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Westward Ho!

From The Creative COW Magazine

Creative COW Magazine presents Westward Ho

Mike SullivanMike Sullivan
Boston, Massachusetts USA

©2008 Mike Sullivan and All rights reserved.

Article Focus:
A wild ride of an edit: shot on film, projected onto five screens. In this Creative COW Magazine article Mike Sullivan discusses some of the problems he faced in a project he did for National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, Wyoming.

All editors must answer the common questions of length, format, style, and tone. But I have a few things to take into account that broadcast editors typically don't.

I cut shows for as many as 16 screens, some horizontal and some vertical. I composite actors into the past or into the future. Sometimes the videos become part of interactive games, or interact with lighting and objects inside a theater.

As one example, let me tell you how I did the postproduction on a large project for the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, Wyoming.

I know that many of you outside the USA are asking, "Uh, where?" I know, I asked the same thing. Casper is where the majority of the migratory trails from the East to the West converged to cross the Platte River and the Rocky Mountains.

"Footsteps to the West" was to be as epic as the Trails story itself, not limited by the restraints of the traditional theater environment.

Five individual DVD players, all running in sync to the frame, would project the final show onto five individual screens. Each screen would be over 10 feet wide giving a final measurement of one large screen over 50 feet wide.

At the same time, lighting cues would flow around six life-size dioramas, each one illustrating a different aspect of the Trails experience. Arranged chronologically right to left, the dioramas started with the Native Americans, moved onto the hunter/trappers, missionaries, pioneers, the Forty-Niners and the Pony Express - until finally ending with a full-size steam engine, just as the completed Trans-Continental railroad brought an end to the Trails themselves.

The lighting on the dioramas would change throughout the program to emphasize or highlight what was happening on screen.

At times the dioramas themselves would become the main focus of the program and the screens would show a scenic, perhaps a sunrise or the panoramic landscape of the Plains, to allow the viewer to focus on the dioramas. Nothing was designed to overshadow anything else.

Also, one of the dioramas was a full-size covered wagon with a campsite beside it. Now and then, silhouettes would be projected onto the side of the wagon as if they were shadows thrown by the campfire - or in one case, lightning - thus making a five screen program into a six screen program!

Covered Wagon 1


I began the edit on my Avid Media Composer just like any other - with the audio.

I prefer to start with audio because, even though it's scratch audio and temporary music, I can get a good sense of the length, rhythm and tone of the piece.

After the audio, the tricky stuff began. We decided that the only real way to see how the different pieces would interact would be to build a "virtual theater."

I got photos of the scale models that had been created for the dioramas, plus the blueprints of the venue. Using Photoshop, I arranged the pix and the screens exactly how they were going to be laid out in the orientation theater.

The next step was to create the different lighting cues. The colors were simple enough - cool blues and warm reds and oranges - but the lights would not merely turn up and down when a particular diorama was referenced. No, no, too simple that.

Covered Wagon 2

Covered Wagon 3

Covered Wagon 4

The director sometimes wanted just pieces of the dioramas to light up. For example, at one point the film points out the toll the trip took on the wooden wagon wheels, so we would light up just the wheel at that moment, not the entire wagon. Of course, every one of these had to line up with the film edit, exactly.

As far as the images I had to work with, well, I couldn't go wrong. In addition to a large cast of re-enactors, there were real cowboys, real covered wagons, and real animals on the real trails.

We captured them in a two-camera film shoot, one shooting Super-16mm, the other shooting anamorphic 35mm. Just like everything else, these decisions were made based on the final projection of the show, in this case, the five side-by-side screens.

Once we had an approved picture-lock, we transferred the keeper shots from the 35 for the on-line. Because the 35 was shot anamorphic, we got the equivalent of three 4x3 prints from each 35mm negative.


I suppose if I thought it through more carefully beforehand I wouldn't have even tried, but I decided to online the entire show in After Effects.

I did this for three reasons. The first two were due to the look and tone I came up with. The director wanted to avoid a "video-wall" look. He wanted the imagery to feel of its time. I was able to get the proper look by creating a texture in Photoshop and using the overlay or multiply transfer mode in AE to combine it with the imagery.

Another video-wall staple to avoid was hard edges. In other words, we didn't want to see the edge of the image hit the edge of the screen.

I chose AE's masks and modes rather than, say, the ones in FCP, because AE gave me the flexibility to create comps in any size I needed. I could edit the show as if it was one big screen, then drop that large comp into five smaller comps and render those out for the final deliverable.

I just had to make sure I positioned the main comp properly inside the smaller comps for each of the five screens, so I created a comp 3600 x 486. (720 x 5 was enough math for me.)

Then the fun began.

From the offline, I already had my timings down. Then in AE I layered them with the texture and decided how much of the shot would stretch over from one screen to another.

I developed a system where I drained the color from the shot, pumped up the contrast and drew an amorphous, soft-edged mask around it. Then when I turned on the transfer mode, it looked like an Old- West "wanted" poster come to life.

To keep some life in the piece I sometimes duplicated the layer, but kept the color in it. I would make the mask on the color layer smaller and keep it on the normal transfer mode, but dropped the opacity down a bit. This gave a little color to some shots, but they still fit into the overall piece.

I mainly found myself using this effect on the 35mm footage that went across the three middle screens. Then I book-ended these color shots with completely sepia/textured 16mm footage on the outer two screens.

Even with the anamorphic 35 there wasn't enough resolution to stretch one image across all five screens. So how did I do it, you ask? I was able to get these images because of how they were planned and shot.

With either camera, the shooter would frame a scenic with, say, a tree on screen right. He would roll film for 45 seconds or so, then pivot his camera just enough so that the same tree was now cut off on screen left. Then he would roll for another 45 seconds.

He did that five times with the Super 16, but only needed to do it once with the anamorphic 35. During transfer, we pulled the five pieces from the stretched negative.

Then I was able to create huge panoramic shots of a sunset, the plains, or the Platte River by putting the proper pieces together in AE just like a puzzle. Because I had the comp set up to the correct size I could immediately see if things lined up or not.

As the deadline approached I was rendering sections on 4 different computers every night to get the show finished.

Diorama Displays
The complete presentation includes five large screens of video, along with multiple diorama displays depicting different times and peoples of the area.


There was still one last challenge: we had to test the screens before we installed the show. There was no way to fit all five screens in our studio at the same time, to make sure they lined up. So we set up two projectors (the exact projectors that would be in the museum of course) and tested them in pairs: screen 1 & 2, then 2 & 3, etc.

It was a good thing we did this, because we found that the projectors did not project the full raster of the image. We ended up running each screen through a DVE and pushing them back about 7%. Only then did the images line up correctly.

That is the fun part of doing the museum work. Every project is a new and different challenge. I have only been limited by my imagination, my director's imagination, the client's budget, and that age-old enemy time.

But the long hours, sweat and tears don't leave as many permanent scars because I know that people will really appreciate the final product.

So if you ever find yourself in Casper Wyoming, go to the Trails Center and check it out. Then drop me a line and let me know what you thought. I've never seen the entire show any bigger than the monitors in my edit suite and the two-at-a-time projections in our studio!

Mike SullivanMike Sullivan
Boston, Massachusetts USA

Mikes other museum installations include the Smithsonian Institution, The International Spy Museum, and The National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Regular haunts at the COW include After Effects, Particle Illusion and Avid. "I especially like the Art of the Edit forum," says Mike. "I wrote this to give back to everyone who helped me figure out ways to make some of these Gordian projects become a reality."

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