Keyframe Digital Fills a VFX Warehouse for Syfy
New Series Demands Creative Work With Green Screens, LCD Panels, and Basic Motion-Control
Fortunately, Green says, the show’s producers have been careful to involve Keyframe fairly early in the scripting process. “We were fortunate enough to start early enough to have input before the scripts were fleshed out too heavily,” he recalls. “We put together different types of shots, showed what could be done, and threw out some ideas about how the effects could be accomplished. They’d say, ‘What have you guys got in your arsenal that you can do really well’ And we’d shot them examples from our work on [syndicated TV series] Mutant X and [Syfy's 2007 series] The Dresden Files. So they had ideas and we had suggestions that they could use when they came up with script concepts.”
Doing quality visual-effects work on a TV schedule and budget requires a lot of ingenuity, especially when it comes to executing workhorse techniques like green-screen photography. For an upcoming episode, the script demanded that a character be trapped in a mirror located right in the middle of a set, where the camera could see both in front of the mirror and behind it. The job demanded a green screen, but the question was how to properly light the screen evenly, from all directions, without having any of the lights appear in the camera’s view. In the end, Keyframe decided not to use a traditional green-screen at all.
Instead, they called up local dealer Rosco and ordered a couple of Litepad LCD panels. “We mounted them inside this frame, used milk glass for the very top surface, and in between we sandwiched green gels and a semi-transparent half-stop filter so it wasn’t bright enough to kick a lot of green back,” says Green.
“[The actors] were walking up to this glass and putting their hands on it, and we wanted as little kickback as possible,” explains Cranford. “We were going to key it out and put another person in there, so if we were shining light onto it, that would have been no good – by the time they reached into that area, their hands would be green. This way, they could put their hands on it, and there was a little bit of spill, but not so much that we couldn’t key it out anymore. Because it’s nice, flat lighting with no shadows, it was perfect. We had 50 of those shots on a turnaround of 10 days, so there was no time for futzing around with rotoscoping.”
We asked Green and Cranford to fill us in on the techniques involved for a sampling of VFX shots from the show.
Clint Green: The gist of this episode was that Claudia’s brother was trapped in the netherworld when he was experimenting with artifacts. She has some type of link to him, and when they call him and he starts to appear there’s a draw from her body to his that almost kills her at the same time. We created that draw from her in 3D, so it’s not just a 2D blur paint.
Darren Cranford: We had 3D particles flowing from her because the camera was always moving. It could be from 90 to 180 degrees in some cases, so we had to do some 3D work of particles flowing from her to him.
CG: You can do particles in two dimensions in a comp, but if you can do them in 3d and make them look better? We go that almost extra mile every time. It gives everything a bit of depth.
DC: Clint was on set for shooting the elements of the guy on set floating on a green screen. Back at the studio he was comped out, of course, and rigs removed, but then we added a bunch of 3D distortions and 3D elements to give it an extra kick of depth, and almost a cloth modifer behind him, just to give it a wispy feel.
CG: We put him down as an overlay. Wherever he was black on his clothes, he became invisible. They involved us so much [in the shoot] that we were able to suggest wardrobe. We told them to make sure he wears black pants and black shoes, so we can have more of a floating upper torso, getting rid of the pants and shoes without having to do a lot of roto work. When he flies around the room, we used a 3D proxy model so that we could make him distort and move and flow around the room a lot easier.
DC: This is the Tesla Gun. When she pulls the trigger, it takes a few seconds for the tubes inside to warm up. Once it charges, it disperses not just Ghostbuster electricity, but a plasma ball that shoots out with electricity behind it, hits the person, and knocks them back with a ball of electricity and smoke. So that’s part 2D and part 3D. We make a 3D electrical ball that shoots out and wraps around the character, and then paint out one side of the ball so that it looks like it’s on both sides of the character, and then use that 3D ball to make distortions on the background. And then we enhance it with a little bit of an electricity hit in 2D and a little bit of 2D smoke or 3D smoke, depending on the needs. If he falls back in a certain way, we want the smoke to trail the proper way, so we’ll use our particle system, FumeFX. Depending on the particle effect, we might even use another program, Frantic Films Krakatoa.
DC: In the story, this is a hologram projection of a mummy. Back at the warehouse, the characters recreate the mummy [as a hologram] from digital photos they took so they can study it without keeping the body. It’s all 3D. There was a mummy prop on set, and we had it 3D-scanned so that when we got to the episode we could rotate around it and have the object rotate in 3D space.
CG: He’s holding a compass that allows him to time-travel. The ghost character, Jacob, is on the right. They’re in his world, so he’s no longer a ghost. They were on a lazy Susan so we didn’t have to move camera or lighting as we turned it for each necessary shot.
DC: We didn’t have to move the green screen. Clint was out there to tell them, ‘Don’t move the camera, don’t move the green screen, don’t move the lights. Instead, rotate the actors on a giant rotating table.’
CG: There was a very specific look this show wanted. It was a very warm look and some of the cameras were filtered. We anticipated the filters being turned off during some [green-screen] shoots. Some were not, so we had to deal with a filter issue.
DC: That turned it to brown-screen as opposed to green-screen, sometimes. We ended up doing a lot of rotoscoping.
CG: In this particular case, we ordered a repeatable head and focus lens for a camera. Our main actors come into a room, and they use this contraption that enables them to see heat signatures of what would have been there hours before. They had to do a fast forward and rewind while they’re playing with this thing. So we ordered a repeatable head. The camera department came in and we filmed our actors doing their ghost version. Then we filmed our main actors doing the plate. And the guys back here at the studio put the two of them together.
DC: With the repeatable head, we’re seeing the main actors shine this light around the room and follow the action that happened hours before. We’re able to get a really cool, stuttery, old-time looking projector look, like it’s following the action in the room. It’s a ghost-like look, but with the same camera movement we have with the main actors. It’s motion-control, but limited. It looks like an easy comp in this frame, but it was quite a dynamic set-up. You’re actually looking at frame 206 of one particular shot.
CG: The set for that on location is in front of the studio parking lot. It’s about 12 feet high. We had to extend the armature on the left and the extension around the door. That’s all been manipulated.
DC: And the background. Anything you see of the Dakota badlands is all us, as well.