The wire frame of the JetCar, as captured in ElectricImage’s
Universe 3D master application workspace.

The future of cinema is digital:
maybe not tomorrow, maybe not even next year, but soon. Until then,
we must deal with an industry in transition. While bloated corporations
try to stake their claim in the digital land rush, we moviemakers
need to break through the media clutter in order to find the right
digital tools for our projects-not just in terms of digital
cameras and editing systems, but in terms of software tools which
can create or modify
issues/48/images of such detail that the concepts of “production”
and “post-production” become blurred.

The leading edge of digital production
is defined by a handful of software “master applications” and, to
an even greater extent, by third party helper applications called
plug-ins. In digital production, plug-ins essentially provide specific,
very fine sets of controls for manipulating issues/48/images on your computer.
Your success or failure as a digital moviemaker will in no small
part be linked to your ability to wrangle these powerful bits of

There are many examples of the “image manipulation”
I’m talking about. In the world of two-dimensional effects, for
instance, plug-ins can help with various combinations of compositing,
and retouching:

Compositing is combining two or more
issues/48/images and can be as simple as placing the weatherman over his or
her animated map, or as complex as producing a scene with numerous
layers and graphic elements, such as those featured in George Lucas’s Attack of the Clones.

Rotoscoping is the process of frame-by-frame
manipulation of an image in order to add or eliminate a graphic
component. Year after year, one of the most requested visual effects
moviemakers perform is the removal of blemishes from famous faces.
This is done through a rotoscoping process.

Retouching involves a number of graphic
tricks that enhance the look of the image. Often this includes removing
the wires and gear that are used to suspend and protect actors and
stunt people, as well as the inevitable scratch or two that has
long been the bane of this industry.

Faye Dunaway and John Glover
The final composite of Faye Dunaway and John
Glover in the JetCar in Scott Billups’ Mid-Century (2002).

Three-dimensional effects honed by plug-ins include virtual sets and virtual characters, digital explosions,
clouds and atmosphere. Introduced in the late ’80s, virtual sets
are sets that are built in a computer, into which live characters
can be composited. Though originally conceived as a novel way to
cut production expenses, virtual sets have become an increasingly
popular production alternative. What inevitably followed, of course,
were virtual characters: the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park,
the crew of the Titanic and the legions of warriors in Attack
of the Clones
are a few familiar examples.

This ever-expanding digital tool set is giving moviemakers
with limited resources the ability to compete with big-budget productions.
For example, I recently shot my own movie, Mid-Century, using
the Panasonic AJ-HDC27 Varicam High Definition camera. Mid-Century takes place in the year 2045, when computers have evolved into their
own civilization and have built a ring around the Earth from material
they’ve mined from the moon.

Here’s how nine plug-ins helped me achieve a scene
from my film in which the leader of the computer race (Faye Dunaway)
is driving an aging Bill Gates (John Glover) to the “central processor”
in a JetCar. Though ranging in price from $145.00 – $1,495.00, these
plug-ins proved invaluable to the final film product.

Combining the Actors’ Images

Scheduling conflicts prevented Faye and John from
shooting this scene together; the only way to bring them together
in the car was in post-production. Since they are both consummate
actors, I wasn’t worried about getting their performances to match.
What I was concerned with was getting consistent lighting
and a clean composite, especially since John was shot against a
green screen and Faye was shot against a blue screen. (Blue screens
work best for blondes.)

We captured the scene elements in a Mac, using Pinnacle’s
CineWaveHD videographic card ( After editing
and lining up dialogue in FinalCut Pro (
), we used the Automatic Duck plug-in (
to export the sequence to Adobe AfterEffects (
While there are other very good motion graphics master applications
available, we chose AfterEffects because of the vast number of compatible
plug-ins, and because it was the one application that everyone involved
with the project owned. Since there were numerous two-shots of Faye
and John were sitting side-by-side, their individual performances
were brought into the AfterEffects timeline as separate but overlapping

In digital production,
plug-ins essentially provide specific, very fine sets of controls
for manipulating issues/48/images on your computer. Your success or failure
as a digital moviemaker will in no small part be linked to your
to wrangle these powerful bits of code.

The blue and green screen backgrounds were then eliminated,
or “pulled,” by Ultimatte’s AdvantEdge plug-in (,
which works by replacing areas of saturated color with a so-called alpha channel. A digital image is generally made up of separate
red, green and blue layers, or “channels.” The alpha channel is
simply a fourth, invisible layer that can be used for a number of
image-processing functions such as texture mapping, which I’ll return
to in a moment.

Now the two actors were sitting next to each other,
but their hues didn’t quite match. Shooting them against green and
blue backgrounds, respectively, had created subtle but noticeable
inconsistencies in their colors. To rectify the problem, we turned
to the Color Finesse plug-in from SyntheticAperture (,
one of the most sophisticated color-matching systems this side of
a multi-million dollar post-production facility. Color Finesse lets
you put up two windows on your monitor simultaneously, so that you
can actually “match” your color timing in a telecine-style environment.

Equally invaluable at this point were the 55MM
from Digital Film Tools (,
which simulate popular camera lens filters. Using actual lens filters
on the Hi-Def camera would have led to significant compositing problems;
these plug-ins simply allowed us to create filter effects later
on, well after filming was completed.

Top to Bottom: Glover on a green screen, Dunaway
on blue; the shots are matched in Color Finesse; the RGB layers
are combined in AfterEffects; the QuickTime movie of Glover
and Dunaway is placed inside the 3D JetCar model.

Finishing the JetCar

One of the trickiest parts of Mid-Century was
perfecting the finish of the JetCar. We did this by texture mapping,
a process by which you can paste a picture or a movie onto a three-dimensional
object. For example, if you paste a picture of a brick onto a 3D
model of a long cube, you will have made a very rudimentary, three-dimensional

In this case, the JetCar was the 3D object, and it
needed a detailed, realistic, metallic car surface. Creating such
a surface meant playing with shaders, mathematical formulas
that create wide ranges of surface looks: adjust the formula slightly,
and you get a slightly different look for the car surface. (Shaders
are roughly analogous to fonts in a word processing program; imagine
creating your own customized font, and you get the idea.) Once you’ve
got the various parameters of your shader “dialed in,” it will automatically
replicate itself over the surface of an infinitely large object
like a planet, a car or even a wisp of smoke.

The car was created by one of my favorite designers,
Cristóbal Vila, with ElectricImage’s Universe (
3D master application. Universe comes with a respectable assortment
of surface shaders, but I wanted a very specific Lexus look and
feel. So we used the Konkeptoine M-Forge material shader plug-ins (,
which manipulate optical characteristics to achieve true photo-realism.
The resulting finish looked like something off a contemporary showroom
floor–exactly what I was looking for.

Creating the Ring

The model of the Ring was texture mapped using a combination
of conventional picture-based textures that I had created in Adobe
Photoshop, and a custom corrosion shader created with the TripleDTools’
aFraktal plug-in
( The corrosion shader
is capable of creating a wide range of deteriorated looks which
can be layered on top of existing texture maps.

We needed an endless horizon of random clouds that
were substantial enough to generate turbulence as the speeding JetCar
sailed past them. To achieve this, we created the clouds and the
atmosphere of the Ring environment by using a combination of Konkeptoine’s
zFog plug-in
and TripleD’s PowerParticles plug-in, which
offers an amazing amount of control over the behavior of emitted
particles. Like shaders, particles are tiny units of code that can
be adjusted to emulate a wide range of organic properties such as
smoke, fire, clouds, sparks, water and hair. There are controls
for things like decay time (which allows a cluster of smoke particles
to gradually dissipate) and randomness (which can make a tight stream
of water turn into a spray). If you marveled at the fur of the monsters
in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. or the motion of the grass in PDI/DreamWorks’ Shrek, then you were enjoying particle systems that were
wrangled by true masters.

Unifying the Look

Once all of the scene elements were rendered and edited
back together (this included texture mapping the composited sequence
of Faye and John to the inside of the JetCar model), they were given
a unifying thematic signature, or look, using the Look Suite
of the
MagicBullet plug-in (
I used the Matrix– like “Neo” pre-set for scenes that took
place in the unprotected areas of a toxic Earth, and the oversaturated
richness of the “Epic” pre-set for scenes on the Ring.

As important as a solid suite of master applications
is for the digital moviemaker, the true power of contemporary post
production is echoed in the quiver of plug-ins that you use. MM

Scott Billups is an LA-based moviemaker. A section
of the JetCar scene is included in the Mid-Century trailer
which can be seen on Scott’s website at:
Special thanks to Jeremy Arnold for his contributions to this article.