In this third installment, Greg Singer provides an overview of the technical workflow and challenges of the Green Screen Show production.
So, by now you have caught Drew Careys Green Screen Show on The WB network (Thursday, 8:30pm), you are pleasantly surprised, and you are telling all of your friends, neighbors, enemies and lovers to tune in. What is even more excellent, however, is that the best is yet to come. The show is continuing to get better and better. It grows on you, much like the festive anticipation preceding Christmas, Hannukah, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali and/or Kwanzaa.
Maybe that kind of religious devotion to the show is not necessary, but it is certainly appreciated, knowing that every flickering television set tuned to the Green Screen Show is a vote for artsy, independent, primetime animation. In these uncertain times of channel changing and regime changing, every vote counts.
When tuning in, there are a variety of improv games that the actors play, based on the suggestions and participation of a live audience. One type of game is called Freeze Tag, where the actors dream up a rapid series of vignettes based on their physical positions, tapping each other in and out of the game as they go. A game called Sound Fx invites two audience members to the stage to lend their vocals to the improvised action. Another type of game called Hollywood Moments has the players overacting, on cue, as they navigate through their made-up story. The ground rules for Single Syllable Sentences are that two actors can only speak to each other in monosyllabic words, or the audience catches their mistakes and other actors rotate into play. New Choice is a game where the actors invent a scene, but they are prompted every once and again by one of their offstage colleagues to reinvent their dialogue or behaviors.
There are other types of games, of course, but for those one or two readers who have yet to see the Green Screen Show, this should give you a flavor of what to expect. If any of this looks or sounds easy, you can try playing some of the games at home, or during your next party.
Speaking of votes of confidence, a few of the upcoming Green Screen Show games that have caught my attention are: Airport (Sound Fx) by Greg Franklin, Tahiti (New Choice) by Benoit Feroumont, Toaster (Hollywood Moments) by Harold Moss, and Welcome to Hell (Freeze Tag) by Arthur de Pins. They are all chucklers, and well put together.
You may be asking yourself, Yeah, but how do they do that? How do they put the games together? Sit back, grab a pumpkin smoothie, and let me explain.
In the Outbox
I am sitting in the offices of Acme Filmworks, the studio producing the Green Screen Show, with a schematic for the production workflow. I would share it with you, but: (a) they would revoke my backstage pass; and (2) the show is ever-evolving in its creative needs, and therefore in its strategies to address them. Last weeks workflow is, in the parlance of Southern California, like, so last week.
During the actual taping of the improvisational comedy, which lasted five days for the first half-season of twelve episodes, a switcher chose among the live cameras to put together a rough edit of the show. Then the executive group producers Drew Carey, Brad Sherwood, Robert Morton, Ron Diamond, Prudence Fenton and Scott Ingalls identified fifty-plus of the funniest games to use as the seasons material. The games were re-edited at Acme by Jeff Malmberg and his team to make them sing, in terms of pacing and humor, and then the games were grouped into episodes to design the flow of the season. Of course, mixed in with this process were back-and-forth approvals with the network, until the episodes were locked.
Though a certain amount of the games stay in-house at Acme, another wing of production approaches and woos outside animation directors to work on the remaining games. This is part of the interest and charm of the Green Screen Show, its eclectic mix of animated styles and visions. In putting together an episode, as animators pitch their ideas and Acme greenlights them, it is important to have a wide variety of performances, not just different kinds of games, but also styles of animation. Are the animated props and environments created using photorealistic CGI, watercolor, or cutouts? Yes, yes and yes, among other techniques.
Production manager Darryn Smith, who conceived the afore-mentioned schematic, and who, tellingly, hasnt had a day off since August, is doing a herculean job of minding the nuts and bolts of in-house production. This allows producer Prudence Fenton to concentrate on the larger picture of tracking each games status, and to communicate changes and approvals to the animation directors.
Smith explains that, before the live footage goes to the animators, the green screen set is removed using Discreet Logics flame. At first, the individual frames (or chroma keys) of the live actors were sent to animators with black, green and white background mattes, for ease of reference. But there were color correction problems, so now, for those animating on computer, the original footage is sent to directors with the matte embedded (as de-interlaced, single-frame RGB tiffs plus the alpha channel).
It is an incredibly meticulous process. I sat and watched the flame artists cut mattes for the hands of the improv actors, because a sequence required the replacement of their shirts; or, in some cases, actors were removed wholly from a shot, because they would not be appearing in any of the games for a particular episode. Flame artist Julie Stark is especially prized and praised for her talents, with managers wishing they could clone her.
Flame is useful in maintaining camera stability, in correcting any jiggling or sliding of the live-action against the animated backdrop. For 3D animated sequences, combustion, commotion and After Effects are other software that has been helpful in motion tracking the shots. For those old-school traditionalists, however, who still insist animating on paper (God bless their hearts), the chroma keys are printed, and a peg and reg crew fastidiously prepares the individual frames before shipping them off to the directors.
Animation directors upload the progress of their work to a production Website, a virtual screening room, as part of the ongoing review process. After jumping through the successive hoops of designs, animatics and pencil tests, the final animation is delivered to Acme via DVD or FTP as 740 x 486 tiff sequences, which are then imported into Avid. For editing, there are two Adrenalins and one Meridian machine. The system tying everything together is Unity.
As with most of the Green Screen Show, straddling in-house and outsourced production, some of the compositing is done by the animation directors themselves, and some by Acme. In addition to creating mattes and stabilizing wobbly shots, Acmes use of flame seamlessly integrates layers of animation and live-action, helping to polish the final game. This is in fact flames strength, as a realtime compositing tool.
While the compositing is being done in-house, the last stage of production, dubbing dialogue, music and sound effects, is done out-of-house. At Advantage Audio in Burbank, Robbi Smith handles the dialogue editing, and Robert Poole II supervises the sound design mixers (Melissa Ellis and Fil Brown). Independent composer Michael Levine oversees the music.
As with the animation, the goal and challenge of adding sound to the improv is to enhance the raw performance without getting in its way. Part of the work involves blending the pristine, ambient sounds of the live audience while pushing into the new game environment. During meetings to spot and preview sound, options are discussed for overlaying sounds with the improv, and for using music as an interlude during transitions. Levine says, For most of the games, the timeframe to work with is very brief, but once I accept it for what it is, then I have fun with it.
As the production deadline looms, there is a finishing process that is constantly making minor adjustments, fine-tuning to keep the proper synchronization and color correction, with people changing their minds up until the last minute. Then, clapping the dust from their trousers, Acme delivers the finished episode to the network on digibeta.
The World As Stage
One of the unassuming, unsung artists at Acme is Paul Spadone. He sketches with colored pencils the conceptual stage designs for Drew Careys introductory remarks during the opening of the Green Screen Show. His hours of work, rendered as 3D sets, pass by in mere seconds of screen time. Ah, the glamour of television!
Spadones work is emblematic of the larger rigors of production. Project manager Jonathan Casson says, The opportunity, of course, within animation is that one can do anything. But in the amount of time that creators have to work, what is going to make the biggest impact? There are a lot of games to juggle, a lot of games that need attention. We can keep refining, but, at some point, we need to let go and call it done.
Given that animators are contributing to the Green Screen Show from around the world, employing a variety of styles and techniques, each game is inherently different in terms of its atmosphere, the interaction of the actors and animation, the sound design, and so on. Each game requires specific attention to detail, and therefore the production staff is continually re-imagining the process to achieve the desired results.
Casson continues, The biggest issue for the entire show, facing all of us, is time. Everything is an `opportunity that needs to be measured against the cost of time. For this show, much of what we are doing hasnt been done before, theres not a model for how to do this, so we are inventing the wheel. A tremendous amount of time has been invested just in setting up shop, and making sure that everything can and does work together, both in terms of pipeline and technology. If there is a second half of the season, it will go far more smoothly. There has been a huge learning curve, and somehow we have been able to stay ahead of it.
As far as post-production supervisor John Niss is concerned, with 70% of the shows material requiring processing, each shot can be approached as a visual effect. Niss says, Through all the revisions, everyone wants to see the real deal, as a whole how the game is shaping up, how it is making its transitions, etc. Directors and producers need to see the work in its broadcast quality, in its totality. This becomes a huge, storage and manipulation of data issue a question of horsepower and throughput.
An SGI Tezro machine, whirring and buzzing and blinking, rests out of the way in a corner back room, with a sign on the door cautioning entry. Led into its guarded sanctum, technical smart-guy Scott Coleman explains that the Tezro is sort of the brain of the operation, handling all of the information processing: the rendering, data transfer, compositing and editing. There are also a bunch of raid servers accounting for some 12 terabytes of data. We could always use more, Coleman says. The more, the merrier.
As the crew accesses the servers to work on their scenes, tracking and managing files is no small feat. Casson adds, No one anticipated that a former 1920s apartment building would have to handle such an intensive, high-tech production. The growing needs of the show push the limits of the electrical system, and we are constantly adding servers and working to feed the monster. People (the viewing audience) dont realize what a gigantic process it is to take the improv on stage and add animation, to make something that, outwardly, looks so simple.
As scheduled, Drew Careys Green Screen Show follows Blue Collar TV, one of WBs more popular programs, making the line-up a colorful hour of comedy. Composer Michael Levine joked that, in transitioning from one show to the other, the audience maybe needs to switch from beer to pot.
Whatever your preference, remember: Vote early, vote often.
For full disclosure: Green Screen Show exec producer Ron Diamond is also the founder and co-publisher of Animation World Network.
Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.