Smooth Operator

Category: Web Exclusives
Ben Le Tourneau is a partner and “director of motion” for The Operators, a London-based creative postproduction shop that specializes in innovative, creative techniques that bridge the gap between print and digital media. Recently, Ben and his team were talking about ways to promote their work in a way that truly demonstrated their creative differentiation. Tired of the “show reel” approach, Ben came up with an idea.

Rather than compile a montage of client samples, the team at The Operators came up with an idea for a screenplay, for a short film, that captured the essence of their unique creative style, while also weaving examples of their client work. The result was a short film titled “Grey Days.”

“Grey Days” follows the “morning in the life” of a man just trying to get to work and chronicling the annoying hassles we’ve all faced in the morning—from his car not starting, crashing his bike into a passerby on the sidewalk, discovering he has no cash for a cab ride after he’s already hailed it. And all along his journey, he’s peppered with advertisements and promos wherever he looks: from his cell phone and iPad, to the billboards, magazines, and newspapers that all come to life with moving imagery.

It’s through this technique that The Operators weave in their client work throughout the film. As you watch “Grey Days,” you realize the creative sophistication required to bring such imagery to life—and the challenges of some complex VFX.

Imagineer Systems caught up with Ben and asked him to dig into the production of his new short film (Ben’s answer to the “show reel”). An avid mocha Pro enthusiast, Ben had plenty to say about the product and how it was used to create the film.
Congratulations on the project. Can you tell us a little bit about The Operators? Who are you and what do you do?

We are a creative postproduction studio based in London that strives to breach the boundaries between print and motion. We create a variety of content across print and digital media, for global advertising agencies, leading commercial photographers/directors, and brands. We are also committed to producing innovative work that is creatively led, so our services extend to delivering full-media solutions, including, CGI, IMAGEmotion, postproduction, and live action. We also cover, creative direction, technical proficiency, and production management.

The new "Grey Days" short film is a unique way to present your work. Who concepted the project, and how much pre-production went into planning out the shots?

Ah, the wonders of pubs. Kai (KAI BASTARD founder) and myself, we were enjoying a chat over a few creative-enhancing beverages, and I mentioned that I was getting really bored of the same old show-reel montage you see everywhere these days. As we chatted, I thought, wouldn't it be cool to actually mix the show-reel concept with real-life action sequences where you could see our work in context?

What started off as a little idea—which was to create somewhat of a gorilla film around the streets of London —soon evolved into quite an epic project. We brought on board photographer/director Stuart McClymont to help us evolve this idea into a reality. And that’s how it all started!

Because if its increasing complexity, “Grey Days” ended up having to be well organized.  There were a ton of locations we wanted to film for the main character’s journey, and as this was a strictly self-promotion piece, our budget was uber tight. We were adamant that we wanted to shoot this with a documentary feel, so there was very little effort in prepping the locations for postproduction help.

What camera equipment and software were used?

We tried a few different camera solutions; however, we finally decided on the Canon 5D, as it could deliver a high-quality HD image while still being lightweight and mobile enough to strap to the actors head. Obviously, if you have ever worked with a Canon 5D in post, you know there are many limitations and obstacles to overcome. However, the pros certainly out weight the negatives in this situation.

The software we used were:
•   Final Cut Pro 7 for the edit
•   Color for the grading
•   mocha Pro for planar tracking, rotoscoping, inserting, warping, and removal and stabilizing   
•   Adobe After Effects for all the VFX compositing
•   Adobe Photoshop for retouching and prepping the artwork
•   PFhoe 3Dtracking

How much time was spent in postproduction and VFX?

As this was a labor of love, the short answer is: far too long! However, including editing, CGI, prepping artwork, tracking, and final compositing, the project took around three man-months.

There is a ton of motion tracking in the film, how many shots were actually tracked with mocha? How did mocha Pro assist the process?

Well, that’s interesting, because it’s not just how many shots where tracked, but how many areas in how many shots where actually tracked. Sometimes some shots had four or five different tracking areas—all-in-all, around 70 areas/shots.

mocha Pro was truly amazing! I can honestly say this project could have never been achievable without it. Since we could prep each area within a shot, tracking such loose camera work—especially on the Canon—was an amazing challenge. We encountered everything possible that should have caused the tracker to fail; however, with some tender cuddles, I was able to nurse the tracker through some of the more challenging shots. Also, the latest Shape export and tracking export works beautifully, which made the workflow between mocha pro and After Effects seamless

Besides using mocha's planar tracker, what other mocha Pro features did you take advantage of to hit your deadlines?

I didn't just use mocha for the tracker, though there were a ton of shots that needed to be stabilized, rotoscoped and cleaned up—all of which was tackled a lot quicker in mocha Pro. Even the ability to render out some of the insertions was a true gem; take, for example, ether. It’s a very interesting effect that corner pinning in a third-party application can give (softening of imagery and so forth). Also, where we found serious lens distortion, the lens collaboration tool really helped bed the artwork in beautifully without having to manually animate/warp the artwork each time.

Can you talk about any particular challenges or shots that mocha Pro helped on. Would these shots been more difficult to achieve in another set of tools?

I believe most shots would have failed using conventional tracking techniques; however, tracking the newspapers and magazines was challenging. But what we found was, as long as you track from the right frame and animate and nurse the spline/tracking areas, you can always get close and create a natural effect. Adjust track was also helpful when I needed to correct some of the tracks.

You've created some high-end VFX shots with relatively inexpensive tools. Is there anything worthwhile mentioning?

With purse strings pulling ever tighter, and the ever expanding delivery platform opportunities (Web, Digital Out Of Home, iPads, and so forth) out there, we really wanted to showcase that you can create high-end VFX work without the cost of having to use the larger and more traditional hero suites. Our ability do VFX within a reasonable budget is something I feel strongly about. As desktops keep getting stronger, more opportunities are now materializing—opportunities that used to be totally unobtainable.

The Operators has an interesting take on visual effects, coming from the print and advertising worlds. Tell us about it.

We are finding that, increasingly in the commercial field, photography is evolving from a static print-based medium to incorporate motion and become animated stills. It is with the convergence of these disciplines that we are focusing on the ability to facilitate still-to-motion campaigns, or what we’ve branded “Image Motion.” We try to offer a cost-effective new medium that combines the delivery of both print and digital campaigns. For every still brief we work on, we can employ static and moving components to create a complimentary motion campaign for digital billboards, viral advertising, and ISO. We feel that our Image Motion product pushes the boundaries of the digital medium and broadens the scope of the photographic / static output.

How would you sum up your take on mocha Pro?

mocha pro is a must-have tool in your arsenal!  Budgets are tighter and VFX expectations are at an all time high, so mocha can and will be a cost-effective solution to deliver high-end imagery on time and on budget.
To view the short, go to http://theoperators.net.


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