13 February 2009

12.02.08 Visual Effects for our Aviatrix

Print


Back in the year 2000, I served as the first assistant editor on the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "The Sixth Day". At the time, it seemed impossible that our star would become Governor of California, or that I'd end up getting "Pancho" off the ground. It just goes to show you, in both instances, that where there's a will -- there's a way.

Working on the editorial side of an $80 million Hollywood feature was eye-opening to say the least.

Photo (above right): Digital effects allowed us to have Orville Wright "sign" Pancho's pilot's license.

One aspect of the production that especially drew my attention, was the special effects work. I spent almost an entire summer designing a helicopter flight sequence at the beginning of the movie, and the rooftop gun battle finale, with pre-visualization artist / designers Rpin Suwannath and Rob Smith. We all worked in a digital environment, using animation, green screens, Maya, Avid and Photoshop. It was thrilling work that translated directly to the big screen. I came out the experience convinced that the only limit, when it came to visual effects, was the imagination of the people working on them. The impact on the show could be tremendous.

"Pancho" offered a whole new set of challenges in the editing room, but I knew almost from the outset that I'd like the film to have a few effects. I didn't want them for the same whiz-bang reasons that Arnold's video-game-like action flicks have them (and literally, have to have them!) The reasons to have visual effects in the documentary were entirely a matter of story telling.

Photo (left): FX artist Jin Wha Lee made Pancho's cigarette light up and smoke, in an otherwise still photo.

Case in point: one of the wonderful stories surrounding Pancho, is that after getting her pilot's license -- despite the objections of her minister husband the Rev. Rankin Barnes -- Pancho buzzed his church. On a Sunday. During mass. Now, it is one thing to tell that story. Michael Patris, who describes it in the film, does a wonderful job. But it is another thing entirely to actually see it happen! Of course, you're not going to find vintage film of Pancho or anyone else for that matter, buzzing a church. If you know what you're doing though, you might be able to create a shot out of whole cloth. Which is precisely what we set out to do.

Two wonderful visual effects artists contributed their skills to "Pancho". Jeffrey Dietrich, a graduate of Otis College of Art and Design, built 3-D effects for the show, one of which you can see as a streaming video on his website, www.jeffreydietrich.com The other artist, and our Visual Effects Producer, is Jin Wha Lee. Jin Wha hails from the University of Southern California's Animation and Visual Arts program. Her role was to work closely with our director, editor, and me to create visual effects that were in keeping with the film's tone and style. Visual effects that did not detract from the show, or call attention to themselves, but which seamlessly fit into the narrative.

Some people might question whether it is even ethical to add visual effects to a documentary film -- to literally "make up" footage. But in our minds, it made a lot of sense. For one thing, Pancho often embellished her personal story, a fact that all of her friends widely acknowledge. That, and the fact that some of the story was told in Pancho's own words, made it easy to justify making the film a little bit different than a standard historical, can I say dry?, documentary.

That being said, we did establish some rules or guidelines to follow. For one thing, we agreed that the addition of the wholly created images and effects, could not deceive the viewer or stretch the truth to the breaking point. For another, we committed to the notion that wherever possible, we'd be as historically accurate as we could be, within our created frame. Finally, we'd acknowledge to anyone who asked, that we'd done what we'd done. No reason to lie about our trickery, you see!

Which leads us to the church shot. We started with a temporary place-holder, a photo of a church pulled off of Google images, with a split-screen image of a plane on it -- just to identify where the shot would go, and estimate how long it might run. After a fashion, I managed to visit St. James Church in South Pasadena, where Rev. Barnes had his parish. The church historian allowed me to scan several 8x10 glass plate negatives of the church building, circa 1920. We reviewed these photos, and tried to determine which one would be best for our planned effect.

Next, editor Monique Zavistovski and I spent considerable time looking through hundreds and hundreds of feet of historic 16mm aviation motion picture footage, trying to locate a shot of a biplane that might work for our purpose. It was a tricky proposition, but we finally came up with a few candidates that we showed to Jin. Jin selected a shot that showed a biplane zipping out of the sky and flying in towards the camera, and brought it and the photo of St. James into her world of visual effects software.

What she did in Aftereffects and Photoshop, and a couple of other programs, is a little hard to describe to those not familiar with such things, but I'll give it a shot. First, she painted out everything in the biplane movie that wasn't actually part of the biplane -- such as the ground and the horizon. Then, she patiently scaled the biplane to the right size to make sense, and married it with the foreground shot of the church. At the same time, she adjusted the brightness and contrast of both elements to match. It took several passes, each time adjusting the tracking of the biplane shot, and other variables. Then, to really sell the shot as a piece of old-time movie footage, Jin added the kind of dust and scratches you see on old movie film to the finished product.

The end result of all this work, is a piece of footage that looks like it could almost be real. I say "almost", because part of the beauty of what Jin did, was to not make the shot entirely perfect. This way, our audience can enjoy the shot for what it is, while at the same time they are in on the gag -- here's something Pancho said she did, and maybe she did, who are we to say?

And that's exactly the kind of effect that we wanted.