Monday, November 21, 2005


Filming live action for visual effects on feature films. I discuss the process of shooting on locations and sets, using references, creating interactions and things to watch for. In addition I give some suggestions of to apply this to low budget filmmaking.
I'll probably discuss moving cameras and matchmoving in the next podcast. Filming of bluescreen, minatures and other elements will be covered in future podcasts.

In today's podcast I'll be covering the filming process relative to visual effects. First I'll focus on how it's done on a feature film and at the end I'll provide additional suggestions for filmmakers. I've actually split up this podcast so moving cameras will be discussed in the next podcast.

There are infinite possibilities when shooting a film, which is one of the reasons why visual effects are interesting. I'll be covering the basics of shooting with actors or what we term as live action. Later podcasts will discuss shooting bluescreen and miniatures.

First a review of a few terms I'll be using.
CG stands for computer graphics.
An element is an image that will be part of a composite.
A plate is a live action element.
A clean plate is a version of the shot without actors that can be used to remove any unwanted items from the real shot.

The shooting of a feature film can take two to six months. Much of the shooting depends on the project. Some projects such as Dragonheart are shot almost all outdoors, regardless of weather. This makes it like a camping trip with 2 or 300 hundred other people. Other projects may be primarily on sound stages in front of bluescreens. Most projects are a balance of exterior and stage shooting.

Prepping for the shoot
Before shooting begins it's important that the cameras are checked and prepped. This is handled by the camera assistant but for visual effects we request a steady test. When film goes through a movie camera the camera movement may cause the film to shift a bit from frame to frame. This isn't visible in a typical shot projected on the movie screen but if you composite multiple images you may well see them moving against each other. In some older movies when you watch the titles you may see them shaking against the background. This was because the original camera wasn't completely steady.
To test the steadiness a grid of white lines is applied to a black backing. This can be tape lines on a 4 by 8 foot black. This is filmed with the camera fixed on a tripod or pedestal. Depending on the test the film can be rewound and re-exposed to the same grid offset halfway by a grid space. When this is processed and projected you can see if the camera is steady and repeatable to itself. The preferred steady test is to scan the grid from the camera with your film input scanner and confirm that it's not moving relative to your control system, the input scanner.

Film live action for visual effects

The visual effects crew directly involved with the shooting is fairly small. Normally the team consists of the visual effects supervisor or a plate supervisor, 1 to 4 matchmovers, a coordinator and possibly the effects producer as well. If the show is heavy with animated creatures the animation supervisor may also be part of the team. The remainder of the visual effects crew is back at a facility working on creating CG and real models along with preparing for the full render and composite processes. The full effects crew won't start until a sequence has been shot and edited since they need to work with the footage. Because of the deadlines most shows are editing simultaneously with the shooting so finished edited sequence will be done even before the entire movie is finished being shot.

The visual effects supervisor or plate supervisor is in charge of making sure the required footage is shot correctly to do the effects later. The plate supervisor is called that since live action pieces or elements are frequently referred to as plates. A background plate for a bluescreen would be called BG plate. The matchmover position was created primarily in the digital age. It's important to be able reproduce the camera and objects exactly and that means recording all the camera information such as lens, tilt and also to measure specific items in the scene. The coordinator helps to organize all of this and to facilitate passing of information. The effects producer is normally busy at the effects house overseeing that process but the production itself may have their own effects producer on the location to help the different departments and to make sure things are moving smoothly.

Before the photography begins there's usually some pre-production at the location. Part of this is a key meeting with all the department heads, including visual effects, so everyone is clear on the requirements of each sequences and who's doing what. It's also a chance to flag any problems. Typically the storyboards and animatics are shown to the department heads and the actors so they're aware of what the final shots will look like.

Each day there is a call sheet passed out to all crew members that lists the shots/sequences for the next day as well as when each crew member is required on set. A shooting day is usually 7am to 7pm and night shooting is 6 or 7 pm to 7 am. Shooting is 5 or 6 days a week.

The setup
First thing in the morning is brief huddle of key personnel with the first asst director and director. The director has his shot list, which is the list of all shots he plans to shoot that day. For shots that require visual effects the first task is to figure out the camera position and blocking. A director may run through with the actors first to get a handle on how he wants the scene covered. For camera placement it's important to consider anything that will be added later in postproduction. I typically have a set of storyboards that have been reduced to half size so it fits in my side bag or jacket pocket. I've gone through and made notes about every element or piece of film we have to shoot for each shot and have a technique in mind for each shot. We do a quick review of the storyboard. Since the storyboard is only a guide the director or circumstances may require a change. As a visual effects supervisor I have to be able to quickly determine any implications these changes might mean. Will other elements be required? Does this change the technique? Have we already shot something else that this needs to work with? Will there be any major cost differences?

For Dragonheart I wrote some software for a powerbook that would display the dragon in the correct size on a location still, but we found it faster to take the poseable dragon model in front of the camera. With the actor standing in the scene and the physical model of the dragon we can easily check the composition and framing. I'd have a matchmover measure the distance to the actor and would calculate the scale distance for the model. If the actor was 50 feet away it might mean the model should be 23 and ½ inches away. Now the director, DP and myself would review the framing. Once the initial framing is setup we review the specific storyboard and animatic with the camera operator and actors along with key people. The practical effects and stunt crews start any rigging necessary while the director of photography lights the scene.

To help the actors and the camera operator interact with a creature we try to provide a stand in. For Dragonheart we had a monster stick that was an expandable pole with 2 disks on each side representing the eyes. For something like Mr. Hyde on Van Helsing a 2d foam core cutout was attached to a helmet worn by an actor for reference. Roger Rabbit used 2d cutouts and full-size 3d practical model. If the creature is moving someone moves the stand-in around. The actors can use the eyes as a guide where to look and react and the camera operator can make sure they provide enough room in the film frame for the creature. At least one reference is shot with this stand-in moving around. This can be used as a temp in the edit stage since the action and framing is clearer with the reference. We try to do the majority of takes without the reference to avoid having to do paint out removal of it in post. In some cases though the complexity of the action may require the stand-in be in all the takes.

Any time you're combining multiple images you want them to blend together to make them appear to be a real scene or location. To help with this illusion we try to provide interaction of the different elements such as a creature that lifts up the actor and then swings it's tale to knock over a bookcase. This is where the special effects crew gets involved. As mentioned before technically special effects in movie credits are practical or mechanical type of effects. Normally this will have already been discussed with the special effects supervisor who will have planned and constructed some type of rig to do this. If it involves moving the actor or a stunt person then the stunt coordinator is involved. New ideas from the director at the time of the shoot require everyone to scramble to make it happen. If it was preplanned and there is an animatic we use that as a starting point for the timing of the action. If there is no animatic the animation supervisor or the visual effects supervisor is involved in working out the timing with the director. We need enough time for the actor and the imaginary creature or object to react. The asst director will usually provide a verbal cue so the special effects crew can do their part at the right time. If the creature is supposed to speak then someone on the set will be a stand-in for the creature by speaking off camera or this may come from a pre-taped voice. An actual person on the set delivering the dialog is preferred since the timing and dialog can change easily.
Another form of interaction is the lighting from the director of photography. If colored objects are supposed to emerge from a glass then the DP has to create an interactive light on the faces of the actors so when the objects are added later by the visual effects crew they look like they're creating the light effect on the faces.

Rolling film
Each shot and take is noted on the camera report and slated. For visual effects shots there are usually specific shot names or ID codes that relate to the sequence. These names may have been defined months before in pre-production and relates to specific storyboards.
The first take is usually done with any interactive reference material as monster sticks or a stand-in. After that the shots may be done without these depending on the specific requirements.
During each take the visual effects supervisor is making sure everything is working as required. Is the actor's eye line correct? Is he looking for where the creature will be in that specific moment? Has he missed a mark and put his arm through where the creature is supposed to be? Are there additional items that may need to be removed? Will the special effects rigging work and will everything look correct once the shot is finished in post? Are any cables causing a bunching up on the costumes that give away the fact the actor is on wires? Is the camera move correct and timed right? There are a hundred items to keep an eye on.

The actor's eye line becomes even more difficult when there are multiple actors. If you have a lot of extras it becomes very difficult. If you have a small object flying and hovering the illusion won't work if everyone is looking in a different direction. So to handle this you do the run through with the reference and may need to shout out timings so to choreograph this eye motion. You may need to work with the special effects people to create a small target that can be moved around that people watch. For Dragonheart we used an ultralight plane for some shots where the dragon is flying. This provides everyone with a clear idea where to look and the plane itself is removed in post.

Multiple video cameras may be mounted on tripods to provide additional reference for the animators and match movers.
I try to list on my storyboard book any additional items that may be critical to keep an eye on in a specific shot. I've also listed the additional elements that may be required.
Most of this checking involves looking at a video monitor coming from the video camera mounted in the film camera. This is known as a tap camera and unfortunately the quality of the tap cameras is about the same as surveillance cameras. The video monitor itself is at what's known as the video village. There's an operator who runs this and records video of the different takes for reference. It's around this small monitor or two that the director, script supervisor and other key people may be grouped around during a take.

If there are changes to be made the effects supervisor discusses this with the director. Normally you let the director be the one giving directions to the actors to avoid confusion.
Once the director is satisfied with the takes for the main action any additional elements are filmed. This may be the clean plate as previously discussed. This could be some practical effects such as dirt hit or an additional actor. For things like dust hits a black flat may be placed behind the dust and this element would be screened or lumikey in the final composite. If it an additional actor this may be shot against a small portable bluescreen on the location. One of the advantages of shooting these elements on the location or set is the lighting will match and camera position will match exactly. Trying to re-create sunlight months later on a stage and have it match is very difficult. The downside is this will take up more time when shooting the live action.

Once any additional elements are shot references are shot. For 3D work normally a ½ of a gray sphere is shot. This will provide a controlled reference for the technical director who lights the CG scene later. It shows where the light is coming from and the basic balance of the lights. A ½ of a chrome sphere, which may be the other side of the gray sphere, is filmed. This will provide an image for the reflection map that is wrapped around the image. This provides some of the ambient illumination as well as image for the reflection. Sometimes stills are taken with a fish eye lens to provide this same map.
A color card or grayscale may be filmed to provide a color reference. I usually try to have a reference of the object that will be added later. If we're adding a CG version of a clock such as in The Mask I'll move that through the action so the technical director, also known as TDs, can use as a guide for how the material and lighting interact. If there's a creature the model shop may provide a reference material such as section of fur if this is a creature with fur. By trying to have as many real world references as possible the final results will be based on what it would really look like in that environment. Even with fantastical creatures the aim is to make them photo real. It's actually more important to make them photo real since the eye and mind knows it's not real it tries to find any discrepancies.

So finally we have one shot done. There may be another 20 more to do that day, each with their own concerns and rigging. On a large show they may be running 2 cameras all the time to provide more angles and coverage. For complex action scenes they may be running 4 or more cameras at the same time. Any of these shots that will require visual effects will need to be watched and measured. A large film usually has second unit crew shooting additional scenes or pickups and inserts at a different location. Each of these shots has to be dealt with the same way if there are any visual effects.

On a large effects film there comes a time when the crew along with the director and assistant director start assuming that you can fix everything and they may become a bit sloppy about removing things from the scene or making final adjustments or providing you what you need. There is always pressure to keep moving on a film shoot and in some cases it will be cheaper for you to do something in post rather than taking an hour at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars to do it on location. The visual effects supervisor has to weigh these two issues and choose his battles wisely. If the quality will suffer because of production shortcuts then it's critical to flag the director and discuss the issue.

Low Budget
So how can we apply all of this to a low budget filmmaker? As always planning and preproduction are vital for keeping production moving smoothly and keeping the costs down. Make sure the effects are there to tell the story.

Try to do a rough storyboard of all your effects shots. Don't get wrapped up in created elaborate animatics or 3D storyboards. Usually the added value of these, especially for simple projects, is minimal but the time required can be enormous. It's better to put your additional time and energy into the real shot.

Analyze the different elements required to make the final shots. Remember to keep it simple. If you can do it using 2 elements instead of 5 do it with 2. List those elements with the storyboards.

Keep the storyboards with you while shooting and check off the elements as you shoot them.

Do tests ahead of time to check your technique and to determine if there are other requirements when shooting.

If this is a really low budget film you may be directing and running the camera in addition to doing the effects. This makes it even more critical to have a checklist and make sure everything is shot correctly.

Communicate with your crew so they understand what you need done. Make sure the actors understand what's required of them. The storyboards will help here.

Don't rush the shoot. If you don't get what you need or get poor quality elements then you're likely to spend a lot of time in postproduction just to create something marginal.

Be prepared. Have your tools with you. Storyboards, notepad, pens, tape measure, etc. A fanny pack or other bag is useful to hold these items.

Slate and label everything. Try being organized. When you're doing effects work you may end up with several elements for each shot. It's very easy to get overwhelmed but al l the different variations. On a feature film we have people who's focus is to keep track of all these bits.

Double-check your camera settings. If you review the footage on your video camera be sure to cue it up to after the last take. This is to avoid recording over a shot and to make sure the timecode is correct if your camera supports timecode.

Just because you can do something in post doesn't mean you should. As an example if someone left a c-stand in the shot you could paint that out later but why bother when you can just take 5 minutes and move it out before shooting. Don't try to fix everything in post. Balance the time on the location with the amount of work required and the final quality.

Keep the shots simple, especially if this is one of your first projects. Even when on set make sure you're not making things too complicated. When we were filming the The Mask we had planned a wide shot where large props are being pulled out of Jim Carrey's pants. Since this included items such as a tuba and bazooka and we saw his entire body we were going to make CG pants and stretch them to show the objects being pulled out. On the night of the shoot the director changed it to a cowboy framing, which means the bottom of the frame, is between the knees and waist. Jim's costume was a very baggy zoot suite so the stretching pants gag became un-necessary with this framing and costume. I suggested we cut the pants to make them into shorts and cut holes in the pockets. We then had two people shoving real props up into the pant pockets.
We eliminated an effects shot and had something that was better for that shot.

If you're shooting on film, especially 16mm, do steady tests before shooting or your images may jump against each other. If you're shooting film but will be finishing on video make sure the telecine is done with a solid movement. In the past you had to request a special pin registered transfer but film movements have gotten better. Just check with the video house and make sure to steady test it.

If you're shooting video try to shoot progressive if you can with a camera like the Panasonic DVX100. You can shoot visual effects with a standard video camera but the interlacing makes the process a little more difficult. Likewise if you're planning to shoot video and doing a lot of greenscreen work consider shooting on a higher end system than miniDV. You can do greenscreen with miniDV but a higher end system will provide better quality easier.

Shoot your shots as locked down cameras if possible. This will simplify most effects a lot.

Try to shoot a clean plate when possible. To make sure there's a good match you can just keep the cameras rolling and have the actors leave the scene. This avoids the chance of the camera changing or the lighting changing as the sun moves.

If you're going to purchase a composting software try to get one with motion tracking. If you're in school check on educational pricing for all software. And certainly take advantage of cameras that may be available through your school.

High quality visual effects takes a lot of time and work. Even with all the tools available nothing is as simple and easy as you would think it would be. Accept that and keep moving forward.


  1. Hi Scott,

    I haven't been able to suscribe me to the Effects Corner Podcast. Can you let me know how I can do it?

    Thank you


  2. I hope this site takes off! One of the biggest problems right now is the lack of common knowledge between the FX and Non-FX personnel.

    There's so much that both groups could do to help each other get their jobs done well.

  3. iTunes is easiest if you have it.
    The 2nd link down under Links list on the right says 'Effects Corner on iTunes). Clicking on that will automatically open iTuneswith a subscrition page for this podcast.

    If you don't want to use iTunes then you can download a podcast player. There are a number of free/shareware ones available online. Select 1st link under links 'XML Subscribe to feed' with right button and copy link. Paste into your podcast player.

    The feeds for this podcast are:
    (2nd one was used for official iTunes support)

    You can of course just click on the title of each episode here and play them in your browser.

  4. Transcripts - Right now I'll focus on the Podcasts bu do plan to do something more formal with the transcripts such as add images and other things to flesh it out.

  5. Hello Scott. Honorable work you're blog/podcast. Nice to have someone feeding some information for outside the industry circle... For everybody out there trying to implement VFX in there independent productions, few words: keep it simple and effective. Better to have a few and descreet VFX shots that *actually* contribute to the story rather then trying to make a lot and messy. Better to leave the big wow shots to those who have budget for. Best regards.


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