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Cool Effects That Make For Hot TV

Eric Huelsman meets Jerry Steele, Charlie Watson and Michel Gondry, three leading artists who lurk behind the latest and greatest commercials and music videos.

If you are anything like I am about it, watching TV these days is more about checking out the latest commercials and their special effects than the programming itself. Case in point: the recent Super Bowl telecast, where the half-time ads were far more compelling than the otherwise boring game. Or maybe you have taken to looking at MTV with the sound turned down just because the videos' visuals are so nicely done. (I can think of a few rap videos I've viewed this way.)

If it seems that TV's short subjects have more zow and zing than you remember them having before there's good reason. Visual effects being developed for today's commercials and music videos are quickly outpacing those being developed for movies. Used to be you'd have to catch the latest space epic to see the coolest new visual effects, but now just surfing over to the Weather Channel can often result in some really dandy eye candy. So, we're about to introduce you to some of the hottest artists doing the coolest effects for TV.

Jerry Steele. Image courtesy of Steele VFX.

Steele VFX: Bridging the Gap A standout in today's new breed of visual effects specialists is Jerry Steele. With ten-plus years of post-production experience and over 100 projects to his credit, Jerry, 33, is considered one of the industry's top flight post-production artists. He has a reputation for enhancing the production value of projects he works on with effects that, while sometimes spectacular in scope, are never obtrusive to the point of drawing too much attention to themselves. This uncanny ability to sweeten a product without overwhelming the director's vision makes Jerry much-in-demand as he strives to improve on the original idea, not replace it with something else that detracts. Jerry's list of credits includes television commercials for Bud Light, Microsoft and WebTV, as well as music videos for Madonna, Janet Jackson and Jewel. He has won two BDA awards, five Tellys and one Emmy. Recently the demand for Jerry's work has been so high, that he has hired a small staff and opened his own studio in west side Los Angeles. Called Steele VFX, the studio has a dedicated Quantel Henry V8 (an eight-layer compositing editor) and a full suite of Adobe After Effects Pro, Illustrator and Photoshop.

So what effect has Jerry worked on that you've seen lately? Well, for starters there's that Gap Khakis commercial that people are still talking about. Voted #1 commercial by the LA Times & TV Guide, "Khakis Swing" (directed by Matthew Ralston), is certainly one of the more recognizable of recent commercials by virtue of its visual effects. It features a group of dancers jitterbugging in khakis. One dancer vaults over the head of another, resulting in an impossible freeze frame that appears to allow the camera to arc around these dancers in 3D space.

To achieve this seemingly impossible effect or "cheat," a group of 35mm SLR cameras was placed in an arc around the subjects. These cameras then simultaneously shot the jump at the same exact instant, resulting in an array of shots from many different angles. These multiple still frames are then viewed one after another with a series of quick dissolves resulting in an apparent camera move around a frozen image in time.

This technique, however, does have its limitations; the apparent camera move is restricted by the layout of the SLR cameras and the move speed is restricted by the distance between the cameras, unfortunately creating a rather fast or unstable appearance. In the case of the Gap effect a departure was made from tradition and the use of 3D software was utilized. As before two 35mm movie cameras were placed at either end of an apparent camera move, the action was shot and then a still frame was captured of the exact same point in the action from both cameras. A 3D mesh was then developed from both images of the dancers, (extruding the 2D image back in space to create a third dimension) still allowing both images to appear unaffected from the front. These two 3D images were then simply morphed together to create a three-dimensional object.

Jerry's job as a Henry artist was to take these now three-dimensional images as individual layers and add them to a wall of background dancers, add lighting effects, shadows and a multitude of other elements to create the realism of the apparent scene of a camera movement through 3D space. The net result is a jaw-dropping effect that has since become a hallmark for the visual effects industry.

When I asked Jerry what he anticipates as the next big trend in visual effects he responded, "I think we'll have a lot more effects that are done with real elements like smoke, flame, water -- things that are, or at least look, natural. That's something we've been waiting for, for the last couple of years; a move away from all of these overwhelming, in-your-face effects, like heads spinning and exploding. Doing those sorts of effects is now pretty much history."

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Examples of recent commercials that have utilized Jerry Steele's talents. Images © Interstate Brands Corp. and Nike.

So what does it take to be a Henry artist? From the practical end, Jerry's ten-plus years of post-production experience at the Moving Picture Company in London and Novocom in Los Angeles makes him well-known in the effects community for his work. But as for grooming the artist, Jerry states that his training at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication was most important, as it offered a very comprehensive course of study that taught him about directing and editing, as well as the use of cameras, lighting and sound. An education in all of these subjects was very critical, according to Jerry, as it not only gave him a strong production foundation, but also allowed him to choose which field of TV production he should concentrate on as a career. When asked what he would advise others interested in going into his line of work he stressed, "Go buy a cheap video camera and start shooting as much as you can. This is a good way to understand all aspects of television production and post-production. It forces you to have a broader understanding of the entire process." From the looks of things, it appears that Jerry has a very impressive understanding of the entire process indeed.

The Rhythm and Hues' Mazda Protege Spot Another notable TV ad running recently has been produced for Mazda. This commercial, courtesy of famed Academy Award-winning effects house Rhythm and Hues (Babe), is nothing short of stunning in the complexity of its visual imagery. Directed by Charlie Watson, "Cool World" hosts a score of ground-breaking visual effects that feature a Mazda Protege making its way through a transmogrified Manhattan whose buildings and inhabitants twist, bend, and change shape ominously, giving the environs a swimming, Dali-esque appearance.

The visual effects done for this commercial were themselves mostly practical, meaning they involved real cameras and sets, as opposed to being purely organic and done on the computer. It was produced by shooting a model city on one stage and the car, which never moved at all, on another.

To achieve this swimming, psychedelic melange of images, director Charlie Watson coupled traditional techniques with a few of his own, novel inventions. First Watson shot the car and people using traditional blue screen techniques. The various camera positions, angles and lenses were then recorded. A model of New York City was then shot, using the same camera positions from the blue screen sessions.

Watson and Rhythm and Hues Senior Editor Nate Hubbard worked together to integrate shots of the city and the car with the resultant overlapping blue screen layers which were then independently morphed together. By combining still arrays and frames of motion film, the spot is a collection of metamorphosing still images.

The city itself was constructed from approximately 5000 blocks made of wood. Photographs were taken of Manhattan and its trademark building details, then these photographs in turn were glued to each of the wooden blocks. The blocks themselves were further "aged" to appear more antique. The model city was then filmed as a practical. The car itself was first shot live and then the shots of the people and the car were all composited together with shots of the city. These images were subsequently morphed into the city's background, giving the commercial its weirdly psychedelic look. Finally, all of these visual elements and images were assembled in post-production using a flame* (Discreet Logic) compositing editor, which helped give the final, moving images their exotic look and effect. W.B. Doner, the agency responsible for the spot, and their client, Mazda, have been so thrilled with the response to the commercial that there are two more spots in pre-production. Sales of the Protege have gone up 33% since this spot started to air, and the effect of two more commercials could only help the already impressive sales. Although Rhythm and Hues does not want to give away what to expect in the way of future effects, look for more of the innovative Mazda spots later this year.

An Auteur: Director Michel Gondry During the 1950s a group of writers for the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema popularized the notion that good filmmaking is just as much the result of a director's personal style as the performances of its actors. As the now famous auteur theory goes, movies made by directors like Hitchcock, Godard and Andy Warhol impart their magic on the viewer by way of that particular director's cinematic vision. The result was the emergence of "directors' films" of the 1960s that are notable for their departure from the movie making norm.

In this regard, director Michel Gondry could certainly be seen as an auteur filmmaker of our time. From his days with Propaganda Films to those at Partizan Midi Minuit, Michel's work is celebrated just as much for his non-traditional storytelling style, as his experimental film techniques such as zoom-morphing or his use of over-saturated colors to produce hypnotic, hallucinogenic visual effects. These Gondry visual trademarks can be seen in videos such as Bjork's "Bachelorette," Beck's "Deadweight," and The Rolling Stones' "Like a Rolling Stone."

To enhance his storytelling, Michel often makes use of visual effects to push the limits of temporal space. He constantly experiments with time to give us such things as split-screen parallel universes or surprise freeze frames that capture frozen moments in time, thus forcing the viewer to understand the story from a non-linear point of view.

Because of his unique storytelling style, Michel has gotten a lot of work and, in turn, received a lot of attention for the high profile spots he's done for companies like AMD, Smirnoff Vodka, Nike and Levis. All of which stand out as revolutionary commercials by virtue of Michel's flair for the unexpected.

Like most of Michel's projects, the AMD "Flatzone" commercial in particular is distinctive because of its dreamlike use of 3D-movement-in-2D-space, visual effects that work well to promote AMD's K2 microprocessors 3DNow graphics technology. In this ad our 3D heroine is being chased through a 2D world by the (presumed Intel) PC police. Once she discovers the AMD product, she saves the 2D world by making it 3D, thus quashing the evil PC police. For this ad, Gondry worked with French visual effects house Buf Companie to create 2D images from elements that were photographed and added in post-production.

Michel Gondry recently directed the music video,

Another hallmark of Michel Gondry's non-linear narrative style can be seen in a recent spot he did for Smirnoff Vodka. Called "Smarienberg," this commercial features two agents (a stylishly coifed man and woman) who appear to be fleeing evil Eastern European-type bad guys. A memorable moment is when a gun is fired and the bullet seems to hang in mid-air. It is followed in turn by another shot of the agents bursting through the door and the vodka bottle and its contents are frozen in space. While noteworthy as an effect, the way Gondry uses this effect to further the narrative speaks volumes for how he views the subject matter. A pivotal moment in the commercial is the gunshot; and Gondry is explicit with not only showing this bullet hanging in space, but pivoting the shot so that we literally feel that the story's direction hangs and pivots on this event as well.

Recently Michel directed a video for The Rolling Stones called "Gimme Shelter." This video is a departure from the effects-laden work of his past. It is a full story, surprisingly linear in form, that tells the tale of two young boys fleeing an abusive father. They end up breaking into a school and spending the night. The only noteworthy visual effect done for this video is an animation of a tank drawn on a chalkboard that comes to life. It points and shoots at the two boys, who are hiding behind overturned desks. The effect is amazing mainly because it jumps out at the viewer in its surrealism, while the rest of the video has a hand-cranked Super 8 feel to it.

However, the first person to downplay his novel use of visual effects is Michel Gondry himself. "The effect itself is not so important," says Gondry, "it is more the way the story is told. If an effect makes the viewer pay more attention to the story, then it is a good effect." Bravo, Michel!

Which brings us to our conclusion with this thought: if what makes for entertaining TV is relegated to that seen in commercials, and, to some extent the little movies that are the stuff of music videos, then watching them for their cool visual effects is probably more related to how much we enjoy how well the effects promote the story -- not just the product. And, if you feel anything like I do about it, you know that there are more than a few people in the network television (and feature film) industry that should take note, if not get a clue. Eric Huelsman is the head of the 3D computer graphics center at the Abram Friedman Occupational Center.

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