How Quiet Man Made a Feature-Film Superhero on a TV-Commercial Timetable

The best thing about the new Jackson Hewitt Tax Service spot featuring Ghost Rider may be the fact that it tells the joke – Ghost Rider gets a loan-check advance on his tax refund – in the very first frame. The rest of the commercial is just riffs on that unlikely image. What’s crucial to sustaining the humor is that Ghost Rider look like a movie character, not a cut-rate made-for-TV imitation. So Quiet Man, working on a tight deadline, had its work cut out for it. “We had a template to match to,” says Johnnie Semerad, founder and creative director. “We had to work very closely with Sony, and they had final approval. So it couldn’t be a halfway job.” We asked Semerad to walk us through the spot’s creation, and then to tell us what he’s looking for at NAB this year.

How long did you have to finish?
It was a killer turnaround, like two weeks. The minute the job was awarded we started doing tests for the fire, so by the time they shot we were on the path. The head is CGI and the fires were all CGI.

Did you have anyone on set?
We had three FX supervisor at shoots that week, so I was on another shoot, but we had a FX supervisor there. That person helps ‘ for lack of a better explanation ‘ put out the fires. They answer questions on the set, make sure the plans are followed, and if there are any changes, they make sure we’re aware of them.

What was involved on this shoot? There was no green screen, was there?
They shot the actor on location, and then they shot a background plate [of the location]. Sometimes that involves a little more work, but it gives you much higher production quality than shooting the guy on green screen with a green mask on his head. He can walk by the window, he can interact with the chair, the doors, and everything else. So you take your live-action shot, and then you clear everyone off the set and shoot the background plate, and that’s used to wipe out the guy’s head, because the skull is a little smaller than an actual head.

And were the hands replaced in some of the shots?
He was wearing black gloves with a fake skeleton on top of his hands. The fire covered up the gloves.

Which tools did you use?
Appropriately enough, we used the Flame for a lot of the stuff. Charlie [Bender] at Homestead cut it and then it was brought here, where we took the actor’s head off, using the background plates to restore the background. Then we tracked the CGI head onto the live footage, and finally we tracked the fire onto the live footage for the head and hands. It was all done in the Flame and Softimage|XSI.

What was the biggest challenge?
Basically, quality is always the number-one goal. Everything has to look spectacular, so that was the biggest challenge. On the set things always come up ‘ getting the hands just right so the skeleton is covering them up – that are kind of improvised on the set. And once it got here, the turnaround was so fast that we had to get it right the first time. We had to bang it out and show them good fire right away, not spend a month developing it. Sony Imageworks was very involved, giving us elements and advice. A lot of places, when you’re doing movie tie-ins they’re just like, “Eh, you’re on your own.” But Sony understood the value of it and really stepped up. And when we had to answer it to them, they had no changes. They were very happy with it.

They showed you some of their work from the actual film, right?
That was the coolest part of the whole job – we got to see a lot of the effects scenes before the movie came out. We’re all kind of nerdy guys here.

In general, what are you guys up to at Quiet Man? What’s going on in terms of your pipeline?
One of the big things that happened recently was our switchover to Linux platforms for the Flames. I don’t think we have any Onyx stations around here anymore. And everything is just faster on the Linux machines. Almost all the jobs are done in HD now, so you have to keep up with that, and the Onyx systems were falling farther and farther behind. The switch to Linux is making HD much smoother, and more like SD for the clients. They were up and running December 1.

That probably helped a lot on the Ghost Rider spot.
Just to get multiple versions done, turned around and in front of the clients. You want to do it as quickly as possible and those really helped make that happen.

Did you deliver "Ghost Rider" in HD?
That was a standard-def job.

What proportion of your work is HD?
75 percent. It’s rare to do SD jobs these days.

Any tech issues you see on the horizon for NAB?
We’re hoping to get totally off the big systems and move to the commodity-based PC and Mac platforms. The Linux system is really a souped-up PC, and that changed a lot for us. It happened maybe 10 years ago when the CG department switched over to PCs. Everything we’re looking at this year is Mac and PC based.

Because it’s more efficient in terms of the return on your investment?
That’s the thing – Discreet doesn’t sell it very well. We had those huge Onyx 2s and Onyx 3s. They’re the size of a refrigerator. When I was at NAB looking last year and saw that Discreet had only Linux systems, I thought, “Well, it’ll be cost-effective but it won’t be as fast.” But it’s faster! It’s better than those huge refrigerators, and the cost and maintenance is so much cheaper that it’s a no-brainer. We’re hoping to go that way with everything. From a design standpoint, the Macs with Illustrator and Photoshop are so efficient that if you have two designers working on Macs, they can beat one guy on a more expensive machine any day.

Spot Credits
Agency: DeVito Verdi
Producer Barbara Michelson
Creative Director Vinny Tulley
Art Director Zack Menna
Editorial: Homestead
Editor Charlie Bender
Assistant Editor Kevin Palmer
Executive Producer Lance Doty
Quiet Man
Creative Director/Owner Johnnie Semerad
Head of Production Gray Hirshfield
Compositing Steve Koenig, Elsa Tu
CG Artists Craig Vance, Charlie Breakiron, Anderson Ko, Tim Kim, Sandor Toledo
Production: Go Film
Director Neil Tardio Jr.
Producer Adam Gross