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Civil War Film 'Saving Lincoln' Uses Actual Historical Photographs as Background VFX Plates

01.28.13 @ 7:05AM Tags : , ,

Saving Lincoln - Historical Photographs - Civil WarEver seen a period film shot entirely with backgrounds made from historical photographs? No? Well, me neither, but Salvador Litvak has done just that for his film Saving Lincoln, and he’s now looking to distribute this independent film with the help of Kickstarter. He’s taken to the crowdfunding website to sell the movie and help take it on a theatrical release, and today we’ve got a post explaining exactly what’s so special about Saving Lincoln and the process his team went through to accomplish this monumental task.

This is a guest post from Salvador Litvak.

Here is the trailer for the film:

Saving Lincoln is the true story of Abraham Lincoln and his closest friend & bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon. The film features virtual sets created from actual Civil War photographs, through a process I invented called CineCollage. Because Steven Spielberg announced his Lincoln movie just after my wife, Nina Davidovich, and I finished writing ours, I had to find an independent way to tell our epic story. During our research, I spent countless hours in the online Prints and Photographs division of the Library of Congress, where I found a trove of wet-collodion, glass-plate photographs. Thanks to the LOC, these images have been digitized at extremely high resolution.

I imagined our scenes taking place in these locations, and after watching films like 300Sin City, and the lesser known French film, The Lady and The Duke, I realized we could use modern technology to transform those vintage black & white photographs into 3D environments. Of course, the process ended up being MUCH more challenging than I anticipated, but I was blessed with an amazingly creative team that was both talented and nimble. Among them are VFX Producer Kristian Hansen, and VFX Supervisor-Designers Daniel Land, Catherine Tate, Ryan Bauer, and Gabe Hall. And I can’t leave out our Editor/Slap-Comper Extraordinaire, Josh Noyes. We did a lot of testing during our pre-viz stage, and developed the following workflow:

  1. Boil down each scene to its essential EMOTIONAL elements and make sure those are communicated visually. This is both a writing and directing task, and one which we kept circling back upon. Eventually we made the film in 730 shots, a very low number for a narrative feature, but a very high number for an indie film requiring VFX process for every shot.
  2. Find a photograph or “plate” that can become the location for the scene – if none exists, find related plates and harvest photographic material that can be assembled into a 3D set;
  3. Storyboard the scene so all departments are on the same page;
  4. Shoot the scene against a green screen, using on-set rough compositing to match camera height, distance and lensing with the historic photographs;
  5. Create a package of the above materials and farm out to our compositors, based primarily in San Francisco, New Orleans, Detroit, and Europe;
  6. Conduct twice daily group meetings via google hangout or gotomeeting to keep everyone on the same page, while learning from each others mistakes and aha-moments;
  7. Go back and forth with our digital artists until every shot gets finaled: and
  8. Assemble all shots, color-correct and smooth out the bumps.

Post-production was pretty massive, but we got it done in less than a year, which rocks for an all-VFX film made for under $1 million.

Completing the film is an achievement I’m immensely proud of, but it’s only half the battle. We knew we’d have to connect with our audience as well, and we undertook that outreach from the start. No one knows our audience better than we do, and we’ve been providing new content about Abraham Lincoln, Ward Hill Lamon, Civil War veterans, and Civil War photography EVERY DAY for the past year at – which is why we’re rapidly approaching 50,000 fans. My wife and co-writer, Nina, spearheads that effort. (We also have 6,500 followers on Twitter, as part of our transmedia storytelling effort – see this Huffington Post article for more on that.)

To further connect with our fans, and convert their enthusiasm into actual dollars, we turned to Kickstarter. Beyond crowdfunding, Kickstarter allows us to expand our distribution and build an army of fans that are personally vested in helping Saving Lincoln succeed by spreading the word. Taking a page from Ryan’s playbook, I designed reward levels that offer real value and increasing participation in the process. The nice thing about doing this at the distribution stage is that backers can see proof of the concept, and they know they’ll get their rewards in a short time.

I believe one of the best lessons I learned along the way, from both Ryan and the man who helped me put all this together, our Producer Reuben Lim, is the importance of Care & Share vs. Tell & Sell. Simply put, people have too many choices these days, they’re numb to loud calls of “Buy this awesome thing!” and they’re looking for an authentic connection with the products they consume, which is to say, a connection with the makers of those products. You achieve that connection through openness about your process, and sharing what you’ve learned, as I’ve tried to do here.

I hope this sketch of our workflow on Saving Lincoln is beneficial to you in your endeavors, and I invite you to join us on our journey by backing us on Kickstarter. Rewards start at $5. You can learn more about CineCollage on the Kickstarter page.

It was great to reconnect with Ryan Koo through the Kickstarter campaign for Saving Lincoln. I backed his project, Man-Child, in 2011 because I loved his concept and his smart approach to rewards, and the lessons I learned from him have helped my campaign as we approach 200% of funding with less than two days to go.

Please note, our funding campaign ends on January 29 at 9PM Eastern/6PM Pacific.



We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 36 COMMENTS

  • I think it looks great and it’s a great idea. It looks like a theatre play taken to film. I liked it.

  • Rodrigo Molinsky on 01.28.13 @ 7:49AM


  • Really like the idea but in the end it just says GREENSCREEN.

  • In theory the idea is great, but the realization looks cheap and amateurish.

  • I wonder if different lighting would have help the, “it just says GREENSCREEN,” look.

  • Looks more like a high quality animatic to test the story of the film. I couldn’t possibly take it seriously because a movie supposed to look real… Like the actors are truly there.

    It’s more like 2D photoshop images all the time. The director calls it “CineCollage” but this is no new or saught after technology. It’s really just compositing and after effects. No diss toward those who made it. :)

    • Woah! Director says he “invented” the technique…lol. That’s funny.

    • Collage isn’t always neat and tidy, maybe that’s what they were going for. I’m aware of the visual techniques more than the story. It’s a bit jarring because it’s not what I’m used to seeing.

  • I really underestimated how old Creed from “The Office” is. That man’s been quality inspecting for a long time.

  • on 01.28.13 @ 9:14AM

    Ha! My friend Michael is in this. He’s the one who brandished a knife around :28.

    I’m not sure how I feel about this project, to be honest. I like the idea that historical photos were used for compositing, but I don’t know how much that actually adds to the story. I don’t want to disregard this film for its technology, but the greenscreen in this so far seems hit-and-miss. Despite my opinion, I hope this film finds its audience and people enjoy it.

  • Of course it looks like green screen. The look of the movie is STYLIZED. It has desaturated color foregrounds over black and white, 2.5D background plates derived from historical photographs. You can like or dislike the look but don’t confuse an artistic choice for bad technique. Yes, there are a few shots that could use finessing but trailers often use shots that haven’t been finalized.

  • What is this “Ryan’s Playbook” he refers to?

  • great idea, poor execution

  • Dana Yurcisin on 01.28.13 @ 2:31PM

    I’m not sure why some people are saying it looks cheap and can’t take it seriously. No, it doesn’t look as good as Spielberg’s Lincoln, but it was made for about $65 million less. For what it is and for what it cost, this looks pretty damn good.

    Also, if the story itself is solid, you’ll soon forget just how “cheap” those sets look. I remember watching Dogville for the first time and for the first five minutes thinking “this being shot on a sound stage is kind of distracting”, but after those first five minutes it was a non-issue.

    • “…if the story itself is solid, you’ll soon forget just how “cheap” those sets look. I remember watching Dogville for the first time and for the first five minutes thinking “this being shot on a sound stage is kind of distracting”, but after those first five minutes it was a non-issue.”

      I feel the same way about 1080p video at home. If I’m five minutes into a movie, and I’m still paying attention to the picture and sound quality, then something is terribly wrong with the story. As an example, “28 Days Later” was shot in SD to DV tape. Did anyone fail to enjoy that movie solely because the image wasn’t good enough?

      If the story is truly good enough, even a cammed bootleg version is enjoyable.

  • Paul Barrett on 01.28.13 @ 2:33PM

    Why not make it all black and white instead of making the actors stand out so much?

  • I got a “game feeling”, don’t know how to put it right. Phantasmagoria, Byzantine, anyone?? But of course with increased quality. Anyway, I didn’t like it. For a game look it would be great. Sorry for my poor english guys.

  • I love the brave concept, but the look is just so… strange. The cheap, green screen look is impossible to ignore. Maybe this would have worked better if it was all animated?

    • There are some shots that work for me, though – inside the train, and the following one outside of a train really worked for me. Also, the dolly around him at the desk with the archival image through the window. The wider, flatter shots are the weakest, in my opinion – in those, the green screen look seems to overcome any merit of “stylized” shots.

  • Hi guys, thanks for commenting on the piece. Brian and Dana, you’re right in terms of what we were going for. It’s a stylized look that suits the nature of Ward Hill Lamon’s memory-piece about his friend, Abraham Lincoln. We knew we could never sustain a “real” look at our budget because visual effects that are 99% right look 100% wrong, and we had to composite every single shot. Saving Lincoln is more of a film-play, where the audience is invited to complete the visual loop for themselves. During pre-viz, I realized it was much stronger to mix color and B&W for exactly this reason. There’s no attempt to trick the viewer into thinking it’s real, but the funny thing is that in talking with our audiences, we consistently hear that they stop noticing the “look” within the first minute because they’re into the story. Of course, those are movie civilians – the folks here will probably need a couple extra minutes to stop noticing… :-)

    • I think it’s a great look and you’ve done amazing work for your stated budget. I think you’ll get pushback on the look until people see the movie, then it will rise or fall on the strength of the story. Thanks for sharing your experiences here and I look forward to more behind-the-scenes details about this process.

  • I don’t know about this… it looks really cheap and very cheesy. It was a great idea, but I wouldn’t be able to take this film seriously.

    Anyone remember “Gods and Generals”? It had a great cast, but it was so melodramatic, the critics hated it, and it was a complete failure.

    When you do period pieces, you better stay away from the cheese, or else it won’t work.

  • Props for the attempt but I am with the majority on this one, the effect looks amateur and the acting and dialogue seems really forced, probably a challenge to act without a set, and the script doesnt seem very compelling.

  • It should be online at some streaming service soon. Our encoding house just got a copy of it.

  • I’ll just say this: I still find, after all these years, Ken Burns’ Civil War to be the most engaging and fascinating historical documentary ever produced. Using nothing but stills, voiceovers and a handful of interviews.

    It worked because it didn’t try to re-enact anything or try any gimmicks. For that reason, it is basically timeless and will never feel dated.

  • I personally think it looks great!! I like the storyline and the detail put into the story. I am excited to see this film if it comes close enough to where I live…Kudos to Mr. Litvak for putting together a story about Lincoln that pops out of the screen because of the cine collage…It looks almost 3 dimensional to me. And to use pictures that were actually from that time gives it an eerie feeling of actually being there. Good job!!

  • I like the idea – but they should have worked the video to the photos not the photos to the video. If you’re going to go through the trouble of using old photos to make it “authentic” then make the video match the pictures to blend in with that authentic look. I found the “Artist” more impressive technically of capturing the “feel” of the silent moves right down to the camera work (not perfect i know!) but I was able to get lost in that movie far more than this overly clean slightly colored layered composite…

    I’m guessing someone is gonna come out say “cool idea – here is how you do it” And we’ll be like “yep should have done it like this guy”

  • I like the look. But I’m not watching it wanting it to be realistic and blend seamlessly. The quirkiness is half the appeal. Congrats on the funding

  • I know that everybody on these forums is more or less creative themselves, so honestly: can’t you see the movie for its art rather than the technical minutiae that civilian audiences probably won’t even notice? The point of a movie is its storytelling, not how it was made. Personally, I think that if this movie flows correctly and has a compelling story to tell, to heck with a greenscreen set. If it is able to convincingly give the stylized feel that it obviously is aiming for, bravo. If not, we can still applaud Mr. Litvak’s creativity and bravery in introducing a new facet to our art.

  • I just want to say, no matter how it looks, kudos to Sal for using his intelligence and creativity and lets face it pure grit and determination to get the film made.
    How many on these forums dream about making a feature, talk about making a feature and then get caught up in “excuses” – while having an opinion is fine and disagreeing with someone’s vision is healthy let’s not use the “art of commenting” to distract us from our purpose which is to make our own films.
    Sal, I don’t know you, probably will never meet you, but the way you have gone about your task is both inspiring and a good “kick up the butt” – so thank you. Look forward to seeing the film.

  • Thanks so much, Will and Bharat! Truly appreciate the encouragement, and I hope everyone will see the film in theaters, both to support its release and to catch it on the big screen. Info on all our release cities at and

  • Tyrannosaur on 03.25.13 @ 1:58AM

    I was umming and ahhing a bit at the kickstarter video, but then I read the whole post and watched the trailer and I have to say, with no vested interest in this film (I miss pledge dates) I would see it, and I would go out of my way to see it. I live in Australia so I have no real patriotic interest in it either and i doubt I will be able to see it as easily as others :(

    That said, I dont mind the style at all, I think its great to push the boundaries and try new things. If no one did it, we would still be watching silent black and white films. (not that there’s anything wrong with silent black and white films)