through a mixture of drone and crane plate stitching, alongside a considerable amount of full CG shots. MPC’s VFX Supervisor used aerial imagery of the Lincoln Centre construction site from the late 1950’s to navigate the geography of the surrounding area. From this, the team were able to recreate trucks, cranes, workers, and a selection of construction features to achieve a realistic demolition site. This work was used within other sequences of the feature but was also a useful way to ensure geographical accuracy.

Alongside the construction sites within the Upper West Side of New York, the progression of the surrounding areas and existing buildings had to be re-created to authentically portray the period. Modern architectural characteristics such as external fire exits, and specific street features including traffic, gas tanks and artwork had to be removed in their entirely and replaced through set extensions. The team had to ensure their meticulous research followed through with the highest level of detail into their work.

An additional hero CG shot was a flock of birds on a rooftop and then flying away. CG bird assets were crafted with hand-animated cycles based on live-action reference and simulated flock animation.

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