I Am Legend
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SCENE STEALER: ‘I Am Legend’

I Am Legend
By Ron Magid, Special to The Times

Looking to make Times Square appear completely abandoned? Don’t use visual effects unless you’ve got some time on your hands. “It took us eight months to do that for one eight-minute sequence,” says Jim Bernie, Sony Pictures Imageworks’ visual effects supervisor on the thriller “I Am Legend” (opening Dec. 14). In the film, about a virus that seems to have wiped out the human race, Will Smith plays Neville, an uninfected scientist in New York City looking for a cure to bring humanity back. He ditches hordes of infected, once-human night creatures on Manhattan’s lonely streets (real locations cleared by the film crew). “They would shut traffic down, and drivers were pissed off and honking,” Bernie says. “Later, we digitally painted out all signs of life -- lights, people, cars -- then aged everything.”

Not surprisingly, a few stores on ritzy Fifth Avenue -- home to Cartier and other high-end shops -- weren’t terribly cooperative, but Bernie had the last laugh in postproduction. “We really dirtied their buildings, ripped their awnings and put bird poop on them, and broke their windows to show signs of looting.”

However, a pivotal sequence in Times Square was different. “We couldn’t shoot on location,” Bernie says. “It would’ve been impossible to [eliminate] the people and replace the lighted billboards.” So here’s how they did it, and how Will Smith convincingly appears to wander through an abandoned -- and completely digital -- Times Square. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
I Am Legend
“There’s zero location in this sequence,” Bernie says. The only “real” elements are the actor and the tall grass pushing through the cracked concrete ground in front of a blue screen. The grayish template in the background is a 3-D digital model of the environment that was built by SPI artists using data captured incrementally via LIDAR laser scan over several hours at Times Square. (Warner Bros. Pictures / Imageworks)
I Am Legend
Only three years are supposed to have elapsed since the infection wiped out humanity, so the buildings haven’t collapsed, but director Francis Lawrence felt much of Times Square’s famous signage should have fallen down or deteriorated. “Our matte painters lined up real photo references of Times Square over these rough geometric shapes of the buildings, and painted over that,” Bernie says. (Warner Bros. Pictures / Imageworks)
I Am Legend
Having projected photographs of the real Times Square onto their digital model, SPI artists tarnished the imagery with digital dirt, debris, litter and weeds. Along the rotting facades, they hung deteriorating flags and banners to add movement. “When Neville’s walking around, there’s no music, just the sounds of birds and bugs, so we added flying birds and buzzing gnats,” Bernie says. “The idea is that nature is reclaiming Manhattan. It feels like Will’s alone.” (Warner Bros. Pictures / Imageworks)
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