Christine Bunish
Issue: September 1, 2009


HD video cameras and digital SLRs have become part of the toolset for VFX and Flame artists and CG designers and animators who need a quick, efficient way to capture live-action elements to manipulate and enhance in post.


Superfad, with offices in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and London (, is an eight-year-old, design-driven commercial production company.  It was launched as a motion graphics studio and has gradually taken on full-service capabilities, shepherding spots from storyboard to screen.
As part of that evolution "cameras have become more a part of what we do," notes executive creative director Will Hyde, one of Superfad's founding partners. He has always been interested in photography himself, particularly high-speed shooting, so it's little wonder that Superfad owns a Phantom high-speed camera along with a Panasonic HVX200 DVCPRO HD camera with Red Rock 35mm lens adapter and has easy access to Red Digital Cinema's Red One camera. The company has also jumped headlong into DSLR-based shooting with both the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Nikon D90 digital SLRs. "I'm a camera-tech geek," Hyde confesses. "I like to play with new technology."
He worked with Phantom manufacturer Vision Research to help navigate the camera's transition to the broadcast arena and purchased a Phantom V9 before "trading up" to the HD model, which is "more user-friendly and integrates fully with standard camera support gear," he says.
Phantom constantly records "in a sort of RAM cache mode," he explains, "recording files in a loop in whatever frame rate you want. Then it freezes what's already been recorded when you want to save something. It's really very liberating."
Phantom played a key role in an effects-intensive regional spot for SoundTransit's new Link Light Rail from GreenRubino/Seattle, directed by Superfad's John Hilton. Designed to get people out of their cars and onto mass transit, the commercial shows a young woman stuck in a traffic jam. Suddenly her pine tree air freshener starts to sway, her coffee cup levitates, and her hair begins to float as she unfastens her seat belt and passes through the car window to join other lighter-than-air commuters, who are enjoying their newspapers and operating their laptops as they migrate to light rail commuting.
When the agency presented its concept to Hyde, the spot's budget wouldn't support CG so he suggested capturing the VFX in camera. DP Russell Harper shot the happy commuters at 1000fps jumping on trampolines. Played back in reverse the footage gives them the weightless feel required for the spot's "light" word play. "When you get to the apex of the jump it really feels like zero gravity when you're shooting high speed," Hyde points out.
Ryan Haug at Superfad edited the spot on Apple's Final Cut Pro using Glue Tools' Phantom Cine Toolkit. "The plug-in can read Phantom's proprietary raw cine format as QuickTimes, which we can open in After Effects or Final Cut," Hyde explains.  "It's really impressive that Glue Tools took the time to develop this for the relatively small universe of Phantom users."
Haug used Vision Research's proprietary Phantom software to convert the raw Cine files to 16-bit Tiff sequences to take advantage of the greatest color depth for keying the sky shots. The lighter-than-air commuters were composited together in the sky in After Effects.
Hyde plans to move forward with Phantom as the camera evolves. "They just released the HD Gold version with a brand-new chip and much more color sensitivity," he says. "I can see us using it as a digital cinema camera, even if high speed is not required. We can shoot timelapse at 1fps or regular speed, and the increased color range will really help with greenscreen shots."


At Kansas City's T2 (, "cameras have always been part of the toolkit" for mixing live-action elements with motion graphics and CG, says creative director Michael Ong. "Live action grounds a spot sometimes so things don't feel totally synthetic," notes lead CG designer Carson Catlin. "Shooting live action and comping in those elements may make more sense than trying to recreate everything, especially when you're dealing with organic elements like humans or fire and water," Ong adds. Catlin agrees. "Why recreate what you can shoot in a day? If you can recreate something physically, go do it."
T2 owns three Panasonic HVX200 DVCPRO HD P2-format cameras, which it purchased when they were introduced, and takes advantage of the proximity of sister production company, Back Alley Films. "Being closely tied to Back Alley, we can easily make use of their production services without choreographing a huge production," Ong explains.
Located just down the hall from T2's VFX department, Back Alley Films is a high-end resource that can furnish equipment and pull together crews for live-action shoots. Back Alley produced the busy, one-day shoot for a recent pair of spots for The Illinois Neurological Institute (INI) from Muller Bressler Brown/Kansas City that featured glowing CG neurons streaking against a black background and encircling a series of holographic-style, live-action lifestyle activities.
Ong had the idea of shooting the vignettes — a girl's birthday party, a fisherman in his boat, graduation day, a dancing couple, a man reading a newspaper, a violinist, an artist at her easel, a golfer teeing off and a woman at a computer — on a custom-built eight-foot turntable. "He thought they would look more dynamic if the people were subtly rotated; otherwise they'd be like stills," says Catlin. Some of the people performing the activities were friends and family while others were actors.
Catlin treated the live-action elements using the Sapphire filter package in After Effects to get the holographic look he desired. He created the constantly moving neurons in Autodesk's Maya and tapped Adobe After Effects to layer the neurons, live-action vignettes and backgrounds adding a heat-lightning effect to give an electrically-charged feel that fires the neurons.
While Catlin has found that the HVX200 is not the ideal camera for shooting greenscreen, it did well for the INI spots. "We weren't shooting for a key but for the absence of a background," he notes. "The camera served its purpose, especially since we were going to treat the images, and we got the resolution we needed."
Earlier, T2 used the camera to capture a library of ink blots for innovative graphic sequences in the IMAX documentary We the People. Ong art directed shots of ink spreading on wet paper which acted as compelling, organic backgrounds for layering historical black-and-white stills of slaves and Native Americans.
More recently, Catlin collaborated with Back Alley director Jason Moore on a spec spot for Tide. Instead of spending days crafting CG clothes churning in a washing machine Catlin shot a load of laundry in a machine at a local Laundromat and comped the action behind the glass into a 3D machine.
T2 is considering investing in a Canon EOS 5D Mark II or the Nikon D90 DSLRs.  "The footage I've seen online of the Mark II is just fascinating given the cost of the camera," says Catlin. "And I gather you don't have to be a pro to shoot with it, and I'm definitely not. I think we'd be able to do a lot more with a tool like the Mark II."


At Santa Monica's VFX house A52 (, lead compositor and Flame artist Andy McKenna has been "looking for the opportunity to use still cameras in post."
He has already tapped the motor drive mode of digital SLR cameras to  capture background plates for a number of spots. "You can either tether the camera to the laptop and fire off a timelapse sequence or utilize the motor drive and fire as fast as the motor drive can go," he explains. "That can work really well — the quality is just remarkable."
But, he recently had the chance to "bench test" Canon's EOS 5D Mark II DSLR for AT&T's hilarious "" campaign. With a limited budget, a three-week turnaround and great comic concepts — costume-gloved hands escaping from prison, riding a motorcycle, and engaging in Braveheart-style combat — McKenna, who also directs via Elastic, decided that the spots offered a "perfect opportunity" to try out the Mark II, a full-frame, 21-megapixel DSLR, which shoots full high definition video.
"As a Flame artist and director I knew what I needed to pull off the spots," he says. "We couldn't see more than half of the hands' forearms so framing was crucial. Live action and 2D seemed the only way to execute an awesome idea in a clever way."
McKenna rented a Sony HDW-F900R CineAlta 24p HDCAM and the Canon Mark II (A52 owns an older Canon EOS 5D) for the project. DP Jordan Levy manned the CineAlta for Jail Break and Army; DP Marty Rosenberg did the same for Chopper, the motorcycle-themed spot. McKenna operated the Mark II himself.
The cinematographers captured the hands' performance on greenscreen  using the CineAlta to record the horse and sword play for Army, the  tunnel escape for Jail Break and the Easy Rider-inspired road trip for Chopper. McKenna shot the Highlands-like background plates for Army entirely with the Mark II.
The production made McKenna "a big fan" of the Mark II. "It's pretty remarkable that a camera that small and lightweight was capable of capturing HD footage so well if you're careful about the exposure," he says.  "Without the Mark II, I wouldn't have been able to get the coverage I did unless I hired another expensive camera and crew."
He deployed the Mark II plus a Red One camera on a subsequent shoot for Nike's new Lunar shoes. About 50 percent of the footage used was captured by the Canon DSLR.
"If I keep using the Mark II, I'll buy it," says McKenna. "It's been very handy; it's so easy to grab it on set and do pick-ups from a different angle. It's become a complementary tool in my toolset. With the AT&T spots behind me, I knew the Mark II's limitations and capabilities for the Nike shoot, and I'm really pleased with the results. After I put the footage through Flame and did some post tricks, people are hard-pressed to call out what we shot in Red and in Mark II.
"Even in visual effects, the Mark II stands to be a very useful tool moving forward, and I'm sure that it will be accompanying me on my next shoot," McKenna predicts.


At Toronto's 4stroke ( design and animation studio, creative director/principal Tony Cleave notes that more designers are becoming directors these days "to optimize their roles as designers. In the past, they've handed off the shooting part of job and had to deal with the classic 'fix-it-in-post' scenario, but with designers now more involved in production they can manipulate footage in a more holistic way in post."
Cameras are now part of designers' toolkit as they, or the production companies and DPs they work closely with, shoot background plates and greenscreen and capture imagery that may be mapped onto 3D geometry, for example. "Access to these elements has always existed but designers have had less input on how they are derived," Cleave points out.
4stroke owns a Canon EOS 5D camera and has shot with an array of SLRs and the Phantom high-speed camera for commercial shoots. Cleave directed KFC's clever Characters spot from Y&R/Toronto which depicts a family of four Chinese written characters at a table enjoying a KFC Touch of Asia meal.  Senior animator Davor Celar and senior animator/technical director Derek Gebhart created the brushstroke characters with Flash's paint tool, animated them in Flash then emulated wet brushstrokes in Photoshop. The chicken drumstick and boneless bites the mother and daughter are enjoying were shot as stills and mapped onto Maya 3D geometry to "get chicken-in-the-round," Cleave explains. The elements were composited in Eyeon's Fusion.
Phantom was deployed to capture slow-motion shots of the crispy chicken falling into a bucket and a fortune cookie breaking to reveal its prediction. Boneless bites were dropped into honey sauce, the footage reversed and turned upside down. Erin Kuttner produced the spot for 4stroke.
In Explosion from Draft/FCB in Toronto, which drives viewers to, the Website of Ontario's Workplace Safety & Insurance Board, a man with a jackhammer starts drilling in the street only to hit a gas line and be severely burned by the erupting fireball. Approximately 120 Nikon SLRs were arrayed in an arc around the actor to capture a 120-degree view of the accident. 
Although the patch of fire on the worker's jumpsuit was real, director Nick Goso of Montreal's La Fabrique intended to shoot the fireball greensceen.  When it proved impossible to key, 4stroke was tasked with matching the fireball with one created in Maya's Fluid dynamic particle system and tracking it into the scene with Vicon Boujou. Gebhart was on-set supervisor and TD for the shoot; Celar crafted the fireball and augmented the live action with Maya-generated chunks of cement, dust and particles emanating from the explosion. Kuttner produced for 4stroke. Another spot for the same client, which showcased a collision between a truck and car, featured the same Nikon SLR technique; 4stroke again enhanced the accident with Maya debris.
While Cleave doesn't believe that video and file-based cameras are at a par with film cameras yet he's enthusiastic about the "liberating" aspects of shooting with such systems. "When you go straight to hard drive you can shoot without fear of cost overruns and not getting the shot you need. And you can be more experimental, especially when shooting high speed."
He says 4stroke is "always looking at options" to add cameras to its inventory and has its eyes on the Canon Mark II as well as Panasonic's DMC-GH1 DSLR; the newest member of Panasonic's LUMIX G Micro system, which offers still photography and HD video, "has gotten some big reviews on the Web," Cleave reports.