Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 4 (April 2002)

Commercial Potential

By Audrey Doyle

As the capabilities of high-end nonlinear video editing systems have evolved over the last several years, so have the roles of video editors. No longer do they use NLE systems just to cut and paste frames and clips from one spot in video footage to another. Now they can perform tasks that have traditionally belonged to other professionals: They can handle compositing and rotoscoping, create effects and 3D type, and correct color and lighting. In short, they can more fully exploit their artistic skills, and in the process play a more integral role in the projects on which they work. Although these changes are taking place just about everywhere that NLE systems are used, studios that make television commercials-for which artistic expectations are high and hours-per-project are low-have been maximizing the potential of these systems.

Just 2 Guys is a five-person Manhattan boutique that works almost exclusively on commercials. For video editing and effects, the team relies on Avid Technology's Avid|DS, which-like most high-end NLE systems-integrates image and audio editing, compositing, paint, animation, character generation, and media management tools. For 3D work, the facility uses Softimage|XSI 2.0, Softimage 3D 3.9, Alias|Wavefront's Maya, and Discreet's 3ds max, running on dual-processor Windows 2000 machines. According to Royce Graham, a principal at Just 2 Guys, the varied features in his Avid|DS have been a boon to him and his company.

"In the early days I did straight online and offline video editing," Graham recalls. But a few years ago, he began beta testing Avid|DS, which at the time was being developed by Softimage and was called Soft image|DS. "Once I started using it, I found that DS gave me the editing tools I needed, plus a host of creative tools, right at my fingertips. So, over time I became a compositor; I became an effects guy; I became a color correction guy. My skills grew tremendously, and I'm happy about that."

Graham can now use DS to manipulate video footage directly, rather than having to visualize effects in his head, describe them to the client and a 3D artist, and hope that from his description the client can envision what he's talking about and the artist can create the look he's after. "In the commercials industry, you don't have time for a lot of this sort of back and forth. The deadlines are too tight," he says. "With DS, I can create the effect I'm after myself. Plus, I can suggest to the client ways to improve the piece, and even if I've only roughed it out in DS, I can give the client and the 3D artist a good idea of what I'm talking about."
Disparate CG elements in a Trident ad came together with help from Avid|DS. The enhanced abilities of Avid|DS and similar NLE systems are streamlining the creation of TV commercials.
Images courtesy Just 2 Guys.

Also, if at the final editing stage Graham sees something that won't work visually, he can fix it. "This saves us a lot of time, too," he notes. Before DS, if Graham saw, for instance, that the CG wasn't lit properly, or the colors weren't right once he'd composited the CG into the footage, he would have had to send it back to the 3D department to be fixed. With DS, he can light and color a CG model correctly so it blends seamlessly with the video foot age. "Put simply, DS has given me as an editor a new lease on life, where I'm not just relegated to cutting and pasting footage, and handing off to someone else anything requiring 3D," Graham says.

"I love 3D, and I'm trying to learn every package I can," he continues. "But I run this business. I edit, I work with clients, I produce; there are only five of us here, and we all wear a lot of hats." So although his 3D design expertise isn't as strong as he would like, "DS gives me the tools I need to communicate my design ideas, and bring them to fruition when I need to," says Graham.

Graham has used DS for compositing, color correction, lighting, rotoscoping, and effects creation for countless commercials. Most recently he and his team completed an entirely digital 3D CG spot for Trident White gum, a tooth-whitening product. Created for Trident and ad agency J. Walter Thompson, the 30-second commercial tells the story of a pack of Trident White that comes to life one night. "The pack of gum is sitting on a table in a living room," Graham explains. "All the little pieces of gum creep out of their box and magically whiten the teeth of a woman in a nearby photograph."

To create the spot, Just 2 Guys used Maya for modeling, Softimage 3D and XSI for animation, and XSI for lighting, texturing, and shading. Graham handled all the compositing, as well as effects such as color correction, reflection mapping, and motion blur, in Avid|DS. According to Graham, DS's color correction and compositing features played a crucial role in this spot. "There's a journal on the table that has highly reflective gold pages, and it was a bear to render," he says. "In some shots it looked OK, but in others it looked too flat." Whenever the team increased the anti-aliasing in the troublesome shots, the render times would skyrocket to the point where the team was afraid they might miss their five-week deadline.
A tattoo gun moves across background titles in a commercial spot for the Oxygen network. The spot's creator used Discreet's Smoke not only to composite the footage, but to perform lighting, shading, editing, and animation.

To handle the problem, Graham used DS to composite the correct texture from the good shots into the flat shots, and used DS's color correction and lighting tools to emulate light bouncing off the table. "I also mapped the reflections from the room into the gold pages. That made everything in the scene marry together nicely." Graham adds that enhancing the scenes in DS rather than sending everything back to 3D meant the team was able to meet its deadline.

Like Graham, Dale Boyce began his career as a linear editor. Today he is a visual effects compositor at Broadway Video, one of New York's leading independent entertainment production and post-production companies. "As a linear editor, I had never been on anything like a paint system," Boyce says. "I knew what they were used for, but I could not have used such a system myself."

A few years ago Boyce began using Discreet's Smoke editing and finishing system, and last September he began beta testing the newest version, Smoke 5. "When I started using Smoke, I learned skills I never would have learned in a linear editing environment," says Boyce. "I'm now using the system for everything from painting, editing, and compositing to color correction, rotoscoping, and creating 3D type. And although I'm not exploiting all the benefits and features inside Smoke to the point where I would say I'm an expert, being exposed to these capabilities has meant that my skills as an artist have evolved beyond what they would have on a straight editing system."

Boyce points to a trio of promotional spots he completed for the Oxygen network, in which he used Smoke to composite into video footage a variety of 3ds max imagery, including barbells, a tattoo gun, and a pair of tweezers. "Some of these were imported as finished max animations, while others were imported as models that I manipulated in Smoke to animate them," he says. Boyce also used Smoke to light and shade the scenes, composite greenscreen elements, and edit the spots.

Boyce relied on Smoke's color-correction tools as well. "In one of the spots, the door of a white refrigerator was supposed to open automatically. We shot it in a green screen environment and used mo no-filament, which is like fishing line, to make the door open," he says. "But be cause the fridge was white, green from the environment spilled all over it.

"In Smoke I quickly created a garbage mask of the fridge, rotoscoped a mask of the door opening, and color-corrected the green out of the fridge," he continues. "I didn't have to worry about sending the footage into another system, like After Effects, to have a matte cut for it, which would possibly have increased the cost for the project and taken extra time that we couldn't afford to spend."

Like Graham and Boyce, Jerry Steele also utilizes the full-featured toolset in his NLE system of choice, Quantel's Henry Infinity. "I use it for online editing, compositing, color correction, 3D type, and manipulation of video footage," says Steele, who is the primary artist at Steele VFX, a boutique facility located in Santa Monica, California.

Formed in 1996, Steele VFX has completed high-end effects work in commercials for clients such as Coca-Cola, BMW, and Microsoft. Recently, Steele used Infinity in spots for Toyota and E-Trade. According to Steele, he relied on Infinity's compositing tools to seamlessly integrate into the Toyota spot skyscrapers built in NewTek's LightWave 3D. Meanwhile, for the E-Trade spot, he used Infinity's compositing tools to integrate extra actors into the footage; its rotoscoping tools to remove a complex array of rigging wires to reveal actors and set elements that would otherwise have been obscured; and its effects tools to embellish the smile and the teeth of the chimpanzee who stars in the spot.

Although Steele says his job has definitely expanded as Infinity has matured, he notes that this doesn't mean he's necessarily taking work away from 3D artists who would otherwise be involved in Steele VFX projects. "If I have more tools, it means I can do more to the footage if I have to," he explains. "It means my job can be more diverse. But even though I like to dabble in 3D and I know how to run LightWave myself, it doesn't mean I can market myself as a 3D artist. It takes a very different kind of person to be able to work in 3D."

Graham and Boyce both agree, and add that being able to handle tasks beyond editing also doesn't obviate the need for artists who specialize in other disciplines outside of 3D. "I still appreciate the talents of people who are brilliant compositors and brilliant color correctors. I don't think a video editor using Avid|DS negates those people," Graham says.
Steele VFX used Quantel's Henry Infinity system to combine CG skyscrapers with video footage in a commercial for Toyota (top) and to remove rigging wires and brighten a chimp's smile in an E-Trade advertisement (bottom).

"If your mainstay is editing, you're a storyteller," adds Boyce. "You might be the most talented editorial person in your facility. But just because you're using Smoke to edit doesn't mean you automatically have the design sense required to exploit Smoke's design tools to their fullest."

However, they all agree that in today's high-end NLE systems, the added capabilities can be useful. "Sometimes systems like Avid|DS are a big turnoff to editors who have been in this industry for a long time because they don't want to be compositors or color correctors or effects creators. They want to be video editors," says Graham. "But the great thing is that you don't necessarily have to become an expert in these other areas to use these systems. The power is there if you want to harness it."

Audrey Doyle is a freelance editor and writer based in the Boston area.

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