Nothing is Real

By Published on .

The kinds of CGI images you see in a spot today might pop up in a major motion picture tomorrow, and vice versa. What the two media have in common is that a lot of the most celebrated frames have been tweaked to perfection at the pixel level. But we're not just talking digital dinosaurs or sinking luxury liners anymore. Digital effects are now prodigiously applied to ordinary-looking frames. In other words, the next car commercial you see could very well feature an all-CGI vehicle -- and you might never know it. Bruce Stockler reports.

When commercials director Michael Bay directed his first feature film, Bad Boys, in 1995, film critics took his head off. Bay's oversaturated color palette struck cinephiles as sleazy, cheap, a visual distraction from the flimsy buddy-cop story line. But Traffic, Steven Soderbergh's dissection of the U.S. war on drugs, uses overexposed film, filters, and digital color correction. The two halves of the film, cool blues and dusty yellow-browns, are crucial to the plot.

Oh, sure, the script is better, but that's not the point here. Both Bad Boys and Traffic, not to mention dozens of other films, such as The Cell, The Crow, Se7en, JFK, Three Kings and even Toy Story, derive much of their visual inspiration from the digital postproduction of TV commercials and music videos.

Despite the runaway success of commercials directors in movies, this is not a one-way street. The editors, animators, Inferno artists and code geeks working on spots effortlessly cross over to films and TV shows and back again. Even animators working in the most rarified of atmospheres -- on blockbusters like Titanic, The Perfect Storm, Jurassic Park and Star Wars -- see their sweat, software code and brainstorms recycled into commercials.

The lines between the industries are increasingly blurred by the rapid pace of change and innovation. It took a year for the morphing technique in Terminator 2 to spread across TV commercials. Now a similar cross-pollination may take mere weeks.

Oddly, despite the elimination of most of the production barriers between films, TV commercials, TV shows, and music videos -- barriers that often amount to nothing more than the space between two cubicles -- old prejudices and antagonisms still exist. Spot directors are derided as lacking the story sense for films. TV directors are seen as ineffective pawns of writer-producers. Movie directors who work in spots are seen as dabbling dilettantes.

Oh, well. The neuroses and backbiting have failed to stop an explosion of innovation, both technical and creative. Films and commercials and TV shows are full of digital animation and effects -- even the projects that look effectless and animationless. And the much-maligned Michael Bay is now one of Hollywood's A-list directors. Sources say his next film, Pearl Harbor, is being posted to death, with Bay digitally color-correcting and cranking up every single frame, to differentiate his epic from every war movie ever made.

This, then, is the inevitable future of movies and commercials -- to tweak every pixel of every frame, then tweak it again. Then, of course, it's time for one last tweak.

The Chair That Doesn't Exist

So many commercials directors have jumped into film, from David Fincher to Tarsem to Spike Jonze to animator Gore Verbinski (whose The Mexican was number one at the box office as this Creativity went to press), that younger spot and video directors are being handed A-level jobs.

"It's a good time to be a commercials director," says Greg Krause, a special effects artist turned director. "The A-list guys are all gone, so there's a vacuum." Greg Krause is only 26, but he and his brother Colin, 24, are already building an amazing body of work across videos, TV shows, films and now spots. They understand this tweaked-pixel future. The name of their Santa Monica company is Pixel Envy. The Krauses built the CG interior of the massive alien mothership in The X-Files movie and are creating the effects for The X Files show this season. They also worked on the open for The Lone Gunmen spinoff.

The brothers produced all the CG and effects for the big-budget Jennifer Lopez music video, Play. All the elements, save Lopez, are CG. The entire video was shot green-screen. In fact, a chair Lopez sat in was erased and rebuilt in CG because the director, Francis Lawrence, didn't like its design.

The limitations of the physical world just don't matter. "Film has been shot the same way for 100 years, but it's now economical enough to create your environments synthetically," says Colin Krause. "It's not just the backgrounds, either. We can move the camera around in CG. We can jump the camera 50 feet in 30 frames. There's no way to do that with film, with motion control or a crane."

The blurring of reality is the heart of the digital revolution. Now here's the scary part. Because The X-Files TV show is produced on such a brutal schedule, with episodes broadcast out of order, mistakes happen. Last-minute continuity changes are needed. The Krause Brothers digitally erase people from scenes who were suddenly written out. They change actors' positions within scenes, alter their mouths to fit looped-in dialogue. Props and doors are repositioned. Cars move from here to there. The X Files is itself a conspiracy.

The Krause brothers have taken their pixel-tweaking into commercials recently. They built a CG chrome ball for a spot via Weiss Stagliano, New York, which would have been impossible to shoot in the real world, for the same reason that CG cars are replacing real cars -- lighting, reflections, color and position changes. The Krauses expect to start directing spots within six months.

Oldies but Goodies

Not all visual inspiration comes from new players. The big effects and animation houses like Industrial Light & Magic and Digital Domain are still innovating new post methodologies. ILM, of course, is working on Star Wars: Episode II, created completely in the digital realm. George Murphy, the ILM visual effects supervisor who won an Academy Award for Forrest Gump, says ILM is adapting synthetic terrain technology created for the pod-racing sequence in Episode One. The ability to generate CG landscapes, and place CG vehicles within them, was used in a recent Pontiac spot.

"The software was completely rewritten," Murphy explains. "We pushed it in ways never intended for the feature. And those tool sets, along with the new looks we accomplish, will get redesigned for another feature film. Everything flows together."

Murphy helped adapt the technology used to put CG clothes on the CG characters in Episode One for a Hefty One-Zip commercial. In the spot, the CG Hefty bag assumes photorealistic texture, lighting and movement.

The tools developed by animation and effects houses have become lucrative digital assets, the virtual equivalent of stages and backlots. Digital Domain still wins spots based on the motion tracking software developed for its debut spot seven years ago, for Jeep. The CG tools helped eliminate the need for miniatures and models shot under bulky motion control cameras located in massive warehouses.

Digital Domain has a set of digital tools it is continuously refining. Under the tentative moniker Terra Terrain, the cpmpany offers an array of organic natural phenomena, including landscapes, water, sunrises, clouds, mountains. "They range from the undetectably photoreal to the mind-blowingly fantastic, like the mountains in Whoville," Ed Ulbrich explains.

Ulbrich, an executive producer and "employee #2" at DD, sees CG cars in commercials as one of the most revolutionary changes in spots. "Just a few years ago, even to suggest doing a car in CG would have been high treason," he says. Now, CG cars commonly replace sheet-metal live-action shoots. Digital Domain has created CG cars for Mercedes-Benz, GM and others. Shooting cars in CG allows agencies maximum flexibility. "Now we can change the grille, make it forest green for the West Coast and red for the South," Ulbrich explains. It adds up to increased savings, too, he says, so that car advertising budgets no longer dry up in the third quarter.

Morphing Like the Flu

The visual language of commercials today is a polyglot of Eisensteinian truths, MTV-inspired subterfuge, and digital experimentation. Spot directors accumulate every visual trend, trick, cheat and cliche ever tried. Today, new tricks pop up -- i.e., the "Pop Up" animation on VH-1 -- every week.

A year after T2 (1991) escaped from James Cameron's feverish imagination, morphing began to spread like the flu. Ten years later, any overused trend quickly becomes known as the "morphing" of the decade. Topping the list of visual cliches is the technique known as "frozen moments" or "3-D freeze." Key frozen moments can be found in Jonathan Glazer's five-year-old classic commercial for Nike, featuring Michael Jordan; and in the swing dancing spot for the Gap's khakis (conceived in-house) in which the camera moves around a dancer frozen in mid-air. The technique is accomplished by placing up to 80 synced cameras in a circle around the subject, then cutting the different perspectives together to create the illusion of a moving camera. "Everyone says they hate it, but people still request the frozen moment look," says Dave Checel, an editor at FilmCore, Santa Monica.

Checel often creates a simpler, less expensive effect, the "speed ramp," an editing effect performed anywhere, from Avid to the Henry to Inferno. "You're just freezing for half a second -- maybe 15 frames," Checel explains. "It creates a moment of stillness that is very effective." Checel sees speed ramps in spots and films like Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight. He also sees "crash zooms," an effect achieved by cutting together two shots from very different focal lengths and blurring the edges to make it look like a continuous camera move. "The cheap man's morph," Checel jokes.

But it was the frozen moments in The Matrix that unleashed a torrent of savage imitations and parodies, in commercials and TV_programs and on the Net. Like the morphs in T2, The Matrix's effects were almost too successful for their own good. Dozens of technical trends ping-pong between commercials and films like that. Rotoscoping dead actors into live footage -- "digital resurrection" -- was used to good effect in Forrest Gump and The Crow, then applied distastefully to make John Wayne, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly act from beyond the grave in spots.

The Next Big Thing?

"Everyone wants to know what the next big thing is," says Alex Seiden, a former ILM visual effects supervisor, now at Cyclotron, New York. "To me, the biggest trend is color-correcting every scene in a movie, which is where commercials have been for years. Traffic looks like a TV commercial." Seiden also sees a lot of invisible CG work. He helped a British client solve a problem in a Cheerios spot by building CG Cheerios in, of all things, a frozen moment tabletop spot. As with cars -- which he has also built in CG for clients like BMW and Publicis -- tabletop can now go CG. Fruit, water, milk, sweaty glasses -- another genre bites the dust. Chris Staves, a visual effects artist at Method, Santa Monica, has also been using CG transparently. He did invisible element retouching and created subtle CG blood drips in the upcoming drama One Hour Photo, directed by Mark Romanek, another graduate of music videos.

For DPs, overseeing the transfer of their beloved footage is critical to their artistic identity; but now, in commercials, the primary film-to-tape transfer is becoming nothing more than a formality. Multiple stages of digital color correction, performed on dedicated color correctors or in multi-purpose effects platforms, like Inferno, have assumed dominant artistic importance. The good DPs are strapping in for the ride.

For years, music videos pushed color saturation, tweaking color values higher than legal NTSC bandwidth. When video aces like David Fincher and Tony Kaye started shooting commercials, they imported that obsessive colorization. In fact, Kaye pioneered the process of shooting in black in white, transferring his final cut to digital, and adding color frame by frame, element by element.

Now, obsessive color correction is starting to invade features. Case in point: The Cell, the debut feature from spot and video genius Tarsem, who directed REM's "Losing My Religion" video. "The Cell is beautiful," says Colin Krause, of Pixel Envy. "It doesn't look like any other feature film ever made. The colors are exotic and bizarre. The director is pushing the reds beyond the means of the film stock." If The Cell had been a blockbuster, it might have spawned a generation of look-alikes. (Naturally, film critics took pot shots at Tarsem and The Cell, too. It's almost as if they are being paid by the Directors Guild to remind people how lowly the origins of these obnoxious spotties are.)

Film directors enjoy a whole different catalog of abuse when they direct commercials. And, truth be told, film directors have enjoyed much less success in spot directing, for a variety of reasons -- working film directors can only squeeze in a few spots a year, at best; the world of commercials is vastly decentralized, and a director's influence accumulates only after years of work; spot directors work for agency people, who can be more demanding and difficult than even Harvey Weinstein.

Bryan Singer, who exploded onto the Hollywood map with the scathingly intelligent The Usual Suspects, then directed X-Men, is one director who makes the transition to spots and back with seeming ease. (He shoots out of Propaganda Independent, Hollywood). His flexibility helps. "I would like to work on commercials with an epic visual scale, but I have just as much fun with a simple commercial," says Singer.

For X-Men, Singer demanded "organic and elegant" special effects: "The characters undergo physical transformations, so the effects flowed from that." Singer mixed CG with interactive lighting and practical effects, blurring the lines between worlds. Wolverine's claws blend props and CG. When Saber Tooth's hair stands on end, that's an old-fashioned Van der Graaf generator (a device that creates static electricity). "The audience is always a step ahead of you," says Singer, who is big on stories, not effects. "You can get lost worrying about how something looks. You have to worry about keeping the story moving."

The Brothers Krause are hoping to direct big studio films like X-Men. They believe the next step in feature filmmaking will be to transfer every frame to high-definition video for digital post, color correction, effects and CG. "Even if you record the film back out to negative frame by frame, you're only looking at one or two million in a feature that will cost, say, $80 million," says Greg Krause.

One irony of the move to digital, the brothers note, is the slowing down of film editing. For 20 years, both MTV and commercials have played a game of neurological Twister to see who could create the most cuts per second. Now, music videos are slowing down because, Greg Krause says, directors want viewers to absorb and appreciate those richly layered, photorealistic, atmospheric, tweaked-to-perfection compositions.

Marrying the Real and Unreal

Dennis Berardi is no stranger to that kind of hyper-manipulated footage. A former visual effects supervisor at Toy Box, Toronto, Berardi worked on digital effects in The Cell, Fight Club, and Keeping the Faith. Now he heads his own Toronto shop, Mr. X, where he built part of a CG church and castle for a Hallmark TV version of Prince Charming. The CG buildings seamlessly matched one-story sets. That technique -- matching pieces of the real to huge tracts of the unreal -- was also used to build ancient Rome in Ridley Scott's Gladiator. "But it also goes the other way - down to the subatomic level," says Berardi. He created effects for a music video directed by Noble Jones in which the camera tracks down through the grooves of a record on a turntable to find the band floating like atoms in the ether.

"The craziest shit you'll ever see is in music videos," says Greg Krause. "By comparison, advertising agencies and film studios are highly conservative. But that's changing. Day by day, they're moving toward a world that's completely synthetic."

Most Popular
In this article: