WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR ‘THE ROUT’ – WATCH THE SHORT FILM FIRST!!!
Since THE ROUT was meant to be a sci-fi thriller full of action, stunts and crazy (super)natural occurrences, it was pretty clear that a lot of visual effects would be needed. Although it’s only 10 minutes long, it contains over 50 VFX shots. And while many of them were just as simple as adding a couple of muzzle flashes or removing some forgotten equipment that was left in the frame (which happened quite a lot since we were in a rush), some of them were pretty demanding and tested our skill and patience in a variety of ways. In this (super comprehensive!) article, I’d like to cover our biggest VFX challenges that we faced, and share some useful tips & tricks that helped us solve them.
Since this was meant to be an action movie, locking down the camera to a tripod in a static shot was out of the question. The rough terrain and thick foliage meant we couldn’t set up a dolly. And, because of some scheduling issues of our actors, we had to shoot the whole movie (with the exception of some establishing shots) in just one day. So we knew from the very beginning that we would have to be shooting completely handheld. And, as far as the visual effects go, that could only mean one thing…
MOTION TRACKING NIGHTMARE!
Seriously. Motion tracking was the most difficult part of all the postproduction. But at the same time, it was the most important one. You can create a perfect roto, blend all the explosions together nicely, create extraordinary particle simulations… it doesn’t matter – if you don’t nail the motion tracking, the illusion falls apart. Most of our footage was extremely shaky with an excessive motion blur, so using the default After Effects point tracker was pretty much impossible. Luckily, there’s a champ in the house, the expert in tracking the shaky footage – and his name is Mocha for After Effects.
Mocha’s planar tracking method is vastly superior to AE’s default point tracking and the results are unparalleled. Another part of the trick is Video Copilot’s ‘Corner Pin To Null’ preset which takes Mocha’s planar tracking even further (in short – you can basically put your FX anywhere in the large tracked surface area, while using the much more versatile Corner Pin data, instead of using the AE Transform data for a particular spot in the frame and then having to track the shot all over again, should you decide to change the position of your FX). However, not even Mocha is almighty and we had to fix lots of tracks manually – frame by frame. Like in ↓THIS↓ case, where we needed to add the citadel in the background – the footage was just too shaky for the tracker to handle and many manual adjustments were needed.
But there comes a time when you need to put a 3D object into your scene and while Mocha is great for tracking a 2-axis movement even with tonnes of motion blur, it’s just not gonna be very helpful when you need to get the 3D perspective right (unless you go for a much more advanced Mocha Pro which does not come bundled with AE).
Now, After Effects has a built-in camera tracker since CS6, which works just fine for most of the basic shots. But with this amount of motion blur and not many unique tracking points to grasp on, it didn’t stand much of a chance. So we opted to use The Foundry’s Camera Tracker plug-in instead, cranked up the number of tracking points a lot and hoped for a miracle. Luckily this tracker produced much better results and we could finish even the most complicated shots with just a little bit of manual fixing. Sadly, this plug-in was discontinued in 2017 and is no longer available, so I guess we’re stuck with the AE’s default camera tracker for the foreseeable future – hopefully, it will get better over time.
Why not both?
Once you know all the possibilities of motion tracking, you don’t have to limit yourself to just 1 technique per shot. Remember, different effects require different methods and you should be able to adjust accordingly. Like in this next example. The storm and the citadel were both 2D effects in the background, so there was no need for a full-fledged matchmoving. So we decided to use 2 instances of Mocha’s planar tracking instead – one for the storm in the first half of the shot and the other for the citadel at the end. Plus, the shot was too shaky and blurry for a decent 3D track anyway. However, even if the 3D camera track was too sloppy for a static object to stick to a certain place, we could still use it for adding the rain and the grass particles into the shot. Since the particles were moving so wildly and we just needed to get the rough movement of the camera to orient them the right way throughout the shot, even the sloppy camera track was pretty useful.
If you’re shooting handheld and don’t plan every small detail of your shot, you’re gonna pay the price when doing the VFX (just like we did). However, if you can make it through the tedious process of motion tracking, the benefits are huge. The handheld movement of the camera can add some much-needed realism to your shot, instead of it looking like it’s been deliberately set up (with the camera locked down to a tripod) just for the effect to take place. The wild camera movement, alongside with the right amount of motion blur, can make a big difference in how natural the shot feels and how well-integrated the effects look.
A solid track is a good starting point, but it doesn’t end there. The proper integration of the elements into the scene is necessary in order to make the illusion seamless. In the previous example (as well as in the next one), the citadel is being partially obscured by some trees. But while the trees in the previous shot are not moving too wildly and there isn’t much detail in them (so it would’ve been possible to create a basic subtraction mask with the Roughen Edges effect added on top to reintroduce some detail), the next shot is much more complicated – the tree is moving in the wind and there’s a lot of detail thanks to its leaves. However, there’s another (better!) method that is much easier to do – creating a matte. In ↓THIS↓ shot, we used the luminance as our matte property, since the citadel is only being obscured above the horizon and there was a clear contrast between the bright sky and the dark leaves of the tree. But you don’t have to limit yourself to just that. The previous shot didn’t have that distinct contrast – the sky wasn’t overblown and the trees weren’t dark (so the luma matte wasn’t possible) – but there was a clear color difference between the blue sky and the green foliage, so we could use the keying software. Not in the usual way (to create transparency), but to create a luma matte based on the color difference – that way, the blue colored sky could stay in the background while the citadel could hide behind the green trees.
But our pursuit of realism didn’t stop there. We didn’t want our action to be full of stylish lens-flares and phony fiery explosions, no. Since we decided to approach the action in this “run & gun” fashion, full of chaos and handheld shots, we also wanted the effects to feel more dirty and gritty and less Hollywood-ish, if you will (mainly, to save the cinematic spectacle for the storm finale). The question was: HOW? When in doubt, always do your research first!
↑THIS↑ landmine explosion was supposed to be a little callback to our very first video. As an idea, it was a pretty good starting point. But the original explosion shines too bright, has too much fire going on and the shot has a very excessive (and noticeably artificial) camera shake. As far as the execution goes, we had to step up our game. We didn’t just want it to look cool – we wanted it to look realistic! So we did our research. Turns out that when a real landmine explodes, pretty much all you’ll ever see will be smoke & dust. No fireball and almost no flash of light from the explosion (unless you stand very close – not recommended). So we tried to replicate just that – and I’d say the result looks much better this time around.
Also, did you know that a .50 cal sniper rifle can pierce through wood like a hot knife through butter? Okay, maybe you did… you internet junkie! The point is – when it comes to VFX, research is LOVE, research is LIFE! 😉
THE PERFECT STORM
As I said, we saved the most cinematic shots for the storm sequence – the climactic ending of our big chase. We wanted to capture the massive size of the storm in the grandiose wide shots with very little movement.
↓THIS↓ first shot was done almost entirely on the computer and could be broken down into several components. The background is an image of a supercell, that was slightly animated using the Liquify effect. We made it a 3D layer, moved it far back on the Z-axis and scaled it up a lot so that we had a lot of freedom to tilt and move the virtual camera. On top of the supercell, we added a couple of layers of mountains and forest, and also pushed them back a little bit. Between some of them, we put a layer of an animated Fractal Noise to simulate the rain falling from the clouds. The foreground layer is just a shot of grass in the wind, that we filmed on location. Add a lens flare on a 3D light (we used Optical Flares), flash a bolt of lightning once or twice, add a slight camera shake & play with the exposure to make it feel more realistic and bam – you’re done!
Faking the zoom
The ↓NEXT↓ shot was much more complicated. As the bad guys were running, we wanted the camera to zoom out and reveal the storm that was chasing them. But we didn’t have a telephoto zoom lens. So we could either shoot them from up close, which would mean they’d run out of frame pretty quickly, or we could shoot them from a distance and that would mean there wouldn’t be enough detail for the zoomed-in part of the shot. Luckily, we had an iPhone that could shoot in 4K. Since every other scene of this movie was shot on DSLR in 1080p, the 4K capability meant we could do this shot from the distance, not worrying our actors would get out of frame too quickly, and still preserve enough detail in the shot for digitally zooming-in in the post.
As for the storm itself, it was created using Trapcode Particular (as well as all the other particles) that we gradually faded into a backdrop image of a tornado which was slightly animated using Liquify. We then added the looming shadow using the RG Shadow plug-in from the Red Giant’s Warp effects collection. The grass, forest, and sky have also been digitally extended so that we could zoom-out even more. As you can see in the VFX breakdown video, only about 10 % of the final shot is actually real (which sounds crazy considering we filmed it to be twice as large as all the other shots).
Fly, you fools!
The biggest challenge of them all was: How to make our actors fly CONVINCINGLY?! The original shot was pretty basic – 3 guys running, then jumping up, pretending to be blown away, and then running off the frame, so that we could get a clean plate. We’ve rotoscoped them and animated them flying away into the storm. The problem #1 was the takeoff during the jump didn’t really work. It felt too forced. The problem #2 was they looked like stiff scarecrows, not moving naturally according to the wind.
The first problem was solved by doing the takeoff a few frames earlier, right before the jump. It suddenly felt like the wind violently jerked them up into the air, which was exactly what we needed. We solved the second problem by using the Puppet Tool. We set a couple of points for the arms, the legs, the head and the torso of each character and then tediously animated those points frame by frame in order to simulate the natural motions of a human body – and it made a big difference in selling the effect!
This was our very first short film. We’ve come a pretty long way since 2010, tackling challenges we never thought we could face. Yet, here we are, doing the FX, that used to be way beyond our league, with ease (or just minor hiccups). Of course, there’s still a lot to learn and there will always be room to improve. But that’s not the point. We wanted to prove to the world (but mostly to ourselves) that it is possible to bring even your wildest ideas on the screen, despite not having a multi-million dollar budget or hundreds of people doing your bidding. And that mission was a success!