(This is actually an old blog, I just never got around to posting it until now - because I'm just that busy.)
Planning in advance. This is probably the first and foremost thing I should remember about making movies...of course, I never do.
Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t - mainly because of certain changes that happen long after a scene is shot and there’s no chance for a reshoot. What I mean is planning a shoot specifically for the addition of special effects (of any sort).
First thing is the camera has to be locked down, this really isn’t an option (unless of course you have camera tracking software - or at least the money for it) - by locked down I mean just sitting on a tripod or at the very least, not moving - which could also mean lying on the sidewalk or something.
Second thing is shooting a blank version of the scene. Basically you shoot your version with the actors or props or whatever, then just in case (depending on the effect) you shoot an empty version, or a version without a certain actor or prop (a clean plate in special effects talk...I think).
Otherwise you end up with a lot of work ahead of you. Of course, you can’t really plan ahead when you don’t really know what the effect is going to look like, or how it’s going to fit into the scene. A great example of this is a shoot I just encountered, it’s a very simple scene and actually the 3rd scene shot for the movie.
The scene involves Malice wandering along towards home after a night of fighting evil and she gets hit by one of her killer headaches then knocks her off her feet. Simple enough, originally it was just going to be Heather physically reacting to a pretend headache, with a sound effect thrown in to help the idea along. Then I got the stupid idea to make a visual effect out of it. Which wasn’t a horrible idea entirely, just hard to implement after the scene had been shot.
The effect is pretty simple, I got the idea from Batman Begins, if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean. It’s the effect used whenever someone came into contact with the hallucinogen. The background of the shot would sort of shake in and out, while the focal point remained more or less fine. I did my own version of that, not perfect, but it does look kinda cool. So now can the problem of fixing the footage to make this work.
There’s only 3 shots where I need it (so far at least, I may have forgotten there another one or two somewhere else in the movie). They’re all close together in the movie, scene 31 and 32 - the last 2 scenes right before the 3rd and final act of the movie. The first one I worked on is one where Malice gets up off the ground after being hit by one headache, sits down to recover and gets hit again. This one was fairly easy, I already had a blank version of the background, so I added the shakey effect to it at the right place, then using the old rotospline masking technique I seem to love to much, removed her from the background, added the two together, now we have her layered overtop the slowly vibrating background. No problem.
Then there was another, which had her lying on a couch. This one was pretty easy aside from not having a clean background, I had to make one, add the effect - and since Heather wasn’t moving - made a mask to remove her from the footage then added her and the shakey background together and the effect was done.
Then came one shot I’d forgotten about. Or at least forced myself to forget about. There very first shot had her fully in the shot walking out from behind a planter in very dark lighting and casting two very obvious shadows. When I first looked at this, I had no idea how to make it work. I couldn’t cut at the last minute from one version to another, because the shadows wouldn’t match exactly.
So, I made my clean version, easilyy enough and started from there. I had to remove her from the shot at the very least - at least for the last 20 frames. No problems there. But I also had to remove her from the shadows on the ground. So, out with the rotosplines to create a new shadow. Now I have a clean background, with a shadow, timed perfectly and everything. So far so good.
I still had the problem of removing her from the area with the original shadows. I traced along certain lines already in the shot to make a hole overtop the entire area where her shadow passed, then had to cut out over about 100 frames worth of her lower legs as they passed through this area.
Incredibly enough this all worked out. I’ve worked at doing some major cleanups before on some shots, but nothing this extensive. This is the first time I’ve worked at removing the actor and the shadows, replacing the shadows and then putting the actor back in. It works though, I’m fairly impressed by it myself.
The reason I mention all this terribly fascinating stuff is this:
Funny to think how much stuff you’ll never really see as far as effects go in a movie. I recently saw a list of Emmy nominated movies for the Special Effects category. Of course, Dead Man’s Chest is in there (you’d have to beyond dead and stupid not to realize those are some of the best FX in a movie ever), and some other effects movies and finally Casino Royale. Don’t get me wrong, loved the movie, best James Bond movie ever (another topic of conversation of course). But the visual effects? I don’t recall seeing anything near the same level of effects as say Dead Man’s Chest - now obviously there wasn’t going to be a guy with an octopus for a head in a James Bond movie (maybe the older ones, but not this one). What I mean is it didn’t SEEM like a special effects movie (unless of course Daniel Craig is really an 80 year old woman - in which case, damned good effects), it had explosions, and stunt work but those aren’t what this category is normally about so I can only assume from that, given a demo reel I just saw lately, that it’s one of those movies where the effects aren’t so much meant to stand out, but to STAND IN for something else.
For example, this demo reel I saw featured a shot from the Harrison Ford movie Firewall. And all the scene had was Ford pacing behind a desk in his office overlooking the city...? That was an effect? Then I saw the original footage and it was just of Ford behind a desk in front of a green screen. I can only assume it’s easier to have someone create an entire digital city and back wall of an office then shoot in a real office overlooking the city.
Given all that, it makes me wonder sometimes when watching movies just how much you’re not really seeing. The name Visual Effects, doesn’t just apply to stuff you’re supposed to see and go “Wow, giant transforming robots are cool!” But instead just watch the movie and not realize it was shot in a studio somewhere and not really on the streets of Venice. This is all obvious of course, movies have been doing it for years - but once you start seeing just how much isn’t real anymore you’ll be surprised. And so long as Natalie Portman is real, I’m pretty much cool with it.