From The Creative COW Magazine|
©2009 Niyi Akinmolayan and CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.
It was going to take every production and keying trick he'd learned for Niyi and the team at Anthill Multimedia to finish their music video on deadline - and save an orphanage.
It all started on a very hot afternoon in the city of Port Harcourt, River State, Nigeria.
I was with my entire team, and we had to battle with an electric power generator that had decided to drive us all crazy. Not that I knew anything about generators, but we had some rendering work to do for a client. It was the perfect time for me to lose my temper!
This was when I got a call from the CEO of Adonis Production, Adonijah Owiriwa, the executive producer of a new action movie I was working on. "Niyi, we need to do a quick music video for this orphanage using my song."
Of course, I didn't take him seriously. For me, there is no such thing as a quick music video.
Early this year, he produced a movie ("Nnenda") about a doctor's struggle to save an orphanage, and the premiere date was just two weeks away. I had suggested earlier that we do a documentary about an orphanage that was about to be demolished by the government, and show it at the "Nnenda" premiere screening.
He had also done a song titled "Welcome to My World" last year, as the launch for an orphanage awareness campaign. This was the song he wanted for the music video.
Not that I had a problem doing the video, but we had so much to do for him already concerning the premiere and campaign, including a billboard, brochures and TV ads. Because the campaign was for a good cause that I wanted to be part of, much of the work was free of charge, so it wasn't easy doing more - and of course, the generator problems. We run our business with these alternative power sources, and it eats up most of the profit.
Ever since we did a video for one of his clients, in which we turned a crowd of 12 into about 200 in post, Adonijah can't seem to do anything if it is not shot on green screen! In fact, late last year, he sponsored my first movie (still in post-production), in which 90% was shot on green screen, with loads of visual effects and animations. So, when he called concerning a music video, I knew exactly what he meant.
We met later that evening, and our conversation went like this.
Look Niyi, we'll just do a simple music video with me and the children singing, and we'll mix it with clips from the premiere. It shouldn't take any time - we'll just shoot in front of a green screen and you can just put a plain background... or some graphics...or some 3D stuff....or...or what do you think?
Remember the magic you did on that video...you know, duplicating those crowds...man...they love that video in Port Harcourt... maybe we can do that for the children too... you know.
(still thinking) @#$% >?*&& //$%#
You are not saying anything. He knew I wasn't going to replace the green screen with a plain background! Worse still, we had just one week to shoot and edit the entire video!
These shots are from my science-fiction film, "Blackhole." We had conceptualized robots, flying vehicles and other things that I knew we could not build, so I decided to shoot entirely on green screen. We knew that we were up to the task. A trailer should be ready by the end of 2009, which I will post at reels.creativecow.net.
IMAGINING THE WORLD
All through that night, I listened to the song, "Welcome to My World." The song is an invitation to an ideal world, with no more pain and suffering, where everyone loves and shares. The artist had remixed the original song with the orphans singing the chorus and some parts of the verse. Their orphanage was in a terrible state and worse still, it was marked for demolition.
As I thought about the video, I also thought of what it would be like to be an orphan. (I actually spoke with some of them.) I thought of how they feel when they see other kids on TV hanging out with their parents. I thought to myself, these kids would always be dreaming of a world with so much food, a field to play in, and lots of fun things around.
A major fan of fantasy movies and everything Disney, I loved the idea of creating a heaven-like dream world. So I began making a list.
•A magical vehicle to drop fruits and candies of all kinds.
• A tropical island situated in the clouds with all kinds of animals, mostly wild: elephants, polar bears, sea lions, puppies and even dinosaurs! The kind of animals I would love to play with.
• An amusement park for themselves.
I approach all of my work (be it a 30 second spot, a title sequence, or an opening montage) with a desire to tell a story. It's a rule we all follow at Anthill.
The most challenging parts of the process for me are the opening and the ending. I quickly called up a creative meeting with my team - just five of us! We came up with all kinds of ways to start the video, from the classic storybook openings, to camera flights from outer space!
Eventually, we decided to convey the feel of a child in a room with the windows half closed, and lots of rain falling outside showing a bit of the neighborhood. A habit I still have, I thought it would be nice if the child scribbled something on the frosted glass inside ("There are over 8 million orphans in Nigeria"), and drawings of a home, a pair of parents with a kid, and a face filled with tears.
My Art Director/Matte painter (Bode Adewole) and Lead CG artist (Bisi Adetayo) came up with the idea of a train in the clouds. I also decided to end the video with a thought-provoking question.
See the music video, "Welcome to My World," at:
CAPTURING THE WORLD
Usually, once I figure out the beginning and the end, the in-betweens come very easily.
Because we had a very short delivery period, we started creating the CG elements immediately. I already had some footage of the orphanage shot on a Sony FX1 camera. The producer also had a Panasonic HVX200 camera, so that became the logical choice for shooting the chroma bit. We shot in DV because that's what our editing facility could afford.
The producer made a uniform for the orphans and it was mostly green, so I had only one choice - a blue screen, not very good for DV footages.
Since I knew I was going to place them in a bright world with clouds, I figured I needed a lot of lighting. Unfortunately, the guy who was given the job to rent lights didn't deliver. We had to manage with only some kinos, two redheads and one 2K. (Actually, we had just half the intensity, because the hall we rented had a small generator.) I had to use the two redheads with some bounced lighting to light the chroma material, and used a bounced light from the 2K and the kinos to light the artists and orphans.
I have become famous around here for being the guy who can "handle a chroma job lit with a candle! And shoot green on green!"-and it usually gets me in trouble. There was a time I was given bluescreen footage of people wearing blue costumes because the producers didn't know what a chroma cloth was. I ended up rotoscoping everything!
It's always a good idea for the director to also be the editor, especially on small projects. It makes you shoot exactly what you need. In my case, it reduced my creative options, but it got the job done - and with chroma work, I know that there will always be options later.
Eventually, we got about two and half hours of bluescreen footage, and I knew exactly what to expect in post.
CREATING THE WORLD
Compositing is my favorite part of the entire visual effects process. It is like painting on a canvas.
To create the rain and drizzle behind the window in the opening scene, I used the Tinderbox rain and Tinderbox condensation plug-ins. (Tinderbox makes very fantastic tools.) The scribble on the glass was created in Photoshop. We completed a train through the clouds in Autodesk 3D Studio Max, rendered out as RPF files. These allow you to bring in camera data to After Effects to complete the animation and compositing.
Our matte painter did a fantastic job of creating several layers of clouds in Photoshop, which helped in creating a feel of depth to the scene. He also created the Tropical Island and amusement park.
For the animals, our Lead CG artist had a tough time. He has an obsession for making things look as real as possible, and I have a knack for getting on everyone's nerves when a job has a short delivery time. We got references on the internet for the train and the elephant. He created lots of detail on both, and we were losing time.
By the time we got to the polar bear, electric power struck again, and we couldn't use our 10-quad core render farm to handle the fur. As a creative director, I had to start coming up with options. We forgot the idea of the bear and the puppies (our artist has refused to forgive me on that one!), and we fine-tuned the elephant even more.
We also created a walrus and dolphins. The dolphins in the clouds were inspired by a British Airways commercial I once saw. To animate the elephant, we referenced Edward Muybridge's photos of animals in motion. The animation was fantastic.
Once the CG elements were ready, it was up to me to put it all together. Most books and tutorials will tell you that the most important part of doing chroma work is lighting the chroma material appropriately. In fact, I got tired reading and watching keying tutorials because their reference footages were too perfect to be true. You end up doing the steps in the tutorials with your own footage and achieving far different results.
The reality for many small studios is that you might be handling work with low lighting conditions and rough screens. In Nigeria, we don't even have studios dedicated to greenscreen work. You'll have to go to the market, buy the cloth and set it up yourself. This is why you must not limit yourself to a single set of rules when it comes to handling chroma work.
For this project, I used the linear color key filter and Keylight in After Effects CS3. Keylight is a very great plug-in, but the big mistake you'll make is to just drop the filter on the key color, tweak the screen gain, and render.
When it comes to DV footage, you have to use Keylight with a lot of caution. It was designed to preserve shadows and highlight detail on the screen - if you don't tweak the settings inside Keylight, your subject will have a lot of noise that wasn't in your original footage.
One of the parameters to be careful with is the "Replace Method." For DV, it is better turned to "Source." This will ensure that only the background is removed. You will have the screen colour around your footage, but the footage will look as good as it was with the chroma screen. All the lighting and highlights on the foreground subject will be preserved without any extra noise. It is better to have it this way, and then go on to remove the spill and choke the matte. You might also need to do some colour balancing to completely remove the spill.
The linear color key is a simple yet fantastic tool in After Effects. Think of it like the magic wand tool in Photoshop. If used carefully, you'll only be removing your screen color. The only limitation is that it works best on a smooth and well-lit screen.
After doing all the color correction work and matching the keyed subjects with the backgrounds, I rendered out as TGA sequences. This is mainly because the electric power here is not stable. If the render of a sequence of frames is interrupted, it is easy to recommence from where you were stopped, without having to re-render the entire thing from the beginning all over again.
Adonijah Owiriwa and the orphans from "Welcome To My World."
BLUE SCREENS, BLACK SKIN, AND DV
SAVING A WORLD
Much of the noise information that a CCD chip gathers is stored in the blue channel of an image. You can toggle your channel display in After Effects to view this for yourself. This makes green the preferred choice for keying, especially for DV footage- although you can cleverly handle this with great filters like Keylight and DVMattepro. We have a popular saying here that the video camera was not made for the black man! This is because it is very difficult to get noiseless footage shooting dark-skinned subjects without overexposing the shots. That's why most of our movies look flat - the filmmakers throw lights all over the place so that their subjects can come out clearly. I really wish these camera manufacturers would put that in consideration! Knowing how difficult it is to get noiseless images from dark-skinned subjects makes it even more important to shoot DV chroma work on green, to reduce the amount of noise you have to deal with. As I mention in the article, Keylight is great in preserving shadows - but a dark dude is already a shadow! This means that when you try to clean up the screen and remove the shadow preserved by Keylight, it will add noise to a darkskinned subject. I recommend a way out of this problem in the article.
The client loved the work. He immediately started showing it to some government officials, and eventually the Governor himself. Because the video was very unique and something never seen before in the country, it got a lot of press attention. They loved its originality and creativity.
This eventually forced the government to take action. Now, the orphanage has been restored and more: they got so much attention that it has translated into lots of supplies - particularly from those who felt guilty after reading the end message: "When last did you visit an orphanage?"
It was truly an honor to work with the Anthill team to tell this story. It is always fun to create articles about major films and "big" stories, but this one was about saving lives and protecting children in a desperate situation. Thanks guys for entrusting us with your story. - Tim Wilson & Ron Lindeboom
"Most of my days in college were spent skipping classes, just to be at the library," Niyi told us. "I fell in love with science because I felt I could put a stop to the crude oil problems we have in my country, and provide people with alternative power. Since i couldn't study abroad, I went back to my other love - media, hoping that I could help inspire a new generation to get involved in change."
The Anthill crew at the opening of the film, "Nnenda." From left to right: Rume Omojituko, Charles Paulinus , Niyi Akinmolayan, Bisi Adetayo, Bode Adewole.
THE INVERSE SQUARE LAW
The inverse square law governs the relationship between the intensities of outward radiation sources (light or sound) to the positions of the objects they act upon.
For those who skipped high school math, the surface area of a sphere is 4 pi times the radius squared (4pr²). Because the radiation spreads outward, its power is distributed over larger and larger spherical surfaces as the distance from the source increases. Hence, the intensity reduces as the radiation covers a larger area. Mathematically, this is called an inverse proportion. Because 4 and pi are constant, we can conveniently say the intensity is inversely proportional to radius squared.
Okay, enough with the headache!
When it is applied to light, the inverse square law means that an object that is twice the distance from a point source of light will receive a quarter of the illumination. What it means to us filmmakers is that, if you move your subject from three meters away to six meters away, you will need four times the amount of light for the same exposure.
While that might require too much brain work on a set, it is very useful when working with 3D applications. It helps add realism to your scene. I take this seriously because most time, I get to put my foreground subjects in believable 3D environments. Most 3D programs will give you a linear representation of light if you just drop the light in the scene. Find the right parameters to tweak to give you some inverse square falloff, and you'll appreciate the results.
MORE TIPS FOR COMPOSITORS & SMALL STUDIOS
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Never approach keying with a s ingle set of rules. Every shot will pose a different challenge.
- Never color correct without an external video monitor. In After Effects, go to Edit-Preferences-Video Preview to use that feature.
- Try using a tool to achieve something it wasn't made for. You'll be surprised by how much discovery you will make.
- Save! save!! and save!!! And always render movies as sequential TGA files or TIFF files. This is especially true if you live in a third-world country like I do.
- Try exporting your 3D scenes as RPF files, or any other format that allows you handle depth, object IDs and Camera data separately.
- If you have a small computer, stop opening all the Adobe application at once. Yeah, I know you watch it in many tutorials, but those guys use very powerful systems to work. The reality is quite different. You mostly want to save up some RAM. So close one program, and open the other.
- Don't get too excited with plug-ins. In color correction for instance, using the After Effects collection of curves, levels and HSL adjustments might be all you need to get the job done.
- In a small studio, every member of the team should learn everything: 3D software, Photoshop, a compositing tool and a video editing tool. As your studio becomes larger, each of you can start specializing.
- Learn more about what goes on inside your software. Even if you only work in compositing software, learn about how cameras, lenses and lights work. You have to know the science as much as the art. This has really made me stand out in the five years of experience I have had.
- Before you think of starting your business in this field, get to work in a professional studio - even if you have to do it for free. This experience has taught me to handle tough deadlines and to listen to other people's opinions.