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Animal Creates the Haunting Light of Echo Torch in SCRATCH

It's clear that creative genius is at work in "Echo Torch," a visually stunning, twenty-minute short, a co-venture of by Chris Preksta of Mercury Man Pictures, Animal, and Steel Town Entertainment. "Echo Torch" tells the story of a photographer who creates an electrical torch that reveals a hidden world layered upon on our own. It's filled with revelations of the past, beautiful spirits, strange creatures, and dangerous phantoms. 

Preksta was the mastermind behind "Echo Torch", as writer, director, sound designer, and VFX producer. One might ask, "How does he do it?"  And the answer is simple:  very, very well. http://chrispreksta.com 

Pittsburgh creative house, Animal, also played a key role with Allan Stallard doing the conform, color grading, and finishing. Animal is well known for its passionate, somewhat obsessive content creators who help craft the story of their clients to engage and inspire audiences.  And "Echo Torch" is a prime example. www.animalvfx.com 

The result is a brilliant collaboration by two creative talents to create a captivating film.

In a recent interview, Preksta and Stallard discuss the creative development of "Echo Torch".  

Q: The electric torch is like an ethereal character of the story. Was your objective to have the torch play the role of narrator?

A:  Preksta - The electric torch leads the viewer through the story so we wanted to protect the "personality" of the torch's double-helix glow throughout the film. The torch guides the viewer through scenes that evoke different emotions - from eerie, to scary, to romantic and nostalgic memories.

Q: The fantastical lighting used throughout the film is mesmerizing and awesome in the true sense of the word. What look were you working to achieve?

A: Preksta - The look of the film is certainly inspired by early Spielberg films like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Those classic films are permanently lodged in the back of my mind while storyboarding or discussing the film with our team. We were trying to create an atmosphere of mystery and wonder. We also wanted to complement the cinematic effect with a full original music score, rather than just mood music. The lighting, the glows, the darkness, and the music all come together to tell the eerie and touching story of a photographer going back in time to experience a spirit world that layers on our own.

Q:  How complex was it to create and manage the lighting of the torch and the sets?

A:  Preksta - Very. Starting with the shoot, we had all the discomforts of six days of shooting in two, abandoned schools in the middle of February, where natural lighting was minimal. But the lighting worked to our advantage for the scenes we were creating and shooting. And with the brutally cold Pittsburgh winter (-5°F), all the breath you see in scenes is real - no CGI was necessary!

We had six days for principal photography, and then an additional four days a few months later to film the spirit/ghost effects. Our DP, John Pope, used a RED Epic 5K camera and added the Dragon 6K sensor for some scenes. This allowed us to get the density and nuances of detail in the imagery, especially in the darkness of the sets. 

We had to figure out different solutions to get the right lighting for the torch. The torch light itself is an elongated incandescent bulb with a blue glass covering to change the light temperature from orange to blue. But in some shots, the strength of the light wasn't strong enough so we had to remove the blue covering. We relied on Allan to color correct in ASSIMILATE's SCRATCH to get the mismatched hues right. 

Q: How did you create and shoot the various spirits?

A: Preksta - We decided to shoot practically and then augment digitally. And being on a tight budget, we faced several creative challenges.

Several of the shots for the spirits were shot on a black screen, essentially resulting in a double-exposure layered on top of the footage for the composition, and then the effects were applied. 

I've done tons of VFX, but in writing the script, I considered the film production, what I was capable of, and knew we would need to shoot on a black screen to create the right effects.  Throughout the scenes, the torch (key light) is illuminating the ghosts, which would have been more difficult to shoot with a green screen - just adding unnecessary steps in process.

Another interesting example is the tormented spirit that was filmed on a white screen, but then was inverted to a negative image before being composited onto the original footage. After being inverted, the dark spots on his body, including his eyes and mouth, appear to glow. It looks like it was created using modern visual effects but we used techniques that have been in use since the very first days of film. People often mistake it for a CGI character. 

The puppet spirit was a three-foot tall wooden character with LED eyes built and operated by the team at Tolin FX. It was shot on a black screen at half speed (to smooth out its movements) and then scaled up in After Effects to appear six-feet tall on screen. The puppet performers had to time their movements to the original footage of the actor, but since it was being recorded at half speed, they had to double the speed of their movements to match it up. This took quite a few takes.

One of our biggest challenges was matching the camera movements to the spirits.  With our tight budget we had to figure this out the old fashion way -- mathematically and trial and error. On a bigger film this would have been done with a computer motion-controlled camera.

Q: What tools did you use for the post-production?

A: Stallard - Since we're a complete production studio, we manage the editorial and post in house. We used Premiere Pro for the cut.  I then did the conform in SCRATCH, as well as all the color grading.  Chris did the compositing, working off graded plates that were de-noised.  Then after the final review, I did the finishing in Flame.

Q: What challenges did you face in the post?

A: Stallard - Playing the use of light against the darkness was a key stylistic decision. When seeing the ghosts, the dark adds to the look and feel and the mood of the scenes. And the torch needs the right amount of light to illuminate certain scenes. 

SCRATCH is excellent at working with the native RED files and I was able to tease out the depths of the darkness and also adjust the metadata to select the white balance, so that I could adjust the color temperature in SCRATCH.  I left the color temperature fairly cool and would control the falloff of the blue light with a soft mask. Then I could either force more blue into where the light was or take blue out from the where I didn't want it. .

Some scenes were naturally very dark and I found no way to get a good exposure without introducing too much noise, so we decided to de-noise everything, adding back grain at the final stage after the VFX.  

I relied heavily on the layering and masking in SCRATCH (Scaffolds) in several areas, for example, the hallway to ballroom scene.  When the lead actor moved from the hallway to the ballroom, the production light was still on the hallway and the practical torch was just not recreating the transition from one room into the other enough. With a few scaffolds and some roto and masking I was able to recreate the effect of the torch, transitioning from one room to another through a doorway. 

At times, I would focus heavily on the torch itself, adding layers and using some old tricks like additive or screen on a luma key and playing with blur and opacity to create a glow. A few times the practical torch had to have its blue sheath removed to get an extra F stop in the scene. The scene at this point was completely missing any blue glow from the torch. Luma keys, hue shifts and forcing in blue was the only way to match those shots in. When the lead actor walks down the spiral staircase is a good example of a shot that had no blue at all in it from the camera. This was my most heavy-handed grade because Chris and John could only do so much within the given budget. This was definitely a three-way collaboration of talents. 

The grading of the spirits - tormented human, puppet, flying fish, ghost - all presented unique challenges and lessons. These all were going to be essentially a luma type comp and were lit with a very dramatic fall-off to black, so we wanted to make sure that compositing them would have the appropriate look.  Other types of cleanup, like removing red badges from the uniforms, I did in SCRATCH.

Q:  What were your deliverables?

A:  Stallard - We made a DCP for the theater using SCRATCH and just one other app.   We did the conversion of the color space from REC709 to XYZ and processed the jpeg 2000 sequence in one render from SCRATCH. Both Chris and I agree that the DCP looked gorgeous...really impressive.  

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Related Keywords:Assimilate Scratch, RED Epic 5K, Dragon 6K sensor, Adobe Premiere Pro


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