Oscars: Luma recreates Graceland for <I>Elvis</I>
January 13, 2023

Oscars: Luma recreates Graceland for Elvis

Warner Bros.’s Elvis was recently recognized with the Best Visual Effects Awards at the Australian Academy Cinema Television Arts Awards. Luma Pictures’ Adam Hammond was honored, along with Tom Wood, Fiona Crawford, Julian Hutchens and Joshua Simmonds.
Hammond, who is a DFX supervisor at Luma Pictures (www.luma.inc), which has studios in South Melbourne, Australia; Santa Monica, CA; and Vancouver, Canada, recently shared insight into the studio’s award-winning work. 
Adam, can you tell us about the specific shots that Luma was responsible for?

“Luma worked on all shots for the Graceland exterior and grounds, as well as the Hollywood Sign sequence. We also did a period downtown New York exterior for The Steve Allen show rehearsal-room scene, and we created the environment for Senator Eastland’s boardroom, when he’s having a conference with Colonel Parker.

Photos: Before and after images from the Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama Elvis.

“Because Graceland is a famous and real place, it was our job to make it accurate and realistic. In the film, we see Graceland over the course of three decades and multiple seasons — for instance, in the winter, when it’s a dilapidated farmhouse that Elvis purchases, and in the summer in the ‘70s, after Elvis had been living there for 20 years, and had changed and built things on the property. Even the position and growth of the trees had to match how they were at those different times. 

“Graceland wasn’t shot on location, but in a big field in Queensland, Australia, so we had to transform that by replacing the skies, the distant landscapes, getting rid of the Australian trees, and putting in a Memphis background. Graceland itself was built as a one-story shell, and we used that as a basis to transform it into the full grounds, trees, fences, everything you see. It was quite complex. We had to create an environment that was almost living and breathing, and changing with the seasons.”

Elvis: image courtesy of Luma Pictures. © 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

How about the sequence with the Hollywood Sign?
“The Hollywood Sign sequence was shot on a soundstage. I think they built one letter of the sign, so it was Luma’s responsibility to create everything else digitally. In the film, we see the vista overlooking the Hollywood hills. The basis of that was photography, so the challenge was actually getting up to the sign in the present day to take photographs. We knew the sequence would take place at sunrise, so our supervisors in LA visited the sign at the right time of day to take 360 panoramic photos of the area, and that’s what we used as our basis for backgrounds. Of course, because these were photos from Los Angeles in 2022, we had to do some work to make it look like 1968. It was a process of de-aging the photography and bringing it to life. It would be very obvious if we just slapped static photography in the background, so we had to add glinting lights, traffic, signs of life, mist and fog. For the reverse angle looking up the hill, we took a hybrid approach of CG and photography. Again, simply using still photography of a grassy hill isn’t very interesting, so we needed to add moving plants, foliage and interactive light.”

Elvis: image courtesy of Luma Pictures. © 2022 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

How many shots did Luma handle in total?

What tools do you use for modeling, compositing and VFX?

“We used Unreal Engine to get layout signoff for Graceland and Hollywood. It allowed us to flesh out shots very, very quickly. We hadn’t used Unreal before, so it was all new territory for us. We generated play blasts with representations of Graceland and the trees, which were used to populate the sequence very quickly and get signoff on the positions of everything from the VFX supervisor and Baz Luhrmann. When we have so many shots to handle, it’s especially helpful to get signoff on the layouts of shots as soon as possible so we have more time to make the shots look realistic and look good in lighting.
“Katana was used for lighting. Nuke was used for compositing.”
Photos: Before and after images from the Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama Elvis.

What would you point to as one of the more challenging scenes?

“Depicting Graceland through different eras and seasons was an interesting challenge. Since the home has huge cultural and historical significance, and images of it are widespread, it was important to us to be as accurate as possible. We had detailed location photographs taken at Graceland in the present day to reference, which we used in conjunction with period photography from the early 1950s, just before Elvis bought it, right through the late 1970s. We thankfully could refer to photography from the archive that showed historical details and how things changed while Elvis lived there. This helped us track and faithfully represent small details chronologically — for example, the lion statues, which Elvis added to the entrance in 1957, and the meditation garden, which was built in 1964 or ‘65. If you look closely during the film, you will see additional flower gardens, security bars on the windows, and the trees themselves growing through the decades and shedding their leaves in winter.
“Another interesting part of this project was that we heard Baz would sign off on shots using a hard copy. For instance, the first time we see Graceland in the film, Elvis is driving a pink Cadillac through the gates towards Graceland — that’s actually a full-CG shot that started off as a concept from Luma’s art department. Once Baz was happy with the concept, he printed it out, signed it, and stuck it on his wall. He’s very visual. And while accuracy was really important, so was capturing the sense of spectacle Baz wanted. That was ultimately the balance we had to find with Graceland: making it look spectacular and real.”