PBS "Bucket Brigade"

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The Guess

Allen and Davis: The fire was shot on a green screen, then added into the spot in post.

Humble: They shot buckets with fire in them from different angles on blue screen. They shot the scene with people passing buckets with nothing in them and then composited the fire in the buckets.


Innovation extinguishes conflagration in "Bucket Brigade" for PBS-a metaphorical message promoting the station's ability to take its programming to the realms of the unexpected and original. We open on a rural library aflame on a village hill. Panic ensues in the community, further heightened once the local well runs dry. Disaster looms large until an enlightened chap ponders the scene, inventively using his bucket to scoop the fire out of the building. The townsfolk jump in, passing buckets of fire down to the grassy knoll thus extinguishing the blaze.

The Mill, London had the unenviable task of adding fire effects to an inspired commercial-with very few flames caught in camera. "That was the biggest challenge because it was the core ingredient of the script," explains lead Flame artist Phil Crowe. "We had to composite fire into the buckets in a very natural way without taking anything away from the original look."

The Mill was prepared for all scenarios with 3D artist/visual effects supervisor Hitesh Patel. "We had limited shoot days so it was important to know that we could create flame elements back in London," explains Patel. "This required tests using Maya Fluids before production to show everyone we could realistically generate flames. When I arrived on set in Chile there were some relieved faces."

Use of real fire on set was too hazardous for actors to handle so beauty plates were filmed with specific talent holding empty buckets. Realizing Maya software was primarily designed to create large-scale infernos, Patel made sure shots of real flames were captured using stuntmen against plain backgrounds. Back at the facility, close collaboration between the 2D and 3D departments allowed a roughly composited version of the commercial to be seen.

The initial bucket scoop of flames in the library proved the most difficult effect to create. Every type of element was thrown into the mix. "We played around with speed and direction plus used animating mattes to displace the flames and give the feeling that [the flames] were traveling into the bucket," explains Crowe. "Once we were happy with the flow of the fire we finished in Flame's paintbox." After the flames were rendered, Crowe and his team replaced skies and added hand-drawn vignettes to each scene. Paul Harrison also gave a crisp feel to the proceedings by adding an "auto-chrome" grade, an old school developing technique that creates crushed blacks while maintaining saturated colors.

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