For Maggie: VFX Breakdown
For Maggie was a film that ended up being quite different to anything we made previously for a number of reasons. We made For Maggie for the 100 Hour Film Race, which was (by about 18 hours) the longest timed festival we’ve competed in. It was also the first which we had done any considerable (and foreseeable) visual effects. I’ll get onto that in a little bit but first I’ll nerd out on a particularly unique aspect of this competition that I think is worth noting.
Like most timed film comps it was run globally with one entry period so submission was online, however they actually setup an FTP server for you to upload your film through which I thought was a clever way to do it (provided that you understand the basics of FTPs, we used freeware client FileZilla for those playing at home). But how did they know you sent them your film by the deadline, you ask? Another bit of genius that they cooked up was that they required you to create an MD5 checksum of your exported film and email that to them before the deadline. A checksum is (very simply put) a long series of numbers that is created in reference to a single file. This means that if you want to check the integrity of a file you create a checksum of the original file and then after it has been transferred to the new location you can use that sequence of numbers to verify that it is in fact the same file. In this case it meant that you couldn’t send them a different file (.mov export of the film) to the one you exported before the deadline, ensuring that every single entrant completed their film in less than 100 hours. I can say first hand that it worked flawlessly on our end and I wish that more film competitions would utilise this very accessible technology. From memory I believe we used http://onlinemd5.com/ to generate the checksums we needed.
Anyway, we thought that was pretty cool (Scott in particular loved it).
So, onto the VFX! We wrote a story which involved a puppet. That probably shouldn’t be that unusual for us however we’d escaped actually making one of these stories into a real live action short. So there were a lot of firsts on this project, and what better time to learn than under the time pressure of a 100 hour film competition?
The film is based around a toy we nicknamed “Frankenteddy”. He’s a mix match of different parts of toys who has to try and understand what he is and why he exists. We tried using multiple different types of strings and fishing line to control him but in the end mainly used a semi thick wire. All other operation was achieved by holding him and framing out the operators’ hands (Tyson and Maw).
Our basic technique with any shot where controlling wire would be visible was to lock the shot down so it was completely static, shoot the action and then remove all the moving elements in the frame to create a blank plate for ourselves. This means that we have the area behind the wires available to us at any given time and can “paint” out the wires for whichever parts of the take we chose to use. Also yes, we are aware that you can do this with shots that aren’t static however under the conditions we felt it would be far more productive to choose our shots a little bit more carefully and save the time in post production.
Here is our first shot that involved Frankenteddy pulling himself along the floor. Now wires weren’t the only things we had to remove. There is also the operators feet and any reflections or shadows the wires or operators create. This is tricky because we want to keep the shadows that the puppet creates to keep the feeling that he’s really in the environment (which of course he is).
So because our puppeteer was casting shadows on the wall behind, which means when you erase the pole, the background looked lighter or darker. The solution was created complex larger masks, with heavily feathered edges, so the transition from light to dark was slow, and unnoticeable. It took a lot longer in the end, but lesson learned! Minimise the amount of operator reflections and shadows when you can! Also, making things more difficult, we had to remove the reflections of the puppeteer in the polished wood floor. This is still not done perfectly, and you can see some off reflections in the floorboards.
The hardest part however, was where the poles interacted with the puppet’s fur – where they met the fur changed a little bit ever frame. An example of this is on Frankenteddy’s back and head. The solution for this ended up being building a new back for Frankenteddy in Photoshop, with a complex mask, and alpha channel, deleting Frankenteddy’s back, and replacing it with the new one. This may not have been the most efficient way to do it however was the method we opted for under the time restrictions.
Similarly, with the head, his head in the final clip is much bigger, because I had to create a whole new head, and expand it to about 120% to cover all the fur on the edges of the pole (I’m sure a pro vfx artist wouldn’t have to do this to Iron man! hahhahah). This did solve the last problem though; by creating a whole new head, it was a lot easier to delete the poles that went in front of Frankenteddy.
This was set out to be one of the easier shots however in the end it caused us a bit of grief. As you can see in the video above the shot is dollying out and tilting upwards to reveal the box. In theory this would have been simple to remove the stick moving the box, however the camera was not completely locked off after the end of the dolly move. Which means that our plate taken after the action on the take was completed would need to be tracked to the movement occurring after the shot reaches it’s “static” point. It took a bit of finessing, stabilisation and punching in but came together in the end.
Like most shots looking into a reflective surface, without some serious camera trickery it’s pretty much impossible to shoot (to our current knowledge at the least). So this shot (as seen on the right) obviously can’t be just footage. What we ended up doing was shooting the bauble on it’s own (left) then Frankenteddy separately (middle) to combine the two in post. Fun fact: In this particular instance the term “in post” meant “on a very full train whilst Scott was on his way to work on a Monday morning”.
This is by far the simplest shot and could have even been done inside of Premiere however we were hell bent on using After Effects for every visual effects shot so why not! It’s a relatively simple feathered mask attached to the actors leg that reveals a shot underneath where Frankenteddy is no longer visible, creating hopefully a cute little moment.
This was the first shot that actually required VFX to alter an element of the story that had changed between preproduction and post production. The original order of the scenes was completely different. Essentially, Frankenteddy saw that he was a present “For Maggie” in his first scene so he was aware of her name for the entire duration of the story. However that shot was moved to later in the story to add more a sense of alienation to his character up until that point. As such, I had to adjust this shot, where the original writing above was “to maggie”. A very simple adjustment but made an element of the story work in a completely different way.
While I was at it, I decided to tidy up this shot – the wording was originally too messy and convoluted. Besides, by shortening it to “For Maggie” we had discovered a better title than our temporary title of “Frankenteddy”. Not that people wouldn’t want to go see a film called Frankenteddy, but we thought it gave too much away.
So that’s it! Just a bit of an insight into the basics of how we covered up all the puppetry in For Maggie. If you’re interested in learning how to do some basic rotoscoping there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube. We also learned some additional techniques using the Wire Removal tool in After Effects which helped quickly conceal the wire in some of the simpler shots.
There were definitely a lot of lessons along the way and if we ever have another film with a puppet as the star (or even as a comedic sidekick character) we’ll be sure to put a great deal of the techniques we picked up into practice. As always, if you have any techniques you’d like to share please feel free to leave a comment below, we’d love to hear what you’re working on and how you’re tackling the tricky projects! Thanks!