Music videos: effects highlights

We take a look at the winner and nominees of the recent MTV Video Music Awards for Best Special Effects, along with other notable music videos from Bjork and The Wombats. We also have a brief chat to Ghost Town Media on the Transformers 3-inspired VFX for Linkin Park’s ‘Iridescent’. Update: Dot & Effects talks to us about the winning Katy Perry video, and showcases befores and afters from the project.


Katy Perry featuring Kanye West – ‘E.T.’

This video won the Best Special Effects award at VMA’s. Visual effects for the sci-fi clip were completed by Dot & Effects. See below for our interview with Jeff Dotson about his company’s work for the clip.


Greenscreen plate
Final shot

fxg: How did you get involved in the music video?

Jeff Dotson: We were asked by the editorial company, Bonch and the editor Jarrett Fijal – he had mentioned to the director Floria Sigismondi that we had a good team of artists. We bid the project and did a few tests that helped us too. At first we were only supposed to do the space sequence with Kanye, and then we were later awarded the whole project.

fxg: Where did they film the live action?

Dotson: It was shot in New York mostly on greenscreen or against black. We completed some previs and we designed the Sputnik ship and did a few alien designs and creature development. We put a lot of effort in the look and feel – we wanted to have a different feel for the sci-fi – not too photo realistic. It had to be a stylized version of space. The opening of the video has a miniature set created by Jason Fijal, who is an amazing designer. We ended up just enhancing and doing set extensions which evolved into these beautiful scenes.

fxg: What were some of the tools and techniques you were using for the final shots?

Dotson: On a lot of the shots we had to do numerous matchmoving and camera tracking in SynthEyes and using Maya. All the compositing was done After Effects. The biggest challenge was working in film, as it was shot on 35mm, which meant some noise and extra light spill. We created matte paintings and digital environments using reference photographs, a lot of re-projections in Cinema 4D.

fxg: Can you talk about adding the atmospherics into the space scenes?

Dotson: Space is ultimately completely pitch black unless there’s a source of light. The trick was to have a light source, say having stars near Katy so they lit her up in a beautiful way. We ended up using organic, real flares that were shot in-camera that we would overlay. And for other shots we used Video Co-pilots Optical Flares which gave us a lot of control.

Greenscreen plate with fabric-covered legs.
Final shot.

fxg: How did you create the Sputnik shots?

Dotson: They had a teaser for the video and we modeled the satellite in Maya. Eventually we incorporated Kanye into the spaceship, but there was actually no footage of him for that. We actually had to puppeteer a 3D model of him – we quickly made a ‘Kanye model’ just for one shot. The rest of the shots for the interiors were inspired by an organic light for a futuristic spaceship that had a light panel. It worked out really well because it meant we could have a lot of images and flares.

fxg: How were the animal legs shots done?

Dotson: For that shot, we had to replace Katy’s legs with fawn legs. We ended up taking out her actual legs which were covered with lots of greenscreen fabric, but we were lucky with this shot because there wasn’t any parallax. The challenge was trying to make those legs as realistic as possible – the render at the end of the video took 45 minutes just in compositing. The legs took 24 hours to render.


Chromeo – ‘Don’t Turn the Lights On’

Also nominated for a VMA was this Chromeo piece, with a number of effects created in camera and then augmented by The Mill LA.


Linkin Park – ‘Waiting for the End’

An elaborate exploration into pixellation, the effects for this VMA nominated Linkin Park video were created by Ghost Town Media. You can check out some breakdowns of the video here, and see below for our interview with Ghost Town for another Linkin Park clip, ‘Iridescent’


Manchester Orchestra – ‘Simple Math’

Video directors the DANIELS were behind this rolling and explosive music vid, also nominated for a VMA for Best Special Effects. Check out the behind the scenes making of here.


Kanye West featuring Dwele – ‘Power’

The final VMA nomination was for Kanye West’s ‘Power’, with Nice Shoes completing the VFX for the stylized Italian fresco-style video collage. More information here on how it was made.


Bjork – ‘Crystalline’

Bjork’s ‘Crystalline was created by director Michel Gondry and Hornet’s Peter Sluszka. It was filmed on 16mm hand-cranked Bolex cameras. From Hornet’s website (where you can read more about how the clip was made):

“Lighting effects were achieved through multiple exposures that involved backwinding or capping the lens to painstakingly capture numerous passes on one frame of film. To ensure repeatable but modifiable actions, servo controlled LED rigs were custom designed and built. Björk’s performance was initially recorded against black on multiple cameras and then projected onto the set against a spinning disc floating above a cratered moonscape. Three projectors, arrayed along an arc at 30 degree intervals, synched with the performance create perspective shifts when the camera moves around the disc giving Björk an ethereal, holographic presence.”


The Wombats – ‘Techno Fan’

Commissioned to provide a new look to a live action video for The Wombats, The Found Collective and Memo Aitken from msavisuals re-worked the clip, relying on open source tools to do so. Aitken designed and developed software using C++ / openframeworks / opencv to process live rotoscoped footage of the band, and you can read a detailed post about the process here.


Link Park – ‘Iridescent’

Ghost Town Media partner Matt Primm explains below how this Transformers: Dark of the Moon tie-in clip was made. You can check out a bunch of break-down clips for the video here.

fxg: Can you outline the design/concept/boarding process for the vid?

Primm: We’ve been really blessed to have a great creative relationship with the director (and also band member), Joe Hahn, and the producer, Bill Boyd. We’ve been working with them fairly constantly for the past two years, that time allows us to do a lot of spit-balling when it comes to ideas. We had been discussing a number of different ideas for the next video over the previous months and when we heard about the new upcoming project (Iridescent) and that it would be incorporating materials from the Transformers franchise, we had a pretty big box of ideas to be looking through with fresh eyes. Once Joe had put together his tone and vision he wanted for the piece we drafted together some mood/style boards and as you well could guess there were a lot of people who needed to approve the creative direction for the piece, so we needed to create a look that satisfied all parties involved, from the director, to the band, to the movie studio that would be trusting us with their materials.

One of our biggest benefits for the videos we do with Joe is that we all enjoy more ambiguous aesthetic pieces, which allow us to run pretty far with some of the visuals. For us to complete the boards we drowned ourselves in references and imagery trying to find all sorts of inspiration, during which we ended up ‘geeking out’ over ancient Hindu and Tibetan temple architecture and design. Once we finished the boards, Joe and Bill were tasked with having to run the ideas up the Paramount flagpole and eventually to Michael Bay himself. Having the director of the video, who is also in the band, helps these conversations quite a bit.

fxg: What assets or backgrounds did you have to build and how did you incorporate models or assets from the film into the clip?

Primm: The environments themselves were all created from scratch, and we didn’t know the exact timing of when or exactly what clips and assets we would be getting from the movie. So, like any blank canvas you have to start somewhere, meaning we spent the first week or so developing what we were referred to as the ‘Band Sculptures’. Employing hundreds of layers and terabytes of assets, our design teams built what were sculptural thrones/shrines for each of the band members. While working with these sculptures, we received our first batch of assets from the team at ILM, so we quickly went to work hacking limbs and heads off of as many Transformers as we could and used them to help fill out the design and structure for the band’s sculptures.

These pieces were built to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 x 5000 in dimension which gave us a massive frame to choose out 1920 x 1080 frame size from which, in turn, allowed us to have a simpler performance edit for the video. This gave a lot of flexibility as each sculpture could support a huge portion of the video if needed, but we also saw the quality of the material we were getting from the movie as well which allowed us to use the best possible combination of a much wider assembly of material. Overall, it gave us the confidence that all of the assets, both raw from the movie, and assembled into the sculptures would exist very well together.

In terms of the integration of the Transformer characters into the video, we were upfront in the process that we wanted the TF3 characters with an alpha channel. In order to do this video properly, we needed to be able to have the band and the TF3 characters in the same style of world. Since we had already begun development of the the style of the environment with the Linkin Park band members, we had our core of what were going to roll over the TF3 characters. As much as possible we asked for the background plates so that we could extract 3D camera solves for these scenes, hence allowing for our world to shift and move naturally with the characters. We didn’t think the nice people at ILM would have much time to re-render them out to match our moves, so we made do with what we got so as not to ask them to reinvent the wheel for every shot we needed.

A styleboard for the music video

fxg: How do you approach the lighting, atmospherics and flares in the video?

Primm: With this piece, we knew there would be a predisposition for colder glossier looks implicit to the TF3 characters, so we made a concerted effort to try and make the metal feel warm and a little worn. We developed a five stage filter pass that the entire video was put through and it worked really well to help blend everything together pretty tightly. When you’re combining footage and assets from a proper ILM big budget production, trying to match that quality in a two day shoot schedule is impossible. We needed to not try to force our footage and assets to compete with theirs; instead we needed both sets of assets to find a middle ground that didn’t end up looking like a compromise. We feel like the atmosphere and stylization worked well for accomplishing that goal. Once we had that baseline that we knew everything would work through, the approach of using black and white really forced our hand to push the haze and lighting for the piece.

One of the things with black and white photography is that it’s about form, contour, and a strong appreciation of light. When we were working on the scenes, frankly, there was an emptiness to the scenes that didn’t have a proper light treatment. Once we filled the lighting in a bit, the whole thing just clicked. Also, because the video lives largely in slow motion, we needed some extra motion to help remind you you weren’t looking at a still sometimes. We needed the light to breathe, but at the same time, we didn’t want it feel like there was a flickering light-bulb next to camera, so we ended up creating multiple light sources and set them all to subtle oscillating intervals. I can’t tell you how many of those scenes have ten different flares in 3D space with their opacity set to five to 15.

fxg: What tools did you use in the process?

Primm: For context’s sake, we’re a Mac based studio. For compositing and color color correction we used After Effects and a small army of plugins. Most most of the scenes required some form of camera stabilization or 3D camera solve (track), to do this, we went with SynthEyes which these days is a bread and butter tool for us. Another standout piece of software we used for this was Kramer’s Optical flares. We were literally drowning in footage and assets, and yet we still found ourselves needing more at times, so for a couple of shots we went in Cinema 4D. A real linchpin plugin we used throughout the video was one that had been developed for us by Tom Beddard. Most all of the metal structures and beams seen throughout the video we all generated inside of After Effects using his plugin. A fractal based plugin, it gives us almost endless combinations and structures and saves us a ton of what would otherwise be very long 3D render outputs.

4 thoughts on “Music videos: effects highlights”

  1. Somewhat typical and sad that NICE SHOES left out the Martin Ahlgren as the DP of the Kanye piece. They talk in length about their color grading and such but the footage was carefully lit and shot in a way that makes all the disparate elements work in unison.

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