Pierre Michel on Creating an Eye-Popping Open in Three Weeks

Pierre Michel was offered what most artists dream of from a client: carte blanche to create whatever he envisioned. The project was to create the opening for the French film festival "Polar dans la ville" ("Polar in the town"), which would be printed to 35mm film and projected at about 40 cinemas around Paris as well as on television.

Want to learn how to create a CG Rainstorm? Sign up for the Online Class today.

“As a digital artist I wanted to make something not common – a state between reality and dream,” states Michel. “The story and the visual universe should translate those feelings./ So The first thing to do was a storyboard with my ideas.”

A Three-Week Plan
With only three weeks to create the entire 40-second open, Michel decided to used Adobe After Effects as the main workhorse for the project, a decision that was not without some initial trepidation.

“Even though I’ve been using this software for five years I thought it would be very hard to do all of this in After Effects because I had only 3 weeks of compositing to do it all," says Michel. "Many people consider After Effects to be not very powerful but what you can do is practically unlimited (except for 3D). You just have to know precisely what you want and imagine the compositing process before working.”

But still time was an issue, especially when it came to producing 2K images.
“Because I work as a digital artist on films everyday I knew it would be very difficult to deliver the film on time if I worked at 1920×1080 because every second of the film was going to be VFX images,” Michel explains. “So I decided, after making some tests, to work in 1280×720 pixels and then resize all the film at the good resolution (with some sharping and graining process) and it worked pretty well. At the end nobody can tell if it is truly 1080p images or 720p streched…It just works. You can see the result on those 2k images. The second reason why I choose this format was to be able to see all the images in my 4/3 computer screen without zooming/dezooming! Everything is good to save time.”

Step-by-Step with AE and Particular
In addition to After Effects, the other main software app for this project was Trapcode Particular, which was used for creating the cloud cover in the opening shot, the rain and even the embers in the final shot.

Click here to read the tutorial on how Michel created the cloud carpet in the opening shot.

“The process for the rain drops was not so difficult. I knew that I needed a kind of real look for the rain in the film but also it had to be more than realistic (a little bit designed to fit the spirit of this trailer). I tried many ways to do it and in the end I used two different approaches. The first way (that is used for all the shots except the last one (with the fire) was to take a real drop filmed in slow motion. I stabilized and rotoscoped it and then used it as a luminance map for the caustic plugin in After Effects (which creates a water look of a picture based on a luminance of an other image-in this case the real drop).

"What you get is a very good baseshape because it comes from a real drop movement and what is inside is made by the distortion added via the caustic plugin."

"Then I used Trapcode Particular. It is the best particles system I have ever seen in After Effects. The benefits of this plug-in is the speed (very quick
render) and the quality of its sliders. It included its own motion blur (not limited at After Effects' 16 samples) and depth of field. And last but not least it works within the 3D After Effects space. I used 3 particulars (system of particles) for the low-angle shot: one for the side, one very close of the camera and one just near of it so that I can adjust more precisely all my drops. You just have to find the good velocity, gravity, and others parameters like the numbers of the drops to make it look great.

“The second way was fully 2D and it was for the last shot. The rain drop was also made with the caustic plug in but there is no real drop used as displaced map, because you can’t have a reference shot like that and it was exciting to try to make a 2D drop so close of the camera and which should looks like the others. The background is a mix of 4 floor shots.
"The embers are also made with Particular… All the difficulty was to choose the right images to
displace those embers so that it looks like they are underwater.

You have to mix real shots of water mix with fractal noises so that you can choose the
velocity and the way it moves…

But the result was not good enough. To make the sensation that you are looking through the water you need to use compound blur (part of the images are blurred and others not), lens
distortion, little shake cam, vignettage… many little things that will make it a little bit real."