Just What Does it Take to Comp a Shot?

We track a typical visual effect sequence done by Furious FX for the film Date Movie, 2006. We follow the shots from on set to finals in the finished film.

Furious does great work, but rather than discuss the whole film, we drilled down on just one small sequence and tracked it to show exactly what happens on a typical visual effects shot on a major Hollywood film.

A visual effects sequence, like most things, has a life of its own. It starts innocently enough, gets dragged into existence, worked on, perfected, and finally watched in a darkened cinema with a bag of popcorn beside a partner who hasn’t seen you too much for the last few months. This week we trace a sequence from start to finish through VFX. The shots themselves are typical of hundreds if not thousands of shots which skilled vfx artists work on daily in studios up and down the west coast of California and increasingly all over the world. Each one needs planning, care, and attention to detail, and in this case a scantly clad Carmen Electra tied up in a bikini being fondled by a giant ape!

Like most of us, VFX Executive Producer Scott Dougherty checks his email on the weekends. Normally it is just office stuff and SPAM, but occasionally there is something that can’t wait until Monday. After all, in a schedule-driven business, someone may need something urgently. At this point in time the team was pretty darn busy back at their modest offices overlooking the lights of the city of Burbank and its residential neighbourhoods. It was near the end of July 2005. Furious FX had just finished Mr & Mrs Smith and Sky High and now they were busy with Flicka and Just My Luck. Within the next couple of weeks they would pick up a CG airplane crash for the television series Medium.

The team was also forward booked with a good slate of shots on Underworld: Evolution, so they were already facing some late nights and weekend work. Underworld : Evolution was a good fit with Furious, as one of the more common diversions during late night renders is scaring each other at every chance they get. It is not uncommon to find a Shake compositor hiding under a desk or behind a door at 11 o’clock at night ready to try and scare the crap out of a colleague. Scott jokes that the team has “many horror film fans, so that activity may be more specific to our group. Helps keep everyone alert and on their toes at all times”.

This particular weekend Scott opened an email from a good friend at the studio whom Furious FX had worked with twice during the past year. The email – a heads up – explained that their team had just been recommended for a new “King Kong” sequence in the film Date Movie, a comedy from “2 of the writers of Scary Movie”. The sequence was only described as a “trailer” at the time, coming as it was, fairly late in the production cycle of the film.

On Monday morning, Scott arrived at the office and told Executive Visual Effects Supervisor Dave Lingenfelser about the project. By mid-morning they had received the official call along with a partial script, storyboards, and shot breakdown so that they could put together a bid for the work. Dave got straight to work, discussing with the team, while reading the script pages provided. Everyone agreed that the sequence would at least provide a memorable stand-alone trailer showcasing their work in the event it didn’t make it into the final cut of the movie.

For Dave, the questions were bluescreen vs. greenscreen, practical props vs. CG objects, and the degree to which the set would be constructed practically vs. environments to be built in the computer. But none of this could be determined until there was a meeting. Realistically Dave knew there were several ways it could be done, and Furious was well placed to do the shots justice. They were funny sure, but not insanely large visual effects sequences. A meeting was set up two days later with all the key players to discuss the sequence.

That initial meeting included the Directors/Writers, Producers, DP, Editor, and Art Department heads. “While there was no official ‘you’re hired’ uttered during this meeting, everything was moving ahead as if we were definitely working on the sequence, so we viewed it as an award” recalls Scott.

There were several more pre-production meetings with the filmmakers to determine the number of shots in the sequence, the type of action, and the different gags involving the ape hand. Technical requirements were also discussed. Given that the actress and ape hand were to be shot on separate days and with a scale difference, much of the conversation focused on how to integrate the various elements to sell the interaction of the hand with the character’s hair, clothes, and body.

Following the pre-production meetings, Dave had indicated a preference to use bluescreen for a couple of reasons. First, Carmen would be wearing a blonde wig so the blue would make this a cleaner matte pull, and secondly he personally prefers blue “since it can be easier to manage color spill from the screen”.

Other considerations discussed and decided upon were the types of props to use, mainly oversized practical, or CG with on-set interaction stand-ins. There needed to be careful selection in the actual size of the props to make sure they could best be manipulated on set to help sell the action. It would be of no use if they had a great prop but it was too unwieldy to manipulate on set.

The team worked hard to maximise production value; after all Peter Jackson’s Kong cost over $150 million. Weta had 1,394 Intel Xeon 2.8GHz processors in render farm for Kong, an impressive theoretical peak of 10 TFLOPS. Given Furious a slightly smaller budget they still aimed for production value – and of course to be funny.

The shots in this Kong sequence were awarded with about two weeks left in the principle photography schedule. “Especially with comedies, it’s not uncommon for new ideas and scenes to develop during the process of shooting” explains Dave. The filming with the bluescreen, the actress, and foliage elements all took place in the first week of August.

After an afternoon filming various foliage elements, the bluescreen shoot for the actress plates was scheduled for the last day of the schedule and consisted of roughly twenty slated set-ups of Carmen tied to an altar with two bamboo posts. A wide assortment of gags were filmed, a fraction of which appear in the final cut. Some that are not included involve oversized combs, Q-tips, an aerosol can, and a hair dryer..…things showing the ape primping the object of his desire. For interaction with the actress, the crew used long poles with bluescreen comb attachments, a huge fan off-camera for the dryer gag, and most critically, a blue “stuffy” roughly the size of a large finger to represent where the ape’s hand would be at any given time.

Kong’s ripping off of the tribal dress to reveal a leopard bikini was achieved by having a man in a full bluescreen body suit stand next to Carmen and tug on a pre-rigged breakaway dress.

With the actress elements now on film, the bluescreen ape hand shoot took place 5 weeks later, during the second week of September, once a sequence had been edited together. The Kong hand was a human-sized costume worn by a puppeteer and therefore required scaling to appear as a 30-foot ape. All of the selected actress bluescreen plates were available so that the necessary actions could be performed and roughly overlayed using a switcher on set for comparison

“Our role on set was to make sure the directors could get the best possible action and effect they needed within the constraints of the chosen process. We advised during the choreography of the on set rig so that the gags would achieve the best possible laughs,” explains Dave looking back on the shoot.

Dave requested in discussions with the DP that they to not go more than a stop above or below the screen lighting. “Anywhere in that range, and we are usually fine – it all depends at what the key is at. Having somewhat more neutral lighting on set gives us a greater degree of flexibility to time the scene in post” he explains.

Counts for the first shots were received a week after that, and initial temp versions delivered the first week of October. Pacific Title did all of the film scanning and recording, with Hollywood Film and Video providing all lab services.

The team at FuriousFX used Shake for the compositing, choosing Keylight in Shake to pull the bluescreens. Keylight is known for having excellent blond hair extraction. The only real issue the team faced was the Fuji stock since it was a new product. The DP had not used it before and the Furious team were also encountering it for the first time. The Fuji stock required a different approach than the Kodak stocks with which they were more familiar.

In order to get a good screen pull and maintain all of the hair detail, a few more steps were required. First, they employed several different methods of degraining the plates, and then they used these to pull a smooth and noiseless matte. This matte allowed the compositors to feed the non-degrained, de-spilled bluescreen piece back on top. These steps really made a huge difference as they were able to keep all the fine, fly-away hairs from the wig.

For establishing the look of the sequence, the first review sessions were done at the team’s office on Digital Ordinance’s Frame Thrower, their 2K playback system. With an overall hero look selected, Furious would then send hi-rez QuickTimes of the shots to be cut into the client’s Avid sequence. Shots were adjusted based on feedback, then eventually recorded out to film for the final review and sign-off.

In the earlier stages of the VFX process, it is more about presenting overall concepts. Different looks were reviewed to help determine the direction the scene should take. Varying degrees of fire, smoke, atmosphere, and lighting levels were all examined and examples composited together. Color issues were established early on – “darkish blue for a moonlit look, or perhaps more fiery red for a greater sense of atmosphere and danger” commented Dave. Getting direction from these first few tests helped as the team then started to refine the look and move toward completed shots.

For final approval, it normally came down to everyone in the room at the time of the screening – the directors, producers, editors, and people from the Studio. Usually in Furious’ screenings of their footage, a combination of individuals would agree that the shots were looking good, and the team would move on.

The earliest cut sequence for an audience screening contained three of the “Kong” shots. The good reaction from that screening meant that more shots found their way into the cut, settling in at about a dozen by the time the film was ready for distribution. Following the first post-screening meeting, all final shots in the sequence were delivered within ten weeks.

With the effects nearly done, only one thing remained to be resolved – the end credits. “We honestly never feel certain of credits until we see them projected on the screen along with everyone else”, jokes Scott over an extremely large coffee. “So many decisions need to be made during the last few weeks of post-production that there is always the possibility that credit reducing is one of them”.

For Date Movie, it is understood that everyone who directly worked on the film at FuriousFX did receive credit, including the Visual Effects Supervisor, Executive Producer, VFX Producer, Creative Supervisor, CG Supervisor, CG Artist, and Computer Services Manager.

Since the film opened in mid-February, Production was still wrapping post during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. The last shot finaled during that week. Only three members of the entire Furious team were left alone in the office at the time, since all the staff were on well-earned Christmas vacations. Given the busy schedule during this time, final shots were being reviewed by the filmmakers while running between digital colour timing and sound mixing sessions.

Situated in the middle of crowded Manga action-figure-covered desks, most of the computers were black and switched off for the holidays. There was a distinct lack of any late night noise from the normally loud, but now silent Halo Xbox. Scott got the news via a phone call that all the shots were approved and wrapped.

He then went home…and checked his emails.

Shot 05 stage 1

The background plate, including the rock wall and vines, are entirely CG and created by the team in Maya.

Shot 05 stage 2

The fire elements are practical plates we shot the same day as the ape hand.

Shot 05 stage 3

Practical smoke elements were also used to create atmosphere.

Shot 05 stage 4

35mm Fuji stock was used for the bluescreen pieces, then scanned as 2k Cineon files.

Shot 05 stage 5

Shot 05 Final

These steps were grades done at the Furious facility based on an interactive color timing session with the DP.

Shot 08 stage 1

Aside from a partial day shoot of plant elements, all of the live action Carmen plates were shot first. Dave had talked with the DP about having some interactive fire lighting on her, though the decision was eventually made to go with a straight white light for back lighting, which worked well. Once the compositors had placed the fires into the CG background environment, they would then take the back lighting on Carmen and tint it a slight reddish-yellow to help match with the added flames.

Shot 08 stage 2

As the ape hand was a costume glove over someone’s arm, it could pretty much do whatever was needed in terms of action and flexibility.

Shot 08 stage 3

The team worked with full frame images and delivered full-frame back. The visible aspect ratio for the theatrical release is 1.85.

Shot 09 stage 1

For the most part, the Kong arm moved very closely to the on-set rig’s action. There were only two instances where the team had to go in and recreate portions of the live plate covered by the onset rig so that the ape’s hand could move a bit more freely.

Shot 09 stage 2

The keying of the fur was achieved using exactly the same procedure previously discussed for the actress bluescreen, see main story above.

Shot 09 stage 3

All of the second unit items such as foliage, fires, and smoke were discussed and agreed upon during the first few meetings, so there were no surprises on set. All of the elements, whether live action or CG, needed to be determined quickly due to the short pre-production time before the shoot. And since the bluescreen actress day was the last day on the schedule, there wasn’t likely be the opportunity for a reshoot

Shot 09 stage 4

The final grade was done as a digital intermediate at TDI.