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PLAY IT AS IT LAYERS

By Published on .

Digital Domain's Fred Raimondi has gone from compositor to Flame artist to visual effects supervisor. As king of the layered look, he's hip to all the tools of the trade-not to mention being a pretty hip guy himself.

Where were you when your life changed? Fred Raimondi was sitting on the couch in his parents' house in West Orange, N.J., watching "Three's Company," when a call came in from a TV station in Los Angeles offering him a job as an editor. How he can remember exactly what was on at the time must be one of those funny things, like remembering what you were wearing when you first met someone or where you where when O.J. took off in the Bronco.

At the time, Raimondi was just another guy in the video biz in New York; he'd worked his way up to being an online editor at a small post facility and was dreaming, one can imagine, about being in a rock band. He drove a VW, lived at home and probably had no idea that 15 or so years later he'd be hanging out on film sets with David Fincher and Dennis Hopper, or playing around with digitized images of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, or pulling off computer stunts like getting horses to kick footballs or Jeeps to burrow under snow drifts.

Nah, back then all he was probably thinking about was Suzanne Sommers.

These days, the 39-year-old Digital Domain visual effects supervisor, who remains one of the acknowledged kings of compositing, probably doesn't have much time for sitcoms. He's too busy as an increasingly in-demand effects wiz and Flame artist to doze through an episode of "Caroline in the City," although it's true that he helped build his reputation in the post industry doing effects work for such TV series as "The Twilight Zone" (the '80s remake, not the original), "Max Headroom" and the early seasons of "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

Now he's much better known for his high-profile commercials work, including the Jeep "Snowcovered" spot, Nike's outrageous Dennis Hopper football campaign and its tennis spot that pits pros playing across the pages of magazines on a newsstand. He was also the Flame artist who put together the "Got Milk?" Trix rabbit commercial and the football-kicking Clydesdales for Bud. And of course there's "Love is Strong," the Rolling Stones' 1994 video that's one of Raimondi's best compositing jobs, a Flame-broiled tour de force of seamless matting that looks so real you'd swear it was dubbed on Memorex.

For those of you still confused about just what Flame is (and are afraid to admit it), it's the software product from Discreet Logic that has revolutionized (lookout, hype!) the process of compositing and layering effects in commercials. Composites that were previously accomplished, back in the analog days, by adding one layer of video over another using tape machines and switchers (later digital disc recorders and digital switchers) is now accomplished in a big, pumped-up Silicon Graphics computer. With Flame you can do motion tracking (compositing stationary scenes into moving footage), keying, color correction and a whole rang of postproduction functions, and what's great about it is that you can do it all in one box.

And because it's a software program, not dedicated hardware, it easily evolves. "Where Flame really shines is that they can continue to write code for it," says Raimondi. "I've been working on the same piece of hardware since I started working at Digital Domain three years ago, but Flame has changed drastically since then."

So has Raimondi, when you come to think about it, although he's looked like a member of Metallica's road crew for years. A broadcast journalism grad of Jersey's Kean College, Raimondi's career took off after he took that TV station job. Within six months he was working at NBC in Burbank, after which he took a staff editor's job at The Post Group. From there he co-founded the post facility Planet Blue along with Maury Rosenfeld and another partner, and that's where he began to develop a reputation for doing high-end compositing. It was also there that he met Ed Ulbrecht, then a producer at Leo Burnett and now Digital Domain's executive producer and head of its commercials division. When Raimondi heard that Ulbrecht was leaving the agency to join the start-up DD in '93, he said he'd be interested in following suit. Tired of being considered "just an operator" of compositing gear, Raimondi says he wanted to be more involved in the upfront creative process. "Also, I usually got stuff dumped on me," he explains, "stuff that was shot poorly, or that needed to be fixed. And that grates on you after a while, if you're trying to do good work."

Realizing there was no chance of becoming an effects supervisor while a partner in a small facility, he saw the move to Digital Domain as an opportunity. It paid off in spades, and quick. Within weeks the Dennis Hopper job came in; not only did it mark Raimondi's debut as a visual effects supervisor-something he thought would take a year at best-but it also brought the Flame to Digital Domain. "This job came in and I thought to myself, there is only one system to do this on," Raimondi recalls.

Indeed, on the procession of jobs that Raimondi's done at Digital Domain, Flame has proven to be just what the rocker ordered, largely on the strength of its compositing capabilities. "If I had to look at the really successful Flame jobs I've done here-Nike tennis, the Stones, Clydesdales-the reason that they've shined is because they were compositing jobs," says Raimondi. "Using this software, there has never been anything where I've had to make a compromise, where I've had to say, 'Ya know, that's good enough.' Flame itself has never left me in that position. Clients have, because of time and money, but now the problem is more like, 'Gee, I wish I had another week to throw at that job, because then I could make it really cool.' I mean, its my axe-I talk about this product the same way I talk about one of my favorite guitars."

Raimondi has actually brought some of these axes to commercial shoots, where he apparently doesn't use them to chop up scenery. Says Greg Popp, executive producer at DDB Needham in Chicago, "Having Fred on the set is like having a second director around, but he doesn't cross the line, he doesn't get in the director's face." Popp says that he and the creative group he works with on Bud place so much stock in his word that it adds to the comfort level of much of the effects work they do, which always has a measure of anxiety attached to it. "Fred is very confident of his abilities, and he walks around the set with a little bit of a swagger. He's confident of his ability to work well with people on both the agency side and with directors like David Fincher and Kinka Usher, and that confidence is great for the process, it engenders trust. Basically, if Fred says he can do it, our opinion is, let's go for it."

Raimondi realizes that as he becomes more active as an effects supervisor, one thing he'll have less time to do is work on Flame, and he sounds a little worried. "I'm having this really hard time getting off the box," he admits, "and it's because I have this technolust. For me, it's where I really feel centered." He's also frustrated at times by the fact that he's now got greater control over the elements he has to work with. "Here I am at this place where I should be getting off the box, but I'm going, 'Hey, wait a minute, I shot this stuff, right, I have the time to really do something cool and make something cool. Dammit, I'm going to stay here and put it together myself!' " At the same time, he's mastered a technology that will allow him to do more than he's ever been able to when it comes to creating effects. "One by one," he says, "Flame is knocking down the obstacles that stood in the way of my making really kickass visuals."

For Raimondi, one part of his career goal is achieved: at Digital Domain he's immersed himself in a more creative environment, one that feels more like a studio than a facility. And he's establishing himself as a visual effects supervisor in the commercials arena. Does directing lie somewhere down the road? Without sounding like yet another version of that old Hollywood cliche, Raimondi gives every impression that he's interested in heading there. "I think commercials are a great place for me to learn how to tell a story," he says. "I have this image in my mind of 900 frames-that's what I've got to tell a story. Period."

Should he ever get behind the lens full time, it's a safe bet that, given his effects experience and his pyrotechnical skills, each one of those frames will

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