I.E. Effects Delivers Visual Effects for Michael Jackson’s This Is It
November 2, 2009

I.E. Effects Delivers Visual Effects for Michael Jackson’s This Is It

Culver City, Calif. – I.E. Effects completed key visual effects sequences for the highly-anticipated Michael Jackson concert film, This Is It. While the theatrical release will be a standard 2D presentation, the Culver City-based postproduction facility delivered all its VFX work in full stereoscopic 3D, opening the door for a stereoscopic version of the film in the future. Originally, the facility was contracted to produce 15 stereo 3D shots for Jackson’s widely-publicized concert tour, but following the untimely death of the King of Pop, the project was put on hold. The upcoming feature film, and the special edition Blu-ray that will follow it, enabled I.E. Effects to complete the project and fulfill its role in Michael Jackson’s final show.
“I thought we were perfectionists, but Michael’s attention to detail just blew us away,” says David Kenneth, visual effects producer and founder of I.E. Effects. “He had invested himself completely in this and when he died, we lost him, and we thought we had lost the opportunity to finish the project.”

Aaron Kaminar, I.E. Effects’ visual effects supervisor and lead artist on the project, explained that the original stage design included a giant 90-by-30-foot multi-panel LED screen behind the performer where stereoscopic content would have been displayed during the live performance. Through careful choreography and advanced special effects, Jackson would have interacted with the backdrop in a never-before-seen combination of live performance and stereo 3D.

“When the whole thing started it wasn’t anyone’s intention to create a feature film,” explains Kaminar. “But that changed after Michael Jackson’s death. We felt it was our mission to honor his vision and finish the work, according to the instructions in his notes to us. Those notes, from the days before he passed away, were our final directions.”

The shots completed by I.E. Effects include key sequences for the Thriller video, a new Thriller logo, a full CG animation of Vincent Price’s head, and a stunning CG Boeing 707 for the grand finale -- all delivered in stereoscopic 3D.

“The bulk of the Thriller section was a rather complicated effect from the technical standpoint,” says Kaminar. “There is a chandelier swinging around inside a creepy old haunted house with ghosts swinging on it, whooping and hollering.”  

Practical footage for the Thriller sequences was shot at Culver Studios under the direction of Bruce Jones, using Pace HD’s Fusion 3D stereoscopic camera rigs. The shots were then matched to CG effects created at I.E. Effects.

“The ghosts were shot separately on a greenscreen stage using a large stand-in for the chandelier. We then tracked the CG chandelier to the set prop and added dynamics, so that all the crystals on the chandelier would behave properly,” adds Kaminar. “Ordinarily that’s challenging enough, but when you add the fact that it’s stereoscopic, it becomes exponentially more complicated.”

Adding to the complexity of the shot, the two-camera rig was positioned on the end of a moving crane, panning, tilting and zooming. “The chandelier stand-in was rocking and moving around so the tracking was pretty complex. To deal with this, we worked out a pipeline for efficient manual tracking and matchmoving that worked very well,” says Kaminar.

“The biggest challenge that we had on this project was staying consistent between left and right eye in the compositing stage,” explains Kaminar.

To deal with the convergence issues that inevitably crop up with a moving camera, the artists at I.E. Effects relied on metadata fed directly from the Pace HD camera rig. “The camera metadata gave us frame-by-frame information on the convergence distance, the separation between the two cameras, as well as the focal length and the f-stop settings,” Kaminar continues.  

The Thriller sequence also includes a visualization of Vincent Price’s famous narration, with the actor’s head floating inside a crystal ball. In the middle of his monologue, a CG crow flies in and sits on his shoulder.

“There was an audio voiceover recording of Vincent Price doing the monologue, but there was no video associated with it,” explains Kaminar. “So we did a performance capture with an actor and mapped the movement of his face onto a CG Vincent Price.”

Facial motion capture is one of the most difficult challenges in animation, especially when it’s lip-synched to a locked audio track.

“Rather than using a traditional motion capture rig, where you lose some of the fidelity based on the capture resolution, we used a technique that required a little more grunt work. We painted a grid of lines and dots on our actor’s face and shot his performance with three HD cameras at increments of 45 degrees. The extra effort paid off,” explains Kaminar.  

“The rig for Price’s face used curves instead of bones. Those curves followed the musculature of the face so the deformation looked natural and behaved the way that muscle and skin do,” says Kaminar. “Obviously, our model’s face has different proportions, so we had to write custom scripts for converting the animation of the actor’s face to the relative positions on Vincent Price’s face. We tried to find an actor with similar features, but it’s impossible to find someone that has the exact same proportions. So we had to take all the animations of the actor’s face, relative to a pose of his face in a relaxed state, and translate them onto the rig of Vincent’s face in a relaxed state.”

This process provided a reasonable approximation of the final animation. I.E. Effects then used traditional facial animation controls to fine-tune the performance.

The team at I.E. Effects also animated the CG in the scene, as well as the Thriller logo, which, according to Kaminar, was designed to reference artwork from the original ’80s music video.

Jackson’s concerts in London were intended to end with a full-scale, stereoscopic Boeing 707 taxiing out on to the stage in profile, with its wing appearing to hang out over the audience. Then a real gangway would lift from the stage up to the door of the CG aircraft. A real door was built into the screen. Jackson would then exit the stage through the door into the CG plane. As the music played, the aircraft would then taxi into the distance, turn around, and take off over the audiences’ heads -- a thrilling finale to “the concert event of the century.”

“The technical challenge in that shot was that it had to line up perfectly, and interact with the stage and the performance,” says Kaminar. “During the rehearsals, first at the Forum, and then at the Staples Center, they set up the screen on the stage, so we were able to do tests with the actual door in the screen and see the stereoscopic footage of the plane behind the stage.

“We’re constantly refining our stereoscopic pipeline, and this project, with all its unexpected twists and turns really tested us,” adds Kaminar.

A Sony Pictures release, This Is It opened in theaters Oct. 28 for a limited two-week run. A special edition Blu-ray will be released thereafter. Release plans for a stereo 3D version are, as yet, unknown.