Meet The VFX Team Behind The Critically Acclaimed Escape at Dannemora

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

The VFX team behind Showtime's hit series Escape at Dannemora, which swept up the best actress win at the Golden Globes, talked to ProductionHUB about their in-depth work recreating the places and events of one of the strangest jailbreaks in history.
In case you haven't had the chance to see it, Escape at Dannemora, which marks Ben Stiller's debut as a showrunner, is in an in-depth, procedural retelling of the 2015 escape of two prisoners at the Clinton Correctional Facility. The job of the VFX team at Phosphene was to compliment the show's painstaking attention to detail. This involved building parts of the prison, reenacting a brutal vehicular murder, and even de-aging all of the actors for an episode set ten years in the past.
We talked to VFX Producer Matthew Griffin and VFX Supervisor Dijuna Whalrab. 

PH: How did you become involved with Escape at Dannemora?

Vivian: We were brought on at the script stage, and were very excited about the possibilities. This is a NY story, and we were so thrilled to be a NY vendor helping to tell it. There are a few very ambitious sequences, such as Sweat’s single-take run through the bowels of the prison in episode 5, and the vehicular murder of Deputy Tarsia in episode 6, which we knew would have so many moving pieces. We knew collaboration early on would be
key. Working with Ben Stiller and the production team gave us the opportunity to be an integral part of achieving his vision.
PH: What did the pre-production process entail? Did you have a specific direction and tone for the film from the beginning?

Matt: Pre-production for us meant as much interaction as possible with every department, as we knew we would need everyone on the same page and working together. This is a story that was prominent in the news, so the intrigue lies more in the details than in the broad strokes. Probably the most tantalizing detail of all was the escape itself.

Affectionately referred to as Sweat’s Run, this is where David Sweat takes a trial run at his escape, crawling through a hall in his cell and then sprinting through pipe-filled tunnels throughout the prison and eventually climbing and emerging into the streets of the village of Dannemora. Practically speaking, it was 17 shots stitched together into a 9-minute “oner” that took the audience on the same journey out of the prison.
PH: When working with such extreme attention to detail, how do you prepare to make sure everything makes sense together?

Djuna: It was a long production, shot out of order and across several state lines. VFX isn’t always folded into the crew, but it was a priority for Ben, and we certainly felt the benefits of being on-hand for the majority of the shoot days. Throughout this time, locations change, scripts are being constantly updated, and everyone is workshopping these shifts in the background. Being on the ground with the crew created this very clear line of communication, and it felt great to be a part of that conversation.

PH: With such extreme attention to detail, there’s a margin for error. What were some of the challenges you ran into and how did you solve them?

Djuna: Some of the key pieces of the series were shot at Clinton Correctional, which is the actual prison from which the prison break took place. It’s about 20 miles south of the Canadian border, set into the side of this hill in what is really a beautiful part of the country. For our safety (as well as that of the prisoners), the gear allowed in was quite restricted. Many of the tools I rely on had to be left behind. Then, load-in required a military-grade inspection by the CO’s, who examined every piece of our equipment before it could enter or exit. The crew was afforded no special privileges for entering the prison and were shuffled through the standard intake.

The North Yard of Clinton Correctional was probably the most challenging to shoot within. This was the inmate's outdoor space, divided into terraces overlooking the whole town of Dannemora and the valley beyond. Production did the math and balanced the crew and cast load-in with the coverage required. We had 150 background extras for the yard, but in reality, even on the coldest of days, there would be around 300 people throughout the yard, so we had to fill out the rest. We also needed the yard to have snow on the ground for continuity, but unfortunately, the days in which we shot were unseasonably warm, and after the first few hours, the SFX snow that was painstakingly created and placed during the night had completely melted.
The biggest VFX challenge in this location was a shot Ben conceived of, the first reveal of the enormity of the North Yard. It was this massive crane shot that began at the lowest part of the yard, heading to the upper courts. It slowly pulls out and cranes up to reveal the entire outdoor space. It’s really a beautiful way to introduce us to the North Yard, revealing one terraced level at a time until you have the whole space in view. It’s one of my favorite moments in the show.
PH: What are some of your favorite aspects of the film and why?

Matt: I think it was seeing something that was striving for so much for authenticity. From shooting in the actual locations of these events (including the very manhole that David Sweat escaped from) to consulting with CO’s and ex-inmates, there was this constant sense that what was being created was something that captured the true experiences of incarceration.
PH: How difficult was building parts of the prison and reenacting a brutal vehicular murder? How did you successfully accomplish those things?

Creating Clinton Correctional 

Djuna: The Clinton Correctional Facility you see in the show was actually shot across five different locations; because Clinton is still a functioning prison, we couldn’t shoot the whole series within its premises. We also shot at a decommissioned prison in Pittsburgh, while the Tailor shop was staged in an old warehouse in Brooklyn, and the Honor block (where our characters were housed) and parts of the prison bowels were built on a stage in Queens. Remaining pieces under the prison were shot in Yonkers, NY in an active water treatment plant.
Working closely with Production Designer Mark Ricker, we tackled the continuity across all these locations. While we planned for some of the most iconic pieces to coalesce with VFX, we knew there would be other sections to massage in post. It was very interesting to find out what felt jarring and what fell right into place in the context of the edit. We knew the challenges before we began, and we had constant conversations on set, always checking in with Ben about geography so that scenes were filmed with a consistent orientation. With diligence to the research and extremely thorough photography, we were prepared to augment each location to feel like one unified place that had been sitting there for almost 200 years.

Tarsia Killing

Djuna: The Tarsia death scene was intense. You know, we read these scripts in the order that the audience would see them. I think the writing on that sequence was incredible. You’d think it impossible to fully render, for the audience, the brutality of murder like this one with words on a page. But it was the broad beats, as written, that first informed me on the tone of the visual effects required.
We needed to feel an injustice for this officer, who was a real person killed in the line of duty. Our goal throughout the whole production and post-production process was to make sure that the treatment of this man’s story was never a light affair. I’ll never forget when we gathered all the artists for a full sequence review: just hours before Ben would see it for the first time. Our team is seasoned in gruesome violent effects, and we can easily feel desensitized, but the room was dead quiet when the scene ended. It was extremely sobering. At that point, I knew we’d made it work.
PH: How did you go about de-aging actors 10 years in the past? Special makeup? CGI?

Djuna: Episode 6 is a gut punch. Slowly, over five episodes, you’ve begun to root for criminals, and it’s in this episode where you start to second guess yourself. We go back in time to learn just how these characters got to this point. The actors do much of the heavy lifting to make their ages believable, even beyond the cosmetic; but, losing ten to fifteen years is still a stretch.
Our goal was to support this jump in time, but not distract by going too far. Early on, we did tests where we really studied the face of each actor. From this research, we determined targeted areas for augmentation, and the approach really ended up being quite tailored for each character. The remaining challenge was continuity. Nearly every shot in the episode was touched, and we needed it to feel completely seamless from shot to shot, scene to scene. It was a significant challenge to hold the line, but I think incredibly successful in the end. A few weeks after it had aired, I eagerly asked Ben how he thought the de-aging was being received. With warmth, he let me know he hadn’t heard a word about it.
PH: What other projects are you looking forward to working on this year?

Vivian: In addition to our film work, we are fortunate to be on some truly wonderful broadcast series including The Deuce, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Succession. Being able to go back to a world season after season allows us to refine our skills and gives us the challenge of having to one-up ourselves every year.

PH: What are a few things you love about what you do?

Matt: Bringing to life ideas and creating visuals that may not have been possible otherwise. To push ourselves creatively and technically and to see the productions we work with enjoy what we create. Whether it is a show like Escape At Dannemora, that requires such a high level of realism from the visual effects, or something more surreal and invented, to be a part of the creative process on such a detailed and integral level is
incredibly rewarding.

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