HBO’s hit show Station Eleven is based on the novel by Emily St. John Mandel and is set in the Chicago area after a fictional pandemic. This proved to be somewhat ironic because filming, which began in Chicago in January 2020, had to halt due to the real-life COVID-19 pandemic. Many scenes of the award-winning drama were scripted to take place inside a 42nd-floor apartment on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive with panoramic views of a snowy Navy Pier and an iced-over Lake Michigan below. Continue reading to learn how filmmakers on the production employed different digital and lighting techniques to create the wintry Chicago views of this set using a Rosco SoftDrop.
This flashback scene for Kristen (Mackenzie Davis) shows Jeevan (Himesh Patel) and Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) performing Young Kristen’s (Matilda Lawler) play in front of a snowy Chicago background that was created by a Rosco SoftDrop.
Creating Seamless City Views
Rosco worked closely with Production Designer Ruth Ammon and Supervising Art Director Allen Glover (who were both nominated for 2023 ADG Awards for their work on Station Eleven) to provide the Navy Pier views for “Frank’s Apartment.”
One of the biggest reasons they chose Rosco SoftDrop was because of the large, floor-to-ceiling windows in the set design. Having worked with SoftDrop before, Ruth knew that it would provide the best option for creating the 270° views needed for those scenes. Even though the drop was going to be very large, it would only have one hidden seam on the very edge to provide the panoramic view needed outside the large windows of the set.
Turning The Snow Levels Up To Eleven
The script called for the snow to increase outside as the scenes and episodes continued. So, the first thing the production design team needed to figure out was, how much snow should be present in the drop. The answer was – A LOT.
A sample of in-progress art files showing the background progressively getting snowier.
Even though we waited until early December to shoot the original image, not very much snow had fallen in Chicago yet. So, the team at Rosco Digital Imaging worked with Ruth and Allen to add the snow in digitally. First, we added a healthy covering of snow and ice. It wasn’t snowy enough though, so we added in more… and then more… and then even more – not to mention freezing the lake and adding in abandoned cars on Lake Shore Drive. Allen also shared how, because SoftDrop is made using 100% cotton, their scenic team was able to add extra snow cover onto the drop as the scenes progressed by rubbing white chalk into the fibers of the drop.
It's also worth noting that, after production had wrapped, Ruth mentioned how this process would have been much easier to show on screen if Rosco’s upcoming RDX LAB System had been available while they were shooting.
Ferris Wheel Removal Services
If you look closely at the final image file, you’ll notice that Chicago’s famous Centennial Wheel is missing from its Navy Pier location. That’s because [Spoiler Alert] a plane crashes into the Ferris wheel in the first episode. So, it was removed from the image file used to print the production’s 25’H x 250’L (7.6m x 76m) Day/Night SoftDrop.
The final image file used to print the snow-filled Navy Pier SoftDrop for Station Eleven.
Behold – A Blazing Winter Sun
Cinematographer Christian Sprenger was the cinematographer for the first two episodes that shot in Chicago pre-COVID. He was also involved in the original specification of the SoftDrop for the production because he knew that later episodes would have many daytime interior scenes. Christian and his Gaffer Cody Jacobs loved the idea of blasting a Fresnel through the back of the SoftDrop to create an artificial sun in the sky of the drop. Unfortunately, they never got to execute that effect on their two episodes. Christian did share, however, that Cinematographers Daniel Grant and Steve Cosens both used the technique when they shot their episodes in Canada once production resumed after the pandemic.
The faux sun source effect seen in this shot was created by a Fresnel shining through the back of the otherwise front-lit Day/Night SoftDrop.
The Night The Lights Went Out In Chicago
Cinematographer Daniel Grant also executed another interesting lighting technique using the Rosco SoftDrop. Because it was created as a Day/Night SoftDrop, the set lighting crew could create a day scene by lighting it from the front, and a night scene by turning off the front lights and lighting the drop from behind. This enabled Grant to, literally, turn out the lights when Chicago’s power grid failed by simply turning off the backlights on cue.
After the production aired, Ruth reported back on how pleased she was with the results. “The SoftDrop was the perfect backdrop solution for Station Eleven. Even though it was sci-fi, we still wanted the setting to feel authentic, and the SoftDrop helped us accomplish that.”
You can watch Station Eleven on HBO Max to see how well the snowy Navy Pier SoftDrop performed on camera. If you’d like to learn more about making a Custom Rosco SoftDrop for your upcoming production, please visit rosco.com/softdrop.