Many of us tend to jump right to computer generated imagery (CGI) when we think that it will be too expensive, or difficult to accomplish the desired effect practically. On some projects, however, creating an effect practically "in-camera" can be the better choice. On Matthew Zappile's recent production "Flip Steps," they decided to take the "practical effects" route and see if they could do it.
Click-N-Ship®: Flip Steps
Click-N-Ship®: Flip Steps 2 - More Than a Box. Watch Matthew's newest work for the holiday season, created for the USPS to advertise Click-N-Ship® and how to easily send boxes to those loved ones overseas, with integrated customs forms.
Back in December 2011, I was brought into a meeting with one of our advertising agencies. I was assigned to collaborate with the agency on the creative for a spot for web distribution.
Throughout a series of meetings, the creative team at the agency and I developed a strong concept to show the simplicity of an improved service that was launching: Click-N-Ship®. We came up with the idea of showing the main steps for using this service quickly flipping to each of the actions necessary to using it. The other fun part of the concept was to have the environment change on each flip showing that these actions were probably happening at different locations in someone's house. The locations we needed to suggest were a kitchen counter, a desk in a home office, a shelf with a printer, and a front door threshold.
In our discussions we discussed a number of CGI approaches, some practical/CGI hybrids with a lot of green-screen elements, or even multi-pass motion control approaches. After thinking it over for a bit, I suggested that maybe it was possible to create this effect all practically in one shot.
So I got to work researching how to pull off this effect in-camera.
Actors poised around the rotating table. The challenge at hand: to create the effect in practically one shot.
After the creative was presented and approved, I began to make some calls around town to try and figure out if there was anyone in DC Metro Area who could achieve the effect I was looking for. I wanted someone who could build a practical prop/set that could actually flip. I had a good idea of how it could be done. I even ran some crude tests to see if this effect was even possible. I knew I wanted a four-sided table with the different props for each step affixed to the table so that they would not go flying when we flipped. Also I wanted the front-door scene to be built in "forced perspective" so that the talents' hands did not have to change height after each consecutive flip.
Eventually I talked to Paul Falcon at Bella Faccia, and he said that he had a few ideas on how we could achieve this effect. The biggest challenge was going to be building the "front-door" section. Even in "forced-perspective", Paul said that the door portion needed to extend good 3-4 feet from surface of the table. This required the "flipping table" to be raised quite a bit off the ground so that the door portion would not hit the ground during a flip. Special raised platforms also had to be built to allow the hand models to stand on at the proper height to perform the required actions.
The Apparatus: The barrel of the rotating table had to be counter-weighted so that the flip would happen smoothly.
The barrel of the flipping table, or "apparatus" as I jokingly called it, had to be counter-weighted so that the flip would happen smoothly. Also, Paul's team built unique "stops" controlled with a foot pedal that would allow each side of the table to be leveled and locked off in between flips. An operator would turn a huge crank to flip the "apparatus."
Building the "front-door" section was challenging, to say the least. Even in "forced-perspective", Paul Falcon of Bella Faccia, said that the door portion needed to extend good 3-4 feet from surface of the table, yet still be able to smoothly rotate. An operator would turn the hand crank to roate the box.
One of the biggest challenges was the printer step. In the concept, we wanted the label for the package to already be printing as the table was flipping. To that end, the "apparatus" was wired with power and a long USB cable that was connected to a laptop (More on that later.)
One of the biggest challenges was the printer step. In the concept, we wanted the label for the package to already be printing as the table was flipping.
After all the art decisions were made, the table was completed and broken apart for delivery to our studio in Potomac, MD.
This production was very unique, and one of the most challenging I have ever had to direct and produce. Many things could have gone wrong. So I decided that this would have to be a two-day shoot. The first day was for set-up and rehearsal. The second day was the actual shoot. This would allow everyone involved to workout any issues on the first day so that things would run smoothly the second day.
On the rehearsal day, everyone came in and setup the "apparatus". Paul had also brought some rigging to mount the camera onto the lighting grid at a 90-degree angle. The Director of Photography, Matt Gottshalk (McGeeDigital Media), had to rig the camera onto this mount. He also set up a remote follow-focus unit and a remote start/stop button because the camera was mounted 18 feet off the ground and would be inaccessible during the shoot. We used Matt's RED Scarlet X with a 32mm Ultra Prime lens.
Director of Photography, Matt Gottshalk, above. The camera was mounted onto the lighting grid at a 90-degree angle. They also set up a remote follow-focus unit and a remote start/stop button because the camera was mounted 18 feet off the ground and would be inaccessible during the shoot.
Matt also worked with Don Aros, Lighting Director/Gaffer, to build different lighting looks for each of the different flips. Don would crossfade on the lighting board to the different looks as each flip happened.
DP Matt Gottshalk with RED Scarlet X with a 32mm Ultra Prime lens, mounted 18 feet up.
After everything was set up, we began the task of working out the timing of the spot. The first timing issue was the flip itself. Due to physics, we were not able to flip the table as fast as I wanted. So we shot the flips very slowly, then in post, I sped up the flip to the desired speed. This worked out very well.
The next issue was the printer. The printer we were using started upside-down. So we couldn't have paper (that wasn't glued down) in the printer. This required us to load the printer during the take with a single sheet of paper after the first flip. We timed how long it would take for the label to be partially printed when the second flip happened. This way the print job was just finishing as our hand model reached in to take the printed label out. The timing was never exactly the same, but as we kept rehearsing, the printer got more consistent. We recorded all the rehearsals. I took the files home that night to review the timing and tested out some of the flip speed shifts. This was very helpful because it gave me a frame of reference to make tweaks in my direction on day two.
The represented locations were a kitchen counter, a desk in a home office, a shelf with a printer, and a front door threshold.
The next day was the actual shoot day. When I arrived I noticed there was water all over the floor of the set! Apparently there was a rainstorm the night before, and there was a leak in the roof somewhere. Nothing was damaged, but still this was not a good way to start the production day. However, luckily that was the only major problem that day. Since we took the time to rehearse the day before, everything went very smoothly. I was able to work in some of my directing tweaks and we got the spot shot in about 4 hours once we started rolling. The rest of the day we tried some alternate versions of the action. Then we wrapped a little early so that we could break down and load out all the gear.
The biggest lesson I learned from that shoot was that the more you prepare and rehearse, the better your results can be. Preparation enables you work out small problems before they become big ones and focus on details that could get overlooked otherwise.
Producer-Director Matthew Zappile talks through the challenges of executing this spot completely in-camera.
The best part of about post-production on this project was that it was 80% complete because the effect was done in-camera. First, I brought the 4K raw R3D files into Premiere Pro CS6 and started evaluating takes immediately, no transcoding. After picking the best take, I used the Dynamic Link feature in CS6 to send the desired clip to After Effects.
Once in After Effects, I used The Foundry's KRONOS plug-in to speed up and time remap the actual flips. This also added the desired motion blur to the flip. For laptop screen, I used Mocha AE to track the screen through most of the flip (the rest was hand animated.) Since the laptop screen was shot with the power off, it was an easy task to use a blending mode in After Effects to composite the talent's reflections back over the newly tracked content on the screen. There was a manufacturer's logo on the printer as well that was removed using a patch I built in Photoshop then tracking it in using the 3D Camera Tracker plug-in (in After Effects CS6).
After all that work was completed, I cropped the 4K composite to the desired field-of-view in a 1080p pre-composition. I rendered the 1080p final shot and imported it back into Premiere Pro.
Once in Premiere Pro again, I timed in the voiceover, music, and added the end graphic provided by the advertising agency. I then jumped over to Pro Tools with a reference video file and did the sound design, foley work, and the final audio mix.
After that, I brought the audio mix back into Premiere Pro and exported the final master. One of the coolest parts of post for me was the fact that all of this was done on a 17" quad-core laptop. If I were editing with a lot more 4k footage, the laptop would not have been powerful enough, but since I only had a handful of clips, it wasn't that bad at all.
In the end, it was a great experience overall and I think the end product is a testament to the combined talents of the team who worked on it. During this project, I definitely learned a lot about how to execute interesting practical effects in-camera and would jump at the chance to do it again.
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