Earlier this year I got the opportunity to do a commercial for the game I’d been working on, Skulls of the Shogun: Bone-A-Fide Edition. For previous trailers we’d done full animation consisting of sequences exported from our game engine and composited with parallax-heavy 3D backgrounds inside After Effects. For the commercial I wanted to do a throwback to deliciously terrible Eighties video game ads, where something would explode out of the television, and everyone would start freaking out like they were on LSD. My boss Jake had absolutely no problem with this, so I wrote a script and made storyboards where the Shogun exploded out of a TV and sucked the kids into the Samurai Afterlife, where they’d start slaughtering everyone and eating their skulls.
I had run some tests combining 2D animated footage with live-action plates earlier in the project, and got up to date with motion tracking inside After Effects. For reference I watched a bunch of films that did the same (specifically Roger Rabbit and Space Jam, both of which use really expensive tone mapping passes on their characters and use realistic shadows).
We work in a warehouse, and were able to quickly convert the studio into a soundstage. Our producer Paul installed black plastic curtains on rails to eliminate all outside light. Unfortunately, we were located right next to a noisy road so we’d have to loop all our dialogue later, but this wasn’t a huge issue.
Talent on the set.
For lighting, we went cheap, with Home Depot worklamps combined with the brighest CFLs we could find, diffused via duct-taped IKEA cloth storage boxes. We combined this with a pair of standard worklight halogen sets – we weren’t able to properly diffuse these, and wound up bouncing the light off the ceiling and wall (which was, fortunately, painted in a reflective white). These burned extremely hot, so we had to turn them off between shots (and keep bringing our talent water). After finishing the shots on the living room set, the kids took a break as we set up the greenscreen. Our set only had two walls, so we shot the reverse shots later as traveling mattes.
Sample Traveling Matte.
For cameras, we used a single Canon T2i running Magic Lantern firmware, shooting between ISO 640 and ISO 800 depending on the shot, shooting at 29.97fps at 1/60 at 1080p. For greenscreen footage, we concentrated every light we had on the scene, and had to push the ISO up to 1250 for faster exposure (this is critical for reducing motion blur in fast-action scenes, which most keyers have problems with).
“Now scream like ‘aaarghhh!'”
By the way, our talent was fantastic. The kids were great – and none of them had acted before. They were a lot younger than we had originally thought they’d be, and we had one last-minute replacement after one of the kids saw our setup and freaked out (it did not help that our warehouse looked like a dungeon). I kept things moving as quickly as possible, walking the kids through each shot and explaining what was going on, since almost every shot had some imaginary component to it. We finished in about two hours – the kids were a little tired, but still bouncy. Mission accomplished.
Next up was the hard part, animation and post. To start, all footage was run through the Neat Video plugin for denoise/grain reduction/sharpening, and then dumped out as a PNG image sequence for After Effects.
In the opening sequence, the kids are playing what I can only describe as the dumbest military shooter ever. We shot this sequence ahead of time in the back hallway of our office, using whatever props we had on hand and lighting it in as gaudy a fashion as possible. (My boss Jake plays the bad guy, while QA guys Ben & Isaac and Skulls programmer Brett stand in as the tactical team.)
For the 2D animated elements, I spent two days porting all of our characters from our slightly clunky custom animation tool to After Effects just to speed up our animation workflow, and handed them off to our animation guru Callen Wagner. From here, I just comped them in, and added effects…lots of effects.
For each animated element I’d create a fake rim light/tone map by duplicating the element, filling it in black, and then using the Bevel Alpha effect to make the edges pop. Then I’d slightly blur and offset it, and make the layer Additive.
Shadows were similarly faked by filling the layer in black and spinning it around in 3D onto the ground. I could have used real lights, but this was much quicker and saved rendering time. Roto Mask was used extensively for foreground/occluding elements; fortunately, the denoised plates were clean enough that this went very quickly. For added effect and to accentuate any camera Z-moves, multi-layered smoke and dust particles were added.
For keying, we used Keylight from the Foundry, which provided very, very clean keys and dealt very well with some of the remaining shadows in the background (our greenscreen had not been ironed ahead of time, and had a few worrisome wrinkles). The kids’ live-action heads were simply dropped into existing (headless) characters and were tracked by hand, and all scenes were composited in standard After Effects 3D.
Typical scene setup with accommodations for a 90-degree camera spin.
To create the Skulls look, we usually have a flat 3D plane for the ground, which is covered by forward-facing deco elements (rocks, grass, etc). The camera is allowed to track in and out on the Z axis and “strafe” left and right, but we rarely rotate the camera in any direction, which instantly breaks the look. Whenever we do something splashy like a 90-degree camera spin, it’s carefully orchestrated (read: fudged) and we usually turn on motion blur to hide the effect breaking.
Dialogue was looped later – we recorded with a Rode microphone and a TASCAM recorder, and the voiceover artist (and audiobook superstar Chet Williamson) sent us the final take from his studio. Oddly, directing the kids and getting them to loop their lines correctly was much harder than directing them on-set. Music and sound effects were taken from in-game assets, with quite a few samples purchased from the SoundSnap library. (Oh yeah, I do the voice of the Shogun — it’s just dropped a few octaves.)
Maya was only used for the final shot. Callen rigged an existing skeleton model in about a day, and scaled the parts to match the kids. He hand-animated thescene, and recreated set elements for shadow casting; the final Maya rendering consisted of three passes for diffuse, shadows, and AO.
Actually finding the “look” for the skeleton kids took over a week of tweaking. Originally the skeletons were more realistic, with scorch marks under each one where the lightning had hit, and realistic black smoke coming off their bodies. We all agreed this was pretty morbid/creepy and tried a toon-shaded version in response, which looked completely awful; then we shifted their colors to green, which was more in line with the in-game look, but then they looked like plastic Halloween skeletons. We added a glow, which looked better but not great. Finally, on a whim I knocked back the opacity on the diffuse layer to 66%, and everyone was like “Oh! That’s great!”
“Now pretend you’re eating an apple, like nom nom nom nom!”
In the end we were really happy with the final spot, which took about 1.5 man-months of production (one full month from myself, and a half-month from our animator). Even happier were the kids, who went absolutely crazy when they saw the ad, and kept forcing us to play it over and over as they laughed hysterically. Check it out and let us know what you think.
“Now Eat Their Skulls!”
1m42s, 1080p @ 29.97fps
Production time: 1.5 man-months (1 editor/compositor, 1 animator)
Hardware: Canon T2i, Rode VideoMic, Canon HV20 (reference only), homemade counterweight stabilizer
Software: After Effects, Photoshop, Vegas, Audition, Audacity, Neat Video, Keylight, Color Finesse, Custom Skulls Animation Editor