Thursday, January 3, 2013

DV user mag article on "Making a musical" for BBC (I was VFX sup on this)

Here is the article I wrote for issue 20/2012 of DV user mag:

Making A Musical

Earlier this year Martin Wright, MD of London's Gamelab asked me to join him to supervise the VFX for the musical "I know me" that he started to produce and direct for the BBC Learning Zone.

The concept is fascinating: "A bully and his victim find themselves lost in a fantasy world. Bemused and scared, the travelers are calmed by the spirit who will take them on a journey to help them understand anger, fear and loneliness.”

The musical featured in this program was developed and performed by groups of pupils with special educational needs. All music is original and has been composed, arranged and directed by Rebecca Applin. The production was devised over several months working with pupils from Abbey Hill School and Performing Arts Academy, Haringey Sixth Form Centre and College Park School. Other than the role of the Spirit taken by Kali Perkins, all other parts were performed entirely by pupils from the participating schools.

Most of it was live action, but a 5 min sequence is set in a fantasy world, the world of joy. Lead artist Steve James Cassar had started roughly blocking out the look of the world and the different shots. The idea was to shoot the children actors green screen while the backgrounds would be rendered out of Maya and finally composited in After fx.
The shoot was only days away, so I suggested creating some storyboards from the existing Maya scene that would help us to capture the correct plates. Just to remind myself: A storyboard should give clear indications of the objects and characters (at the right scale), light and shadow as well as the camera lenses and camera angles involved. If you do this homework properly, in a simple drawing or in a 3d package you will find yourself well prepared. Very often this is overlooked though and the value of the boards therefore diminished, leaving the poor cameraman with only a vague idea how to set up his camera lights and objects. In this case though it seemed to have worked!

It was a fast paced, one day shoot in a small studio off Waterloo; still, we managed to shoot some nice plates including shadows being cast at the right spots onto the children: by well positioned real flags, mimicking the shadows of the virtual huge arcs towering over the children.  2 shots needed to be match moved, so we managed to add some tracking markers and I placed some additional microphone stands in areas of the frame that wouldn’t be crossed by the children. These microphone stands are sure to be picked up by the tracking software like PF Track and are easy to position during the shoot. If you ever had to track a shot with nothing to track on, you know how valuable this sort of stuff can be. 

Another problem with shooting, especially in very small studios, is the spill light from the green screen. Depending on what environment the actors/objects are supposed to be in, it can be very tricky to get a convincing light onto them - without any spill light.

With the shoot done we went into post production.
The main danger with setting up any project in 3d is to not spend enough time thinking about the production pipeline.  Martin asked for a stylized fantasy landscape with abstract flower shaped trumpets and candy like arches.

The easiest way to do this is to render all background plates for the green screen out of one Maya scene, but this needs to be carefully prepared. First of all from my experience, no design gets ever signed off until the very last second. So it is handy if you create a scene that will automatically allow to replace old designs with new designs. In this case an environment with a 100 flower shaped trumpets and arches. It also helps to think about the hardware involved first. All the flowers had a soft body simulation attached to it that made them bounce smoothly in the (virtual) wind. The animation caches for these can very easily very big, plus the loading of the files can be time consuming. Next thing are the render times: The production asked for a 3 minute HD seq, so careful planning of render times, the exact time frame ranges of frames to be rendered plus potential reuses of backgrounds needed a thorough thought.

A lot of work for a very small team with limited resources: I pull my hat for Steve James Cassar for doing the main work on this. As it always seems to be the case, everything got delivered very last minute, but in time and the client was happy.

By the way, at the end of the musical itself there are a few short workshops which can help classes who would like to try to produce the musical themselves. The intended audience is similar schools with SEN provision and is designed to encourage such schools to produce the musical themselves. The program will also appear on BBC Learning Zone Class clips in due course and will be supported with downloadable scores, lyrics and MP3 backing tracks.

Working on this was a very satisfying experience. I hope that it will inspire children in a positive way!

It seemed to have inspired the judges of the very prestigious Japan price, a film festival for educational films: “I know me“made it into the official selection! 

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