For visual effects wizards Kevin Baillie and Camille Cellucci working on “The Walk” was one of the toughest but most rewarding challenges of their long careers. As they explain in our webcam chat (watch below), convincing audiences that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was walking on a tight-rope stretched across the twin towers of the World Trade Center took a combination of training, practical effects, and CGI slight of hand.
“Joe learned to walk the wire himself,” says Baillie. “He trained for eight days before the shoot with Philippe Petit himself, who actually has the wire he strung across the twin towers still up in his front yard: he walks it everyday, even though he’s in his mid-sixties.” This gave Levitt the confidence to actually walk the wire for a lot of the shoot, but not all of it.
“For the things that were a little more complicated for him to just do on his own, we had what was called the Canadian bar,” he continues, describing a twenty-foot-long steel beam with a groove in the middle that would be raised into the wire. “Joe’s foot could wrap around it and he could feel the wire like he was really walking on it, but there was a little more support to the sides.”
The third way was a bit trickier. “There’s stuff that takes decades to learn how to do on a wire, and there’s just no way to do it even with the Canadian bar,” says Baillie, “so for those we did digital face replacements. We took a crazy, detailed scan of Joe’s face in a bunch of different poses, so we could tell everything from the shape of his face to what the blood-flow was doing in his forehead when he scrunched it. Then we took Joe’s performance and transposed it onto that digital model, then put it onto a stunt performer named Jade Kindar-Martin, who did the crazy complicated stuff.”
Recreating the World Trade Center posed a completely different challenge. “Recreating the towers was, I think, the most emotionally challenging part of the film, because we just wanted to do justice to them,” says Baillie. He and Cellucci were given access to the original blueprints, as well as several archival photographs, and were able to recreate them to the most minute detail. “The problem is if you build as accurately as a blueprint is…it looks fake,” he says. “So we actually spent a lot of time introducing imperfection into the towers.”
“One of the other things about the towers,” add Cellucci, “is they’re basically reflective of their environment.” She describes a poll taken by one of the studio executives asking whether the towers were originally white or gray. “As we started going through it, we discovered the reason for that really has to do with how reflective the towers are, and the fact that they were made of anodized steel. So they basically reflected the entire environment.”
She continues, “normally, when you’re thinking about a visual effects shot, you’re thinking about composition of the shot, and how it’s gonna look in camera, and what that exact composition is. Not all the time are you thinking about what’s behind the camera, and off-camera, to do the composition of the shot. But this had to be a 360-degree thought process because of the reflections of what the towers looked like, and that’s how we made it look real and become a character.”
Below: Watch our full interview for more on their work on “The Walk.”
Photo: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Charlotte Le Bon in “The Walk.” Credit: Moviestore/REX