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Posts Tagged ‘vfx’

About a year ago, we held a screening of the third episode in my Fallen Star series. As it’s become a tradition now, I had to stick a teaser for the next one at the end. A while later, it went onto YouTube:

The point of the ‘teaser’ is, naturally, to tease. It’s not a fully-fledged trailer, it just gives a taste of what’s to come. Or rather, it functions as a placeholder. It just says “yeah, we’re working on this. Watch this space.”

So, when you’re still knees-deep in unfinished footage, up to your eyeballs in unusable concept art, and missing anything resembling final dialogue, how on earth do you put together something that looks and sounds like the thing that you haven’t done yet? Let me break down the teaser for Episode 4 and take you through it…

1. Logos and BRRARRRRRPs. Thanks, Inception!

2. Previous footage. Best way to set the scene and use what you’ve already got. Re-coloured and zooming out to give it a foreboding tone.

3. Nebula reveal. Well, that’s actually a shot of the Britannic from Episode 1, played backwards (you can tell because it’s missing the shield domes on the dorsal hull). The nebula was a placeholder; the final one looks different, but it wasn’t ready last year.

4. It’s Humphreys and Knight on the bridge. This is new footage, an actual shot from Episode 4! It needed some digital bits added (those computer monitors were green) and all of our dialogue will be dubbed in later, so you can’t hear what they’re saying. Instead, you hear Knight narrating a line that isn’t actually in the episode. We recorded it specifically for the teaser.

5. Zooming in on an open hatch while Knight explains that Humphreys is missing. See, that’s suspense, that’s drama, right there! The implication is that he’s taken an escape pod and disappeared. Again, though, that exact shot isn’t in the episode, but something similar is.

6. Logan declares they’re going to find him and closes his space helmet. Again, this shot isn’t in the episode, it was recorded specifically for the teaser. Logan will indeed be donning some kind of space suit, but we (still) haven’t even finished building it yet, never mind filmed anything in it!

7. The shuttle departs. That’s a shot from Episode 2, albeit flipped.

8. Volgin puts up his fists for a fight. Who’s he fighting? Where is he? More on that in a moment (see further down), but this was taken from a recently shot scene so it will feature in the episode when it’s been finished properly.

9. Knight looks around, confused. This is another shot taken from the episode. As it didn’t need anything doing to it, aside from adjusting the colour, it went straight in. What’s he confused about? What’s happening? You’ll have to wait to find out!

10. The Britannic flies through space. This is a stock shot, for filler. Again, it’s been flipped and may not appear in the episode.

11. The ship is shaken about! Well, this is just a shot from Episode 2 again. Yes, similar things will be happening but not like this. It’s just there weren’t any other shots ready at the time!

12. Darling in the medical ward, with a patient. This is one of the few finished VFX shots that’s actually in the episode, and that’s only because I’d already made the necessary background.

13. An unknown ship zooms off into the starry sky. Yyyyyyyeah, this technically has nothing to do with episode 4 except it might be used for a part of it. That’s a bit cryptic, sorry. It’s a ‘finished’ VFX shot so it went in.

14. The shuttlecraft flies through a cloudy region of space. Well, this exact shot isn’t from Episode 4; but I put it together using a new cloudy background that I’d started working on for this episode. The shuttle is a re-use of a shot from Episode 2, because dammit, time is money!

15. Logan announces that he sees something ahead, and we see the shuttle radar/scanner/thingy picking it up. This is a tone-setting shot; it’s what’s going to happen but not how it happens. The cockpit wasn’t finished and that line was recorded only for the teaser, but it’s all I could use at the time.

16. Something ahead approaches. A dark and gloomy structure hidden amongst the clouds. In the final episode, there will indeed be something like this, but this isn’t it. At the time, I hadn’t even conceptualised what it would look like, never mind started making it. Needless to say, this shot will not be used in the episode. Not least of which because it turns out to be an enormous number 4, and that would just be silly.

So, three finished shots and two half-finished shots, and the rest of it is re-used clips, ‘concept’ footage and voiceovers. That’s how you make a teaser more than a year before you’ve finished shooting!

Since this teaser was put together, we’ve shot more scenes and I’ve done a lot of post-production. We’re not finished yet but I thought I’d share one thing that I’ve been working on for the last couple of weeks – an engine room.

In the teaser, you see our spy character Volgin preparing for fisticuffs. With whom and for why, I shan’t say; but his location is our ship’s engine room. The only trouble was, last year I hadn’t made an engine room and didn’t even know what it would look like. So I had to improvise – I found a photograph somebody had taken of a dry-dock and flipped it upside-down.

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Some sort of dry-dock for ships, the right way up.

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Volgin in the engine room, before we had an engine room.

Several months on, and I find myself with the daunting task of designing and building a 3D model of our engine room. I’m not beholden to a photograph I used in a teaser that nobody would notice, but I used it as a reference point anyway.

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To start with, I plot out the space.

Our ship is powered by a McGuffin, as are most sci-fi ships. The ‘engine core’ is a common theme, but this one is most inspired by the Mass Effect videogame series. There will be a raised platform across the middle of the room.

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Staging, placeholdering. That’s a thing.

It was important to get the scale right. We’d already shot the scene (on greenscreen), and used a stepladder as a placeholder for the steps. By overlaying the footage in the modelling software, I could make sure the real steps lined up with the virtual ones. More bits were then added to the room.

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Close-up of the railings and grates that I started to add.

Once the layout was decided, I began to model the finished elements. Grating, pipes, railings, bits of equipment, computers, doors, ceiling supports…

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The ceiling, based loosely on that upside-down photo.

It became rather detailed rather quickly and, once the lighting was added, I was chuffed with the look of it.

Here it is, the first exclusive look at the HMS Britannic’s engine room, the location for at least one scene in Episode 4…

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The engine room, a finished render. As (will be) seen on TV.

Ain’t it lovely?

Thanks for reading, I hope to have more soon. The work continues.

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The third episode of my Fallen Star series was rather more laid back than the previous ones. There was no action, no big setpieces or fight scenes to implement, and much of the “plot” took place in a series of small rooms.

Despite that, however, there was a surprising amount of post production work required to finish the episode. Since a large proportion of our ship interiors didn’t physically exist, we had to use a lot of greenscreen. Any real locations we had available to us had to be modified to make it look like we were still out in space. One of the more ridiculous scenarios we encounter lately is having to shoot scenes across multiple days due to the mixed availability of our cast, and then having to composite them together into the same shot.

The below video demonstrates some of the visual effects work I had to do on Episode 3. I hope you find it interesting. And remember, the greatest challenge is in making something look easy.

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With three years between the release of Episode 1 and Episode 2, you might expect I had plenty of time to improve upon all aspects of the visual effects – but actually a lot of that time was spent simply getting the vast amount of content created and finishing the episode to an acceptable standard! Nevertheless, I think Episode 2 features some pretty good visuals that build upon those created for the first episode. Have a look at the six-minute breakdown below:

The first thing we knew we would need for Episode 2 was a larger amount of virtual environments. For Episode 1, we had time to build secondary sets, such as the bedroom, the briefing room and part of the transit room. We also used a real forest for a big chunk of it. Basically, at the time, we weren’t sure how well the green screen would work, so we intentionally kept it to a minimum. Once we knew how well it could work, we were free to expand its use in Episode 2 and were able to put our characters into locations that would have been otherwise impossible (or at least highly impractical) to build for real.

I had time to improve upon the chroma key technique, changing some of the plug-in settings and using the high resolution masters straight from the camera to get the best colour pull. This produced a neater, cleaner picture in most instances. Combined with shadows and depth of field effects, I got some good results.

Virtual environments had to be modelled, so this is where I spent a lot of my time. Creating the banks of computers for the IT room, modelling the computer monitors, creating the interiors of the outpost station – these were all time-consuming processes that I worked on over several weeks and months. Wherever possible, I would re-use elements. You might notice in the background of the Nottingham control room are computer screens, control panels, pillar lights and vents, all taken from Britannic environments. Here and there, I have used pre-built 3D models for some background components (the plant pot, for instance), but most of it is my own modelling work. I’m still learning, but I’m becoming more ambitious every time!

Re-using assets was a time-saver. I was able to bring back the Smegulon fighter ships from Episode 1, giving me more time to spend on building the mothership. The Britannic itself is also the same – in fact, I was able to reuse a few bits of stock footage from part 1. However, once I’d set about adding the weapons and shield domes to the hull, I could no longer re-use the old clips, so I had to render all new ones for the latter half.

Some of the seemingly ordinary shots actually had a lot of work done to them. For instance, we needed a room for the Jenkins character, but all we had at the time was a living room, complete with decidedly contemporary-looking skirting boards, plug sockets and curtains. These scenes had to be extensively modified to remove those elements and keep the room looking spartan and spaceshippy, which involved lots of “rotoscoping” (ie. frame-by-frame drawing around the actors). The other detail I wanted to add was the colour of the carpet; due to throwing the old one away, our rebuilt set had a black carpet instead of the original blue one. I decided I would digitally alter the colour of the carpet for the first half of the episode, up until the point where the bridge gets its systems upgraded, for the sake of continuity. This also involved rotoscoping around legs and feet in a few shots. Yes, I am quite mad.

Other scenes, like those in the dining room, were even more complicated than they look, due to the green screen not being wide enough to cover the whole frame, and due to the fact that two of the extras at the table were not available on the same day. So to get the shots where you see the whole table, I had to composite two pieces of table together, two sets of actors filmed on different days, and then painstakingly draw around anything that fell outside of the green screen. One shot in particular, lasting a mere 15 seconds, took about a week to fix!

The most noticeable improvements are found in the space shots. There are a couple of things that I was able to do that I couldn’t do in Episode 1, which made the biggest difference. Firstly, I had a faster computer that was able to render sequences with motion blurring enabled. This meant that, as ships and missiles were whizzing around the screen, they would appear to blur realistically with smoother and more natural motion. Secondly, since I finally worked out how to apply a spherical map to the environment, I was able to do any camera movement I wanted without having to worry about matching up the stars in the background by hand. Thus I was able to move camera and ships independently, which is of course very useful when you want to have big space battles going on.

Finally, I really pushed the boat out in doing some ambitious visual effects shots. Mixing live action with CGI, mixing planet scenes and space scenes together, doing big reveals, pull-backs and zoom-ins – I used every opportunity to produce some impressive sequences on our budget of nothing.

All the visual effects were created using a combination of 3DS Max, Adobe After Effects and Photoshop. With a sprinkling of fairy dust and crossed fingers.

Of course, Fallen Star is more than just a vehicle for expanding my technical skills; it’s also a fun and creative endeavour of writing, acting and hopefully making people laugh and cheer. That said, for the purposes of this website, I hope this has provided an interesting look into some of those technical aspects, which make up a huge proportion of the workload.

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It’s been a little over three years since I finished work on the first “episode” of my Fallen Star film series, which was, at the time, only to be a one-off (although initially planned as a series). Those three years have been spent working on another five episodes simultaneously, but the last year has seen the final push to get Episode 2 out the door, and now it’s finally available to watch online. Check it out below:

We learned a lot on episode 1, felt what our limitations were, and decided to push against them here. With a better camera and improved image clarity, I was able to make more extensive use of our greenscreen background to put our characters into a wider variety of locations, most of which did not physically exist. I’d also improved upon my animation and rendering, and with a faster PC, was able to create longer and more dynamic space sequences.

We paid closer attention to our camera work and editing for this one, and more time was spent on the scripts and trying to flesh the characters out a little more. The practicalities of working on scenes from five episodes at once were difficult but we got everything we absolutely needed in time for this one, and more episodes are still being worked on now.

I personally think what we all, as amateurs, have achieved here, on practically no budget, is something to be proud of. However, I want to keep this blog focused on my technical skills, which I will get to in a later article, accompanied by a visual effects breakdown video. Thanks for watching!

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A general purpose showcase of special effects that I’ve made for film projects.

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Here is the third and final visual effects showreel from my Fallen Star project, this time focusing on the augmentations made to live-action footage.

Unlike the CGI space scenes or the green screen scenes, live action raw footage took up the majority of the shots used in Fallen Star. But most of that footage had to be modified in some way, whether it was to add laser beams, computer displays or even entire walls. Let’s go through the ones shown in the video…

Lasers! These were straightforward enough – just straight lines given a glow effect. They widen slightly as they fire and narrow again before they disappear, rather than just flicking on and off. They also swipe across in the direction of travel, just slightly. Real lasers are instantaneous, but you can use artistic license with sci-fi weaponry. The good thing about these laser effects is that they’re on-screen for just a few frames, so even if the camera movement is all over the place, it’s a piece of cake to track their motion. I added a glow to the impact points and the gun barrels too, just to jazz it up a bit.

Background enhancements! Our original footage had, for instance, a plain wall where we needed to have a porthole. Thus, I created a porthole and then laid it over the footage, so it lined up with the wall. The difficult part is if and when someone walks in front of these, at which point I had to do some ‘rotoscoping’, masking out the shape of the person frame-by-frame, to obscure the porthole.

Background stabalisation / extension! We had our footage of the briefing room interior, which was to be seen through the long row of windows from the outside. The actual footage showed only a small area of wall and carpet, so I had to extend this outwards to create a large room. A digital set extension, if you will! This was then lined up with the footage and finally inserted into the composition with the CGI exterior. A similar technique was done with the opening bridge ‘zoom-in’ shot, but I had to stabalise the footage to stop the excessive jerking about that our camera was doing. Stabilisation is mostly an automated process; it’s just a matter of finding a constant reference point for the computer to recognise and keep it locked in place.
On a similar note, there were a couple of shots where a door was removed and replaced with the corridor behind it. Most of our corridor shots were done on green-screen, but as you can see in the video, I squeezed an open door into one piece of live-action footage too, masking around the foreground as necessary.

Computer screens! This was where things got difficult. Our screens were physically black (or grey) with nothing on them. Thus, every single shot had to be amended to insert the graphics. The process would have been longwinded enough without having to draw around people’s heads and hands whenever they moved in front of them, but there was no other way. In hindsight, we should have fitted green panels onto the displays; that way, I could have keyed out the colour and saved myself a lot of time. The sheer number of shots where the screens are visible in the background was ridiculous! I’m glad the end result looks good, though. It’s just as well most of our shots had little to no camera movement – that would have made the process even harder!

Transport effect! One of the oldest optical tricks in film is to stop the camera, move something out of the way, and start it up again, to make it look like something has disappeared (or appeared, if you do it the other way around). We did this in the forest, to make our crew appear to materialise out of thin air. Digitally, this is a simple process to fade from one to the other. To jazz it up, I cut around the shape of the actors to isolate their shape, and then brightened them all up so it looked like they were glowing. Then I added sparkly effects over the top, which started small and then filled out into the shape of the actors, before fading away again. Additional glow effects were added to make it look like it was lighting up the forest floor slightly.

Miscellaneous! Little things can make all the difference. The scorch mark on the tree where the laser hit it? That wasn’t real! Although when the camera moved and I had to track it (and blur it) to keep it in the same spot, I did wish it was real. More lasers, this time going behind things – I had to mask out the character, tree or whatever else it was going behind, involving a small amount of that lovely rotoscoping again. Blurry eyelids opening? Those were drawn, with the colour fading from black to dark red to simulate the light filtering through, and the footage behind it is simply blurred. Finally, the squirrel scanner – I used a combination of automatic motion tracking and frame-by-frame adjustment to make sure the graphics stayed lined up with the scanner device. The opacity was set low enough to allow the reflections to come through, adding to the believability.

That’s it, that’s how it was all done. Wasn’t that terribly fascinating? If you pause the video, you might be able to make out some of the gobbledegook I wrote on the computer displays.

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Here is a collection of visual effects sequences from my Fallen Star project, concentrating on the green screen (chromakey) sequences that placed our actors in artificially-generated environments.

From the start of the project, we knew we would be limited in which areas of the ship we’d be able to show, and that principally the episode would be set on the bridge. However, early on, I suggested we might try to expand the range of locations using artificial environments modelled in 3D, using a green screen to isolate the actors from the background. The possibilities were exciting! I set to work on creating some interiors, a long corridor, a hallway, a ‘transporter’ room, not to mention the fourth wall of the bridge. I used actual photographs of our real walls and carpets for the textures, to try to keep things as consistent as possible.

We were lucky enough to borrow a green screen for our project. Unlike normal green screens, this one was colourless until light is reflected off of it. Using an array of LEDs attached around the lens of the camera, we could reflect back the green light off of the screen. The light would only be visible from the angle of the camera and wouldn’t reflect off of the actors or props.

We had a few teething problems with this, however. At first, we set the intensity of the LEDs too high, and it did in fact reflect off of the actors. Therefore some of the green screen footage appears quite fuzzy or has messy outlines. We got better at the technique the more we used it, and most of the other shots have turned out fine. One advantage of using this reflective screen is that it doesn’t need to be as perfectly lit as a normal green screen would be – it’s self-luminescent. Unfortunately the actors did need to be lit properly, else they ‘silhouette’ against the background. We did our best with this, but ultimately I did need to lighten much of the footage in post-production. This meant that some of it has poor black levels and visible artefacts. Not a problem in Hollywood, but it’s difficult when you’re on a budget of nothing.

We used the green screen for every shot of somebody leaving through a door. This is because none of our doors were real. They’re either stuck onto the wall, or in some cases they’re entirely digitial. So the on-set filming would have been done first, with the character walking up to the door. Then, later on, the green screen shot was done, with the actor continuing to walk away, passing through or around an imaginary doorway. When edited together, it’s almost seamless. Almost.

The green screen didn’t extend down to foot-level, so the few times when we needed full body shots, the feet were removed by cutting around them with a masking tool. Thankfully, there wasn’t much movement, and all the walking shots were done from above the ankles. But even with a physically small screen, it’s possible to insert large background or shrink the actors down, as you can see in the video.

You’ll also notice that we sometimes separated our actors into layers. This wasn’t done for technical reasons, but rather logistical ones. We actually lacked sufficient costumes to film everybody at the same time. This led to the rather ridiculous shot of four people walking into the transit nav room in single file, which we filmed all separately! There were also scheduling difficulties, which meant not everyone was available for filming at the same time, so again, I worked around this by compositing two (or more) bits of footage together into one shot.

Ultimately, we couldn’t have made this film without a hefty amount of green screen, so I’m very glad to have had it. Perhaps we’ll be using it more in future.

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