Post Comes First For David Fincher and Digital Domain on a Virtual Set
To achieve this effect, the spot was shot completely motion-control. Visuals change every five frames (there are an astonishing 248 shots in some 26 seconds), and 95 percent of the spot is CG, including the backgrounds, the office furniture, pencils, water cooler and- in a truly cutting-edge display of what’s now possible- the actor’s clothes. Only the actor’s head and hands are real.
"There were no sets. It was all virtual and, as usual with a David Fincher job, there was no such thing as post-production on this commercial," says Ed Ulbrich, a longtime Fincher collaborator and senior VP and executive producer at Digital Domain who provided the visual effects. " David had a master plan that’s all created digitally in 3D before anything else happens. So post started first and goes throughout, with the physical shoot just a step along the way. We began with pre-vis, where the team modeled the environment in 3D, and we also chose everything from lenses to camera angles and moves and designed the whole spot before we did anything else."
Because most shots only lasted five frames, Ulbrich and visual effects supervisor Eric Barba faced a daunting task. "Each one had to be rendered so it looked entirely photoreal," notes Ulbrich, "including all the objects in the office and what you see outside the windows. Ultimately, it was so dense that some shots ended up with over 1000 elements, which must be a record."
One of the biggest challenges was creating the lighting effects for each shot. "Each one had five changes of light a day that we had to render," reports Barba. "So there were five lighting scenarios per shot that had to follow from the live action, and knowing that each five frames we had to make a change, we had to create a set-up that would render out the different pieces of the shot in a way we could put it into our compositor as times of day."
To deal with this, Barba created a master list for each shot that specified whether it was daylight, sunset, midnight and so on. "From that list, we then broke it down into frame ranges, so everyone then knew, for each shot, what time of day each frame of the live action corresponded to," he says. "Then we’d render out the elements per time of day. The hardest part was keeping track of all those elements, because there were so many."
Barba’s team used a mix of custom-built work stations and proprietary software, along with the Lightwave radiosity renderer. "We also used Maya to drive the animation, and then pumped it out through our rendering pipeline," he adds.
Cutting It To Pieces
The spot’s editor, Angus Wall at Rock Paper Scissors, has worked on six commercials with Fincher in addition to co-editing Panic Room for him. " David asked me to come to the set at Raleigh Studios, Hollywood, and cut together pieces of the actor, who was shot with motion capture, so he knew he had good continuity between all the shots," he reports. Editing on set is fairly unusual, "though it’s becoming less so," he adds. "And this is a particularly good example of where it was very useful, because once David had captured the choreography of the actor, he was then shooting for five-frame increments, and it’s very hard to tell with the naked eye, without seeing it in context of the cut, whether you got the right five frames or not."
With Wall providing instant feedback, Fincher was able to see exactly what was happening for each five-frame increment and then adjust as he was shooting the frames. "Basically, by being there on the set, I was a glorified video-assist guy," notes Wall, who edited on an Avid DV Express on an Apple G4 laptop.
Shooting With the Viper
DP Gary Waller and Fincher shot the spot on a Grass Valley Viper camera. "It grabs an uncompressed HD signal, and that then went to an S.two digital disk recorder," says Wall. "That’s where we stored the image for later use by the Digital Domain effects team, and it’s great because you can see exactly what you shot in its native resolution. You’re looking at an HD image you just shot a second ago."
On set, Wall captured to the Avid the live output of the Viper, which was then downresed to NTSC. "As soon as David yelled,Ã¢Â€Â˜Cut,’ I’d cut in the material and he’d come over and check it out within context of the cut so he could make any necessary changes and adjustments. This set-up allowed him to be more specific in terms of the action within the five frames." Fincher and Wall then took the edit back to Rock Paper Scissors and overcut it with time-coded D1 material, then handed off the EDL to Digital Domain.
"Although using virtual sets isn’t new, it’s pretty new in commercials, and people who see this never guess that the location is all CG," says Ulbrich. "Everyone involved with this project is blazing a new trail, that of entirely digital production. There’s no film anymore, or any such thing as post in this world. It starts with digital and stays digital the whole way through."
- DP: Gary Waller
- Producer: Robin Buxton
- VFX Exec. Producer: Ed Ulbrich
- VFX Supervisor: Eric Barba
- VFX Producer: Maike Pardee
- Sound: Mit Out Sound
- Creative Director: Steve Simpson, John Norman
- Copy Writer: Rick Condos
- Art Director: Hunter Hindman
- Exec. Producer: Josh Reynolds
- Exec. Producer: Elizabeth O’Toole