Friday, 25 April 2014

How we gave history a facelift...

We've often talked of how many of the special effects in our films are invisible, that is most audiences won’t be aware they are looking at an FX shot. One such FX in All That Remains has been “face replacement”.

With such extensive use of archive footage, some of which contains the actual real life figures our actors are portraying, we didn't want to have the jarring effect of a character suddenly appearing quite different in one scene!

The most complex face replacement was a live action news reel footage showing the Emperor of Japan visiting Nagasaki, in one shot, we see the Emperor walking, surrounded by a crowd.

Using Adobe After Effects, we imported the archive shot and the footage of our actor. Using the masking tools we superimposed our actor’s face on to that of the Emperor and then using After Effect’s advanced and sophisticated tracking software we mapped it to the archive footage. The tracking tool did a great job, but because the original footage was so blurry, we had to do a fair bit of tweaking to the "face layer", frame by frame in some places, to make it match the movement more perfectly.

Here’s a great tutorial on the After Effects tracking tool…

Old footage tends to be very grainy, so we had to generate artificial grain (using the grain filter) on the actor’s face to help it blend it and then it was colour graded to match the archive footage. More colour grading work on the blended composition helped blend the two shots more seamlessly.

The most extensive use of face-replacement was, of course, old photos that are shown throughout the film.

We employed the same techniques to create more obvious effects too, such as keloid scarring or replacing eyes to create the effect of blindness causes by looking into the bright flash of the atom bomb.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

All Is Lost – hopefully not...

Occasionally we’ll see a film and feel compelled to write about it. All Is Lost was one such film.

This film stands out from the crowd of recent offerings because this is a film that has virtually no dialogue and only one actor, who is over 77 years old incidentally. Yet, it is one of the most gripping and exciting films we've seen for a while.

Perhaps the fact this film was “snubbed” at the Oscars speaks a lot about the dangers of bucking conventions in filmic storytelling. But if it does, then it also speaks a lot about the bravery of director J.C. Chandor and its star, Hollywood veteran, Robert Redford.

It’s a film that is truly a cinematic experience, it is a visceral and very moving tribute to the ingenuity and resilience of the human spirit, something our current film, All That Remains also pays homage to. The film is also a tribute to Redford’s ability to still hack it as a leading man, considering the weight of the entire film is placed on his shoulders alone.

Redford plays an unnamed man who is undertaking a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean; the film opens on the moment he wakes to find his 39-foot yacht flooding after a collision with a shipping container left floating on the high seas. What follows is a relentless fight for survival.

It’s very similar in many ways to Gravity, staring Sandra Bullock as an astronaut stranded above the earth, but, although we found Gravity both gripping and visually stunning, we did not find quite as engaging or as powerful as All Is Lost.

Brave choices in film-making and storytelling should be rewarded, for that reason alone, go watch All Is Lost and then maybe more films will be encouraged to break the mold of the cliche  formulaic movies churned out by the hundreds each year. 

Monday, 17 February 2014

We've made the news in Japan!

News of All That Remains has been picked up by the Asahi Shimbun, which is one of the five national newspapers in Japan.

A very big thank you to Shohei Okada!

The English version can be read here.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The scale of things...

Following on from the blogs we wrote on how we often use more traditional techniques for special effect shots, we've just completed a sequence for All That Remains that relied heavily on a miniature model.

The sequence required two actors to unearth a cathedral bell that has been buried beneath a pile of rubble (from the atomic blast) and to then raise it on a make-shift stand, with the scene ending on the bell ringing out once more across the wastelands of Nagasaki on Christmas Eve night.

It’s a very important scene in the film (and a very symbolic one) so we spent a lot of time experimenting with different ideas for how we were going to pull this off. After rendering some test footage with a computer generated 3D version of the bell, we decided to opt for a far more traditional technique.

Model miniatures have been used in the field of film special effects since the very beginning; in fact, one of the iconic images from the early film period is a still from George Melies' A Trip to the Moon – which shows the man in the moon with the rocket stuck in his eye. The effect was achieved with the use of miniatures.

Concept art for George Melies' A Trip to the Moon - 1901
Maybe the most magical aspect of miniatures is that, even today, with the stunning photo-realism that can be achieved with CGI, miniatures are still very much part of the special effects tool box, and indeed, in many cases, the best tool for the job.

In our case, the miniature was shot against a greenscreen and was then composited into a CGI rendered backdrop with the two actors (also shot against greenscreen) – so it was very much a case of traditional and modern FX techniques working together to achieve our effect.

The miniature bell lying in miniature rubble
As it appears in the scene.
The bell hanging from it's make-shift support.

A Message of hope rings out - this shot is a composite of CGI, live action and miniature.

We've just released a new trailer for All That Remains - you can check it out on our Facebook page!

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Setting the tone...

Something we’re experimenting a lot with at the moment, especially now that we are immersing ourselves in the editing of our feature All That Remains, is a technique known as “Tone Mapping”.

Tone Mapping is a type of “HDR” (high dynamic range) photographic technique, but it’s a technique (or techniques) that are applied to an image in post-production as opposed to using a “HDR” equipped camera (which captures multiple exposures of a shot at the same time, to be merged together using specialized software).

By the way, if you have installed Magic Lantern on your Canon DSLR, then you have the ability to shoot in HDR mode - it's not perfect yet, but it is capable of producing some stunning results - although we haven't had as much time as we'd like to experiment with this feature when shooting video.

Anyway, back to Tone Mapping.... so what exactly is Tone Mapping? Well, Tone Mapping increases the tonal range of an image; it brings out detail in the highlights, mid-tones and shadow areas of an image, resulting in pictures with far sharper clarity and colour information than previously possible.

It’s also a great way to bring back details in an image that may have been lost during the grading process, as can happen when pushing the curves or re-lighting a shot.

To get the most out of Tone Mapping, you should shoot in a flat, slightly under saturated image, for DSLR shooters, using Canon EOS cameras, we recommend downloading the Technicolor picture style.

We use several tools when Tone Mapping an image, included a couple of native After Effects filters. We’ll go into more on our Tone Mapping techniques in another later blog, when we have a little more time on our hands. But a little research can draw up a lot of info on the subject.

The correct application of tone-mapping is capable of stunning results, giving you so much more control over the look of the images. It’s yet another tool in our continuing quest to create photographic/video images that are more painterly in quality.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Props, another reason to get creative (and mix it up)

It’s amazing how low budget film-making (at least micro-budget anyway) really forces you to dig deep and utilize every skill set you've developed throughout your life.

Our roots are firmly planted in traditional art, studying sculpting, fine art and photography at Art School before exploring the possibilities of digital art, and yet all of these pre-digital skills have at one time or another been called into action while working on our films.

Our current project, All That Remains has been no exception, particularly in regards to the props. Although we have managed to get great props, ranging from WW2 military gear that included a Japanese machine gun prop used in HBO'S The Pacific (we even had customized dog tags with character’s names etched into them), to US military jeeps and a beautiful 1946 “Morris Series E” automobile, that old bug bear, budget, has meant once again, we have had to get creative in this area too, literally, by making some of the props ourselves.

A vintage motor car on the set of "All That Remains". (Photo credit: Dan Woodward)
Brushing up on our old model making skills, we made a spear for a crucial scene, out of wood, cardboard and Christmas tree ball, after searching in vain for the right kind at the right price. Of course it wouldn't hold up for a close-up shot, but for a wide shot it created the illusion we wanted. For another scene we've had to utilize our illustrating skills to create a comic book cover.

Home made spear and comic book...

Alongside the home-made props, we do also use computer generated props in the film too, so, once again, it's this blend of different techniques and tools, both old and modern that permeates much of our work as film-makers and artists. 

A CG Radio prop
A CG typewriter prop

Another example of this mix-up of techniques and methods to create a particular illusion, are the snow scenes that feature in the film, the snow effects were created using both film quality fake snow in the studio and CG snow added later.

This scene is shot in a greenscreen studio with fake snow, alongside the background, CG snow will be added later.

It's probably down to the fact that we have had a more traditional art background that we don't rely purely on CGI to create an effect or illusion. Besides, sometimes, you just can't beat a real 3D prop, and working on tight budgets, those are the times we're grateful for having spent so much of our formative years developing other skills beside those that require a computer and a specialized piece of software.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Organic Film-making

This A-bomb sequence is one that is very much in a constant state of change and development as we seek to do justice to the real event.

We've talked a lot about the magic of film in past blogs, the special effects, the grand illusions created on screen, watching actors breathing life into a scene – all these are part of the magic of the film-making process. But for us the most magical aspect of all is the way a film takes on a life of its own, changing and evolving into something greater and even more complete before your eyes.

Of course it all starts with the script, which first goes through several drafts before arriving at a “shooting script”. But despite all these re-writes, for us, the shooting script is more a guide, charting the movie’s various dramatic arcs and character dialogue with ideas for camera angles and sound design for each of the scenes.

More ideas will almost certainly be implemented, when working with the cast, because  directing actors is not just a matter of telling them what we want them to do and say, but rather a collaboration, a meeting of artistic and emotional interpretations.

As directors our most important job is to foster such an environment on set that actors feel the same sense of creative freedom that we grant ourselves when writing a script, story-boarding and editing – creative freedom is essential.

Actors will also, of course, do research as part of the preparation for their roles, which means they could very well come across information we missed during our own research. In fact this has been the case on several occasions during the filming of All That Remains.

On one such occasion a brand new scene was added after actress Kaya Yuzuki told us about an incident involving her character that she read in a book only available in Japanese. The scene has become a very important part of our hero's character arc.

A powerful and important scene not included in the original script, brought to our attention by one of our cast.

Still more ideas will come when editing the footage together, sometimes these ideas will result in new scenes being written or existing scenes being re-written as we’re filming other scenes.

Other ideas will come when working on the sound design of the movie that may affect the visual edit.
Finally, changes and new ideas may be implemented after the film has played to a “test audience”.

It really is an organic living thing that is in a constant state of change and improvement.

Not all ideas you come across (or think up) will work, and that is another important part of our jobs as directors, deciding which ideas are worth running with and which aren't  But then, a great amount of the fun comes from experimenting with ideas, even if they don’t always work.

The scene above was going to be originally set on veranda of a house, but the day before we shot the scene, we had the idea of having the characters sit outside in a garden or a park surrounded by sunflowers, so the scene would take on a deeper symbolic significance (we’re very big on symbolism) – it’s the morning that the A-bomb will be dropped and these women are sitting in a “field of a thousand suns” a visual reference to common description of the A-bomb flash being brighter than a thousand suns.

This is another scene that was written well into the filming process – one of the benefits of stretching the filming out over a period of months (due to budget) is that we get to edit the footage as we are filming. 

This means we get to see if a sequence is working right or if it needs something else, like an extra scene, and because we’re still filming, we get the chance to schedule that extra scene into one of the upcoming shoots.

Our hero contemplates the grand design of the universe. Another scene that was not originally in the shooting script.

Monday, 24 June 2013

The unseen art...

Part of our work on the post-production side for All That Remains is enhancing the images we capture. Sometimes this could mean re-lighting a shot or it could mean a little “digital make-up” retouching here and there.

The shots below are perfect examples of how we mix traditional techniques with a more modern digital counterpart.

A lot of the times it's a matter of bringing out the hidden detail or natural beauty of a certain lens, and although it's not always obvious to people watching the final result, it's one of the most important aspects of the grading/post production process - achieving as close to perfection as you can possibly can get with each shot.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Because it all began with an illusion...

Today's directors wear many hats. This is part of the digital "evolution" of film making. We might be the descendants of illusionists and storytellers, but today, we're often a multitasking one man (or woman) band, aided, of course by our trusty computers.

This week we've been script writing, story-boarding, casting and directing (a 3 day shoot last week and another 2 day shoot later this week).

But, in between these jobs, we've also been hard at work on the effects shots.

Above: FX breakdown for All That Remains.

It's when working on these shots that we're reminded of how film actually started, a grand illusion, a magic trick of light and shadow that somehow conjured up moving images of people, cars, everyday life, or even brand new worlds. George Melies took his audience on a trip to the moon in 1902.

Today, audiences don't think twice about being transported back to when Dinosaurs roamed the earth or straight in to the middle of an alien war in stunning colour and life-like realism (for the most part).

As low budget film-makers, we're at an exciting time, with more and more affordable software being released on the market, software that is capable of producing (in the right hands) Hollywood standard FX.

But, we feel it would be a big mistake for today's film-makers to ignore the techniques of some of those early  pioneers in the FX world, techniques such as the use of miniatures can often be more effective than opting for a digital set-piece.

Personally we're still big fans of the old school FX wizards like "Stop Motion" geniuses Ray Harryhausen (the skeleton battle in Jason and the Argonauts is still amazing today!) and Willis O'brien, who's King Kong creation in 1933 was by far the best (and most characterful) version until Peter Jackson's in 2005.

We love the idea of mixing both old and new to create a seamless illusion of reality and will be using miniatures alongside digital set-pieces/props and traditional make-up alongside digital manipulation of actors to create the necessary effects needed for All That Remains.

By looking back at the old film pioneers and researching their techniques and methods, we can still learn a lot, and just as importantly, find inspiration.

Below is a short behind the scenes video of the last three days shoot for All That Remains., courtesy of Dynomite Productions. A very intense, but fun three days!