Hollywood Effects on an Indie Budget

Stephen Wastell stars in Stefan Avalos’ The Ghosts of Edendale, available on Warner Home Video

Several years ago I co-created a little movie called The Last Broadcast. We made it digitally, which was novel for the time, but these days it’s impossible not to believe that everyone is making a digital feature.

While DV has been great for shooting intimate stories, and desktop systems like Avid, Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro have been great for cutting them, one facet of the process now available to low-budget moviemakers is the world of special effects.

For effects work on my 2003 film, The Ghosts of Edendale, we used primarily Adobe After Effects and Photoshop. Of extreme importance was Synthetic Aperture’s “Echo Fire” plug-in, which allowed me to see the work simultaneously on both a video and computer monitor as we worked. Seeing a proper NTSC image meant that I wasn’t going to get any nasty surprises after the render. This plug-in also includes Waveform, Parade and Vectorscope monitors, which allow one to ensure that the image stays “legal.” “Video legal” is one of those things you tend to learn the hard way when dealing with broadcast television. Simply put, the image has to meet many criteria. Black and white levels, color levels, etc. all have to fall within a certain range in order to not wreak havoc when being broadcast. When working in any image processing program (especially in DV), it is very easy to go above or below these levels. These scopes allow you to see, and therefore fix potential problems.

While there were a couple of instances of 3D effects, all of the following are examples of 2D compositing techniques.

The first effect occurs when Rachel, the lead character, opens a closet door to reveal a rotting ghost boy. This scene was originally shot with no effects in mind. However, upon cutting it together, it just didn’t work. Our visual effects designer, Scott Hale, saved the day by doing a “digital makeup job” on the boy.

“You’d like to shoot someone in long or medium shot with a hard key light only on their face, yet don’t have the spotlight to do it? Take a small fixture, sticking it close to the actor, and paint the light and light stand out later!”

Scott grabbed a still of the boy from the scene and enlarged it. Then, he hand-drew elements over the photo—malformed skin, evil eyes. He then scanned these drawings and, in After Effects, positioned them as layers on the actual frame. Using various compositing modes—Overlay, Burn, Color Dodge, etc.—Scott’s drawings affected the original picture with spectacular results. Since the boy moves slightly, each and every layer was tracked to his movements. Once the drawings and the boy’s movements matched, we had a demon child. Individually, these are simple techniques, but the combined effect is incredibly cool!

In another scene, we pan from a car to a driveway, where four ghosts materialize. We shot the scene with the car driving off, and then panned back and held on the driveway. Later, in post-production, we went back to the original driveway and shot our four actors walking up the drive in costume. We could have shot this anywhere, but using the original location allowed us to match camera angle, focal length and angle of inclination. Using the cheapest green material, we made a 3’ x 15’ strip for the actors to walk on. Walking in front of them, grips held foam core that was also covered in the same green material. Once each actor was shot separately, we went back to After Effects. We tracked the motion of the camera move by superimposing the new static shots over the panning master. Using landmarks as track points, we locked the static “ghost” shots to the moving “clean plate.” Then we masked and keyed out the green screen of our “ghosts”. This left us with a shot where the actors walking up the driveway could be manipulated any way we liked. By filtering, slowing, fading in, etc. we had our ghosts. This is where we fell in love with a plug-in by Trapcode called Shine, which gives the appearance of light beams coming from the edge of things. Used subtly, it looks like an edge light. Heavy use gives the appearance of white-hot fire streaking away from highlights.

Later, we have a scene where a hot tub lid is opened, revealing a body. When we shot the scene, our good-natured actress floated face up in the hot tub. But in post, I saw that her eyes shifted—just slightly, but enough to ruin the effect. In the past, I would have cut out of the shot earlier, but in this digital age, off to the “effects house” I went.

First, I grabbed a still frame of the actress in the middle of the shot. In Photoshop, I cut her eyes out, being liberal with cheeks and face, and saved them as individual files. In After Effects, I took those “static eyes” and tracked them on top of the movie file of the actress in the water. Since she floats past in the shot, the static eyes had to be tracked to her original eyes. Once locked, I made a mask of the area around the static eyes and feathered it to the rest of her face. Now she floated past, eyes staring blankly, never twitching. So why not go further with this? I drew a mask around her face, desaturated that area slightly and color-balanced it slightly blue. Voila, grayish-blue dead skin. Then, since the eyes were already separate layers, I increased the brightness, lowered the contrast and blurred them ever so slightly. Result? Glassy dead eyes that would have cost several hundred dollars were they contact lenses.

This shot is an example of two basic techniques that every indie moviemaker should learn: masking and color balancing. With these techniques, one essentially has a tool as powerful as a DaVinci (the industry standard color correction system)—not as fast, but just as capable and much cheaper.  Combined with Synthetic Aperture’s Echofire, one can color time and deliver a product with confidence.

Though practical make-up would have been easier, visual effects designer Scott Hale used Adobe After Effects to create a “ghost boy”
Using inexpensive green material and Adobe After Effects allowed the moviemakers to transform their actors into “ghosts” during post-production

More tips…

why stop at just color correction? Here’s the chance to add lens filters, etc. The possibilities are limitless when one starts playing with “Curves.” Another example of masking, which we used to spectacular effect, is the final Ghost Party sequence. In this scene, Rachel walks through a room surrounded by ghosts in the midst of a party. This scene, while fairly simple in theory, was very time-consuming. But the final result was well worth it.

The scene was shot normally with all actors—the “ghosts” and the “living.” Then, in After Effects, we masked around all the ghosts. The shots move, as do the actors, so it was an instance where key-framing, a core feature of most modern editing software, couldn’t be utilized. Almost every frame had to be handmade. Once masked, the ghosts could be manipulated in any way without affecting the background, or the live actress. It then became a matter of deciding what a ghost in this scene should look like. Since these ghosts are from the silent movie era, we created a flicker to mimic 18fps, desaturated (to make black and white), added a glow, added film grain and changed the curves to affect the contrast—creating a memorable and haunting sequence.

Another aspect of After Effects is the ability to paint on the frame. By “cloning” areas of frames previous or subsequent to the frame, or of a different file, one can solve many problems. We got into a habit of getting “clean plates” whenever we thought we might have a problem. If a microphone bobs into the shot, there is no excuse not to remove it. Another example: You’d like to shoot someone in long or medium shot with a hard key light only on their face, yet don’t have the spotlight to do it? Take a small fixture, stick it close to the actor, and paint the light and light stand out later!

I love the magic of movies. In the past, I salivated over what ILM or the other big boys were doing. With Ghosts, we could do whatever we wanted. One sure sign of success was that, based on the work he did on our movie, our intern-turned-visual effects supervisor, Scott Hale, scored a job at Tippett Studios to work on movies like The Stepford Wives and Hellboy. What’s more, Ghosts of Edendale was picked up by Warner Brothers and is being released on October 19th!

Imagination sets the only limit for today’s DV moviemaker. MM

The Ghosts of Edendale is available on Warner Home Video . Visit the official site at www.ghostsofedendale.com

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