Lesson 9

October 27, 2014


Opticals and Special Effects

Tonight we conclude the discussion of the processes which you, as the editor, will add to your edited film to create your final released film. We have looked at sound and music as tools that you, as an editor, have at your disposal. Tonight we will discuss opticals and visual effects.

An optical is, simply, an old fashioned term for any manipulation of the originally shot image. Simple opticals such as fades and dissolves involve opening or closing the aperture on an optical printer (or creating the same effect in a computer). More complex effects, like green screen and 2D and 3D modeling can combine material shot on set with images created of locations that could never be obtained economically in the real world.

Natural Born KillersUsing the Indian shaman scene from NATURAL BORN KILLERS, edited by Brian Berdan and Hank Natural Born KillersCorwin, we will look at a wide variety of the type of opticals that are possible, even using the film process. Note that even such a simple effect as the subtitling of certain shots requires opticals. Other opticals in the scene include green (or blue) screen, superimpostion, step printing (in which a frame is printed more than one time to give a slow, stuttery effect) black and white and short shots. In the still frame from tonight's scene shown on the right, the wolf (actually seen out of a door over Juliette Lewis' shoulder -- her face is cropped in this frame excerpt) is inserted into the open door frame, most probably using the blue or green screen process. In this technique, the principal photography took the shot of Lewis against an open door which was filled with a solid blue or green screen. In post-production, the optical house removed every part of blue or green (being careful not to remove any from Lewis' body or anywhere else in the scene) and replaced it with the howling wolf footage.

The why behind this type of optical is usually found in our famous scene analysis. At one point in the scene does Harrelson pass the point of no return, ending in the shaman's death? How does Stone choose to show the nobility, wisdom and calm of the shaman versus the confusion of the two dangerous runaways? Who is in control of the situation?

This scene analysis, of course, derives from the logline of the film. IMDb describes the film in this way:

Two victims of traumatized childhoods become lovers and psychopathic serial murderers irresponsibly glorified by the mass media.

In previous semesters, rather than using NATURAL BORN KILLERS, I used a scene from MOULIN ROUGE as an example of what can be done with opticals. I doubt that we'll have any time to look at both tonight, so I thought I'd include a bit of discussion of that scene here on the site. Click here for that page.

The MatrixI also am handing out two pieces on THE MATRIX. One of them, an interview with the film's editor, discusses the overall process that the Wachowski brothers brought to the entire process. The second handout is with John Gaeta, the visual effects supervisor, obviously a crucial member of the team. If we get a chance, we'll take a look at a seqence incorporating some of the signature effects that they talk about in the interviews. If not, try and look at it for yourself.

In the sequence, Neo, the Keanau Reeves character, after seeing a cracked mirror regenerate itself, sticks his finger onto it and watches in horror as the mirror surface begins to crawl up his body. This all takes place during a lightning storm from outside. Though the lightning effects were probably practical (that is, done during production) such effects are sometimes added in post-production. In the old days, short two-frame bursts of white leader worked as a cheesy substitute for lightning. Even these two-framers need to be done optically, since no lab printer can handle shots that short, and still maintain accurate color timing.

There are a lot of other special effects used in film today, from the obvious to the not-so-obvious. The shots we've looked at tonight fall into the former category. Most films today use CGI (in addition to traditional opticals), quite often in the latter category.

A picture of an optical film printer can be seen by clicking here.


Student Post-Production Workflow (PDF File)
This is a flowchart for a typical 581 film. Notice how many screenings that should be at the minimum. Note also how things are done simultaneously.
Student Post-Production Schedule (PDF File)
This is a sample post production schedule for a 581 film.
Post Production Layout (PDF File)
This is a chart of what goes on at various stages of the post-production process. Note how many things happen simultaneously and the approximate lengths of time for tasks, even when people are working 12 hour days, often six days a week. it's not something we're necessarily proud of; it just seems like there's never enough time to do it right. (This is also something to guard against by the way.)
Lab Processes, According To Kodak (PDF file)
This is a flow chart of the ideal traffic flow of your negative from the moment you shoot it, through the release prints. A more upt0-date workflow description can be found at the Kodak website.
Finishing Your Film (PDF file)
How is an answer print struck from your cut negative and how is the soundtrack put on it ("married" we say)? This handout gives you the sense of those processes.
Digital Intermediate Workflow (simplified) (PDF File)
This is a vastly simplistic sense of what materials come in and what is created in the DI process.
Digital Intermediate Workflow (slightly less simplified) (PDF File)
This is an excerpt from Jack James' book "Digital Intermediates for Film and Video" (the link to his web site is below). It gives a short comparison of film and DI finishes.Student Workflow
Mark Goldblatt talks about editing with VFX
This interview, which is an excerpt from a 2011 interview that accompanied Goldblatt's appearance at Boston University, speaks to how you work with VFX differently than with other material.
Youíve edited a lot of films noted for big special effects. Since you have actors in front of a green screen, are those scenes difficult to edit?
Iíve been editing visual effects for some time now. You have to imagine the background the actors are acting in front of. Most of the bugs in Starship Troopers were computer-animated, CGI, so you had to just imagine what they were going to do. For example, letís say we have a character that runs into frame and he looks frightened, so we turn around and we see a giant bug coming towards him. Then we cut to a wide shot and we see the giant bug grab a trooper up by the collar and swing him around.

When you edit, you have to figure out how long these shots are going to be on the screen. I donít have to have the giant bug yet because I have the actor. He is on a rig and on a certain cue heíll be picked up and tossed through the air. So if you use your imagination, the first shot is the bugís point of view; the bug is coming in. Itís almost musical; itís rhythmic. Bug, bug, bug, cut. Letís suppose I say that shot is going to be three and a half, four seconds. Iíll do it several times, and Iíll try to act out the bug. On that film, I worked out the rhythm with director Paul Verhoeven, who was very precise. As the editor, I wanted to do what the director wanted. I would work with the animator anytime we were trying to lock a visual effect scene.

When we do visual effect scenes, we make an agreement with the animation house that we are going to lock the scene within maybe three days so they can start on animating these bug characters. So we have to use our imaginations to see how long these shots are going to last.

The technology has improved since Starship Troopers came out in 1997. What we do now in a big special effects scene is very low-resolution animations, called previsualization. We would literally have those bugs drawn and then cut together the scene before the actors had even filmed their part. We do that so we can get a sense of how the scene is going to play out. The shots are so expensive, routinely $60,000 per shot, so you canít just make it up as you go.

Assignments for Next Week

bannenRe-edit THE BANNEN WAY
Edit the scene, with an idea to bringing out the action beats using our notes. remember, since this is a second cut, you can remove dialogue or rearrange things, should you find the need to. Next week I may ask you why you did it. so be sure you have reasons. Oh -- "I didn't like that" isn't a good reason.

Here is a description of the film from IMDb. Note that it isn't a logline, as we look at it. Why do you think I don't like it for a logline?
A slick, sexy, action-packed show about Neal Bannen, a charming con-man with a police chief for a father, a mob boss for an uncle and a weakness for beautiful women, who wants to turn his life around and leave the criminal lifestyle forever.
Here is another one, from Wikipedia. It is better, but still not there. Why?

Neal Bannen is a charming con-man with a police chief for a father (Michael Ironside), a mob boss for an uncle (Robert Forster), and a weakness for fine women. He wants to turn his life around and leave the criminal lifestyle for the straight and narrow, but after gambling away the funds he had earmarked to pay off his final debts, Bannen must accept one more job working for his uncle, Mr. B, to retrieve a mysterious box. To complete the job, Bannen solicits the help of his college-aged, techy sidekick Zeke (Gabriel Tigerman), and Madison (Vanessa Marcil), a beautiful and street savvy thief.

And here is one from the Crackle website where the series can be viewed.
Neal Bannen wants to get out of the criminal lifestyle foreverÖ but he owes $150,000 to the notorious prison gangster Sonny Carr. After failing to triple his money and losing all his money in a poker game, Bannenís forced to do one more job.

Added Material

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Visual FX Headquarters
A very extensive site, full of articles about the special effects work on many movies over the last five years. Interviews, detailed behind-the-scenes, and more. Well worth the trip.
The Blue Screen/Chroma Key Page
This site wants to take the place of a book on the blue screen, but it's really just a great place for a user and fan of the process to put up links and talk about the process. Has some good descriptions.
35mm Optical Processes (PDF File)
A small chart which describes the paths taken by a piece of negative as it goes through one of two optical processes -- traditional film or computer graphics.
Compositing -- How It Works (PDF File)
These images will be used in conjunction with my discussion tonight to describe the technical process of compositing.
Moulin Rouge Composite Process (PDF File)
This excerpt from the Animal Logic FX house web site gives some highlights of how the opening sequence that we looked at tonight was created.
Interview with Zach Staenberg, editor of THE MATRIX (PDF File)
Staenberg talks about the process of editing the film with particular emphasis on the special effects integration. This is how many CGI intensive films work today.
Interview with John Gaeta, VFX Supervisor, THE MATRIX (PDF File)
This link acually links out to the site where the interview exists, so you can play the Quicktime movies associated with the interview. Gaeta is credited with coming up with many of the stunning visual effects in this film, including the freeze frame bullet shooting. He talks about the process of thinking up, assigning, and executing the effects. Very telling. The handout that you received in class is an extraction from this full interview. Read this for more information on specific shots and how they were created.

Though I've tried to accomodate other browsers THIS SITE IS DESIGNED FOR BEST USE WITH IE for the PC, SAFARI for the Mac, and FIREFOX for both the PC and the Mac. It also looks reasonably good on the iPhone. Lucked out on that!

All material, except where noted, ©1999-2013 by Norman Hollyn. Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Send me an e-mail at my office
Last Modified - October 27, 2014