So much cool stuff going on, I just don’t know where to start, so please, pardon the randomness of this post.
That said, let’s start with some movie updates. At the start of summer, Alex, myself, and another friend got together to shoot a promo for my new web series, Becoming Bourne. The promo was a short film that showcased the real life skills that I’ll be teaching in the series. What’s really neat about the short, is that even though we used the same camera that we used on Leap 2, because I’ve had it for four years, I’ve really dialed in the settings and found the right picture styles and workflows to get a look that I’m happy with. Leap 2 was super contrasty, and it didn’t have a lot of detail. It looked like a DSLR. Four years later though, and now I can get an image that has a lot more perceived detail, and isn’t as contrasty, while emphasizing the blues and oranges. Due to the nature of the short film, it’s really what Leap 2 could of looked like if I knew what I was doing back then.
About a month ago, Alex and his wife came out and we shot a short film version of Derek, which if you follow this blog, you know is a supernatural Christian thriller about Ouija boards. This was a completely indoor shoot and allowed us to play with some controlled lighting, camera sliders, and some new effects techniques that I’ve been learning. Not wanting a real Ouija board in my house, we opted for a cutting board with tracking markers, allowing me to add the text to the board later. For the message indicator, there was the hero model, the puppet (an indicator on a stick) and we sometimes shot without an indicator, planning to do it completely CGI. We selected the best method for each shot based upon what needed to be accomplished.
While the shoot and initial edit went off without a hitch, I’ve been struggling with the effects. The first shot was okay and worked just like I thought, but the second, which is the first time we see the Ouija board has been a royal nightmare. The issue is tracking. Tracking is what allows you to insert other objects into a shot, such as the text on a Ouija board. Since it’s a simple plane, I tried a Mocha track first, but didn’t have enough detail on that plane to get a good track. Next I tried the built in 3D tracker in After Effects, but that threw a projection error of 3 pixels. I need that number to be less than one. I was thinking I was going to have to manually track the shot, which would really suck and look like rubbish, but today I decided to give it a go in Blender.
Blender is a 3D animation and compositing program that also happens to be free and open source. A few years ago, the company that makes it produced a live action, VFX heavy short film to make Blender a viable tool for artists like myself. One of the outcomes from that project was a 3D camera tracker. After setting up my track points, I ended up with a projection error of .3, which is incredible. Since I’m still more comfortable with the masking and compositing tools in After Effects, I decided to simply add a textured plane over the board with Blender, then render that out and do a Mocha track with the extra data the plane generates. To sum it up, I’m creating planar tracker data out of 3D track data.
So that process allows me to add the text to the board. Anyone familiar with Ouija boards knows that there’s times when the operators hands are on the indicator, obscuring the board partially. This unfortunately means roto work for me. Roto is literally going through and cutting out parts of the image, frame by frame, to overlay on top of the final shot in order to obscure parts of the composite. I found that the roto brush in After Effects worked particularly well for the arms of the actor, but failed with the indicator, as it was stained the same color as the board and there wasn’t enough separation for it to work.
Next, I tried the mask tracker in AE, but this too failed as there wasn’t enough separation. I was about to relegate myself to tracking the mask by hand, when I had a thought. There were a few points on the indicator that had some good contrast, and I thought maybe I could exploit them. I used the AE point tracker to track two points on the indicator. I then applied the position, rotation, and scale data to a null. Next I added a white solid and created a mask, taking my time to make it good. Then I parented the white solid to the track null. Finally, I used a luma track matte to act as a mask for the original footage of the indicator. It worked perfect! Within five minutes, I had essentially roto’d a seven second shot, that would of taken a few hours by hand.
It’s a very exciting time to be a filmmaker right now, all these tools are at your fingertips and crazy affordable. My Adobe subscription costs $50 a month, which is less than some people spend on coffee in the morning. Blender is free, and now Fusion (A Hollywood node-based compositor) is free too. Lately, this plethora of tools has caused me to look back at Linux and see how it’s been coming along. Four or five years ago, I was a diehard Linux user, but was upset that there weren’t any good tools for filmmaking available, other than a script writer. What few video apps that were around were even worse than iMovie. At the time, I ran Linux on my laptop, but had a dedicated desktop for editing that ran Windows and all my good software.
Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting much when I started investigating Linux again just a month ago. However, I was extremely impressed by what I found. Linux filmmaking had come a long way in just a few short years. First, the video editing apps are starting to grow up and become stable. The most capable for narrative film work being Lightworks, which has been used on loads of Hollywood films. But even for basic YouTube videos, Kdenlive and Shotcut will do the job fine. Of course, for VFX there’s Blender which has really become a capable compositor in it’s own right, and GIMP for image manipulation. Since I pay for Adobe, I found a portable version of Photoshop CS6 that runs perfect under WINE, so I would probably use that instead.
I’m extremely excited by what I’m seeing on the Linux side, and if the Linux of today was around five years ago, there’s a very good chance I never would of gone with Adobe and would be a fulltime Linux filmmaker today. Right now, I’m just more comfortable with the Adobe tools, but I am trying to broaden my horizons and start playing with other software. I’m secretly (or maybe not so secretly) hoping to make the switch back to Linux eventually, and if I could just learn the tools as well as I have the Adobe stuff, I’d be good to go. To help with this, I may try recreating a scene from Derek, using nothing but what I have on Linux and seeing if I can get the same results, and how easy or difficult those results are to achieve. Time will tell.