Fences - The Breakdown

ZERO teamed with Denzel Washington for the Academy Award-tipped, Fences - a period drama set in the haze of 1950s Pittsburgh. As lead vendor, ZERO created invisible effects throughout the dramatic narrative.

Adapted from August Wilson’s play, Fences follows a former pro baseball player who denies his son's dream of playing college football, fracturing his family in the process. The VFX requirements were more subtle than those of The Magnificent Seven or The Equalizer—the explosions here dramatic rather than literal.

“All of our work on the movie was fully invisible,” begins ZERO’s Meg Bailey, visual effects producer across the project. “We were committed to making things look amazing, and really raising the bar. Fences is rooted in drama, and our effects needed to emphasize and build upon that narrative from start to finish.”

Narrative effects

Bailey, herself, had reason to be excited by the story; set in the 1950s, Fences centers around her hometown of Pittsburgh. “That was very meaningful for me, as we were building the Pittsburgh skyline—I’ve known that skyline my whole life. It’s in my soul.”

This passion was infused in every element of work carried out across the project. ZERO needed to not only build the Pittsburgh skyline, but ensure that it appeared as it would half a century ago.

Fences is certainly a period piece, so we did a lot of work rebuilding the Pittsburgh skyline and neighborhoods,” says Bailey. “However, it wasn’t just about the architecture, but the atmosphere of the place. In the 50s, Pittsburgh was very industrial and it wasn’t a healthy environment. The air was full of smog. The drama in Fences takes place on a hill that’s in the middle of a city. The audience is above the smoke but looking down on it; they’re surrounded.”

“Denzel felt we needed to impart on the audience this feeling of claustrophobia: that they’re constantly breathing in this smog. It’s a subtle effect, but it’s there. The characters feel trapped, and so does the audience. It’s the perfect example of how even invisible VFX can reinforce a feature’s narrative themes.”

Building Fences

As lead vendor, ZERO played a huge part in bringing Fences from set to screen, maintaining constant VFX supervision on set, while also delivering concept and creative through to execution.

The result was some 100 shots across Fences’ timeline, with many stretched out across hundreds of frames, demanding the utmost skill from the film’s artists. “Frame-wise, it felt more like the equivalent of 300 shots,” says Bailey.

The opening shot of Wylie Avenue stands out as one of which Bailey is most proud. “We took a modern street and replaced the ground and everything on it with CG cobblestones,” she explains. “That meant we had to roto and remove everything that shouldn’t be there, place the new layer of cobblestones on top, and then match the shadows with the newly implemented cobblestones, ensuring everything interacted the way that it should.”

God rays

The most ambitious shot, however, arrives at the movie’s climax: “Denzel wanted the clouds to part and a beautiful ray of light to cast down on the film’s protagonists,” says Bailey. “He had one directive for it: in that shot he wanted to see God.”

As the plate photography had been shot with the sun behind the camera, ZERO needed to think about how to change the direction of the light, making it appear as if it shone from a different direction entirely. As Denzel told the team: “Make it work; make it beautiful.”

“We solved the shot using full CG,” explains Bailey. “As the camera pans up and we transition from the characters to the sky, the scene reveals a CG sun, CG clouds, and a CG tree. The tree asset meant that the light could shine through the individual leaves and interact with them, even as they subtly fall through the wind. Adding those silent touches—the way that natural things move—really sold the shot.”

Invisible effects, visible passion

Fences stands as another great example of what is achievable via the power of invisible effects. Visual effects may be capable of creating never-before-seen alien worlds, but they can also transport viewers back in time, heightening the emotional resonance of an actor’s performance.

“We love to do the explosions and high-action set pieces like those witnessed in Hardcore Henry, The Magnificent Seven and The Equalizer—and those are invisible VFX too, just in a different way,” says Bailey. “But in films like Fences and Black Mass it’s all about crafting a sense of total immersion in the drama, and that was certainly achieved here.”

Denzel Washington, who’s as natural behind the camera as he is in front of it, set the overall tone for this project: “He was incredibly motivated and professional,” concludes Bailey, reflecting on the actor and director. “You could tell Fences was his baby. He cared immensely about it and that made us really care about it too. It was a passion project, through and through.”