Tara DiLullo goes behind the scenes to discover how vfx artist Joe Laffey made the attention-grabbing spec spot, X-Games Skateboard.
What do you do when you feel the need to branch out and experiment with new visual effects techniques and ideas and theres no client to fund it? In the case of vfx artist Joe Laffey and his directorial collaborator, Paul Santana, you do it anyway and then proceed to wow the industry with a spec spot called X-Games Skateboard. The clever, fast-paced, MTV-style :30 spot features the tardy professional skateboarder, Caine Gayle, defying gravity, narrow alleys and city congestion to catch up to his fellow boarders on their X-Games-bound bus in Los Angeles. Funny thing is, Gayle never skated an inch in any urban metropolis to get the thrilling shots highlighted in the piece. LAFFEY.tv, the animation and vfx arm of Laffey Computer Imaging, created the entire spot by merging greenscreen technology, proprietary free-moving camera techniques and good old-fashioned 2D and 3D animation all for under $10,000. It was a labor of love. Laffey beams about the project thats putting his company on the vfx map.
Laffeys St. Louis, Missouri-based company was formed in the early `90s. We started out with still imaging for advertising and print work primarily, he explains. All along we were doing some motion graphics effects and 3D work, but I started in 1991, and 3D software and hardware that was even mildly affordable was so slow. I love fooling people with things that look real. Id much rather do things that are unambiguously real, along the lines of The Lord of the Rings. All that stuff is supposed to look real, and for the most part, it does. Finally, when Electric Image and the PowerMac came along, I actually had the ability to get an affordable system and I moved more into visual effects. Over the last decade, the company has been able to shift with the advances in technology, building their client list on their ability to create high-end, attention-grabbing visual products. The visual effects work is about 60-70% of our income, but about 50% of our work now. On staff, its one modeler, Mike Myers, and myself. We work on Macs and PCs. I mainly used Windows, nowadays. I use LightWave 3D, Digital Fusion, a little After Effects and Commotion. I did write some custom software that Ive written for Digital Fusion, some plug-ins, that I actually will be selling if I ever have the time to put that together. Ill probably tap into XSI or Maya, at some point, but since Im not doing character work, Im more concerned about the renderer.
Seeking to push the company profile, Laffey embarked on developing the X-Games Skateboard project as an attention-getting spec project. It was put together by the director, Paul Santana, and me to sell us. Paul was trying to get signed with a company and I was trying to get more visual effects work. We did an extensive test for the free-moving camera tricks that we used in the [spot.] We spent six to nine months working on this 20-second test. It was almost a spot, but it didnt have a plot. By the time we were done with it, we felt like complete idiots for spending so much time on something that wasnt sellable. We took all that R&D and thought of something we could do that would allow us to have this free-moving camera with live actors. The key thing for us was that people needed to know that the shots were impossible. They needed to see a shot, like the alley sequence, and viewers would know something was different.
The spot evolved into a skateboarders wild ride through a city, following the action from extreme angles and impossible vantage points. The first shot we planned was the alley shot. We decided it had to be fairly long. We initially talked about doing a spot that was completely cut-less and thats hard. We decided this subject matter needed the quick cuts, so we mixed that with the rapid camera movement to try to get that fast-paced feel. They created a detailed animatic to help them plan the details of the spot, which took about a month to complete. Pretty much the entire spot was done in 3D animatics and it was cut together as an animatic. It was done in a 2D version first, with the alley and with a birds eye view, and then we did a rough 3D. Then we embellished that up and added more things to it. Once that was done, then we knew precisely what we needed to shoot and we worked from that as boards. We had a thumbnail board at one point, but the animatic became the reference.
Laffey explains they then made the decision to shoot the spot in HD for various reasons, the most important being the ability to retain quality levels, considering the vast amount of effects work they were going to employ. We shot in Panavision 24p, in high def. 1920/1080 and it helped a lot with the quality of the keys. Its a very nice advantage when you have that because you hardly have to do anything with the key. When you scale it down it looks phenomenal. HD is all written digitally and you just copy the file.
Assembling a crew of volunteers and actors, Laffey and Santana shot all of the live-action footage in one day. Our DP was Greg Daniels and he wanted something for his reel too. An executive at X-Games hooked us up with Caine Gayle, a real X-Games skater, who was a real trooper. Basically, we brought in a professional skater and we had him performing in front of a greenscreen, he laughs. He didnt complain about it at all. When we needed him to do jumps, like on the car, he was really in front of a greenscreen and he jumped off a six-foot high platform. He just jumped off and it was amazing. Pretty much all the acting was done over a greenscreen, except for the part in the apartment at the beginning when Caine is cooking. Otherwise, the interior bus shot was a dressed set by Vincent Reynaud, who did Seven.
With the live-action footage in the can, Laffey and his modeler then began the long process of merging Gayles board aerobatics into a seemingly real-life environment. The bulk of the time was making it look real, with texturing and lighting. The animation had been done mainly in the animatic and we tweaked that to some degree. There was some roto involved and paint. All the little nuances, like you look in the alley and there are weeds everywhere and trash. All those little things take a lot of time. We kept embellishing until it looked real. It was basically a matter of adding things and doing things to improve it as we went along. Since we were doing everything ourselves, when we needed to add a piece of trash, Id have to go model it or take a picture.
My director helped a lot by taking a lot of the stills because it would have been totally overwhelming. Mike, my modeler, built the hero skateboard and the fire escapes in the alley and the cart and other bits in the alley. The walls and buildings, I did them all and embellished them up. Matter of fact, nothing in the spot is actually real outside of the few live-action shots. The outside of the bus is always fake. Its a 3D bus. There were a lot of still photos that were then used in 3D backgrounds. There are no moving plates in the shot, except for the live action plate at the very end, which has been thoroughly modified. The Staples Center is on the left, behind the bus stop that isnt actually there. My background is in still photography, so my eye is in tune with what a real photo looks like and I am really used to color correction and composting, to me, is second nature. When I sit down to do that, thats the easy fun stuff. If you look at it frame by frame, the motion blur is always full quality and there is no stepping like you see on broadcast television. Its all rendered out at the absolute highest quality, because I knew vfx people would be looking at it. I didnt want anybody going, Oh look, theres the motion blur!
Fooling jaded professionals with those visual tricks has been one the highlights of the project for Laffey. People ask about the shot where the camera goes down below the board and people come up with all kinds of crazy ideas, like, Oh, you have a lipstick camera on a snorkel! This is from DPs and directors! The actual techniques we consider proprietary because we are trying to get more work like it, but there is 2D and 3D in there and a lot of other stuff happening. Since the actor never left the soundstage, we definitely didnt use a lipstick camera!
Detailing the project timeline, Laffey offers, We did all the work in off hours since I had regular work, but it took about six to nine months and that was after all the research. If this was a job, I could probably do it in about one to two months, but it would be nice to have two to three, he chuckles. A lot of extra effort was spent on this because it was a spec shot. Its probably got between $200-$250,000 worth of effects in it. There were so many hours put into it. All the X-Games guys loved the spot and they wanted to use it, but we all got other work and Im not sure what happened actually.
Yet the spot has gotten a lot of buzz since they released it, exactly what they hoped it would do. Weve been extremely happy with the great response. Im using it to push my company now. Following the completion, I got really busy, but I took the effort to get it out and post it on the web and do a behind-the-scenes. Its gotten us a lot more fx-based commercial work. Wed like it to lead into more high profile, high budget projects. Weve had some discussions with some bigger companies and everybody seems very excited, its just a matter of getting one to make the leap.
The X-Games Skateboard spot can be viewed at laffey.tv/feature.html.
Tara DiLullo is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI-FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the websites atnzone.com and ritzfilmbill.com.