Greenscreen lighting tests - Hyper Jump

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Quite often someone in the creative team will come up with a technique or idea that sends us on a journey of testing and retesting, then more testing and retesting, then a brainwave, then more testing and retesting.

We always want to expand our knowledge and skill base, especially when it is something we can do in-house with our current equipment. Hyper Jump came about because we found ourselves asking two questions that we could test at the same time:-

  1. Is it possible to dramatically light a subject in our studio and light our greenscreen effectively and evenly at the same time?
     
  2. Is it easier to film a subject with a static camera and digitally create camera movement in post or have a moving camera and utilise tracking markers on the greenscreen to translate the movement?

Studio set-up

The first thing to do was set the studio up. We decided to light the greenscreen using large pieces of polyboard that would reflect light onto the screen whilst also helping to control any spill onto our subject. This effectively divided the studio in two and we lit each side independently.

We decided to go for a stylised orange and teal look for lighting the subject. This is very popular in big blockbuster movies, but it particularly suited our test because it makes it very easy to see which light is lighting what. By this time, the idea of a pilot in a spaceship had formed and we decided that the ship would be quite dark and moody, and he would only be lit by the glow of a screen on his console. To achieve this, we took a small LED light that you would normally use mounted on the camera and popped it on a stand at about half power to get the right feel. All of this combined answered our first question. 

Now onto the camera movement. I sat in the pilot’s chair while Kieran filmed a series of shots. Some were static, some were handheld, some were on a loose head tripod. In addition, we tried zooms and we shot some on our slider too. We also tried a couple of different types of tracking marker on the greenscreen.

These tests were less successful. Some shots just didn't feel real and some didn’t work at all. We've used camera tracking before with great success but for this application, it wasn't giving us the look and feel we were after. In this instance, we found filming a static shot and creating the movement artificially in post-production worked a lot better and oddly felt more real in the context of the scene. 

We ended up with a shot of me composited into a spaceship with dramatic lighting and a moving camera. 

Job done. 

However, a third question arose: could we do an exterior establishing shot?

We use Video Copilot’s Element plugin for After Effects for creating 3D text and some infographic work, but we had never tried to use it to create a “real world” 3D object. After doing a bit of research on spacecraft, I came across a rendering of what NASA thought a warp ship would look like and decided to try and make my own version using Element. A few really rubbish looking spaceships later, I finally got something reasonable and created an opening and closing shot. 

A script

We now had a full proof-of-concept video with a beginning, middle and end, albeit with no script. While we were filming Waiting (another short you’ll get to see soon) our lead actor Simon Haycock expressed a wish to utilise his American accent. Ultimately, it wasn't right for Waiting, but I was so impressed I promised to write something especially for him.

Soon the idea of a pilot embarking on the first ever interdimensional leap (a “hyper jump”, if you will) formed, but I wasn't sure it was interesting enough for a film. I kept thinking about it and I could imagine it up to the point where he needed to say the iconic line that would go down in history and then I was stumped. I just couldn't think of that line.

After a few weeks of mulling this over, I was pretty close to giving up on the concept and doing something else instead when I suddenly realised that it was staring me in the face: what if he had forgotten to prepare a speech?! What if the whole film was him trying desperately to come up with something, only to realise everything he could think of was already a famous quotation?

I rewrote the opening of the script and started looking for quotations about space from scientists and popular culture; I knew I needed a lot. In fact, I ended up with 5 pages of them! I figured that some wouldn't work and we would cut them out so better to have too many than not enough.

Finally we had a concept, script, crew, studio set-up and actors: Simon Haycock as the pilot and his on-screen Waiting wife Liz McMullen as mission control. A quick search online for a blue boilersuit and some sew-on patches and we had a pilot’s costume. One big thing I learnt making this is that I hate sewing!

A week before filming, Simon and I discussed his character and the approach to filming we were going to take. We worked through everything he needed to help him form the character in his mind and then we talked about the structure and how I envisaged the film. Simon mentioned the idea of a ship’s computer doing a countdown to help raise the tension and stakes. I kicked myself for not thinking of it! My only worry was how do we do it. It would mean finding another North American voice.

As it happened we had an American intern, Madeleine Chalk, who had demonstrated an aptitude for accents and characters which had entertained us greatly. Unfortunately she was due to fly home before our filming day. The next day, I hastily wrote down some rough lines for her.

Kieran, Madeleine and I set ourselves up in the studio and from the first line she did the exact voice I had imagined. We kept throwing lines at her to record as we had no idea what we would need in addition to a countdown. After 30 minutes or so, we had as many generic computer phrases recorded as we could think of and I could then rewrite the script as needed. 
 

Shoot Day

We set up the studio as per our previous tests, but included a draped off area in one corner, where I could have a monitor with a camera feed and we could set Liz up as mission control. I wanted to keep us out of the way so we didn't distract Simon too much. Kieran was in charge of camera and sound while I cued in the recordings of Madeleine.

We started with the wide shot and the plan was to get a few different takes of each quotation. For the last take, I asked Simon to got through the whole script in his head and only vocalise or say things that were not scripted. This is how we got a lot of the ums and ahs as well as a few frustrated outbursts. I ended up using these to help control the pacing and add character moments in the edit. We also played with how he delivered the lines; whether he did them as his character would or more like an impersonation of the original. We then shot everything again for the close shot. All in all, it was a very short easy shoot. I think having a very clear concept and all the prep work we did meant that we could be very streamlined when it came to shooting. 

Editing

I always planned to edit the film in a similar choppy style to Teeth, building the tension and frustration as the film went on. I had loads of footage to work with so my first task was to go through and find my favourite takes of each quote. Sometimes I couldn't choose between them so put them all in. I ended up with an eight minute cut and it was awful which was great because it showed me what worked and what didn't.

For my next cut, I pulled out all the stuff that clearly didn't work and ended up with six-and-a-half minute cut. Better but still not great. Next up was to go through and take out any duplicate quotations which meant having to pick between some of my favourite performances. That got me down to five-and-a-half minutes but the edit still wasn't working.

Cut number four was the hardest. I knew I needed to get the pacing right and that meant I had to cut some brilliant moments that were funny and well performed but in terms of pace just didn't work. This is the worst part of editing but you have to do what's right by the film, not just shoehorn something in based on your personal preference. 

Compositing

Once Kieran and Zara had given their feedback on this cut, I ended up with a four minute edit minus the opening shot, closing shot and credits. Now that I had a locked edit in terms of content, I could work on the compositing.

Each shot was brought into After Effects and I used my proof-of-concept as a guide. Each shot is built up of a number of layers which consist of still photos, video, virtual lights, a virtual camera and then adjustment layers to add in things like blur, noise and colour correction. In addition to all of this, we added in a floating projected screen, a console created in Element and, on the wide shots, a JJ Abrams style lens flare.

I spent a long time working on the first wide shot of Simon, making lots of small adjustments and refinements. I wanted to get it as good as it could be before doing the rest. Hyper Jump consists of solely of VFX shots, so if I made a mistake I didn't want to have to go back and change it in all 37 shots. 

Whilst I was working on the interior, Kieran was working on the exterior. He revamped the spaceship and worked on making the shots feel more realistic by changing the way the camera moved and adding in some refinement to the composite. Finally, we had all of our editing and VFX complete.

The final stage was sound design and audio mixing. The only sound we had recorded was the dialogue tracks for our three actors so that meant everything else had to found or created. I raided our sound effects library for atmospheric rumbles, button pushing, computer whirrs, radio static and all manner of whooshes. We don't often use sound effects in our day-to-day work so it was great fun finding and creating the sound of this world that doesn't exist. I even got to use a sound effect called “meaty slap”! 

Hyper Jump was a really fun project to create and we learned a lot along the way. The Film has been shown at the Sci-Fi Underground FilmFest in Munich and in the Hollyshorts Monthly Screening at the legendary TCL Chinese Theatre in L.A You can see it on our Upbeat X Projects YouTube channel

Watch the finished Hyper Jump film

on our youtube channel