“Now we’ve turned the painting into a complete virtual world, we can manipulate it almost any way we like. We can introduce a cold winter fog that gets thicker and thicker, turning the light from the diner into a yellow haze. . . . We can even play with light conditions, turning darkness into dawn and dawn into midday, transforming ‘Nighthawks’ into ‘Dayhawks.’ ”
— Dr. James Fox, in “Masterpiece: Nighthawks”
Masterpiece: Nighthawks places British art historian, BBC presenter and BAFTA-nominated broadcaster Dr. James Fox inside a virtual 3-D representation of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks — his famous 1942 oil on canvas portraying four people in a New York City diner late at night.
Considering Nighthawks as a narrative environment, the production and engineering team from London’s Bild Studios worked closely with Dr. Fox and the creative team at The Experience Machine (TEM) to imagine how the painting could exist as a three-dimensional world. This gave them insights into the painting that had never been considered before—the shape of the bar; the relationship between the man and the woman at the far end; and on a more imaginative note, even the banner headline on the newspaper the other man has put on the counter: “1500 DEAD IN HAWAII”.
The 3-D representation of Hopper’s painting was created as carefully extracted 3-D geometry, with detailed layers of texturing, partly handmade, partly AI-generated, added to resemble Hopper’s brush strokes. The 3-D scene was then imported into the Unreal game engine at MARS, Bild’s new virtual production studio in London, and rendered in real time based on the position of the physical film camera.
Created as a pilot for the Masterpiece series and as a showcase for the potential of MARS, the project meshes the virtual and the physical worlds within a single lens-based journey. Real-world effects such as time of day, virtual depth of field, environmental lighting and other properties can be controlled through a tablet by the director on set. Using optical analysis to inform the digital reconstruction, the team uncovered new and unknown aspects of the painting’s geometry. By enabling Dr. Fox to step into this virtual environment, they can craft the narrative journey from an entirely new perspective: the inside of an artwork.