Recently, I’ve got a lot of compliments and condolences on our crash the Super Bowl entry, Baby Riot! People seemed to really enjoy it, and were surprised that it didn’t make it to the semi-finals (or the finals for that matter.) While that’s a terrific compliment, the best compliment I get on the spot is when people ask “How did you get the babies to behave and all look at the same place at the same time?”
The answer is, we didn’t. We used visual effects. The fact that they didn’t notice those visual effects, is why it’s such a great complement. The effects were hopefully invisible, the way good effects work should be. For someone like me who is by no means a visual effects artist, it’s very gratifying to know I pulled it off. I put a tremendous amount of time and energy into pulling off these effects, on an extremely short deadline, all so no one would notice.
With the advent of computers and desktop visual effects software, even a low or no budget production such as Baby Riot! can produce visual effects to enhance or complete productions. These kinds of effects are more and more commonplace, even in shows and movies where you don’t expect to see visual effects. Not every visual effect has to involve a super-hero, space-ship, or an alien. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing the color of the sky for added effect, removing an unwanted logo, tracking in a mobile phone or TV screen, or adding set dressing that a production couldn’t otherwise afford.
There’s a lot of interesting articles in fxguide that talk about this very thing and how its become a very important tool in a filmmakers tool kit for budgets of every size. See these articles in particular:
In the case of Baby Riot!, I knew as we were planning it, that visual effects were going to make or break it, especially if the kids wouldn’t cooperate. I needed 3 babies, and I needed them to do some very non-baby like things, and do them as a group. I story-boarded the entire spot to work out what could potentially be done in camera and what had to be a visual effect. I also worked out backup plans for most of the shots, but some just had to work or the spot wouldn’t work. We tried to get as many shots in camera as we could but some of the shots I hoped we could get in camera, we just weren’t able to get. This meant more visual effects, or utilizing our backup plans. In the end, the 30 second spot has 11 visual effects shots.
So now I’m going to ruin the magic and explain the how and why of the visual effects shots and then follow it up with a breakdown video.
- The very first shot of the commercial featuring the 3 dads sitting around a coffee table with a bowl of Doritos is a visual effects shot. This was not planned to be a visual effects shot and had we more time on the day of the shoot probably wouldn’t have been. Originally this was planned to be the living room, but on our location scout we discovered this garage with all the sports paraphernalia and hats on the wall. We instantly thought, “man cave!” This inherent production design will be great and save us a lot of time set dressing, so we made the decision to use this instead. It was a bit of a double-edged sword however, because a lot of what made it a great location, the hats and memorabilia, all had logos that we couldn’t have on camera. So while we were filming babies in the other room, our production designer and set dresser Karen Harper and Courtney Parks were dressing this set and “greeking” out the logos we couldn’t have in the shot.
Needless to say, there were so many logos, that not everything was caught, or things we thought would be out of frame were in frame, which meant these items had to be painted out or replaced via visual effects.
You can clearly see the Boston Red Sox dart board, Red Sox “socks” on the hat, the Boston Bruins logo beyond it, and below it a Patriots Helmet. (Yes we shot in the home of an avid Boston Sports Fan.) These had to be replaced or obscured. Not only in this shot, but every wide shot of this location needed this work. These logo fixes made up the bulk of the visual effects shots. Some of these shots needed more work than others. This one was fairly easy, as it was locked down and no one crossed the plane of any of these items, so no tracking or rotoscoping was necessary, but many of the other shots did have to be tracked, rotoscoped or both.
- The second shot of the piece, the kids establishing shot, was a planned visual effects shot.
When we changed the location of the Dads from the living room to the “Man-cave” these two locations were no longer adjacent as they were when I initially story boarded the spot. Not only that, it was important to establish geographically where the kids were relative to the Dads for the kids to spy the Doritos and the concept to make sense. So we erected a green screen at the threshold and shot the kids in front of it.
Amazingly, we didn’t have to split screen the kids for this shot. Sidney in his green shirt was put on the rocker so his shirt wouldn’t get keyed out against the background, and Lydian and Quinn were put near the threshold playing with the toys. For the first time all day, they actually sat still long enough for me get this shot without any additional visual effects required for them.
With the green screen keyed out we are able to put our plate of the Dads (the same camera angle as shot 1) into the background. To make sure it would look correct in this green screen shot, we had to make sure the camera was the same height off the ground, and the lens was the same focal length so it would all look the same. The only problem was, as we attempted to pull the camera back far enough to match the true distance, we hit the garage wall. Simple enough to fix in the computer, we can just scale the shot down to fit, but that means we don’t fill the entire threshold. See below.
Now we get to the unintended portion of the visual effects for this shot. We had to create a digital set extension to finish that wall off. Unfortunately, in our haste we never shot the upper wall plate to match this shot. Enter Photoshop. We extracted sections of the walls from other takes and shots of the production and used them to stitch together a seamless wall extension. In addition, the ever important baby gate was also missing from the green screen shot and had to be added back in digitally. My friend and Photoshop aficionado, Drew MacDonald took my hastily stitched mock-up and returned a seamless set extension allowing us to save the shot. So much work, and most people think we shot it all in camera.
The 3rd shot is the close up of the Doritos going into the bowl. As we only had one bag of Doritos, we digitally created the doritos falling into the bowl… I’m kidding. There was no visual effect in that shot, and other than painting out logos in the next few shots as described above, everything was in camera up to and including Sidney climbing over the gate. His stepping onto the doll house and leg flipping over were all shot practically with a parent physically coaxing some of those moves.
The shot where Sidney “pulls” himself up over the Baby Gate was not even a planned shot, but a happy accident to use in the edit. This shot was further “enhanced” with a visual effect by Matt Rheitmeyer of Doulos Media, where he animated Sidney’s eyebrow to add some determination to his movement. A subtle, and hopefully invisible effect, but one that has great impact on the intention of the shot.
The next shot of Sidney landing on the ground is all in camera. As is the bat landing on Lydian’s hand (courtesy of her Dad off camera), though we did have to paint out a Dodgers logo when the bat stopped.
For the Dad shots, more logo replacement as usual, only this time as they stand, Derron and Arnold cross the plane of some the items being painted out, so those painted spots had to be rotoscoped so the actors could pass in front of it. In addition, the timing of the 3 Dad’s standing wasn’t quite perfectly timed on set, so a split screen was also added to this take to make all 3 Dad’s stand at the same time, both for added effect and to make the shot as short as possible, as time is always a commodity in a 30 second spot.
That leads us to the most complicated shot in the entire piece. What ended up being our thumbnail, the 3 kids as a gang getting ready to attack. Although we tried to get this in camera, we couldn’t get the three kids to stand there together, let alone stand there and follow directions, so we decided to shoot this as what I hoped would be a simple split-screen with a short rotoscope section when Sidney runs past Quinn. Unfortunately, the kids decided to move the baby gate and wouldn’t stand exactly where we wanted them so it ended up being a complete rotoscope job of both of the boys. I had a great plate with Lydian standing with the bat and looking in the right direction. We then shot the boys separately, coaxing Sidney to charge off camera left. I rotoscoped both Quinn and Sidney, along with animated mattes of their reflections on the floor and put them all together. By rotoscoping them, I had the added benefit of being able to frame them exactly as I wanted them. It also allowed me to speed ramp Sidney’s run without affecting the other two kids.
The next shot most people believe is a visual effect, was not. Sidney’s POV jumping up and kicking Derron in the face was all done in camera. Sidney’s dad held Sidney just under the camera lens as our DP Garrett Benson simulated the POV move handheld. As we approached Derron, Sidney’s Dad simply flipped Sidney’s feet up to kick Derron which edits on the apex of the kick into Derron’s stunt.
There did end up being a visual effect in the shot, but it was only tracking the shot, removing logos and putting a digital hat on the wall to cover Dave Matthews face in the poster. See before and after below.
The last visual effect also completed by Doulous Media, is Sidney’s arm in the final shot. We couldn’t get the kids to hold onto to those Doritos at the right moments, so Matt roto’d out the arm from an earlier take and animated in for the hero “end shot.” That’s best viewed in the breakdown below.
Here’s the full breakdown and progression of the shots in the spot, followed by the completed spot in it’s entirety. A lot of work for 30 seconds, but we had fun doing it.
Now it’s always best to get as much in camera as possible, and you should never rely on VFX to “fix it in post,” but knowing you can complete these kinds of effects can help you to change the mood, add production value, or transform landscapes when budget doesn’t allow for the real locations. All it takes is the right resources and proper planning.
To learn more about how to create your own home brew effects I recommend the following websites and books:
- The DV Rebel’s Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap
- Adobe After Effects CC Visual Effects and Compositing Studio Techniques
- After Effects Apprentice: Real World Skills for the Aspiring Motion Graphics Artist