Friday, April 11, 2008

Revenge of the Cacti

So, I've started in on our visual effects and spent yesterday digitally removing Saguaro cacti from the opening shot of the movie, a sunrise over a mountain ridge. Those miserable cacti had been bugging me for awhile, so I was glad to finally be rid of them.

The opening scenes are supposed to take place in Southern Turkey (for reasons which elude me at the moment) and when we filmed this shot, we didn’t see that the ridgeline was littered with big, beautiful Saguaros until later when we got the footage into the computer (the mountain was pretty far away and we were zoomed all the way out).

The main problem with having big, beautiful Saquaros littering that ridge is that Saguaros are only found in the Sonoran Desert and every time I saw the shot, all I could see were those damn cacti, which kept screaming out to me “Not really Turkey! Ha!” Or something close to that. Whatever it was that they were screaming, it was mocking and unpleasant.

So, I chose this moment to take a firm stand on behalf of realism and decided that either Turkey or the Saguaro had to go, and (for reasons which elude me at the moment) I picked the Saguaro.

I should mention now that we here at Northanger sometimes take a more casual approach to realism and confess that we--Quentin, Doug, Ben and I--actually filmed this shot at sunset at a state park near my house, which on a side note, was crawling with tarantulas. Big, angry tarantulas that appeared, to me at least, to be engaged in a rather complicated flanking maneuver to cut off our only exit. The desert at night kind of creeps me out. I think it’s because I watched “Them!” (about giant mutant ants in the desert; still one of my favorite 50’s sci-fi/horror films) when I was 8 and I've never really gotten over it.

But, I digress.

Anyway, after managing to escape from the spiders, the plan was to reverse the shot in Final Cut, so it would look like a sunrise. Which surprisingly worked out fine. Sometimes realism is overrated.

Back to cacti removal. I exported a frame from the sequence as a TIFF, erased the cacti in Photoshop, then imported that back into Final Cut to use as a background plate for the matte I made. Pretty simple. Really the only challenge was that as the sun rises, the sky gets lighter and looks different from the sky in the still image. So I used Final Cut’s 3-Way Color Corrector to adjust the color of the background sky as necessary.

It was at this point that my first-ever Final Cut program crash occurred. A quick, spinning beach ball of death, followed by a crash report. I’d saved my project file right before the crash, so I didn’t lose anything. But, it does give me some concern, coming as it does right after my upgrade. Coincidence? I think not.

I rendered the sequence out and made a couple of tweaks where the background image didn’t quite match the lightening sky of the original clip and then exported that as a Quicktime movie to replace the original shot, which should now be fine for importing into Color. “Should” being the operative word there.

The matte isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough to move on. The important thing is that there are now no Saquaro cacti growing mysteriously in Southern Turkey.

We’ll just forget about the program crash and blame it on the cacti.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Maybe Black and White is the Way to Go

Over the weekend, I used Final Cut’s Media Manager to transcode a test sequence from HDV into ProRes HQ. Seemed to work fine, so I’m starting in on my first project file. I’ve got a few simple visual effects to do (in the first few reels at least) and after I finish those, I should be working in Color fairly soon. As opposed to working on the effects for the entire movie and then doing color correction, I thought I’d work on the effects and coloring for each reel. I don’t know why, it just seems like the thing to do.

After transcoding to ProRes, I’ll also be working on prepping my sequences to send them into Color. As you can imagine, having never even opened Color before, I’ve been going through the manual a bit lately. I’ve discovered that, to say the very least, Color is a little finicky about how you prepare a project for importing. For instance:

Color hates long projects. No problem, I’ve already split up the movie into ten minute chunks.

Color hates it if you have more than one video track in your project. Again, no problem, as I’ve pretty much already done that.

Color hates it if you have transitions. It says it doesn’t, but some users say it does, so I’m getting rid of them. I’ll put them back in after color correction.

Color hates subtitles. Okay, so no subtitles. Again, after sending the project back to Final Cut, I’ll stick them back in.

Color hates speed-changed clips, or still images. We have both, so I’ll be exporting those (along with any composited clips, to avoid the dreaded multiple video track problem above) to self-contained Quicktime movies, which will replace the original clips and theoretically make Color happy. God knows, I want to make Color happy.

Color apparently hates it if you’ve basically done anything at all to alter your clips. Now, this is a bit of problem, since I’ve done quite a bit of altering on the clips. Like flipping all of them 180 degrees, since the original footage is upside down due to the Redrock Micro35 that we used to shoot the movie.

I’m still checking on this point to make sure, but there seems to be a bug in the latest release of Color (which, joy, I have) that doesn’t like to have any motion effects and starts doing bad things to the footage in order to punish it.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “Gee, Guy, maybe going to Color really isn’t all that hot of an idea.” You may be right. Hopefully, there are enough benefits to the ProRes conversion alone, that the upgrade will be worthwhile. That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway.

Should Color turn out to be too difficult to use (shock!) or if it just decides to self-destruct one day, I do have a Plan B--a program called Magic Bullet Colorista, written by Stu Maschwitz who runs the most excellent ProLost site.

But, I just feel like I should give Color a try first, you know? I mean, it’s just sitting there, free in Final Cut Studio. Why not use it, right?

Sometimes, free software isn’t so free, is it?

Method aside, here’s one example of some of the color correction work I’d like to do on the movie from another extremely informative post on the ProLost site. It talks about a certain look for skin tones that has, for good or ill, evolved in American feature films over the last few years.