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Music Video VFX Riffing

A trio of hot music videos and the diverse vfx techniques is explored by Thomas J. McLean.

Videos no longer dominate cable TV the way they did in the 1980s, of course, but like the actual music before them, videos have found a new life and a new young audience by going online.

For filmmakers and vfx artists, this means the opportunities videos created to experiment continues.

Radically different vfx techniques are on display in the videos to Bjork's 3D puppet-CG extravaganza Wanderlust, The Acorn's song The Flood, Part 1 and Wyclef Jean's Fast Car.

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Wanderlust, which features a raging river in a dream-like world with herds of yaks and a river god, took more than six months to complete. All Wanderlust images courtesy of UVPhactory and Encyclopedia Pictura.

Wanderlust In the acclaimed 3-D Wanderlust, the innovative Icelandic singer takes to a raging river in a dream-like world featuring herds of yaks and a river god that was an unexpectedly difficult challenge for New York-based UVPhactory.

Damijan Saccio, principal and co-founder of the vfx house, says Wanderlust was a challenge on every level and took six-and-a half months of post-production to complete. "It was a pretty big production for us, especially given that the budget only allowed for about two weeks," he says.

The river concept directors Isaiah Saxon and Sean Hellfritsch of Encyclopedia Pictura presented to UVPhactory was one of stylized blue threads that swell and flow.

"We always wanted to have the idea of individual strands of water, almost like pieces of yarn, especially after hearing about how they were going to be making the yak with all these pieces of wool," offers Saccio. "We wanted it to move realistically but be totally something that wasn't from this universe because this whole thing is like this mushroom-influenced kind of dream thing."

After some initial tests, Saccio says hair simulations yielded the most interesting results. But implementing that solution proved to be the most difficult part of an already-difficult and complicated project.

"Hair is never really meant to be used in that way," adds Saccio. "There's all sorts of limitations to the hair module in SOFTIMAGE|XSI that you've never come across if you were actually doing hair."

Creating infinitely long strands of hair that had none of the built-in limitations that control how hair acts at the root or end of a strand required lots of workarounds and the assistance of the engineers and coders at ImageSoft to create custom solutions to the problem.

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"We needed to treat the beginning of it the same way that you would treat the end of it, so that was all stuff we had to make up ways of handling and disguising," he says. They also had to figure out ways to make it constantly move.

Saccio says the solution was to create a water wave simulation in Real Flow used as a grid upon which they could add layers of super long, fine lines. "It was just a lot of layers on top of layers of things depending on things underneath them," he adds.

Those lines were then replaced with hairs, which were bundled together into strands to become the river.

Composting also was immensely difficult, requiring UVPhactory to merge images shot using a stereoscopic rig on a greenscreen stage with a herd of yaks created digitally from a single giant puppet, miniature landscapes, steam effects created as 3D volumetric clouds and digital matte paintings.

Given that most of these elements were all shot or created separately, most of the tracking had to be done by hand.

Saccio says some shots included as many as 200 elements, and that's just for one eye in this stereoscopic work.

The video was obviously a labor of love for those who worked on it, so Saccio says the attention it has received has been gratifying. "You know how you can work on something for a long time and no one really notices? At least this time it seems that people can see there was a lot of work put into it."

UVPhactory maintains a full list of the crew that worked on the video, which can be seen on its website.

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The compositing work in The Flood Part 1 was done mostly in After Effects after two or three "hero elements" were chosen. Other elements are then added around them. © Paperbag Records.

The Flood, Part 1

A considerably smaller crew worked on The Flood, Part 1, a video for Canadian indie-folk group The Acorn. The band approached Christopher Mills of Curious Pictures and gave him carte blanche based on his previous work on videos for such bands as Broken Social Scene, Interpol and Modest Mouse.

"They approached me with this really, really great track," Mills says, "and said, 'Here's some music, let us know when you're done.' So that was a real treat," adds Mills, who describes himself as a "self-taught compositor-animator type of person."

Mills wrote a script for the video by importing an MP3 of the song into Final Cut Pro and writing titles over each part of the song indicating what he sees happening.

For this song, Mills recruited some friends, including artist Nicole Legault, sculptor Geordie Lishman and dancer Andrea Spaziani to create and perform elements of the video.

Mills says his "arts and crafts-y" technique assembles images, animations and artwork both gathered and created, layering them together in the final shot until he's happy.

For example, the animated characters that look like wood etchings were created by blowing up illustrations by Legault and attaching them to Spaziani, who acted out the parts of the characters for Mills' video camera.

"And then the rest of the world around them would be just a whole mix of things, everything from QuickTime files of things I may have gone out with my video camera and shot, to stop motion animation files of certain elements, to stuff that we'd sampled from the web, to the scene where you see a storm cloud come and sort of barf out a gold river," Mills continues.

Some shots end up with hundreds of elements coming from as many different sources. For this video, he used everything from a Red camera to a Canon XHA-1, a Sony Handicam and even a scanner.

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The compositing work was done mostly in After Effects and begins with Mills choosing two or three "hero elements" and then adding elements around them until he feels it's done. "So if the characters are getting into the boat and the boat exits the frame, obviously the characters and the boat is going to be the first element, the next element is going to be the river and the next element is the landscape around the river and so on, and it sort of builds that way," he says.

One unique element in the video is the carnival that appears at the end. Mills approached a friend who teaches at a college in Canada and they ended up assigning the making of carnival rides part of the class. Mills says he was blown away by the results.

"We didn't give them too many rules, we just said make it cool," Mills suggests. "And they really went off the rails and made things that are really mechanically complex."

Mills says no CG-elements were created for the video with one possible exception. "We may have made some snow and re-looped it or re-filterized it, if that's a word, so that it doesn't' look like snow filter No. 36," he adds.

The project was edited in Final Cut Pro and was put together over the Christmas holiday, so Mills says it's hard to say exactly how much time was put into the video. "But if I was trying to sell this to a client, I'd say (it would take) four to six weeks if you've got the money," Mills says.

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Fast Car puts Wyclef Jean in a video game on a secret agent-style mission. Sony Music, Sony PlayStation, EA and Criterion worked with Curious on the video. All Fast Car images courtesy of Curious Pictures.

Fast Car

Going in a completely different direction were the creators of the Wyclef Jean video Fast Car, in which the former member of the Fugees would enter a video game on secret agent style mission.

Producer Lewis Kofsky, a partner at Curious Pictures, says the key to putting Jean into a game was cooperation between the singer's label, Sony Music, Sony PlayStation, Electronic Arts and Criterion, developers of the video game Burnout Paradise.

The concept involved several worlds, including a real-world segment where a young boy uses his PSP to send Jean on his mission, a purgatory world between life and death where Jean's singing performance occurs, and the world of the game itself.

Kofsky says they started with the game world and realized given that today's games are rendered in HD at 60-frames-per-second that the world of the game could be capture with machinima.

"We've seen machinima videos before. That's not necessarily groundbreaking, but this is an interesting challenge," Kofsky adds.

The video was storyboarded and prevised using Maya loaded with assets provided by Criterion. The previs was edited to match the song and action sequences were worked out, leading to a full 3D previs of the entire video with specific camera angles and chase scenes.

"The goal here was to be able to use a video game and machinima and CGI to create a chase sequence that would top The Bourne Supremacy," Kofsky says.

Armed with the previs, Curious sent a crew to Criterion's headquarters in Surrey, U.K., for two weeks, where they had eight people playing the game and generating hours of footage that was output to HD decks. The "stunt drivers," who knew the game inside and out, would even rehearse and execute specific moves for the camera.

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"It was like live action," Kofsky proclaims. "We just did take after take after take driving in the game and had camera men going and we would make selects and ftp back here and put it into the cut."

A short live-action shoot followed at Curious' New York studio. "We decided that any time we saw people driving, we'd put them into a practical car," says Kofsky. Choosing a Camaro-style car from the game, a practical version was built and put on a rig that allowed the car to spin and roll.

"After the shoot, we recut all the game footage and replaced all the boards and had a cut that was green screen, with rough compositings, game effects and a lot of machinima footage cut together," Kofsky says.

The post-production schedule was a short eight days and was heavy on compositing, with the Curious crew completing about150 greenscreen shots in about five days, mostly using After Effects, Kofsky adds.

The video was graded using Color and edited in Final Cut Pro.

Kofsky says the satisfaction he gets from a project like this was the richness that all the work brings to the final product. "There are so many dimensions to it because we were able to get so much help form all those companies. Without all that, it would have been half the video it was."

Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Variety, Below the Line, Animation Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He writes a comicbook blog for Variety.com called Bags and Boards, and is the author of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, forthcoming from Sequart.com Books.

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