Kodak Film and Compositing
When I was a teenager I fell in love with special visual effects in cinema. I was very fascinated by how things were done photographically in order to bring these worlds alive, from fantasy landscapes of mythical creatures to futuristic planets of far away. Then I learned the most important special effect technique - compositing, (or matting), a way of putting live actors into the same shot as my animated creatures. Using Super 8 film I found that I could photograph something, then backwind the film and then photograph something else and end up with two overlapping, "superimposed" images. The next step was to block half the frame with black tape and film something, then backwind the camera then replace the black tape covering the other half of the frame, film, and when I got the film developed (photochemically processed) there was my split screen effect. From there came more complex mattes a circle within the frame or certain sections of the frame masked off and something photographed in that area, back-wound and then another image in another area. The possibility was endless. If I chose I could shoot something, backwind, shoot something else and keep going layering five to twenty images if I chose. I could never see the end results until the film was taken in to be processed and picked up several days or weeks later. The image, of course could never be as realistic as I wanted it because the nature of film, especially Super 8 film was that it jumps a little in the camera so each element that I shot would jump and jitter separately on screen as well, revealing all my tricks.
Compositing a Dragon Shot
I put together the shot of the full dragon. As I built the shot I used the original model footage as a simple base. Then, with the composition and lighting as a guide, I replaced one of the model houses with the image of a real house which I had photographed while driving around Sunnyvale several days ago. Then the dragon model, which doesn't move needed a tail so I resized footage of the tail and put that in place. The tail was actually my arm dressed up and I move it around, snakelike fashion. Then I noticed problematic things that I needed to fix, to cover up, like miniature telephone poles or trees that had blurred when photographed (I didn't use a wide enough lens nor could I flood the mini set with light - both which would have deepened the depth of field and made everything more in focus). I found footage of real trees and played with them with filters in the computer and resized them and dropped those into place, strategically, here and there and added other details like telephone wires which were actually generated using underscoring lines in titling.
It was fun to get out the dragon puppet head and figure out its movements and how to light it. I moved the lights around and noticed while shooting that it looked like the dragon was distressed while illuminated by helicopters flying above with bright spot lights - (my LED penlight that I moved around from above the puppet trying to bring out some good textures in the sculpture).
Codec Problems and Pleasures
After shooting a good five or so minutes of the dragon head puppet, (to be edited down to ten seconds maximum), I was excited to put the footage into the computer and see my dragon complete with a moving face. There it was, perfect in place, but then I noticed the jagged edges around the head - video particles. Little did I know then that the next eight to ten hours I would have to learn, through research and trial and error, that I needed to be working in a certain video codec that would present my dragon head without the pixelation. Not so fun, but necessary. I even did several reshoots of the dragon with the camera from a distance. The problem seemed to be that every time I resized the image, the jagged edges would show up - so what if I just shoot the shot of the dragon head from twenty feet away? So nice when I finally decided to just go through changing codec settings in my editing software to one that looked good while not using up tons of memory. The final shot of the dragon, which also includes accents of scaly skin lit up by spot lights, is composed of about thirty separate video elements, so far. No green screen process was used, however, I did process and color-key the tall cypress trees swaying in the wind, keying out the sky so that only the black silhouettes could be seen and the sky transparent.
Originally, nothing was built through computer graphic animation processes, until I noticed that the red around the dragon head was just not fitting the color and shade of the sky around it. This made it look too much like the video element of the head was "cut in," Photoshopped in, added and not integrated enough. I did my best to solve this by creating whispy red cloud forms to the left of the dragon but they had too much of a graphic look and needed movement so I tried making them shiver and then later added smoke from a cigarette and that area left of the dragon's mouth became a whole thing of its self.
One of the origins of the word Surreal came from "super real." This dragon shot is not real, it's too sharp. Things in real life don't have so much color and do not appear so sharp when they are in the distance. Much in the special visual effects world is about making the effects look real, as in, how things actually look when we look around and see things in the distance etc.. For me, this shot has become hyper real but then I remembered that I want the video to have as much of a comic book look as possible without resorting to animation. I want it to be live action but also visually stylized. Either way, the shot is coming out how it is coming out and it is almost too fantastic, like a fantasy poster. I think much of it is the red sky. The sky in real life is never really red. Clouds are red against a blue sky or a white sky but the sky its self is not red. We never see the moon in a red sky. Red skies happen on Mars, so the shot almost has an "other planet" quality. This would beg the question - "Is this scene real or in the character's head? or are the effects just bad, or is it a style decision?" The shot is a bit surreal and when I noticed that, I was fine with it because this whole project is supposed to be a bit surreal. In a way it is about those things I loved as a teenager and a young adult, and Surrealism was something I loved.
Special visual effects have to serve the story or else they change or confuse the story. This scene was supposed to be much more subtle - a woman. alone in the after hours sees this thing in the distance as if it is just she and it. Then she realizes it's a dragon and she runs off yelling "Dragon!". Now the scene looks as if helicopters are flying around with search lights and people on the ground are pointing spot lights at the dragon. In the original story this is perhaps something only she is seeing. Now, she looks on this spectacle where many are clearly involved. It is all happening in the distance and she witnesses it. The story changes and with only one added line in the dialogue an aspect of the story can become further illustrated - she later slams down a newspaper and says "Search lights and helicopters flying around and not one story about it in the newspapers. It's like it never happened!" This is what this whole story is about - strange things are happening and people are sharing their stories but the mainstream never talks about any of it.