Radium/Reel FX Talks About Lighting Up Katy Perry's VMA-Winning "Firework"
Mixing Practical and CG Pyrotechnics for a Music Video with a Message
When your music video is that kind of inspirational parable, you’d better make sure it’s not undermined by cheeseball visual effects. That’s where Radium/Reel FX came in, delivering photoreal fireworks to fit the mood of the piece. Watch the video, below, then read our Q&A with Radium/Reel FX VFX supervisor Kevin Althans and producer Leigh Mergehenn.
Leigh Moergehenn: Radium/Reel FX did all of the CG work plus the normal range of clean ups including buildings, sky replacement, matte paintings, etc.
F&V: Were you on location with the shoot?
LM: Absolutely. With the complex visual effects needed, it was essential that Kevin Althans and I were on the ground in Budapest, Hungary, for the shoot. All told, we were there for approximately 10 days working with director Dave Meyers and the rest of the “Firework” crew.
F&V: How do you get photoreal fireworks on screen? Are they all CG, or a combination of CG and live action?
Kevin Althans: The fireworks are a combinations of CG and live action. It all started with 4K VFX plates shot on the RED. During a crazy, four-night shooting schedule they basically turned over their B-camera team to us and let us shoot whatever we wanted. We set up out in a field at night with a truckload of pyrotechnics and just rolled, shooting them from every angle and frame rate possible. These plates formed the basis for all of our comp (Nuke, Inferno) solutions as well as the elements we would match in CG. All told, once we received plates, we had roughly two weeks to complete all the VFX work (about 65 shots including cleaning work and miscellaneous online tasks). This included both the full CG elements and the practical elements previously shot.
All the compositing was done in Inferno and Nuke. The compositors did an amazing job with the elements they were given. For the aerial shots, the Nuke compositors used CG fireworks from Houdini combined with practical “flash frames” of real fireworks with hanging smoke. This helped integrate everything. In the Inferno suites, a team of artists composited live-action elements shooting off all the people.
F&V: Which shot was the toughest technical challenge?
KA: The wide overhead shot was the most difficult, because we had to come up with the CG fireworks that looked real from that perspective.
LM: I think we should all agree that the aerial shots in general proved to be the most challenging.
F&V: How does it feel when a piece you worked on wins an award as high profile as the Video of the Year VMA?
KA: When you work so intensely on a project, you are focused on the creative details and on making it the best you can be. In those moments, we weren’t thinking about awards, or recognition. We were dedicated to making a video that would bring Dave Meyer’s vision, and Katy’s song, to life in an unforgettable way. We are thrilled about the MTV Video of the Year honor, but also thrilled that almost a year after its release, hundreds of millions of people are continuing to respond to the video and its inspiring message, which is rewarding to us as well.