NEW YORK - Doing nothing can be contagious. And now anyone with some free time and access to a modem can enjoy the antics of the entertainment world's unlikeliest duo for free. Two new American Express "Webisodes" star Jerry Seinfeld, the comic who became a giant by doing "nothing" on TV, and Superman, who became a giant in comics, TV, cartoons and film by doing everything he could to save the world on a regular basis.
We've seen Seinfeld and an animated Superman hang out in an American Express spot a few years back, but this time it's different. American Express, working with Ogilvy and Mather, arranged last fall to produce two short films for their Web site under the helm of legendary director Barry Levinson.
Amex, Ogilvy, Seinfeld, Levinson ... Superman... big names like this get you thinking big budget. Wrong. Levinson shot the two shorts, one in New York and one in Death Valley, CA, on a shoestring budget. He shot traditionally but used Canon XL-1 DV cameras (with a $70K Enzo lens package) instead of film. And Superman's animation, done in homage to the classic style originated by illustrator Curt Swan, is really Flash animation with some added touches from both the traditional and software-based schools.
In the finished shorts, Jerry gets to hang out - and stretch out - with his childhood hero. Both Webisodes are five minutes long, allowing plenty of extra time for the characters to relate to each other in a purely Seinfeld kind of way.
In the shorts, Jerry convinces Superman to eschew his super powers during their time together and
that, along with the hilarious Man of Steel voicing of Patrick Warburton (Elaine's most memorable boyfriend in the Seinfeld series), takes these shorts to the level of classic comedy. In DVD, which Levinson shot on the streets of New York last November, Jerry wants Superman to install his new DVD player, but it's stolen by a street thug before they can get it home. In Road Trip, shot in Death Valley, Superman locks Jerry's keys in his car and they bicker as they await roadside assistance. (An irritated Superman informs Jerry, "You're a petty, petty man." Jerry prods, "Flying at super speed - do bugs hit your face?")
Unplugged's Richard D'Alessio (left) knew the animated style would translate well to Flash because it has an illustrative quality to it.
The two Adventures of Seinfeld and Superman may be seen only at www.americanexpress.com/jerry. But then there was Matt Lauer's Today Show interview with the superstars on March 29th running four-and-a-half minutes and a handful of TV promos that boost the total workload up past 15 minutes.
Thanks to the Flash expertise at Unplugged Studio in Toronto (www.unpluggedstudio.com), Superman's animation was turned around at astounding speed for such extended screen time.
The production company that wove all this together, including a bicoastal Final Cut/Shake post production effort and lining up the animation house, was Jon Kamen's @ radical.media (www.radicalmedia.com), which prides itself on creating high quality "branded media" often on radically low budgets. Kamen is based in New York, but @ radical.media also has offices in Santa Monica, London, Paris, Berlin and Sydney, and boasts a bicoastal in-house finishing service, Outpost Digital, which specializes in low-cost solutions.
Kamen envisioned big stars in a small medium, the Internet - shot on DV, animated in Macromedia Flash and composited in Apple Shake says Unplugged founder Richard D'Alessio, who is also a live action director working for @radical. "This meant the entire project could be done on off-the-shelf consumer products," D'Alessio says, "on PCs and Macs." Kamen showed his people the original Seinfeld/Superman Amex spot from the 1990s, featuring lush Hollywood animation, and asked if it could be done in Flash. D'Alessio and company analyzed the old spot, agreed they could do it, and took it one step further, developing drawings from illustrator Curt Swan's retro, old-school Superman work. "We knew that style would translate really well to Flash because it has an illustrative quality to it; it's very flat and iconic and graphic. We knew if we added lighting, which they did at Outpost, that we could create an interesting illusion that you had this character here that really felt like he stepped off the comic book page."
The Webisodes were edited at Outpost Digital on Final Cut Pro.
To prove their concept, Unplugged provided the client with an animated test based on footage of Seinfeld adlibbing humorously with an off-camera Levinson. Using Flash and their libraries of expressions and gestures, "we delivered a minute of animation to them in two days. When they saw that we could do that they were like, 'You gotta be kidding me.'"
Working out of Outpost Digital in New York, freelance producer Gary Streiner called on his past experience with Ogilvy, Seinfeld and Superman on the original commercial production. One initial challenge the Webisodes posed for Streiner was to get DC Comics and Warner Bros. (which has been the historical - and traditional - Superman animator) to allow a band of low-budget outsiders, working in Flash no less, to animate the venerable Superman character. Streiner recalls one crucial meeting the @ radical.media crew had with DC and Warners in which those who would animate, edit and composite the new Webisodes explained that they'd be working in three different cities: "It was like the new young Turks and the old established dynasty, but I think they appreciated a young team that could say, 'Bring it on - we don't care how high profile it is!'"
"We've always been faced with jobs that are pretty high end but don't have budget," adds @ radical.media's CTO Evan Schechtman, "and we've always had to find creative ways to get the job done at the same quality but using nontraditional steps to get there." Schechtman also oversees post activities at Outpost Digital. Tricia Cook, an Avid editor with credits on many Coen Brothers films, took up Apple Final Cut Pro for the first time on Seinfeld and Superman. Cutting with animation was new to Cook as well as using FCP. With Outpost Digital's Jon Schwartz as her assistant editor, Cook worked in DV resolution. Her selects were later upsampled to 4:2:2 in online. Schwartz also handled the many approvals - required by everybody from Seinfeld to the client to DC Comics - through a secure site he managed.
Composites were via Shake and Alias.
RE-ANIMATING THE MAN OF STEEL
For all the serious attention given to Superman's look, the Adventures of crew, particularly the animators, got away with imparting a whole new demeanor to the Man of Steel. This Superman (who loves Broadway musicals and dislikes The Green Lantern) often evinces subtle, non-superhero expressions while he goofs off, sometimes baring his soul, sometimes sparring with Jerry.
Unplugged expanded its staff from nine to about 30. "For Superman we had a combination of classical animators who were doing some of the hand-drawn sequences; we had people taking the scanned drawings and doing cleanup on them," says D'Alessio. "But cleanup in a nontraditional sense - they'd be vectorizing the scanned images into Flash. We had two lead Flash animators who would animate libraries of poses. Then we would have classical animators on each team who would animate the sequences that needed that style of animation, especially walk sequences. You'd have to create a 60-frame walk cycle, then you would be manipulating the facial acting and head movements in Flash and then you might add some extra arm movements."
D'Alessio found this unusual marriage of Flash animation with classical animation and live action "extremely challenging. We went into the project knowing we had unbelievable time constraints and working with Seinfeld and Levinson where you really want to let those guys do what they do best. You didn't want to handcuff the director and the lead actor with doing the shots in a restrictive manner."
As director of animation, D'Alessio was on set at Levinson's shoots where he tried to solve any problems as they arose. Still, he had resigned himself to fixing most things in post in order to maintain each sequence's air of overall believability.
For the Today Show interview with Matt Lauer, broadcast on March 29th to kick off the Adventures of Seinfeld and Superman site, D'Alessio shot in January on the Today set with Seinfeld and Superman's voice, Patrick Warburton. (Warburton was not available for Levinson's November shoots.) Warburton sat on the interview couch with Seinfeld and both responded to Lauer with scripted shtick. D'Alessio says he had no need to force Warburton into a green suit. Unplugged animated the Man of Steel over him with relative ease. Warburton's performance included realistic fumbling over phrases and awkward pauses that were welcome because they added interest and a sense of immediacy to the animation.
Thanks to their mastery of Flash and growing libraries of sophisticated traditional animated motions, Unplugged was able to provide a Superman that D'Alessio feels would have taken over three months to animate traditionally. Also, Flash is easy to tweak: "We wanted to be able to look at the performance and change it - on the fly." Unplugged used "pieces" of animated movements, such as Superman's hands, in various different sequences, adding them "almost as you would to a Mr. Potatohead."
DV to WWW
Levinson's footage looks remarkably like that of a traditional film. "Outpost is known for its ability to take DV and grade it to look like other formats," says Schechtman. The lens on Levinson's DV camera, for instance, "took some of the edge off the digital video," he adds. Using Pinnacle's CineWave engine for FCP on a G5, Schechtman and company could upsample the XL-1's 4:1:1 output and transcode it to 4:2:2 16-bit YUV. Using the latest CineWave version, Schechtman says, "DV media will upconvert instantly. 'Codec coexistence' is our label - it's instant online like [Avid's] Symphony! We can then do a final render to 32-bit floating point." CineWave/FCP also allows for detailed 16-bit color grading in realtime.
Working at Outpost's Santa Monica office, Ting Poo and AJ Pyatak performed the Seinfeld and Superman composites, replacing the onscreen man in the green (or blue) suit with the animated Man of Steel, using Shake and Alias Maya. This proved particularly tricky in walking sequences, which Levinson shot on NYC streets with his camera moving between pedestrians as if the piece were not a live/animation marriage. "If this were a traditional job," Schechtman says, "you'd have Flame and Inferno all day. We chose Shake."