You’re in a friend’s kitchen, you see a face in a power switch on the wall and instinctively grab a couple of photos and videos of it with your far-from-cutting-edge phone with no particular intention of doing anything with them. It’s OK, we’ve all been there. But what then when you later decide that you’d like to use said material as the basis for your video Christmas card this year? Oh, and did I mention the kitchen is now some 130-odd miles away? You didn’t think this through, did you? Well no matter, that’s where the magic of visual effects comes in!
Now of course, there was nothing really stopping me from sourcing another switch and shooting new footage with this project in mind, but something about the challenge of re-purposing the pre-existing footage and working within those limitations really appealed to me. So that’s exactly what I did. With the help of Cinema 4D and After Effects, I was able to not only bring the power switch to life, but also recreate the scene in 3D, giving me the freedom to create new shots from different angles. Remember those security cameras in Enemy of the State? Yeah, it’s nothing like that.
The backbone of the project is two 10-20 second videos that I shot on an iPhone 4S, which were then manipulated to animate the fuse flap. To do this I used After Effect’s built-in Mocha tracker to track the surface of the switch unit. As this was only a 2D planar track, I couldn’t use it to add any 3D elements, but it was all I needed in order to animate the flap. A coloured solid, a couple of masks and a bit of scripting to link the animation to the waveform of the actor’s voice is all it took to pull this off. Well, that and a some minor manual adjustments to the tracking result, but given the low quality of the source footage, I was actually quite surprised how well the initial track worked.
THE TRICKY BIT
Camera Projection (the method of projecting a flat image on 3D geometry) has long been pretty easy in Cinema 4D, or at least so people claim. Personally I always found the old method of calibrating the camera manually by eye really difficult, but since R14’s Camera Calibrator feature was introduced, it really has become a quick process to calibrate the initial projection with little user input. Hooray!
So using this, I was able to take one of the photographs I took on my iPhone 4S, and map that imagery on, admittedly fairly crude, 3D geometry. With that completed you can then start to manipulate and add to the scene, such as moving the switch and adding the finger-removal system (patent-pending), as well creating and animating new virtual cameras. This is an incredibly common visual effects technique, particularly when recreating cityscapes, as you can often get away with a very simple 3D model when it’s obscured by photographic textures.
THE LESS (BUT SOMETIMES MORE) TRICKY BIT
With the hard part out of the way the next step was to try to make the 3D renders match the original video, and as they’re going to be intercut with each other, the closer we can match them the better. Sometimes, depending on the shot, this can actually be the hardest part of a job; this time we got lucky.
As this power switch is located in the most hideous corner of my friend’s house (you’ll have to take my word for it, but the rest of his house is absolutely lovely), I made an early decision to desaturate everything and make the video black and white. Everything looks better in black and white anyway. Colour isn’t too much of an issue in matching these two sources, as all we’re mostly seeing in the 3D renders is visual information taking directly from the photograph, but this does somewhat improve the overall aesthetics. It’s still a little grimy perhaps, but remember we didn’t plan any of this, so making it this far is quite a feat in itself.
In this case, the only jarring difference between the video and the 3D renders is sharpness; the video from the iPhone is very soft and there’s a fair amount of noise too, whereas the output from Cinema 4D is pin sharp when it’s not being affected by motion blur. This is a really easy fix, add a little gaussian blur and grain generated by After Effects and you’re mostly there. It’s not a perfect match, but in the context of this project, it’s more than good enough.
And that just leaves the audio. As it happens the aforementioned friend (Rory Auskerry) with the equally aforementioned kitchen is a professional voice over artist, with a home studio, and was willing to play the part of the switch. The sound effects are all licensed under Creative Commons licenses and were sourced from the ever-useful freesound.org, and then lightly tweaked and mixed in Premiere Pro. If you click the names in the credits below, it’ll take you to the SFX in question with details of license and author, and if you’d like to make use of Rory’s voice, you can find his website here: wantavoice.com
And in case you haven’t seen it already, here’s the finished video:
If you’d like to know more about any part of this process, just send me an email.
kklab5050, linse, univ_lyon3, kolczok, AlienXXX, Speedenza & Setuniman