New York Film Academy Cinematography faculty member and author Mark Sawicki introduced his VFX students to the concepts and step by step process of how to create a virtual set extension that combines on set lighting with virtual lighting in post. The technique was used to great effect in the box office hit “Dr Strange.”The method involves the clever integration of properly photographed stills coupled with a green screen foreground. The stills are specially processed in Photoshop and then delivered to After Effects to create a synthetic 3D space of texture maps on Polygonal surfaces that can be manipulated in space and time. Mark’s students were instructed to take exacting notes of their lighting and camera set up when they shot the green screen element, so they could take that information and do follow through virtual lighting with computer graphic light instruments and materials.Once the footage was processed the students met in post where they were introduced to the strange world of the virtual set. Sawicki gave students a hands-on experience demonstrating lighting simulations where boxes have to be checked to allow shadows to fall and spotlights can defy the inverse square law or even create a light that “darkens” a room. Even Doctor Strange would be challenged in such a world.Sawicki feels it is extremely important for the Cinematographers of today to get a grasp for lighting on set and in the computer, so that they have control over the look of their imagery every step of the way and also have a feel of when they can save time on set by enhancing or modifying lighting in post. NYFA stands out as one of the few schools on the globe that takes their students beyond the envelope to explore the strange and exciting world of virtual lighting.
Virtual lighting expert and Animation department faculty member Fred Durand treated students of chair of animation Mark Sawicki’s digital effects cinematography class to a guest lecture and demonstration of Image Based Lighting. Mr. Durand has served as a digital artist for Disney Animation, Sony Imageworks, The Mill and Digital Domain on such projects as “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” “Tomb Raider,” “Shark Tales” and “2012.”
The demonstration began with the students lighting and executing a simple dolly move toward a performer sitting at a table. After the dolly shot Sawicki demonstrated how to shoot a 360 degree High Dynamic Range Image of the set using a Fish Eye lens and one of the school’s Canon 5D cameras. Each of the 4 camera views of the set was shot plus and minus 4 stops of exposure capturing the extreme latitude of the entire foot-candle range of the lights on the set. Both the dolly shot and the HDRI data were given to Mr. Durand to add synthetic computer graphic props in time for the next class session.
In the lecture portion of the exercise Durand explained the process of stitching together all 36 HDRI images to create a virtual bubble onto which was mapped the location and intensity of all the lighting instruments and reflective objects on the set. At this stage Fred also had to create a matte painting to “paint out” the tripod legs underneath the Canon camera. This bubble of set image was then placed around the computer graphic coke bottles to light them with what were essentially the same lights that were used for the live action dolly shot. The “image” of the lights lit the computer graphic props giving them an ultra realistic look that matched the live action exactly.
To ensure that the virtual Coke props stayed locked to the table and tracked seamlessly Durand had to remove all of the rectilinear lens distortions of the live action lens to create a “perfect” lens that would match the perfect lens of the virtual camera that mimicked the dolly move to virtually photograph the Coke bottles. After the virtual camera tracked the CG props the distortion was added back to the virtual photography to match the live action lens so that the virtual dolly move could be composited atop the original dolly move for a perfect match.
At New York Film Academy we strive to have our students take a multi disciplinary approach as they enter the field as cutting edge filmmakers. Our student cinematographers now have the skill sets to light on set with traditional methods and an understanding and vocabulary to collaborate with digital artists in the up to date virtual world of today.
This month, New York Film Academy students were treated to a special horror film event, getting a firsthand look at the art and science of classic horror film effects. On hand to explain this “tra-digital” approach was Alec Gillis of Amalgamated Dynamics, who, with his partner Tom Woodruff, won the Oscar for Death Becomes Her. Alec was joined by star Camille Balsamo, who graciously flew in from a shoot on CSI New Orleans to join Alec and cinematographer Benjamin Brown, who also served as editor and sound designer on the picture. Mark Sawicki, Chair of 3-D Animation and Visual Effects at our Los Angeles campus, was the moderator for the evening.
According to Alec, Harbinger Down was created for the fan base that loves traditional creature effects as seen in classic films such as Alien, The Thing and Predator. During the digital revolution, traditional creature shops began to see more and more of their work replaced by computer graphics (CGI) at the large studios. Through the Internet, Alec learned that there is a huge fan base that objected to what they perceived as obtrusive tampering with a special art form. As a result, Alec decided to give this underserved audience what they wanted and create an old school creature makeup effects film with effects all done on set in an intimate performance with the actors.
Working on a Kickstarter budget that was the highest ever garnered by the crowdfunding giant, the film still needed to be put together by modest means. Sawicki recalled how both he and Alec got their start on the film Galaxy of Terror while working with Roger Corman’s studio, and Harbinger Down reminded him of the fun tribal style of filmmaking that they both enjoyed so much in the 80’s. Camille agreed with that idea and remembered that simple tricks were used throughout the film to simulate being in a frozen Arctic environment. To mimic frosty breath clouds the actors would inhale a safe smoke concoction, hold their breath and release on their first line after “action.” The scene looked freezing cold even though it was shot in the heat of the day in Chatsworth.
Benjamin stated that the sea of clouds that the space capsule roars through was actually a big set of cotton, fashioned and lit to look like clouds. Much of the lighting was strung LED fixtures that could be run without generators. Everything was fine unless a makeup person turned on a hair dryer and tripped the breaker. Though the film was storyboarded throughout, both Alec and Benjamin worked in a “run and gun manner” to accommodate the opportunities and limitations of the set ups.
Alec charmed the crowd by bringing one of the baby whale puppets used in the picture to the stage and demonstrated the ease of creating a performance in real time with the realistic puppet. He also praised co-producer Camille for handling the challenges of finishing the film for distribution. Camille added that once a distributor is found there are at least a 100 deliverables that need to be accounted for — such as closed captioning and pan and scan — to have a proper package. She mentioned that few filmmakers take this expense and effort into account when they create a film.
The audience was delighted with the film and expressed a yearning to explore these tangible, traditional and magical methods of creature creation in their own films. Many thanks to Alec, Camille and Benjamin for keeping these special film crafts alive.
Harbinger Down has been released in theaters and is now available on Pay Per View. See it now…if you dare!
New York Film Academy Los Angeles animation students recently enjoyed a rare treat when visiting professor and stop motion artist Xian Wu gave a presentation of his amazing works, including clips from Professor Wu’s most recent animated feature film. In an event hosted by NYFA Chair of 3-D Animation and Visual Effects, Mark Sawicki, the first presentation displayed work involving a beautiful setting of a village and a train station. The incredible detail put into the models was magical. Models were created at many different scales, and animated with the utmost patience and care to yield a charming cinema experience. The film was shot at 12 frames per second, and took 5 years to complete.
Next was a screening of the soon to be released animated feature that Professor Wu created. The characters were absolutely delightful, and had the audience cheering with pleasure. Professor Wu explained that the puppets had removable mouths attached with magnets to enable their expressions to change. The eyes had tiny holes in the middle of the pupil, allowing a small pin to be inserted to move the eyes to the proper position for each frame. The puppets were also able to stand on one foot by bolting the feet from underneath. For walking action, the little screw holes in the floor were filled in with colored clay to make the mounting trick invisible.The students were touched at the end of the evening when Professor Wu presented NYFA with an original stop motion puppet used in the film. This priceless animation art piece is now on display at the school for all to see. In gratitude, Mark Sawicki gave Professor Wu a signed copy of his stop motion book, “Animating with Stop Motion Pro,” published by Focal Press.
The event was a wonderful exchange of cultures in the field of animation that we are confident will continue in the years ahead. Thank you so much, Professor Wu, for an unforgettable experience and your gift of an amazing piece of animation art.
New York Film Academy was thrilled to host animator Weiyu Wang (Let’s Wait Together) at our NYFA Los Angeles campus. As an artist in residence, Mr. Wang had the opportunity to create another beautiful and painterly animation film called Another Man. Weiyu was so appreciative for being our guest that he put together an event where he shared several short animation films made in China.
Each film was lovingly created by hand using traditional animation techniques. Mr. Wang commented on the work of each of the artists (many he knows personally) and spoke about the state of fine art animation in China. He said many of the animators work in the commercial industry or are teachers like himself who create these films outside of the studio system as a means of personal expression. At the end of the program Mr. Wang shared the film he made here during his stay at NYFA.
Another Man is an exploration of the inter relationship of a character and his reflection. The imagery was gorgeous with masterful and compelling animation. At the end of the evening Mr. Wang addressed numerous questions from the international student body who were captivated by his presentation. Mark Sawicki, the chair of animation at the Los Angeles campus, was so grateful to Mr. Wang for putting together the event that he created a clay sculpture of the main character in Mr. Wang’s film as a commemorative of the evening. They both exchanged gifts with each other days before the artist left for China.
We look forward to seeing you again, Mr. Wang, and are proud to have been able to have you as our guest during the making of your beautiful film.
New York Film Academy students in Los Angeles had a glimpse into the new dimensions of filmmaking with a screening of Interstellar and the subsequent presentation by VFX supervisor and Oscar winner Ian Hunter, co-owner of New Deal studios. The film event was reminiscent of Star Wars screenings in the 70s with a line stretching out down the long hall in front of the NYFA Theater and around the corner!
After the screening, Ian gave a brilliant PowerPoint presentation giving a rare behind-the-scenes look at the making of the epic film. He related that the models were built at a massive 1/5 scale and shot with high resolution Vista Vision film cameras running at 72 frames per second to create the majestic imagery. Miniature explosions, rotating rigs, special light sources and tons of in camera VFX work were the primary techniques. Only one green screen shot was used in the entire film.
At the end of Ian’s presentation, chair of animation Mark Sawicki spoke with him to reflect on the modern shooting methodology used for the tentpole picture. Ian shared that unlike many productions, the pre viz of the film was used as a starting point and not a locked down template. Director Christopher Nolan, in his wisdom, knew that the final models photographed in real light would give rise to different and better ideas spring boarded from the pre viz. As a result, shots were not shot to the frame but as full takes, as if shooting live action, giving editing options later on. The process points out the proper use of pre viz as a starting point, thereby allowing the iterative filmmaking process to continue yielding happy accidents and lightning in a bottle. Mr. Hunter shared that pictures done in the 90s such as From the Earth to the Moon had 10% miniature and 90% digital effects, whereas Insterstellar reversed the equation with 90% of the imagery executed with real world miniatures to a stunning effect.
At this time Mark pointed out Ian’s groundbreaking involvement as a director in the new immersive cinema experience of Cinema VR where audiences witness the photoplay in a full 360 degree panorama. This new miracle of the screen is tantamount to adding to the cinema language itself. Ian made note that while takes are much longer when using this process, cuts are possible and sound cues and other techniques can be used to direct the audience’s attention. Mark could not think of a better person than Ian to take on and develop this exciting new art form. Ian’s film Kaiju Fury was shown at Sundance’s new frontier category launching the spectacular screen spectacle.
Thank you, Mr. Hunter, for shedding light on your process and guiding us to the next dimension of movie making!
New York Film Academy Los Angeles MFA Acting, BFA Acting, BFA Filmmaking and a mixture of other students had a special treat on November 4th when James Karen, a prolific stage and screen performer with over 200 feature film credits, graced our stage. Mark Sawicki, chair of the animation department, invited Karen to speak and had the pleasure and challenge of interviewing this amazing actor who has worked steadily in the industry for an incredible seven decades. The evening began with a screening of a Buster Keaton short Cops, a silent film directed by Keaton in 1922. The screening of a Keaton film may seem out of place except for the fact that James was a close friend of the legendary filmmaker, and played alongside of him as a stage actor in the 50’s. This made the event so special, as the students were able to span the years from silent cinema on up to today. James told of how Buster started by being a child actor thrown about the stage in his youth in a “rough” act. James said Buster worked every day of his life and enjoyed every moment, even though the MGM student wasted this great talent by forcing the actor to perform in the highly regimented studio system as a contract player. Karen shared that the documentary, Buster Keaton: A hard act to follow by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow, was an excellent snapshot of Keaton’s astounding career. James related that he wished he could have worked in the early silent era as performances were universal and creativity flourished.
The second screening was the Zombie comedy classic Return of the Living Dead, starring James Karen and directed by Dan O’Bannon. At the conclusion of the film, James spoke of his career and his Broadway debut alongside Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. From there, Karen became a longtime stage actor throughout the 50’s and began his film career in 1965 in the low budget film Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster. James went on to act in many landmark films such as Poltergeist, Wall Street, The Pursuit of Happyness and many others.
He related his experience working on the zombie film saying that much of the film was ad lib and the film was first performed in rehearsal in linear form as a stage play. As a stage play, both seasoned and first time actors in the film worked with the director and learned and memorized their emotional states throughout the script, so that when scenes were shot out of sequence the performances held together perfectly.
By the end of the evening, questions were turned over to the audience and James gladly shared insights into working with Brando, surviving the business and encouraging young actors to persevere — and first and foremost to get experience on the stage.
We’d like to thank James for spanning the ages and giving us a great sense of continuity and understanding of the craft — reaching back to the silent era that started it all.
New York Film Academy Los Angeles recently screened Martin Scorsese’s remake of the classic film Cape Fear. The guests for the event were master matte painter Syd Dutton, who was responsible for creating the stunning settings throughout the film including the iconic shot of De Niro leaving prison. This image left such an indelible sense memory for movie goers that it was parodied in a Simpson’s episode where Side Show Bob leaves prison. Our other guest was visual effects supervisor Bill Taylor, who oversaw the trick camerawork on the picture. By happenstance, the moderator was our co-chair of animation Mark Sawicki, who had worked with Syd and Bill on the picture and was responsible for shooting the final composites of the matte paintings.
The conversation started with insights into the prison shot. Bill said that the shot was originally designed for De Niro, playing “Max Cady”, to walk below the frame but Scorsese wanted him to walk directly into the camera. A special ramp was built that allowed the actor to do just that. Mark shared that the last few frames of the shot cut from the film showed De Niro (always in character) apparently licking the lens. Because of the compositional change, the shot became much more complex, involving hand drawn silhouettes of the actor allowing him to appear in front of the painting. Mark recalled that the shot took eight hours to execute, with a fan blowing on the camera motor that had to run at extremely slow speed to prevent it from burning out.
Syd said that the older studio system allowed for tremendous care and planning to create the seamless shots that appear in the film. One thing he shared with the current generation of matte painters is to always remember that the Earth only has one sun and one horizon line. Adhering to these facts is essential to create a believable and realistic painting.
Bill related that lighting De Niro on fire was accomplished by a stunt double. The principal actor pretended to be on fire with nothing more than interactive light hitting the set. At a later date, a stunt double dressed in black against a black background, was set on fire and photographed. The stuntman mimicked De Niro’s performance and the footage of the animated flames were then composited over De Niro.
In closing, Bill shared the value of control and advocated that shooting the real thing as much as is possible, limits variables and allows the image to remain based in reality.
Thanks Syd and Bill for sharing a master’s approach for creating seamless visual effects shots in a classic film!
Our student friends from “down under” had a real Los Angeles experience this past week, as Co-Chair of Animation Mark Sawicki gave a lecture on the use of stop motion in fantasy films. Mark screened excerpts from the works of Willis O’Brien such as Lost World 1925 and King Kong 1932. Mark then went on to show the work of Ray Harryhausen, who set the stage for many of the modern fantasy films we see today like Mighty Joe Young (1949) and Jason of the Argonauts (1963). The talk concluded with the amazing fight sequence from Dragonslayer (1981) which showcased the technique of go-motion that allowed the blurring of motion with stop motion puppets all before the advent of CGI dinosaurs in Spielberg’s modern classic, Jurassic Park.
What made the lecture all the more memorable was that concurrent with the talk, Mark held an “Ani-jam,” where each student had 5 minutes to animate an object before passing it on to the next student to take over the sequence. In this way, the students not only learned the history of stop motion but experienced the process as well by doing it. The animation was all the more special as they used the Australian software Stopmotionpro, famous for its use on the Wallace and Gromit animated films.
Both Mark and the students had a ton of fun and turned out several seconds of animation in a very short time. After the event, it was off to Universal Studios for our guests to share another New York Film Academy adventure!
The students in my Cine 810 class in visual effects cinematography outdid themselves recently by shooting a mock Solar Power commercial complete with miniatures and size scaled performers. Originally, the plan was to have the concept take place during the day but director of photography student Yan Rymsha suggested that it take place at night with mysterious film noir lighting.
I loved the idea and modified the script just before the shoot. The principal photography took place on a green screen stage in Hollywood and is an example of a poor man’s virtual set. The miniature and myself (playing the giant) was set up at one end of the stage and was shot with a Red Epic A camera. Colin Meyer, playing the solar panel owner, was shot in the same room simultaneously with a Red Epic B camera, using the same focal length lens as the A camera. This enabled the performances and camera angles to be synchronized very easily.
To “pre viz” the shots a Panasonic AS50S switcher was used to do a rough video composite between the two cameras to make sure the critical alignment was spot on. The crew also used an Atomos Ninja recorder to record the output of the switcher for editing purposes. The giant coin prop was created by sticking a blow up photo of a coin on a film can and having Colin pick it up off of a C-stand. Animation of the giant’s hand holding the coin was then executed in After Effects to link up with the prop coin that Colin picked up at just the right frame. The shoot took all of a fun filled eight hour day. Post compositing was executed in After Effects and saved in our database of real world exercises. The students and I had a lot of fun shooting the project and we look forward to developing more virtual stage projects here at NYFA Los Angeles.