Instructor - Norman Hollyn

Lesson #7

October 7, 2003


Opticals and Special Effects

Tonight we begin the discussion of the processes which you, as the editor, will add to your edited film to create your final released film -- opticals, for this evening.

An optical is, simply, 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.

The Optical Process handout sheet gives you an overview of the path that your original negative would take to get to an optical.

Natural Born KillersUsing the Indian shaman scene from NATURAL BORN KILLERS, edited by Brian Berdan and Hank Corwin, 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?

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.


Script Pages for ROSWELL (not available online)
Over the next week or two you will be editing this sequence from the television movie which has nothing to do with the television series. One thing that we will start to learn through this process is that, even though there are a string of different scene numbers, these scenes are really all one -- at least in terms of the emotional beats. Go through the pages (you're getting lined pages and most of the facing notes pages -- the first one is, unfortunately, missing) and come up with a scene analysis. Look at the footage. Does it match your analysis?
35mm Optical Processes
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
These images will be used in conjunction with my discussion tonight to describe the technical process of compositing.
Moulin Rouge Composite Process
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
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
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.
For next week's discussion of using sound in films we will looking at a scene from THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Here are the script pages for that scene. If you'd like to download a PDF version of the script click here. You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to read this (don't worry, you've probably got it)
What Directors Look For In An Editor
This article, reprinted from the Editors' Guild Newsletter, excerpts interviews from a number of directors who tell us just what they are looking for when they work with an editor. It's all about collaboration, at least with the good directors who I've worked with.
Mark Goldblatt talks about the changes in editing
In this interview, Mark talks about CGI, stylistic changes, and many of the developments in editing over the years.
Luis Mandoki Interview
What does a director look for in an editor?
Anne Coates interviewed by Walter Murch
Coates, who cut OUT OF SIGHT as well as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and a wide range of other films, discussing the process of sculpting. Here is one quote from it:
The Moviola is sculptural in the sense of a clay sculpture that you're building up from bits, whereas the Kem is sculptural in the sense that there is a block of marble and you're removing bits.

Assignments for Next Class

Read Chapters 10, 10A, 11 and 11A
This should take you from opticals through the beginning of sound prep, which will lead into our discussions next week.
Cut Scenes 76-79 from ROSWELL
We will being a week or two long exercise editing a sequence of scenes from this television film directed by our own Jeremy Kagan. Here is a description of the plot of the movie, from a submission from IMdB.
At an army reunion, Jesse Marcel still finds he is treated with derision by his colleagues for claims he made years ago when serving in Roswell, New Mexico. Marcel finds the reunion provides him with more information and a fresh perspective on what happened. In flashbacks he remembers his original discovery of a suspected crash site with unearthly metals, his report and the following coverup. However as more witnesses confide in him how much can he believe is true, a problem that becomes even more pronounced with the input of the mysterious Townsend.
NOTE THAT YOU WILL BE CHANGING PARTNER ASSIGNMENTS THIS WEEK -- if you were an editor last week you will be the director this week, and vice versa.
Read the scene from THE ENGLISH PATIENT
Do a scene analysis in much the same way that we've been working on your own scenes. Try and find the beat(s) in the scene. Where are the turning points? What happens to Caravaggio and Muller during the course of the scene?

Added Information

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Animal Logic MOULIN ROUGE Web Site
The CGI house that created many of the special effects for the film, describes how some of them were done -- including the effect of zooming out to a distant shot of Paris and then slingshotting back into the Moulin Rouge. The site has some wireframe shots and, on the Paris Vista page, an amazing Quicktime movie which shows part of the opening sequence and then breaks it down into its components including the wire frame, the textured wire frame, shadow passes, matte paintings, live action blue screen, mattes and even the film scratch elements. The components take a very long time to download but are really worth it.
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.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
It is possible to set up your Avid keyboard in a zillion different ways and, as a result, a zillion different editors have done just that. Here is a page with a few samples of how some editors have set theirs up.
Avid Tips and Tricks and other articles
Post Producer Magazine has a number of articles on post-production (on pre-pro and production also, for that matter) which might interest you. Some article subjects are A+B roll editing, Avid Secrets, conforming from an edit list, DV aspect ratios, sound for video, timecode, and many many more.
Have a problem with the Avid???
Avid Knowledge Center is a huge library that can provide you with all sorts of solutions to questions and facts about the machine and how to edit on the system. You need to register to get to many of the features but they don't charge for it and you just have to fill out a few short questions.

Avid has created a really fantastic Film Guide which basically details the entire film process from pre-production through the editing, sound and negative cutting processes, chock full of great illustrations. You can also find it on the 24P Web Site. Be careful -- it's a REALLY BIG FILE!!! You might want to save it to your hard drive and print it out.

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, ©1999-2008 by Norman Hollyn. Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Send me an e-mail at my office
Last Modified - September 30, 2008