Terminal Reality

How the Happy Finish CGI team helped photographer Benedict Redgrove to realise a longstanding ambition: to shoot ‘inside’ Eero Saarinen’s iconic TWA terminal at JFK airport

A new era of digital imagemaking is on the brink of emerging. We may have learnt long ago to always question what we see in photographs, yet the illusory quality of the medium is now being taken to new levels, as CGI technology allows artists to build locations virtually, which can then be used for shoots. When there are so many real buildings and locations available, it may seem unneces­sarily time-consuming and expensive to go to such lengths, but with the complications surround­ing permissions in such security-conscious days and the fact that the weather can lay claim to the most carefully laid plans, it begins to make more sense. Plus – crucially – CGI artists are now able to recreate real-world settings in more detail than ever before, edging closer to the ultimate goal of making the real and the virtual indistinguishable.

Just how far they are towards that goal is illustrated in the project shown here, in which photographer Benedict Redgrove worked in collaboration with a team of cgi artists at Happy Finish to realise a long held desire: to ‘shoot’ in the old TWA terminal at JFK airport in New York. Designed by Eero Saarinen, the building is a favourite of architecture fans and was used in 2002 by Steven Spielberg as a setting in the movie Catch Me If You Can. It is now being renovated by JetBlue Airways and is closed to access. So Redgrove turned to Happy Finish instead. “The TWA terminal is one of my favourite buildings but it’s always been under restoration or construction or God knows what, so I’ve never been able to get in,” he explains. “The thing that appealed to me about what Stuart [Waplington, managing director at Happy Finish] was talking about was trying to get people to look at using cgi as an alternative – so if you can’t get a location, they can build it.”

The final images by Redgrove and Happy Finish are a combination of both the real and cgi. The entire location is built virtually (meaning that it can be used by Redgrove for future images too if required) with real models shot by Redgrove then placed within the scenes. Over the next few pages, the team talks through the stages that led to the final images.

Research & development
Recreating an existing building in cgi is a complex process. To do it faithfully requires an enormous amount of detail, which in the case of the TWA building, also required looking back into history. The cgi team at Happy Finish began with a book of photographs of the terminal by Ezra Stoller that gave a strong sense of its look but had limited use as a source for accurate measurements. Luckily Redgrove was also able to provide some original architectural plans for the building that the team scanned in and worked from. And more contemporary resources came into play as well: “It’s like a 3D jigsaw puzzle,” says Matt Painter, the appropriately-named CGI artist on the project. “Google Earth was quite handy as there’s a crude version of this building on there. That was a nice start.”

Both Painter and Wesley Roblett (CGI modeller on the project) also spent time trying to ascertain the best era to set their model of the terminal in, based on the information avail­able online. “It’s a real trick trying to figure out what’s vintage and what’s new, what they’ve added over the years,” continues Painter. “And what point do you choose?

I think we’ve gone for the late 60s-mid-70s, which was Ben’s choice. The era had an impact on quite a number of other factors – there’s an aeroplane that can be seen out of one of the big windows out the back, so Ben chose an aeroplane that was indicative of that era. The same with the cars – there are cars out the front, so we had to try and get hold of vintage cars.” In order to realise these details, and the more minute qualities that are found in the interior of the building, the team used a combination of Stoller’s images as well as information discovered through Flickr and other online resources. As part of the TWA series, Redgrove has also created an image set inside Concorde (rough shown top). Despite also being based on a Stoller image, this required significant research to get the details correct.

Lighting is crucial to all photo­graphy, and it plays an equally important role within a cgi environ­­ment. When planning a project, the first decision for the photographer to make is what time of day the virtual shoot should take place. Once this is decided, the application of the light is remarkably straight­forward, with the cgi artist simply inputting the settings and allowing the software (Modo) to do the rest. These images contain light that is the equivalent to a 60s June morning in New York at 6am. “It’s a bit mad but with these systems you can basically say: this year, in this place, at this time of day and it will actually do the kind of lighting that you had in 1968 in June,” says Painter.
Once decided, the lighting is baked crudely onto the CGI models, with the photographer then able to ‘enter’ the space to find the required angles for the images. From there any extra lighting requirements can also be decided upon and included. Once set the images are then processed in Photoshop (this stage is shown here) and the photo­grapher can take them to use as a reference for the shoot with the real models. These lighting decisions can be altered fairly easily, allowing the photographer full flexibility.

The lighting also effects the final ‘texturing’ of the virtual environment, a procedure that helps brings the images into the real world. This happens in two stages – firstly, photographic textures are applied, and then shading. “It’s almost defining the properties of the materials these things are built out of,” explains Waplington. Light will bounce naturally off the various surfaces, highlighting certain areas and creating shadows. “One of the final stages that this model will go through is what we call ‘micro-bevels’,” says Painter. “At the moment these edges are really sharp, and the final process is to go through and take that perfect sharpness off. So you get these fine shines across it, which the light catches.”

The photographer’s perspective
“We have total control over everything,” says Redgrove. “The colour temperature, the light, the position of the light … so it is a bit like being in a sweet shop, but you have to be careful.” Redgrove likens the experience as more akin to being a film director than a photographer, for while he leads the project and makes all the crucial creative decisions, the skill of the cgi artists is obviously vital. No-one is hampered by physical restrictions. “You can get angles that would be impossible conventionally – in one of our shots I would actually have to be inside a brick wall to get it,” says Redgrove. But it still has to work with the real elements. “In a lot of the angles we liked, when you put someone in, it just didn’t work,” he says. “So we had to make sure that whilst it may be a beautiful angle, it works with the girl in as well. There are so many controlled elements you’ve got in this, as long as you’re aware of them and you use them, then in theory it should be perfect.”

Final images
Two of the final images from the project are shown here. To me, writes Patrick Burgoyne, they feel somewhere between photography and illustration. The level of detail in, for example, the TWA plinth is extraordinary, almost unnerving as it is beyond what you might expect from a conventional photograph. The cars and the type on the arrivals board, on the other hand, look more illustrative. Even without prior knowledge, I don’t think I would assume them to be ‘real’, but does that matter? A photograph isn’t ‘real’ anyway. Beyond the evident skill in what is a remarkable reconstruction job on the terminal, what is really intriguing about the experiments documented here, and advances elsewhere in cgi, are all of the possibilities they open up for new forms of imagemaking where the only limit is of the imagination.


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