Green Screen Technique

I’ve just been doing some research on getting a good green screen, which will be essential for a future project. Normally you’d be stuck between a rock (expensive and powerful professional solutions) and a hard place (cheap and nasty consumer software). Fortunately I’m pretty technical, which means I’m going for the third way: Blender, which is awesomely powerful and completely free…but an absolute bitch to learn. The interface design is entirely geared towards power-users and makes no compromises for newbies. I’ve been meaning to get to grips with it for years, but never had the time to tackle it. I still don’t really – but if I can get over the initial hurdle there’s a wealth of wonderful features I’ll be able to use. To begin with…the node-based compositor, which will let me generate multiple mattes and recombine them to create very specific keys for particular shots. I don’t trust one-button magic solutions, I’ll take the toolbox thanks.

I also discovered an excellent site selling green screen training DVDs: Hollywood Camerawork. Not only does their training look pretty exhaustive, they have a whole stack of test green screen shots for you to experiment on. In some ways they’re TOO good – I’d prefer to do my tests on less pristine footage, but I suppose I can always shoot my own BAD test shots 🙂

Social Networking with Scott Kirsner

I attended a seminar on Wednesday with Scott Kirsner, organised by North West Vision and Media (they should have a video of the event on their site shortly). He made a great presentation summarizing his book “Fans, Friends and Followers” with example YouTube videos and websites, and we had an interesting Q&A session afterwards.

I came away energised and (perhaps mistakenly) confident that I can use the internet to fund and distribute my work. Fortunately, Steve Turnbull mailed me an early draft of our new web serial “Winter” the night before, so I had something concrete to visualize applying these promotional techniques to. The key is to start early, and be patient – it takes time to build an audience. Let the promotion begin…

Manuskript – Protect and Survive

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Manuskript - Protect and Survive
This was a classic case of “not what you know, but who you know”. Mike Uwins of Neon Zoo also happened to be the lead singer of legendary pop-goth band Manuskript, and he liked Darkest Dance enough to ask me to shoot a video for their new single, launching their latest album. This was a great opportunity for me because Neon Zoo were new on the scene – and while they made a striking entrance attracting considerable publicity, Manuskript already had a huge following within the goth scene. I’d been a fan for years (in fact Mike gave me a copy of one of their hard-to-find albums to complete my collection, which was cool).

So, we set a couple of weekends for the band (who live all over England) to get together so I could film them. Mike effectively produced the shoot – he conceived the setting, story, arranged locations and costumes. I didn’t really appreciate how much organising he did at the time. So I just turned up with as much kit as possible, and winged it…

Day 1
Mike had got access to a dingy warehouse to film in. It was freezing cold and certain corners smelt decidedly unsavoury, but I was too busy to notice. I did spot some obscene graffiti we had to cover with paper though.
I’d brought my homemade dolly for it’s first real use, and the trusty halogen site lights. Mike had borrowed a PD150 to shoot with, which was a joy to use, and produced excellent footage. The guys set up in the middle while I lit the space, which was a nightmare without proper lights. I had no dimmers, no barn doors, no gels or gobos or anything really. All I could do was move the lights closer or further away. I just about managed a satisfactory look.
Then the band mimed while I filmed, rolling back and forth across the front of the “stage” shooting two takes each of wide, medium and closeup shots. I also shot a take from a static tripod directly in front. The PD150 had good enough optics to get a nice soft background in the closeups, which delighted me. Then we went back to Mike’s for Chinese and a quick review of the footage.

Day 2
A few weeks later, we reconvened at a Saturday night gig in a pub (a very small venue for Manuskript). A military enthusiast friend of Mike’s was providing all the costumes and fake guns for the Cold War Berlin setting. Mike had also recruited a model who had come all the way from London on the train to star opposite him. My wife and I had booked into the same hotel as her for the night, which was going to double as our first location. We didn’t have permission to film and were worried about being denied it, so we decided to start shooting the corridor scenes at 7am, hopefully before anyone would be around to notice us.
Mike and I had worked out the rough story beats on the phone, but I hadn’t visited any of the locations, so I had to make up the shots, blocking, lighting and camera positions as I went along. This continued all day, but Mike had conveniently arranged to visit the locations in sequence, which helped enormously.
For this shoot, the PD150 was unavailable so I was stuck with my JVC DV4000, which was noticeably poorer. I relied on practical light in the hotel corridors, and created a cheap steadicam by bolting the camera to a folded tripod and just holding it at roughly the centre of gravity. We got the shots, and moved into one of the rooms.
Again, lighting was a nightmare. The uncontrolled halogen light bounced around the magnolia walls turning everything yellow, and I was in such a rush I forgot to white balance. It’s still an ugly yellow in the final video, because the DV footage didn’t have enough latitude to grade it out. But we got the shots and moved on.
Next location was a pub with a small cave behind it (Nottingham is riddled with caves), for the prison cell. Another nightmare to light, because I could only put lights at the front of the cave for the wide shot. On the closeups I used a small light at the back to outline the cast. This sequence had some simple dialogue that had to be comprehensible without audio and some simple action. It was remarkably fun to direct, and the band members were wonderfully cooperative. We also did a couple of shots outside in the street, where a row of trees and brick buttresses disappearing into the morning haze looked very appropriate for Berlin.
We grabbed lunch on the way to the final location – the band’s studio, in a converted mill building with an enclosed courtyard which looked suitably bleak. A car was parked right where we wanted to shoot, and looked like a modern Renault even with a tarpaulin over it. My wife brilliantly suggested stacking some stuff under the tarp to make it tank-shaped.
Mike’s military expert arrived to brief the band on how to move and salute like soldiers while I planned the blocking and camera moves. He did a superb job. We finished the elaborate exterior scenes and moved into a stairwell inside for the climactic gunfight just as dusk fell.
Inside, the lighting setup I was obliged to use was bold but workable. All shooting was mimed ready for muzzle flash in post. My long-suffering wife almost froze in the unheated building, but finally we wrapped.

Post-production
Editing this was a challenge. First I synced up the band footage on parallel layers so I could switch between them. I did a quick pass picking out all the coolest shots of the band performing, and then started fitting the “story” sequences in between. Sometimes I’d need to add a bit more of the band performing to bridge two story scenes, sometimes I’d have to cut shots I liked to fit the story in.
I had to add muzzle flash to gunshots, paint out a couple of UK signs, find establishing shots of Berlin landmarks on the internet, and grade everything to look as good as it could.
Finally I rendered it out in three different formats and created an HTML frontend for the data section of Manuskripts enhanced CD single. Mike and I both worked through the night communicating by phone and email to get the CD master ready on time. It was surprisingly fun.

Publicity
This is where I failed. Once the video was delivered, I relaxed. I did submit it to a couple of festivals, but it was a half-hearted effort. I should have posted low-quality teasers all over the web, visited forums, hit every music and film fest I could. But at the time, I was just pleased to have completed another project. And I’m still very proud of it.

Planning ahead

So, here’s my current plans for 2010 – outside work, at least. I’ll post about my TT projects when they’re announced.

• Write making-of posts for the rest of my films. I’m doing them in chronological order, and the more recent ones are bigger projects and fresher in my memory – which means the posts take much longer to write.

• Cut a trailer for Monsters to enter in the inaugural Trailer Festival. Ironically, this was our original plan, until I persuaded everyone that the mini-pilot format would be a better use of the budget. The ideal trailer would have more characters, more locations and more VFX, which takes money (and/or big favours). So I’m going to try some experimental editing…

• “Winter”! This is a brand new script by Steve Turnbull, written specifically as a web serial. It’ll be the most ambitious project I’ve worked on – the biggest new challenges for me are directing action and doing our own publicity. Lots to plan, and we’ll be keeping a production diary too. This is the focus of the year.

• I’m working on a feature script of my own, which is still an incomplete outline. I’d like to get a few drafts done within the year if I can, mostly to prove to myself that I can write a feature.

Should be a hectic but rewarding year!

Doctor Who: The End of Time

Warning, spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen it yet…

I’ll admit to shedding a tear at the passing of David Tennant’s Doctor, and a fanboy squee! at the almost-return of the Time Lords. But really, Russell T’s era peaked at Doomsday and never quite managed to attain the same level of emotion without feeling contrived. Davies’ scripts are strong on emotion but when the plot gets too reliant on coincidence and lazy technobabble, my suspension of disbelief is destroyed and the emotional highs feel hollow, although the great acting and score usually manage to carry them off to some extent.

In this story, the Master is resurrected by some random groupies who are wheeled on for this scene and never heard of before or since. His wife conveniently has a plan to sabotage the process, which has no effect other than to give him superpowers that give the Mill more work. This imperfect resurrection manifests in three completely unrelated ways, one of which is purely cosmetic. Then he’s kidnapped by a random rich guy to fix an alien machine which conveniently gives him an opportunity to take over the world…again. It’s all too coincidental. The changes to the timeline in Waters of Mars are never mentioned – seems like the Time Lords could have used the Master to escape at any point in history. And by the end everything goes back to the way it was before, except that Wilf is stuck in a deathtrap ready for the Doctor to save him. Tennant performs brilliantly, but the story feels so transparently engineered. The greatest hits epilogue was nice but heavy-handed and felt unrealistically protracted, as if the Doctor can go weeks after a mortal wound before actually having to regenerate. I was looking forward to this because Euros “Children of Earth” Lyn is a fantastic director given decent material, but this isn’t his finest hour.

Still, hopefully the new era will be better – Steven Moffat is much better at coherent plotting and consistent use of the SF elements, so I expect his new rebranded version of the show to be more thoughtful and less hysterical. Roll on spring…

Stereoscopic 3D – worth the effort?

I went to see the IMAX 3D version of Avatar over Christmas – I was sure I ordered digital tickets but the projection didn’t look digital, judging by the registration on the credit scroll. It wasn’t as crisp as I expected either.

Avatar is certainly a technical tour de force. The story is fairly well-worn and a bit predictable, but it’s so well executed that I don’t mind. I was still drawn into the world of the film. But I was most interested in what advances they’d made in the 3D techniques.

To be honest, for the most part the 3D doesn’t add much – until the climactic battle. Having proper depth perception made it far easier to read the action in a frame crowded with flying lizards and helicopters. This fits with my experience of 3D in games – depth perception makes it far easier to judge spatial relationships, particularly handy in a platform game. Generally, third-person games where the player spends most of their time watching the character will look great. First-person games will struggle, because it’s harder to judge which part of the screen the player is focusing on, and it’s critical that the 3D effect matches the viewer’s focal point to avoid headaches.

Although theatres are hoping that 3D will draw audiences away from their home cinema systems, there are several home 3D solutions in development, and a new generation of consoles due within 5 years. I predict that as soon as a new console supports stereoscopic 3D, it will drive takeup of the home 3DTVs far faster than movies will – and theatres will be on the back foot again.

Rage Against the Publicity Machine

The Rage Against The Machine challenge to XFactor’s Christmas number one is an interesting case study for building an online presence, something I will need to start in earnest next year.

It seems to me that the success of the Rage campaign is down to positioning itself directly against a rolling publicity juggernaut and playing the underdog. And the choice of a 17 year old anti-authoritarian track appeals to the market sector least likely to support XFactor…polarising the market even further and leveraging social networks to achieve saturation.

It’s a strategy that may only work once, but I’ll certainly bear it mind in my own efforts at publicising my next project, Winter.

For the record, I bought the album and live versions of Killing in the Name. Rage on!

[Update 1] I should also note that I expect this post to spike my traffic like Vlad the Impaler 🙂 I’ll update later to tell you if I was right…
[Update 2] Hmm, a pretty poor spike if I’m honest – 2 views. Still, that’s a 30-40% increase on my normal traffic! I must get one of those “Nobody reads my blog” T-shirts.

Joss talks about Horrible business

I’m a bit slow to repost this, but I didn’t have a blog back in February. Joss Whedon discusses the business model behind Dr. Horrible.

In a nutshell, it cost $400,000 to make (including cast and writer’s fees, which were deferred) and has at least broken even. Some sites claim it has raked in $2.5m. All Joss says is that iTunes was “a great boon”.

Neon Zoo – Darkest Dance

Darkest Dance was my first go at a music video. My wife and I met the band at a nightclub in Nottingham we used to frequent, some months before the launch of their first album.

We shot this on a Sunday afternoon in that same nightclub, which had conveniently black walls. I lit it with a couple of halogen work lights from ScrewFix – not very controllable but very cheap. I set up a monitor so the band could see themselves, which was a mixed blessing – it proved a bit distracting.

In the edit, I had two takes of each of the six band members (one wide, one close-up), plus a couple of extras for the lead singer. I created a half-second clip and pasted many, many copies of it so that I could just switch each clip to point at any one of takes below. It took many passes over the whole song to select the best combination of clips. Then there was some painting out of lens flares and reflections off the back wall.

The concept is deliberately simplistic, but it’s dramatic, shows off the distinctive personalities of the band members, and well-received at the “premiere” – after their gig at the Devonshire Fox in Camden. It was enormous fun to shoot the video and hang out with the band for a lot of their summer tour. Happy days 🙂

Motion tracking freeware: PatchMaker 1.0

A quick tip, because writing about Churchyard reminded me…

PatchMaker 1.0 is a simple 2D motion tracking tool for Windows. It does only two things but it does them well and simply. It will either stabilise footage, or apply the same camera motion to a patch image (it will also export the tracking metadata into After Effects if you need to do something elaborate).

Although it’s only 2D tracking, it’s subpixel-accurate and easily good enough for any shot short of a crane or steadicam move. I tested it on Churchyard to attach a replacement name and date to a gravestone, but the trial version would only do 1 second shots – so, cheapskate that I am, I tried to do it by hand. Ouch.

I’m glad I didn’t buy it though, because it’s now FREE!

So in Monsters, I stabilised a slightly wobbly 1080p dolly shot. We had done several takes on set until it was silky smooth – but of course during editing I particularly needed a bit from the imperfect tail end of take 2. It required a little experimentation to find the best tracking points, especially since actors were passing in front of the background I was trying to track, but the end result almost eliminated the wobble. I suspect it could have been perfect if I’d spent longer refining it.

Grab it while you can!