How do you make a cable TV show look like an Oscar-caliber movie? Getting Martin Scorsese to produce the series and direct the pilot doesn’t hurt. But to pack HBO’s new Boardwalk Empire—a gangsters and G-men saga set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City—with authentic period detail, series creator Terence Winter turned to Brainstorm Digital.
The Brooklyn studio specializes in so-called invisible effects—anything from erasing grip equipment to creating photorealistic backgrounds and props from scratch. Its subtle brand of digital fakery puts A-grade production values within reach of “smaller, more story-driven films,” says cofounder Richard Friedlander. The studio’s credits include Frost/Nixon and Synecdoche, New York, but Empire is its first big TV project. Without Brainstorm’s creations, Winters says, “we wouldn’t have had a boardwalk or an empire. It would have been too expensive.”
No period buildings remain along the present-day Atlantic City boardwalk, so the production team built its own 250-foot-long version of the storied Jersey landmark on an empty lot in Brooklyn. Nearly every scene of the pilot required digital augmentation—particularly the exterior shots—from replacing the modern Brooklyn waterfront with miles of New Jersey sun and sand to re-creating a rumrunner’s boat after the real skiff sprang a leak during production and threatened to sink. The result is a rich, detailed vision of the bootlegger’s paradise that’s as intoxicating as bathtub gin.