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The Pigeon Tunnel

Errol Morris

Union strips back smoke and mirrors of John le Carré’s life with invisible VFX for The Pigeon Tunnel

Spanning six decades from the turbulent Cold War into the present day, The Pigeon Tunnel features a final and candid interview of former British spy David Cornwell, better known as acclaimed espionage author John le Carré, with dramatised vignettes and rare archival footage. 

Oscar-winning director Errol Morris takes us on an unprecedented tour of the lesser-known elements of the highly renowned and typically private author John le Carré's early life, as illustrated in his New York Times best-selling memoir The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life.

Union were honoured to work alongside Inkfactory (production company) to create a project that was so meaningful to co-CEOs and co-founders Simon and Stephen Cornwell, who also happen to be David's sons.

Union delivered 154 shots and with a full spectrum of VFX work for The Pigeon Tunnel, from equipment removal to  CG creature and environment work. 

The film’s dramatisations allowed Union to showcase hero asset work including an unlucky pigeon and a Soviet freighter, climaxing with a nighttime aeroplane trip showing off several full CG shots.

The Monte Carlo pigeon shoot sequence called for a close-up of a pigeon being shot out of the sky. This required building a completely new feather simulation system to facilitate realistic behaviour as the pigeon is hit by shot. DFX Supervisor, David Schneider, details how, “we have worked with CG birds before but never at such proximity to the camera that individual feathers were visible. We had to model the texture and style the pigeon's feathers to make sure they moved realistically when in flight and when they detached from the unfortunate bird.”

The sequence in which Kim Philby makes his escape to the Soviet Union required Union to build the Dolmotova - a Soviet-era freighter - place it into provided plates and enhance the surrounding dock with cargo and a digital gangway leading to the ship. All of this was then integrated into practical fog that was present on set.  

Hess's flight sequence was brought to life with a CG plane, photorealistic rendered clouds with lightning effects, digital matte painted backgrounds and a simulated parachute. Schneider explains, “the filmmakers gave us the latitude to set the look of the sequence and we were gratified to have them on board with our vision of a lone pilot flying above a sea of clouds”. 

The team also provided invisible effects across the rest of the show.