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To Boldly Go Where No Titles Have Gone Before

VFX producer Andrew Kramer talks 'Star Trek Into Darkness' title sequences and how Adobe After Effects and Element 3D were central to their production.

As a VFX artist, producer and owner of the industry tutorial and toolset development company Video Copilot, Andrew Kramer has spent years working on numerous sleek and cutting edge motion graphics and visual effects projects. Most recently, he was the main title designer on J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness. We recently spoke to Andrew about the project, from the scope and complexity of the work to the key role Adobe After Effects and Element 3D played in the production.  

Dan Sarto: Tell us about the scope of the project.

Andrew Kramer: The project required our team to design 35 unique title locations in space, consisting of planets, moon, asteroids, nebulas and space debris. We wanted a rich color palette with extremely dense atmosphere and objects as opposed to empty space. The primary design of the titles is a single fluid camera movement. Our goal was to have the camera stop on each title in sync with the music.

The editing team was primarily myself and one of the film editors. We used Premiere to get the timing of the beats right for the Star Trek theme music. We marked title frames for the 35 titles and then used this as reference when animating the camera in After Effects.

A primary concern early on was the 3D setup for the stereo output of the film. We did numerous tests to see how camera settings, like field of view and intraocular, affected the volume and depth of the 3D scene when projected in Bad Robot’s theater. It's a tricky balance to have the camera move long distances and still try to make the planets seem large in scale. A lot of it had to do with the camera animation that was handled primarily by Bobby Hommel.  In order to create the polished designs quickly we decided to use After Effects along with Element 3D so that we could design in real time and eventually use the same scenes for the stereo offset. Therefore all of the compositing and effects could be reused for the left and right eye.

Simultaneously, our 3D team of 4 modelers began creating the hard surfaced planet-like moons and lava planets to be imported later into After Effects via Element 3D. We started with a template scene that had a virtual star background and began to populate each scene with planets and atmospheric effects. Next, the key issue was creating diverse designs and building those designs in stereo space as well. This involved placing objects close to the camera or moving objects around to have them come close to the camera for a more dynamic effect.

Fabian Buckreus helped build some of the 3D simulations that were used for the sun fire effects to give them a more organic feel.

Finally we had to animate a camera through all 35 titles and allow for tweaks to the designs throughout the process. We also created a dense atmospheric effect in between the title scenes to create a sense of speed and volume. It also helped fill the space between the musical queues.

The key to this project and short deadline was to have a solid pipeline and know what we needed from the beginning. Having everyone work on small parts of the project simultaneously and then converge to finish together at the end required precise planning. 

DS: What were the greatest challenges you faced on this project?

AK: I would say creating a single camera animation that could be tweaked between designs without affecting other areas that were finished. The stereo aspect added a lot of extra complexity because it affected the design process and required more attention to depth and composition in 3D space. The atmospheric effects were also tricky since they were created in a separate comp. We had to blend them together with the final composites using depth mattes.

DS: Can you tell us a bit more about the tools you used on this project. Can you describe some of the inherent complexities of the post process and how After Effects was used to greatest effect?

AK: After Effects is our go to tool for compositing and it worked out even better when we decided to use Element 3D for the 3D rendering. We ended up having 35 unique designs that were separated into 35 comps. Each comp had a 3D camera which was linked to a master camera using expressions. The beauty of this was the ability to change and update the camera and have it affect all of the comps at once. This was helpful since each design comp had its own color treatment and effects, like glow and lens flares. It allowed us to focus on each design individually without worrying about overlapping effects or comps becoming unmanageable or getting out of control.  We also used comp proxies to speed up the workflow on shots that were finished while we worked on finalizing others. 

Element 3D [Visual Copilot’s 3D plug-in] works seamlessly with After Effects and this was a big draw for this project. Taking After Effects lights and camera and making changes interactively avoided the need to jump in and out of a 3D program while developing the look of shots and allowed us to do the final render when we were happy with the final product.

DS: Describe the working dynamic you had on the show with the director and editor? 

AK: As the supervisor of the project and main compositor it was my job to make sure that assets I needed were created for the final designs. J.J. Abrams, the director, was involved in developing the look and feel of the energy of the final animation. Our effects editor Tino Hertz helped to manage the in and out processing of new assets so we always had up to date files and textures. We might get close to a specific model and require more texture work and that file would be redelivered and replaced without having to worry about affecting or interrupting the compositing.

DS: Besides technical skills and an understanding of visual effects production, what were the most important skills or area of expertise you brought to the director to help him realize his vision for the film? What were the important intangibles?

AK: It's important to stay flexible when developing a project like this and be ready for changes or notes along the way. Having 3D and compositing skills helps you fully understand the scope of the work and be able to deliver a quality result. Another skill that is very important is strategic planning. A project like this can easily get out of control and go down the wrong pathway. You need to find the best way to divide the work and break it up intelligently with intermediate deadlines and goals.  It is important to choose the best plan early on and get everyone's input so that you don't run into unnecessary problems down the road. Having realistic expectations along the way helps you ensure quality time is given to each step so you don’t risk running out of time at the last minute.

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Dan Sarto is publisher and editor-in-chief of Animation World Network.