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Britney Spears, OutKast and Missy Elliott Go CG

Sam Molineaux takes a look at three new eye-popping music videos: Hey Ya!, Pass That Dutch and Toxic.

KromA had to turn out some 500 composites a week for the CG-laden Britney Spears Toxic video. All Toxic images courtesy of KromA.

Relatively few vfx facilities specialize purely in music videos. Most supplement their income with commercials work, a more lucrative though arguably more rigid format. And though technology continues to be the great enabler, over the last few years theres been something of a decline in the amount of music videos to feature vfx , at least to any substantive degree.

Visual effects is still a relatively expensive endeavor. You face budget issues on any sort of job, but music videos have become a lot more intensive, says Elad Offer, creative director at LA-based Money Shots Post, one of the few high-end facilities that specialize in music videos. Youre expected to produce the same amount of work as three or four years ago, often for less budget, whereas the cost of creative hasnt changed that much. Weve had heavy effects video projects to do where the deadline has been just a day and a half. Those things are major hurdles.

Money Shots recently completed a pair of music videos for OutKast, both number ones on Billboard: Hey Ya! and The Way You Move. On occasion record companies will cough up for something special, particularly if its for an artist at the top of its game. And that was the case, in particular, with Hey Ya!, which features Andre 3000 performing as all eight members of his own band.


Aladino Debert (left) and his Radium team won VES Outstanding Visual Effects in a Music Video for Missy Elliots Pass That Dutch. Missy takes a turn as King Kong in the video on the right. All Pass That Dutch images courtesy of Radium Inc.

The video was shot in two days, and Offer and his team had a week to complete the visual effects and deliver a finished product. That meant eight different takes for every camera move, and in each take Andre 3000 was performing each actor. We had a lot of footage in which we had only one Andre 3000 perform the one track through one camera move. Our challenge was to put it together into one coherent thing.

An important part of the challenge was figuring out how to realize the concept fast.

For the technical part it was a question of whether to use green screen for the different passes, or rotoscoping. We went with rotoscoping because we had to shoot a lot in a very short timespan: four different camera moves, each with eight different performers, which meant 32 passes. If we had gone with greenscreen, setting up for each one of these passes would have taken forever. The only way to get it done in time was to shoot the whole stage as it was for every pass and then hand-roto the different passes together.

The plates were shot with a Milo motion control camera; then back at the lab each was rotoscoped to separate the different performers that Andre 3000 was acting, and then re-assembled to create the effect of a group of identical performers. A process Offer describes as relatively straightforward, with only a few minor problems like inconsistent focus or lighting that had to be corrected in post. By far the biggest issue was time constraints. We finished Hey Ya! in about a week, with eight people working around the clock, he adds.

Has he been surprised at the amount of attention the video has been getting?

Not really, because Hey Ya! has such a wide appeal as a song. At the end of the day, no matter how good the video is, its about how successful the song is. Everything came together, and Andre 3000 is a really good performer and came fully prepared for shooting that video. All those factors come together.

For Missy Elliotts hit single, Pass That Dutch, digital effects facility Radium completed as many as 210 visual effects shots for the 4:31 video. The highly distinctive piece features a variety of contrasting scenes such as Missy as King Kong hanging off the top of buildings, line dancers in a swishing CG wheat field, a dancing Hummer vehicle, a hovering spaceship and plenty more, as the song moves through its different musical styles.

Its somewhat unusual for a music video to have that many effects shots, says Radiums head of CG Aladino Debert. It just kept growing and growing. For example, for the King Kong section at the end what was originally going to be four shots ended up being 58.

Though the video pushed the use of vfx way beyond most of what you see on MTV and Radium won top honors for it at last weeks second annual VES Awards it wasnt that they did anything they hadnt done before, says Debert, more that it was done on such a massive scale and in such a short time.

A lot of the designs and overall look were created on the fly with no time for concept drawings or to run each and every idea by director Dave Meyers. We had compositors working nightshifts, checking renders from home all the time. We had all these other things going on at the same time. It was crazy. I think we completed it in 10 or 11 days. It was just a huge logistical nightmare, but Im very glad we did it.

Often what began as a simple idea grew beyond all expectation as the artists and director let their imaginations roam free.

The dancing on the corn crop circle sequence started simple and ended up being full digital matte paintings for all the background, Debert remembers. Then the director said it would be cool to have a spacecraft, like a reference to Close Encounters. So we made a spaceship! The CG heavy stuff were the crows, which I personally sat down and animated. We shot some crows on green screen landing on a little green piece of wood; and we had a trainer with a green glove. All the medium to far-away shots were CG. On those shots theres nothing real but the humans. They were shot on the green screen and then beyond a thin layer of corn in front, everything else was matte paintings or CG. Then we had a massive amount of compositing. Every single shot was touched in some way. We had three different Inferno artists working non stop: Jonathan Keeton, Andy McKenna and Scott Rader.


Bert Yukich, co-founder of KromA, had to transition between CG and real body parts throughout the Britney Spears video.

Most of the work was completed using the standard three tools: Maya, Photoshop and Deep Paint. We also used Boujou, a 3D camera tracking software that we use on almost anything we work on now. Were usually working with live action, so you need to track it. We didnt have time to experiment and come up with new ways to do things; in cases like that you fall back to what you know.

One slight departure from the norm, at least for Debert, whos used to working in the digital domain, was creating the dancing Hummer scene using a miniature model. It was originally intended as a CG effect, but the director had a change of heart and felt something a bit nuttier was needed for that scene.

The Hummer was so bizarre. They built this really cool rig, a miniature two-foot long Hummer, mounted on a digital green stand with a paddle with four springs you can puppeteer with your hand. We made the craziest moves, but the hardest part was putting it in the shot. [Meyers] wanted it completely over the top. You can tell its fake but that was the idea. I was blown away by the rig; they put it together in two hours.

For Britney Spears new single, Toxic, L.A.-based KromA pulled out all stops for the eye-popping visuals on the massive 3D undertaking.

We had a crew of about 15 people, working through the night, 20-hour days for two weeks, explains visual effects supervisor and lead compositor Bert Yukich, co-founder of the two-year-old facility. There was a lot of stuff to build and each thing had to be done just right. We had to build a CG Paris, the tunnel setup, a CG London, a piece of interior CG plane, the CG motorcycle, CG cars, streets, two different CG Britneys, a CG Tyson [Beckford], and some elaborate effects with lasers and glass exploding. Then a lot of little extra things, like one scene where she pulls the rubber mask off the guythat was CG and a head replacement. The character animation we did for that part where we transitioned from the CG body to a real body was something we hadnt done like that before. And we added some CG hair in there thats pretty cool. Each effect in itself was really a big deal.

Yukich collaborated on the piece with music video director Joseph Kahn, whos well known for his effects-heavy style. The pairs recent collaborations include Ricky Martins Juramento, in which the Puerto Rican singer and his 99 identical twins dance in the desert with the female object of his affections another huge undertaking.

For that one we had a week to do a lot of tracking, and removing and replacing heads. We did it like that because there were places where more than one dancer was interacting with each other and with her, explains Yukich. That was almost 100 shots and each shot had between two and eight head replacements. On average, four or five composites on each shot, so four or five hundred composites to do in a week. I stayed up for three or four days in a row, which meant a lot of Red Bull and Rockstar. You have to start cycling them out.

Their next collaboration is on SoCal rockers Offspring, with a 120-camera rig shooting multiple angles in a dome, with each frame coming from a different camera something neither director nor digital artist has tried before. Thats the fun of it for me. To have a director come and say, Can you make this happen? and its something that Ive never done, or that hasnt been done before and we have to come up with a solution to make it work.

Big Boi becomes a Jedi in the OutKast video of The Way You Move. © 2003 Arista Records; courtesy of Money Shots.

Yukich relies mainly on SoftImage XSI for 3D rendering and Avid DS for compositing. The fact that the two programs work together and the tools translate back and forth, he says, makes the process more straightforward and reliable.

I think the biggest change that happens with visual effects is the tools become faster and you can do more in less time, he says. Three or four years ago, doing a couple of little things was such a big deal, now its nothing. The computers get faster and the software gets better and you can do so much more. So we can do 50 shots instead of just one shot. As far as budgets, its all relative. You get more for your money.

Radiums Debert concurs: The main trend [in music videos] is that you push yourself more and more. Budgets generally dont change, but the quality of the work that you have at your fingertips is so much better and more out there than even a couple of years ago. It allows directors to come up with ideas that push the envelope. You can grow out from a creative standpoint to a crazy directions, because the technology has caught up so that you can do these things.

Sam Molineaux is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist. Her writing on film, music and technology has appeared in Variety, Below The Line, BPM, Installation Europe and the New Times, among other publications. She is currently writing a pair of books for publisher McGraw-Hill on digital music on the Mac OSX, to be published later this year.