Digital Production Buzz
October 9, 2014
Hosts: Larry Jordan
Guests: Brian Drewes, Co-Founder, ZEROvfx
Sean Devereaux, Co-Founder and Lead VFX Supervisor, ZEROvfx
Dan Berube, Founder, Boston Creative Pro User Group (BOSCPUG)
Tim Buttner, Founder, Tim Butt 2 Productions
Voiceover: The Digital Production Buzz is brought to you by Blackmagic Design, creators of the world’s highest quality solutions for the feature film, post production and television broadcast industries; and by shutterstock.com, a global marketplace for royalty free images and videos. With over two million royalty free HD and 4K video clips, Shutterstock helps you take your creative projects to the next level; and by Other World Computing, providing quality hardware solutions and extensive technical support to the worldwide computer industry since 1988.
Voiceover: Live from Ralph’s Maytag Museum and Podcast Studio in beautiful downtown Burbank, it’s the Digital Production Buzz.
Production, post production, distribution. What’s really happening now and in your digital future? The Buzz is live now.
Larry Jordan: And welcome to The Digital Production Buzz, the world’s longest running podcast for creative content producers covering digital media production, post production, marketing and distribution around the world. My name is Larry Jordan. Our co-host, the ever-handsome Mr. Mike Horton, has the night off.
We’re going to start our show with Brian Drewes and Sean Devereaux, the visual effects geniuses behind ZEROvfx, who handled over 600 shots for the new film starring Denzel Washington and directed by Antoine Fuqua, The Equalizer. We talk with both of them to learn how they did it.
Then Dan Berube, the President of the Boston Creative Pro User Group, has some insight for us about why user groups and personal networking are so important. He also just returned from Adobe Max, where he saw the latest software that Adobe released earlier this week.
And Tim Buttner is a multi-media expert at Tim Butt 2 Productions, who just shot a music video in very low light called Wolf Bite for the artist Owl City. His production and post workflow is very interesting; we want to talk with him about what he did and how he did it in today’s show.
Just a reminder that we’re offering text transcripts for each show, courtesy of Take 1 Transcription. Now you can quickly scan or print the contents of each show, as well as listen to it. Transcripts are located on each show page. Learn more at take1.tv and thanks, Take 1, for making the transcripts possible.
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of attending Adobe Max, when Adobe released new versions of all their creative cloud applications and I was struck by a number of things, one of which is the idea of leveraging the cloud to be able to store what they call a creative profile. Also, we’re seeing more support for a concept called libraries. This is media which is available between, say, Photoshop and Illustrator and InDesign, where we store the media in a library and it’s available between projects and between applications; and for us video types, the support for the GoPro Cineform codec, which is built into Premiere and AME, is especially exciting.
As I was looking at the work that Adobe was doing, it was clear that Adobe is leveraging the vast span of its applications to create a highly integrated suite of products targeted to specific markets. Each application can run standalone, but their true strength comes in being able to move data between applications and between the applications and the cloud.
Key to collaboration is the idea of the creative profile. This is a cloud based individualized login that can store settings, fonts, even media in a central location that is shared between applications and accessible between team members. The creative profile and associated libraries allow for easy element and document exchange between mobile and desktop applications.
Larry Jordan: And thinking about video, the new mobile app that was introduced and released on Monday is Premiere Clip. This allows anyone to shoot video with an iPhone – Android support is coming – then string clips into simple sequences, trim and rearrange clips, add music cues, add color grades based upon the LaMetric color engine from speed grade and output the results directly to social media or upload them to Adobe Premiere Pro CC. The imported clips come in as media and the edits appear as standard Premiere sequences. We’re seeing that editing video on iPhones is becoming a lot easier.
Thinking of interesting visual effects brings me to ZEROvfx. We’re going to be talking with the guys there in just a minute.
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Larry Jordan: Brian Drewes is the Co-Founder and Head of Production at Boston based ZEROvfx, where he oversees all components of large visual effects projects, from initial bidding to final delivery. Hello, Brian, welcome.
Brian Drewes: Hey, how are you?
Larry Jordan: We are doing great. I also want to introduce your cohort, Sean Devereaux. He’s also a Co-Founder and Lead Visual Effects Supervisor at ZEROvfx. His visual effects artistry has appeared in over 30 feature films, including American Hustle, Transformers and Cinderella Men. Hello, Sean, welcome.
Sean Devereaux: Hello, thanks so much for having me.
Larry Jordan: We are delighted. In fact, we’re talking with both of you today about your work on the Denzel Washington film called The Equalizer and, Brian, I’m going to start with you because B comes before S in the alphabet. Brian, what is ZEROvfx?
Brian Drewes: We’re a visual effects company that works primarily in feature films and television commercials, as well as software development for those industries.
Larry Jordan: Short of hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, I think the worst thing you could possibly do is to start a visual effects company these days. Why did you decide to start ZEROvfx?
Brian Drewes: We don’t think it’s that bad, actually. We’ve had really good success and I think that for a certain sized, certain focused company, they obviously have had problems but I think there are places for success and I think we’re showing that.
Larry Jordan: Sean, you have worn the hat of visual effects artist for a long time. What was it that got you involved in visual effects in the first place?
Sean Devereaux: I think it was probably the Wizard of Oz when I was three years old, hiding behind my parents’ ugly orange and brown couch, so scared of the Witch and seeing her appear out of nowhere and then sinking to the ground in a puff of smoke and fire. That kind of started my journey for me and never really left. The passion just grew from there and I studied both graphic design and film production in college as double majors, kind of a hybrid of what we do every day, and then was blessed enough to get to do it for a living and make movies.
Larry Jordan: Now that we’ve moved past being three years old into adulthood, what did you do with “The Equalizer?”
Sean Devereaux: The Equalizer was an interesting challenge because it’s definitely not what you would call a typical visual effects film. It’s very quiet in the visual perspective. You don’t really want to see what we did, but there are a lot of visual effects. So there’s a challenge in creating the story and telling the vision that Antoine Fuqua has for the film, but also not getting in the way of it, so that was one of the biggest challenges and that included everything from enhancing violence and helping Robert McCall, played by Denzel Washington, stab people in the face with corkscrews and shot glasses, blowing up huge harbors in unbelievably slow motion so that you see every absolute detail, from flakes of rust and dust flaking off of pipe right before it explodes all the way to seeing an explosion go 250 feet in the air as Denzel Washington walks away from it. Then we also did over 250 shots of 3D environment for very intimate scenes that were shot on blue screen, which you would never really expect to be done that way. There’s a lot of stuff that I think when people leave the theater, with the exception of the explosions, I don’t think they would be able to guess what we actually did in the film, which is kind of fun.
Brian Drewes: Which I should add is well over 600 shots.
Larry Jordan: Well, I want to talk about how you created the shots, but I want to back up a step. VFX companies talk about being assigned shots. Looking at it from a business workflow point of view, what role at the film maker decides what shots are assigned and which visual effects company gets them? How does that process work?
Sean Devereaux: It really varies per project. On this one, we were collaborators very early in pre-production. So to say we were assigned shots, we did the entire film, we were the only vendor on the film, so there really wasn’t assigning going on. It was more about deciding from the very beginning before we rolled a frame of film – or in this case digital cinema – how we’re going to accomplish things both for the beauty and the best way to do it to tell the story and wow audiences and to do it in a way that’s capable with the budget.
Brian Drewes: With this particular group of film makers and studio, we have a really good relationship and this is just something where they bring us in as shareholders, essentially. We don’t have ownership of the movie, but we feel that sense of ownership and we’re tasked with managing that almost as a visual effects department for that production. We take it quite seriously and so we end up really assigning ourselves the shots. When the film needs it, when the story needs it, when the director needs it, we’re there.
Larry Jordan: Sean, how big a team did you put together to create the effects?
Sean Devereaux: We had just over 50 people for The Equalizer.
Larry Jordan: How many?
Sean Devereaux: Just over 50.
Larry Jordan: Wow.
Sean Devereaux: That included everyone from the artists as well as production and very talented specialists in every category. We were very blessed with an awesome team.
Larry Jordan: Brian, there was a term that you guys referred to earlier called “violence enhancement.” What does that mean?
Brian Drewes: Well, I’ll let Sean describe that. That’s his area of expertise there.
Sean Devereaux: One of the first conversations we had with Antoine was about Denzel Washington, this powerhouse actor, arguably one of the best actors currently still working and really over the last century, and he didn’t want to just hand over some of the key performance moments that happen to be action to stuntmen. He wanted Denzel to be able to continue to act and perform and be in character while he creates these stunts and this wonderful action, so we came up with ways to enhance the violence. Obviously, Denzel Washington, you can’t really punch him in the face, even a stuntman, because Denzel Washington is actually a boxer and boxes all the time – he’d actually break someone’s jaw if we did that – so by letting Denzel miss the punch, we then digitally replaced his arm and connected it directly to the stuntman’s face, for example, so that even if you were to go through the film frame by frame, you would see every single punch, every stabbing, any violence whatsoever actually connect, actually enter skin and all this highly detailed stuff that doesn’t call attention to it but makes it look very real, very visceral and intimate in a very cool way.
Larry Jordan: I’m personally troubled by films which are overly violent. When you’re doing stuff like this, is there a line over which you don’t go? Or are you driven solely by the director’s vision? At what point is it too much?
Sean Devereaux: That’s a really good question. I think for me, and I think it varies per film, I think it’s too much when you’re creating violence for the sake of violence and there’s no reasoning for it, it’s just to get a big jolt out of the audience. That’s something that this film definitely does not do, just to get the shock factor. There is definitely some violence in this movie, but it’s not done to get the cheap thrills. It’s done because of the way that Robert McCall interacts and the way he’s trained and the way these bad people deserve to be told to stop doing what they’re doing, and if they don’t take that chance that he gives them, he puts them down. Again, none of the violence was done for the shock value. It was done because that’s what Robert McCall had available to him in the room he was in. He never walks into a single room in this film intending to kill any of the baddies. They were always given a choice, so when they don’t take the right choice he uses what’s around him to take care of business and sometimes those things are even more violent than a gun. A corkscrew in someone’s neck is going to be more violent than a gunshot in a lot of ways.
Larry Jordan: I’m not going to go too far down this philosophical path because it would take us the rest of the week, but do you have a role in deciding what’s too much? Or are you really just the hands of the director and you do whatever the director says?
Sean Devereaux: Oh no, it’s much more collaborative than that. Every discussion we have, we discuss things visually too, so it’s not just always words, like, “Hey, Antoine had this really great idea that if we do it this way, I think it’ll really work.” If he’s not sure, the easy answer is we’ll try it and see what happens, and we tried things that way. Especially early in the process, we’ll do a lot of concept work and really rough quick animations and things like that to just sell our ideas across and, of course, Antoine does the same thing. He’ll be like, “Hey, I had this idea,” and I’ll be like, “Ok, that sounds pretty cool, that could probably work,” and then he’ll say, “Well, let’s try it,” and we’ll try and see how it goes and develop it that way.
Larry Jordan: Brian, you mentioned something earlier I want to come back to before we go back more into effects. You had said that you would be adding shots as you got into the film and there was a collaborative process of deciding what shots would be added and what the shots would consist of. But from a business point of view, ad hoc adding shots can become a really expensive way of driving yourself over budget. How do you balance between doing what, quote, is right for the film and staying alive as a company?
Brian Drewes: That’s why we’re on set. You have your expectations going into week one of production and then it’s a moving target at all points. It’s a thing where, if you can foresee that you’ve got some extra shots this week, then you work with the film makers and the production team to figure out where to get those shots back from, and again that’s where we come in to really help and advise while on set, to say, “Ok, let’s find some ways to minimize some of these other shots or make them less complex than we originally intended them to be.” Again, we’re empowered to do that by the studio because they trust us to take care of that for them, so that then, since we’re there, since Sean’s on set, since we’re monitoring this very closely, we kind of know in general what’s going to be coming out as the editing happens. But, of course, we never know what is exactly going to hit the floor and what’s not going to. In general, we’ve been down this road long enough to kind of know what’s going to happen, so we keep good control of it.
Larry Jordan: Are you charging per shot or are you charging a flat fee for the entire film?
Brian Drewes: Oh no, it’s a per shot cost, yes.
Larry Jordan: So then it would not be unusual if they say, “We’re planning 300 shots,” and it becomes 600 shots, then the budget would change accordingly.
Brian Drewes: They would never say that. They would say, “How many shots do you think are going to be in this film?” then we go and break the film down. We generally do our best job to foresee what’s coming and, like I say, we’ve done this enough so our initial breakdowns are usually pretty close to what they’ll eventually be. It’s just one of those things that you change as you go and you just have all these discussions as it’s happening.
Larry Jordan: So really it becomes an ongoing conversation of what shots are needed.
Brian Drewes: Exactly, exactly, all the way up until the last day, until you have to deliver everything, it’s always in flux. Everything can change and does change, so it just takes attention.
Larry Jordan: Does the budget ever get locked? Or is it really changing because as post is going on you realize they don’t need this shot or they may need two shots.
Brian Drewes: Yes, there’s always a point at some point where the budget gets locked, but sometimes if there are good arguments for a bunch of shots that need to get added because the story changed in time in the edit and everybody thinks that’s the right choice for the film and it’s going to make it a better film, then that decision can get made. Again, there is a locked budget but oftentimes it will change as the edit’s changing and progressing as well.
Larry Jordan: I guess what I’m asking is that you’re not totally exposed here. You didn’t say – and I’m inventing a number – we’re going to charge a million dollars for effects and suddenly they ask you to do two million dollars of work and you’ve got to eat the rest of the money. There’s a conversation about making sure that you’re compensated for the work that you’re doing.
Brian Drewes: In every case that we’ve been involved in, yes, that’s the case.
Larry Jordan: Ok, cool.
Sean Devereaux: One of my early mentors, Fred Raimondi, told me once that being a visual effects supervisor means killing your babies. I think that applies to a lot of artists in general but really it’s not just this shot even… or it’s not. You decide what shots you fight for and what you don’t and you do make compromises in every form of making art. This is just another one of those ways where you say, “Ok, I’m going to let the shot go because you’re right, we actually do need this other shot and, although I don’t like that shot as much, it’s needed for the story where my shot was just created for fun, for the demo reel,” so there’s that kind of conversation that happens throughout the process as well.
Larry Jordan: Sean, I want to get back to some production challenges. Something that I think Brian mentioned but I’m going to ask you to answer, is that you were doing a lot of blue screen shots. Now, I’m used to green screen in film. Why are you using blue screen?
Sean Devereaux: We decide between the color of the process screen in many different ways and it comes down to discussions with the director, of course, the director of photography, which in The Equalizer was Mauro Fiore, and I typically choose blue screen for night shots. If the exterior will be night time, I like to choose blue because it’s a little bit darker illuminant and it’s a little bit more natural on the edges, where green screen’s just naturally brighter. Granted, of course, the way you light it will change that too, but it’s easier to make green screen brighter and it’s easier to keep blue screen a little darker. So if I’m going to shoot a half stop or stop down, for the background I’ll typically choose blue screen; and if I’m going to shoot a little brighter, I’ll shoot the green screen, just again because I want to keep those edges as pure as possible for what the background will leave behind in the foreground.
Larry Jordan: What was the biggest challenge you had from an effects point of view in the film?
Sean Devereaux: That’s a really good question. I think the explosion sequence was a very big challenge because in the script written by Richard Went, it wasn’t defined as clearly as it really needed to be for what Antoine’s vision was, so we kind of built off of that and worked with Richard to build that. Because we were seeing this explosion in what Antoine called McCall vision, it’s this kind of predatory mode that some athletes get into before a football… or a lion gets into before it… a gazelle. It’s hyper sensitive, almost like it slows down time and, by seeing an explosion in this way, you see all those little details and figuring out what details to show, what details not to show, how to shoot it in a way that is going to get us the best background plates possible was really a lot of things that, even as we were shooting it and even in post-production, you kind of don’t know if you did it right until it’s done and that for me creatively was really scary. It’s like I don’t know if this is going to work, but all you can do is absolutely do your best and at the end you go, “Yes, these… made a right and right enough that the sequence is phenomenal, one of the best we’ve ever done.”
Larry Jordan: What cameras were you using to shoot the shots?
Sean Devereaux: For those shots in particular, we used the Phantom at very high frame rates. I think we shot up to 2,500 frames a second for a couple of shots.
Larry Jordan: Wow.
Sean Devereaux: Very, very slow motion, like… and the rest of the film almost exclusively was shot on anamorphic lenses using the ALEXA Studio XT.
Larry Jordan: So Phantom for the slow motion and Arri ALEXAs for everything else.
Sean Devereaux: Yes.
Larry Jordan: These effects take forever and two days to render. What were you using as a rendering engine?
Sean Devereaux: Brian, you want to answer that?
Brian Drewes: Yes. A few years back we had started using the cloud to do our rendering tasks and rolled out a company actually based on that code and that software called Zinc, which is a software in a system that actually got acquired by Google at the end of August just this year, so that was a pretty exciting moment for us especially because we were using it so handily knew that it was really working well in our use case and many other use cases. For the really big shots, we sent everything up through that system.
Larry Jordan: That’s some amazing stuff. Are you now sitting back sipping mint juleps by the side of the pool doing nothing, or do you have other projects cooking?
Brian Drewes: Oh, we’ve got other projects. One thing that I mentioned earlier and it sort of goes to one of your questions, we do a lot of software development as well and that, I think, is a thing towards the business side. How do we stay healthy as a company is we don’t just focus on one thing. We make sure that we have a diverse revenue stream and diverse timelines for the kind of projects that we’re working on. Not just the kind of projects, but how long these projects take from beginning to end. For something like Zinc, that was a three or four year project, so we try to layer these things on top of each other and that really does a world of good for the bottom line and for the sustainability of a business. We much prefer to have staff artists. Of course, you’re always going to bounce up and down, but we’d much rather have longer term employees. It just is better for everybody. It’s better for the employee, it’s better for us.
Larry Jordan: Indeed it is. Brian, just to cut you off, what website can people go to see your demo reel and learn more?
Brian Drewes: Zerovfx.com.
Larry Jordan: Brian Drewes and Sean Devereaux are the Co-Founders of ZEROvfx, which is based on Boston. Gentlemen, thanks for joining us today.
Brian Drewes: Thank you very much.
Sean Devereaux: Thank you so much, Larry.
Larry Jordan: Take care, talk to you soon. Bye bye.
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Larry Jordan: Dan Berube is the Founder of the Boston Creative Pro User Group. He’s also the Co-Producer of the world famous Supermeets and a regular on The Buzz. Hello, Dan, good to have you with us.
Dan Berube: Hello Larry, how are you? And welcome and greetings from Boston.
Larry Jordan: Indeed. You know, it’s a Boston kind of day today. We were just talking to the folks at ZEROvfx, they’re based in Boston, you’re based in Boston. I don’t know where our next guest is, but we’ll put him in Boston just to be safe.
Dan Berube: I love ZEROvfx. They were just with me earlier this year at my user group. I just saw the advanced screening of The Equalizer and they showed off their sizzle reel behind the scenes and they’re great people.
Larry Jordan: Yes, it was a fun conversation. I always like talking to visual effects people because they’re living in their own reality. They’ve got images the rest of us can only dream about. You know, I just realized that BOSCPUG is more than 12 years old. That is a long time.
Dan Berube: Yes. I’m more than 12 years old.
Larry Jordan: I should hope so.
Dan Berube: I’ve got to tell you, the whole throwback Thursday thing that takes place every week, I decided to do some searching and I came across New England Film, one of our good websites here, and they did, sure enough, about three meetings in in May of 2002, that would actually be more than three, but they interviewed me and it was just an amazing process to just even find that. That the internet is documented in what you say holds true and I looked at some of the quotes that I had said and, sure enough, not only some of the quotes I had followed through on but some of my milestones that I wanted to achieve have taken place. It’s amazing when you’re passionate and you get it and it grows organically from within you what you can achieve.
Larry Jordan: Let’s just take a look at that for a second. Why did you decide to start a user group all those years ago in the first place?
Dan Berube: Back then, I was working as an Apple certified trainer and doing… They don’t have this program any more, but basically it was a group of consultants and so I was always doing these events with Apple at the Apple Market Center, right outside of Faneuil Hall, and every conversation at that meeting was, “Where can we get more? Where can we get more? What is this thing about Final Cut?” and it just, in short, led me to say, “I’m going to do something, I’m going to try to keep the conversation going in between these events that I hold,” but my user group experience didn’t start there. I was actually involved with the Media 100 user group here and it just stems from that. I remember all the excitement that built when NAB didn’t have Apple there and then that first NAB that there was this mystery software out there that could edit video without hardware and it was called Final Cut and what’s it all about? That’s where it started, Larry.
Larry Jordan: I was just thinking, continuing our Boston theme, Media 100 is part of now Boris FX, which is also based in Boston. You guys are causing a lot of trouble in the industry over there.
Dan Berube: We try. Boston strong, is what I like to say.
Larry Jordan: A lot has changed in our industry over the last ten years and I’m really starting to wonder, are user groups still relevant? Is there still a reason people should attend?
Dan Berube: Absolutely. The first and foremost reason why you should attend is that you get outside, you get out of your production office, you physically remove yourself from where you are and get inside a room with a group of people. Not online, on a forum, not on Facebook, but physically in front of other people who are likeminded and want to be inspired, want to meet you, want to hear what you’re doing, want to see some of the work that you’re doing. This is important. It’s called networking, Larry, and one of the biggest things I’ve learnt throughout these years is that this industry is built all on relationships. In order for you to progress and move, you need to physically place yourself in areas of interest and groups of interest that can help motivate you and move you forward, so user groups are very important.
Larry Jordan: Yes, but you can do the networking at a trade show.
Dan Berube: User groups are more focused than trade shows. You’re going to be guaranteed to be asked for feedback and provide feedback and see more of the people that you’re hoping to meet. I’m not knocking trade shows, I love trade shows, my career is built out of working at many trade shows and we actually started the Supermeet, the first Supermeet, back at NAB in 2002, I believe. But now, even when you go to a trade show, you have user group events and these are communal community events and community is important. Community is never going to go away and that’s what our user groups would like to focus on.
Larry Jordan: That gets to the point of the Supermeets themselves, which are essentially a super user group. Why did you decide, with Mike, to co-produce these things?
Dan Berube: Because we’re both nuts.
Larry Jordan: I agree with that.
Dan Berube: We both believe in the power of the individual and the ability to change people’s minds, to motivate people, that collaboration, value for value, together we stand stronger, all of these common quotes and phrases, they really add value when you put them all together and we like to do events. I liken it to the rush of a good take. Sometimes I say to myself, “Why the heck am I doing this every month?” and there’s so much work and no-one’s asking us to do this, we’re doing it because we feel we need to. We are ambassadors, but there’s a whole lot of work involved. But, you know, Larry, when that event happens, that night happens and we’re all together, the answers are all there.
Larry Jordan: The soul searching, I can see it from talking to Mike between events and between Supermeets. A whole lot of work doesn’t begin to describe how hard you guys work to make these Supermeets come off.
Dan Berube: Through the years, we’ve developed strategies and relationships and actually people that help us. It’s not just Michael and I. It’s you, it’s Cirina, your producer, it’s the sponsors that realize and understand the philanthropic nature of putting together an event that deals with people and our industry and this together is something that helps propel us. When we started back in 2002, there was just five of our groups that got together, but as we progressed through the years we had multiple groups and these weren’t just Final Cut Pro groups. We opened our doors and they’re all film making based. As Michael and I like to say, it’s not just about the tools, it’s how you use the tools and how you create. If there’s any indication that there’s a lot of work involved, the payoff really is the money shot and the money shot is that evening when we hold that event when everyone gets together.
Larry Jordan: Mhmm. Are you planning any new cities? Adding to the Supermeet collection of towns?
Dan Berube: This year, we were going to go to Tokyo during Inter BEE in November and so we’re looking at doing that next year and, of course, just the same as when we went to Europe for the first time to go to Amsterdam, it’s all dependent on people. In every city that we work with or that we go to, we work with likeminded people, people on the ground. Like with the San Francisco Supermeet, we have our good friend Claudia Crask from SF Cutters and others. When we went to London, we had people on the ground like Rick Young. There are a lot of people in Tokyo that we know and a lot of the companies have EMEA offices – Blackmagic Design and others – so there are people there that want to see it succeed and the culture for an event that takes place in a place like Tokyo is a lot different than holding, say, the Boston Supermeet. A lot is involved but the fun is the journey and meeting new people and working with them, so Tokyo is probably our next and most interested city that we’re going to go to. But we may very well, in fact, return to Austin for South by South West next year and in June we usually have a swing city, like we’ll do London – we’re going to do Miami this year.
Larry Jordan: Dan, for people who want more information on Supermeets, where can they go?
Dan Berube: They may go to supermeet.com.
Larry Jordan: And your website is boscpug.org and Dan Berube is the Founder of the Boston Creative Pro User Group. Dan, thank you so much.
Dan Berube: Thank you, Larry.
Larry Jordan: Take care, bye bye.
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Larry Jordan: Tim Buttner is a multi-media expert with skills that span various forms of media. Tim has worked multiple positions on a variety of productions during the years and recently completed shooting and post for the music video Wolf Bite for Owl City, using Blackmagic cameras. We want to learn more. Hello, Tim, welcome.
Tim Buttner: Hello. Can you hear me?
Larry Jordan: Loud and clear.
Tim Buttner: Awesome. Yes, I used the Blackmagic and the EF mount for that….
Larry Jordan: Well, wait, wait, wait, wait, you impetuous fool, you. Let’s start at the beginning rather than go to the middle. Tell me about what your company does.
Tim Buttner: My… production company pretty much does various media. I’m a freelancer generally and what I do is various video content as well as I also am a contributing writer to MarketSaw which is a 3D blog and I’ve done music videos, narrative, commercial content, corporate.
Larry Jordan: I’ve noticed on your website that you’ve got a variety of media – you do both stills work and video work as well as other stuff. Are you principally a video person or principally stills?
Tim Buttner: I’m principally a video guy.
Larry Jordan: Who are some of the clients you’ve worked with?
Tim Buttner: Let’s see, there was the Garden Club of America; Swing 46 was a client that we shot, it’s a restaurant and swing club in New York City, did a commercial for them back in 2009; I co-founded a company called One Forest Films, which … in college that we did a bunch of various content; Jag Old School Choppers; the Art Directors’ Club in New York; just various clients, tons of them. I’ve also worked for a 3D production company in LA, Digital Evolution Studios.
Larry Jordan: Ok, so clearly you’ve been doing this for a while. Just set the position before we talk about Wolf Bite. I noticed that the video on YouTube’s got about 560,000 views, so 560,000 people know the answer to this, but who is Owl City?
Tim Buttner: Pretty much Adam Young is Owl City. He’s a singer/songwriter and multi instrumentalist. It’s an American electronic kind of thing that he started in Minnesota and he’s done a number of music or feature films, animated movies. For instance, Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, which is a movie I actually saw back in 2010 and I had no idea that I was looking into someone I would end up actually working with.
Larry Jordan: Hmm. Well, Wolf Bite is their latest song. Who directed it and what was your role with putting that music video together?
Tim Buttner: The director was Andrew William Ralph and my role was as an Associate Producer providing all my camera gear and a lot of my post gear and I was the Director of Photography and then I did some VFX work and I colored everything with DaVinci Resolve.
Larry Jordan: So you were the one that was taking the pictures and making them perfect. What was your creative goal in shooting the film? And for those who would like to see it, if you just go to YouTube and do a search for Owl City Wolf Bite, you’ll see the video. What was your creative goal in putting this together?
Tim Buttner: Andrew is someone who does a lot of animation on top of video and he does very stylized videos, so when we met we spoke about what we were going to go for was a very artistic and open approach, because we knew we were going to be doing stylized animations on top of the video. We knew we were going to be having a time-lapse behind a wolf mask with the full moon, so we were going to be compositing several different effects together. We knew we wanted to shoot each thing and composite them together, so the goal was to shoot everything and then do all the work in post that we needed to do.
Larry Jordan: You had a very low-light, desaturated look. Was that intentional or just a result of the shooting schedule?
Tim Buttner: It was very much an intentional look, especially because we were doing all that compositing and one of the things that we decided with the animation effects was we wanted to have more emphasis on the animation but still have the color look stylized and unique. I did emphasize a lot of the oranges and the fur color and then we emphasized the blue of the moon with the dancers. We shot it all in 2.5K raw, which enabled us to really utilize the best dynamic range and the best quality out of the camera.
Larry Jordan: Now, you were using the Blackmagic camera. Which model camera were you using?
Tim Buttner: The Cinema Camera EF.
Larry Jordan: How did that respond in a low light situation?
Tim Buttner: It responded really well. We were shooting out of a back of a vehicle that we were driving. Streetlights were pretty much our biggest light and then we had a light coming out of the back of the car to key our cyclist, who was wearing a wolf mask, and almost all of it was shot 800 ASA. I never went to 1600, I shot it all at 800 ASA, which is base ISO for the camera, and I at most boosted about half a stop when we went into a park and there was no light from the street any more, it was just light from the back of the vehicle. It worked wonders. I was amazed at how well it could do in low light, but considering I had tests for a long period of time and I’d really pushed it and seen what it was capable of beforehand, we knew we could go 800 and get those quality images out of it.
Larry Jordan: Now, when you were going into color grading at the end after the editing was complete, how much did you have to push this to get the video to look right?
Tim Buttner: Well, actually the funny thing is we actually did all the color grading before we edited it.
Larry Jordan: Hmm.
Tim Buttner: Yes, it was because we knew we were going to be doing so much VFX effects kind of work with the footage and we were going to be doing those animation effects that the decision was to get it so that we had complete color grading on all the shots. We didn’t really shoot that much, so it wasn’t that hard for me to sit there and get it all ripped out very quickly, and I graded it. For some of the shots, I used the ImpulZ LUTs to give a base grade. All the dancing stuff was custom grading that I did from scratch, but the bike stuff I used the Vision3 Kodak 500T and for the specula lights that we shot, which we shot during the time-lapse, I used a Kodak Vision3 200T. Then pretty much once it was all color graded, maybe there were a few things after it was all edited that I went in and had to tweak color wise but, yes, all the grading was done beforehand.
Larry Jordan: And the reason was because you wanted to have the grade done before you applied all that yellow line animation?
Tim Buttner: Yes.
Larry Jordan: Now, how was that animation created?
Tim Buttner: That was using an iPad app that the director uses called Animation Creation. Hold on, let me just see if I can find that name. It was Animation Creation something. I can’t find the name right now.
Larry Jordan: He was creating it on an iPad?
Tim Buttner: Yes he was.
Larry Jordan: Then how did you get it into your system for editing?
Tim Buttner: You export the animated clips and it just exports just the drawings and we were able to bring it in. We pretty much laid them over completely in Premiere Pro. I don’t think we had to worry about going into After Effects and refining anything, so we were able to put it all right on top of the video right in Premiere Pro.
Larry Jordan: So you did the editing in Premiere Pro, you did the color grade in DaVinci Resolve 11 and, if I remember the press release from Blackmagic, this was one of the first pieces of video that was created in version 11 of Resolve. What was it like to use the software?
Tim Buttner: It was a wonder, I loved it. Pretty much the day we started shooting is when they actually released the data of 11, so right off the bat what I was able to use was that new toolset to be able to, once I bring in the video, I can actually have it copied to a backup drive and just start doing my color grading. Usually, my process would be then making proxies and doing a base grade, one pass to put out proxies, but this time, as I said, I had to do the full quality color grade pass to have it that once we were going into editing. But it was a wonder to work with, it was simple and easy. I had been using all the previous versions, so it wasn’t really that much of a big changeover. There were maybe a few UI changes in small little places that weren’t problems, but it was wonderful. It was fast, it was an absolutely perfect machine.
Larry Jordan: Were you remaining in the RAW? In other words, for editing you edited the RAW format that the Blackmagic camera would shoot?
Tim Buttner: After I color graded it, I exported it out as a ProRes 4444 version in the full resolution of 2.5K.
Larry Jordan: So you would shoot RAW, color grade RAW, export as ProRes four by four and edited that and then were overlaying the animation on the ProRes files?
Tim Buttner: Yes.
Larry Jordan: How long did the whole process take, first to shoot and second to do post?
Tim Buttner: We shot it maybe over two nights. The first night was generally just the bike sequences and the time-lapses and the speculas. Then we did the dancers the next night; and editing wise, once it was all graded – grading took no more than a day, so grading and exporting of the 4444 ProRes was about a day and then editing wise, I can’t exactly remember, it’s been a while. It was pretty quick. We put this one out a lot faster. We did a different music video that took a lot longer for us to release and one of the things that took me longest, I remember, in terms of any of the effects was in After Effects I had to go in and this one girl who was a dancer was wearing kind of a tube top thing and we were told we needed to cover that up. Luckily, because of the yellow effects, we could make it kind of like a artistic glow kind of thing, so I had to go in there and frame by frame kind of key frame up a kind of shirt thing to put on a couple of shots. I know that one took me about ten or so hours to do all the different shots that were in that, and then it depends on how long Andrew took doing each of the animation ones, but I would say it probably didn’t take us more than two weeks to do the whole project.
Larry Jordan: Well, it has a very interesting, a very unique look and very stylized. For people who haven’t seen it, check it out on YouTube, do a search for Owl City and look for Wolf Bite. As you wear your multimedia hat, what are some of the trends that you’re looking at, things that you can take advantage of creatively this year?
Tim Buttner: I’m looking a lot at 4K still, like everyone else. It’s a tool that is important. I’ve shot RED before and I know the extra resolution really helps, especially with reframing. It’s a great tool. I actually just saw that RED’s going to release this new little firmware thing where you can actually pick out dynamic range wise, so like, “Oh, I want to see everything at this F stop within the dynamic range.” That’s a really cool new little tool. They’ve called it… I’d have to actually look it up, but it was something scope, so that’s pretty cool. The MoVI is something that’s very interesting to me as a tool for a lot of the various ways in which we’re going around shooting stuff. In terms of post, I’m very excited with where everything’s going, especially performance capture. I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Andy Serkis for MarketSaw the 3D blog I wrote at… and just hearing what he had to say with what’s coming up and through with that technology, it’s very exciting. There’s a lot of exciting things in the future and I still have a strong belief in stereo 3D and I believe that, with 4K and the further pushes technology wise, 3D is, especially once James Cameron gets his Avatar 2, we’re going to see people saying, “Yes, 3D is still around, it’s still punching and it’s not giving up.”
Larry Jordan: Some of your work, maybe not all of it, but some of it is in music videos, which are notorious for having low budgets. Can things like motion capture or 3D even apply to a music video when there’s not a lot of money there to begin with?
Tim Buttner: That is an interesting question and when I worked for the 3D company in LA, we did… the people don’t stop color on the walls. Music video, we were the 3D company that shot that in 3D and that was released on a Nintendo 3DS. Now, that was actually a pretty big budget, a lot bigger budget than a lot of music videos. A lot of small independent music videos don’t really go that big, but that’s definitely something where 3D and certain VFX are definitely usually able to be applied. In terms of performance capture, that’s an interesting one. I would actually be very interested to see someone do a performance capture music video. I mean, it would be costly but I think it would be something that would be crazy cool.
Larry Jordan: Yes, but sometimes finding the dollars to fund crazy cool can be difficult.
Tim Buttner: Well, that’s why you need an artist who has deep pockets who’s just willing to say, “Yes, I have this great song that I’ve made. I want to do a music video and I’m going to put all my money into it. I don’t care if I make money back.” I know that’s something a lot of people don’t want to hear but it’s like, “I want to do something cool,” and they are doing it for the artistic reasons. That would be nice but, yes, generally at the end of the day it’s how much money can you spend and how much money can you get back from spending that money?
Larry Jordan: Yes, I know that equation very, very well. What projects are you working on next that we should keep our eyes open for?
Tim Buttner: There are a variety of different projects. I’ve got a couple of things I shot for the local newspaper and I’m helping them build a video section to their website. I shot the Spartan Race and NBC was also there and maybe possibly, because they saw the camera shooting, they actually asked me for the finish line footage that I shot, because I shot some really good finish line footage, so possibly some of that might end up in that show, which would be cool. I have no idea if that’s official yet though.
Larry Jordan: It’s still nice to think about though.
Tim Buttner: Still nice to think about, yes. Then there’s just a couple of other projects that people are talking to me about, some things I can’t say, it’s kind of under the radar, kind of like we’re talking to you, just don’t mention this kind of thing; and possibly some of my own narrative shorts in the future as well.
Larry Jordan: Very cool. Tim, for people who want to keep track of what you’re up to, what website can they check out?
Tim Buttner: Timbutt2.com.
Larry Jordan: That’s timbutt2.com and Tim Buttner is the Founder of Tim Butt 2 Productions. Tim, thanks for joining us. This has been fun. I appreciate your time.
Tim Buttner: Thank you very much.
Larry Jordan: Take care, bye bye.
Larry Jordan: One of the things I’ve been struck by as we talk with companies over the last several years is the sea change that’s occurred inside the visual effects industry. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed chatting with Brian Drewes and Sean Devereaux today, the Co-Founders of ZEROvfx, to see how they’re changing their business model to be able to keep up with the constant changes in film making and the effects industry.
It’s always fun chatting with Dan Berube. The last time that we talked with him, he was here in the studios talking about a Supermeet that he was about ready to do. He’s the President of the Boston Creative Pro User Group and I agree with Dan, the chance to get out of the office, get out of the edit suite and meet people and learn and get some new ideas is always a good one.
And Tim Buttner of Tim Butt 2 Productions talking about multimedia from inexpensive music videos to much more interesting stuff. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the Owl City video called Wolf Bite, do take a look at it.
Thinking of demo reels, the demo reel at ZEROvfx will suck the eyes out of your head and put them back. Amazing, amazing stuff.
There’s a lot happening at The Buzz between shows. It’s all posted to our website at digitalproductionbuzz.com. You can talk with us on Twitter, @DPBuZZ, and Facebook, at digitalproductionbuzz.com. Music on The Buzz is provided by SmartSound; The Buzz is streamed by wehostmacs.com.
Text transcripts are provided by Take 1 Transcription. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our producer is Cirina Catania, our engineers are Adrian Price and Megan Paulos. On behalf of Mike Horton, my name is Larry Jordan and thanks for listening to the Digital Production Buzz.
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