Union's Create Thrilling VFX for The Undoing
From writer David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies) and director Susanne Bier (The Night Manager), the limited series focuses on Nicole Kidman’s Grace Fraser, a successful therapist, and her devoted husband, Jonathan (Hugh Grant), and their young son who attends an elite private school in New York City. A chasm opens in Grace's seemingly perfect life: a violent death, a missing spouse, and a chain of terrible revelations.
The story is mainly set in central New York and at the Frasers’ beach-side holiday house in the Hamptons. The locations were stunning, but the team also augmented the design of the summer house using digital matte paintings to make it particularly unique and befitting of its extremely wealthy owner.
The shoot took place in spring, but the story transcends autumn and winter requiring a fair amount of seasonal adjustments in VFX to transform the locations. This involved removing green, adding autumnal colours and snow.
The further we got into winter, the more extreme the transformations adding snow and replacing trees with bare-branched substitutes. In one scene a helicopter lands at the Hampton house through seasonally adjusted trees requiring the addition of swirls of tree debris caused by the propellors.
Elena’s newborn had to be played by three different babies due to regulations presenting the team with the challenge of making them all look the same which they did by creating a CG version of the chosen baby's head and tracking it on in the shots where the hair could be seen clearly.
Making the murder itself shocking and gruesome required painstaking attention to detail.
We shot the scene with Jonathan (Grant) yielding a rubber replica of the sculpting hammer’s handle as he bludgeoned Elena. We had a cyber scan of Elena’s head as well as plates featuring the prosthetic of the aftermath. We replaced the handle with a full hammer and used Hugh’s movements from the shoot to track the impact the hammer would have had on Elena’s face and head, altering the trauma to the victim blow by blow, by blow. Houdini was used to simulate the blood residue building up on the weapon and splatters on the perpetrator’s face and shirt which increased with every strike.
Throughout the series, phone messages are used as storytelling devices and Union provided screen inserts for those interactions as well as for advertising billboards.
There were also a lot of driving sequences and a few helicopter flights that were all shot against blue and greenscreen. The helicopters themselves were also composited into plates.
As the series nears its conclusion, the suspect flees town, narrowly avoiding death as he drives straight over an intersection just missing a truck. The team used a combination of split screens and CGI vehicles resulting in a very close encounter.
The action concludes on a bridge in upstate New York where our villain stands precariously on the edge. The live-action was shot on location at Wurts Street Bridge in Kingston which has a walkway which helped the stunt crew, but would have detracted from the jeopardy of the final shots. Union removed the stunt wires and the walkway; creating a CG exterior surrounded by matte paintings which were animated to provide water and tree movement bringing the shot to life. The team worked closely with the second unit and stunt crew to plan the sequence for the best possible result.
Additional work included enhancing the crowds outside the courtroom using tiles and CG crowd, replacing live-action cars with CG versions of the main protagonists’ vehicles and the addition of snowflakes that Grace (Kidman) envisages falling in the wrong direction. The gala fundraiser on the top of the world trade centre was shot on a dull day requiring window replacements with a brighter view which was no mean feat given the number of people in the room and number of windows.