March 4, 2014

Low Tech Effects Meet High Tech

Last night I shot footage of the dragon that is suddenly in the trees over a backyard fence, illuminated when Tony flashes his flashlight toward it. The dragon becomes startled and suddenly roars or hisses (don't know what yet) at Tony. The scene pretty much ends there because then Tony's character drops the flashlight and the dragon is gone.


I refer to special visual effects built exclusively in or for the computer as "high-tech effects" and other visual effects that are only captured with a camera "low-tech effects." Many low-tech effects have been achieved by the the earliest movie making magicians like Georges Méliès which led to people like Willis O'Brian's and his King Kong and of course the work of Ray Harryhausen. They did, however employ state of the art high-tech photographic processes and techniques of their day, which, in the case of compositing and matting, are now done almost exclusively in the computer.



I decided to use a hand puppet for the dragon and since its shots would be very brief, do my best with miniatures and photography. Much of model and miniature work is only successful when the lighting captures something that happens in the actual scale world. The images of the dragon (above) show some of the miniature world I decided to set up. This is a relatively easy shot because it takes place at night and so I was able to work with the black background where perhaps little can be seen and what is seen is only what I decide to light up. I thought about how, the suburbs at night are really only lit up by street lamps and outdoor house lights and little else, so rather than using regular size lights to light up the mini set I would use little LED penlights and a flashlight. The miniature set consists of a popsicle-stick fence, a mini telephone pole, and hand picked twigs that would best pass for miniature trees. I took cues from the video footage of Tony and decided that the hazy lens flare look from his shot could be maintained a bit with the dragon shot by placing the penlights behind the dragon and only the warmer light of the flashlight only in the area of the dragon's face. I shot the dragon puppet's action of seeing Tony and then roaring at him at least ten times, trying different approaches, sometimes faster sometimes slower, sometimes the dragon thinking one thing then another.



After loading the shots into the computer I then thought of a few ways to enhance the image so that it looks more real. What I like about miniatures is that they are real; they capture light and movement in the real world that we inhabit. The problem is that it is all miniature and therefor the twigs won’t move like trees, they will move like twigs. Also, how do you include a miniature moon and stars and keep them all in focus? Those things I added in the computer as well as some night illuminated houses that I matted and placed in the left of the composition and the lower right. In the end I know that the audience will think "this isn't real", however, they will think that with the best computer graphics as well - dragons aren't real (well, who knows).


High Meets Low

What I want to do is mix the two effects so that one doesn't overtake the other and just move on and tell the story. I don't have the skills or the time to have built this shot in the computer only using computer graphic technology, nor would I want to. I like working with my hands and building things and I like setting up lights and photographing things.


Lens Flares

People like photography and camera work. In fact, people like lens flares. And what is it when we see a lens flare? We are basically seeing how the film was made - with a camera that has a lens that flares when light is flashed in its direction. We don't see lens flares with our eyes but we enjoy them in movies and they don't take away from the stories, they sometimes beautify them. It's something I borrowed from J.J. Abrams that really made sense to me. I like to figure out ways to strategically add lens flares to effects shots because they give the impression that a camera was present though the shot might have been only built in the computer. I say strategic because with lens flares there should be a light source that is pointed toward the camera or else why is the lens flare there?


We Are What We Wear

This photo of me (above) hanging out outside my window was taken as a test of how the costume looks. The great thing about costumes is that if we wear a costume and go about doing things, that costume is made real by our life and natural movements, even if we would never actually wear this outfit in our regular life. In a way, the actor's work while in costume is to just be themselves while wearing the costume rather than trying to act in a way one who wears this costume might act. When it comes to shooting my scenes, all I want to do is think about how I would do things in these situations. The costume however does create character. The clothes we wear represent a world of choices we have made. My character, for example, wants to stand out in the suburbs and not conform to what he perceives as a boring humdrum life of nicety and playing-it-safe. This character is based on much of what I felt as a young adult living in the suburbs of Sunnyvale, California. Although I didn't dress this way, I felt this way on a certain level and by having my character dress like this, there is a lot he is saying without him or me having to spell it out. "Show it, don't tell it," as they say.

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