Fix it in Pre : Workflow Starts Before the Shooting Does
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Carl Larsen : Fix it in Pre : Workflow Starts Before the Shooting Does
The South Dakota Advertising Federation gave us a unique opportunity: producing nearly 2 hours of animations for use throughout this year’s ADDY awards program, our regional portion of the world's largest advertising competition.
Besides the videos setting up each of the award presentations, we also created a short visual effects film for the show open, chronicling a few-second slice of time where two cowboys catch each other cheating while playing poker.
As long as we kept to the evening's western theme, the SDAF gave us complete creative freedom...but due to scheduling conflicts, we had less than a week between principal photography and delivery of the final edit.
Even though it was for a one-time event, seen only by the people at the awards ceremony itself, we wanted to present our best work in a way that also highlighted the best work being done by our colleagues throughout the region.
Therefore, we did as much preproduction as possible. We had to have a clear understanding of what we needed to shoot, and maximize our limited time with the actors on location.
A static storyboard using rough pencil sketches was a good start, but it didn't give us any information about camera moves, or the timing of our shots. To help with that, we created a motion storyboard, or “animatic.”
It;s a simple process. We placed the storyboard frames on a timeline to work with shot lengths. Then we broke the frames into layers so that we could move them to reflect changing camera positions.
This was especially helpful as it allowed us to play with the timing of the shots, simulate camera moves, and begin working on some of the more complicated visual effects even before principal photography began.
We also did several camera tracking tests and mock shoots in our studio, which proved to be invaluable. Because we planned to shoot everything overcranked at 60fps, it was all the more essential to have a strong understanding of how the edit was going to fit together before the shoot began.
Thanks to our extensive pre-planning, we knew the length of each shot, the camera’s perspective and movement, and even had a music score in place before we ever rolled camera in Deadwood.
HITTING THE TRAIL
As we went into the project, our goal was to create a realistic effects film with high production value that drew attention to the story, and not the effects themselves.
The production involved 2 days of shooting, 5 actors, 2 locations, 14 visual effects shots, and a very limited budget, using a team of just the 3 of us at Video Vision. We shot on a Panasonic HVX-200 in 720p HD mode at 23.976 fps, using a Cinemek Guerilla-35 depth of field converter and Nikon f1.8 primes.
The "G35" is an HD 35mm adapter still under development as I write this. Its most attractive feature is that it has a static imaging plane and does not require power. As a result, it's a simple, lightweight, and compact unit that is very friendly to off-speed shooting.
Since ours was a beta model, one of the biggest challenges was that it lost a significant amount of light -- I estimate about 4 stops. (The newest production versions are said to lose only 1.4 stops.)
Nevertheless, it afforded us the ability to mount 35mm Nikon lenses on our camera. This provided a beautifully shallow depth of field and extreme focus pulls seen throughout the film.
We also used various camera support systems, including a home-made dolly system, and a 10 foot Advanta-jib with pan and tilt.
Editing was done in Final Cut Pro, visual effects were handled in After Effects, and music was scored in Reason.
Here are a couple of examples of the way we put the pieces together to tell our story.
THE RAIN SHOT; 2:37-2:45
The camera starts far above a saloon in a heavy rainfall, races to the ground, and goes through the roof to reveal the cowboys holding drawn guns around a poker table. The shot ends with the camera moving from a vertical orientation above the scene to a horizontal perspective of the cowboys.
What sells the shot is the way we were able to combine the CG elements and the live-action footage into one fluid and believable movement.
Everything that appears before the camera finishes moving through the roof of the saloon, was created entirely in After Effects using a combination of 2D and 3D compositions.
Once the virtual camera moves through the roof, we switch to a 100% live-action shot of the cowboys captured in camera on the HVX with the Advanta-jib.
The CG components of the shot were approached in two parts, with separate After Effects comps and cameras that were later meshed into one single move. The camera goes from high above the desert to the roof of the saloon in the first segment, then through the various layers of the roof to reveal the cowboys within the building in the second.
We began by creating a 2D terrain map for the environment using Google Earth images.
These were then parented together and scaled exponentially to simulate the effect of a camera rushing toward the ground.
We also wanted to give the impression that there was a downpour of rain interacting with the camera as it flew into the roof of the saloon. For this, we created a rain system with Trapcode Particular using custom particles. This allowed us to have the raindrops fall past the camera while the background was scaling slowly, but then to speed past them before reaching the roof of the building.
Additional clouds were added to make the shot feel more organic. Finally, a number of adjustment layers and selective grading masks were applied to the composition to perform a day-for-night conversion and to add additional depth of field rendering to the scene.
In the second CG segment of the rain shot, we made a 3D multi-plane composition to simulate the movement of the camera through the various layers of the roof.
A series of high-resolution images was attached to the roof to preserve detail. Once the camera passed through the outer layer of the roof, a number of photographed wood particles were arranged in 3D space to give a more realistic impression of depth as the camera continued passing through the roof.
A combination of Particular and AE’s lens blur were used to create the faint raindrops that remain on the lens of the camera which appear on the live-action photography of the gunfighters. In the screencap below, you can best see the raindrops over the gunfighter on the left.
THE WINDOW SHOT; 3:03-3:20
In this shot, the camera pulls back from the gunfighters in the saloon, moves through a window, and dollies back roughly forty feet to reveal the sheriff pointing his rifle at the dueling cowboys. (In section 1 of this article, you can see the storyboard, the location shoot, and composited final version of this shot.)
Instead of taking a series of still images and pulling a virtual camera through the scene, we recorded two live action shots where we physically moved the camera and combined them into one seamless motion.
Below, note muzzle flash reflected on chest
In the end, this shot required significant stabilization, tracking, roto, rig removal, and time remapping to get everything to match together. However, working this way gave a more realistic sense of perspective as the camera moved through the scene. There was no other way to achieve the realism required for this shot using still photography and a virtual camera alone.
To finish the shot, we added CG fog, rain, and breath, as well as CG lights and a day-for-night color conversion.
THE OTHER HALF OF THE PICTURE
The music was composed BEFORE the rough edit of the animatic was completed. This way, the music set up the pacing of the shots, and contributed more significantly to the overall mood of the piece. Once the animatic was replaced with the footage from the shoot, the music was recomposed to accommodate for small shifts in the timing of the edit.
Since all the footage we shot had no associated sound, dozens of effects were added in Final Cut Pro to highlight each subtle movement within the piece. When everything was finally synchronized in the edit, there were over twenty tracks of audio dedicated to sound effects alone.
FIXING IT IN “PRE”
With less than a week of post production, we were very pleased with the results of the film.
As with any project there were some small surprises along the way, but our emphasis on pre-production helped us determine the difficulties we would face early in the planning process. Had we taken the all-too-common approach of shooting first, then attempting to “fix it in post” later, the project would have failed.
Start to finish, it was a reminder for us that complex visual effects are amazing, but it is critical that they are used in a way that enhances your story, not just for the sake of using the latest plug-in.
Careful attention to production details also means that you don't have to be a big company to do exceptional work. In the end your clients will thank you, and so will your audience.