Visual Notes, Part 2
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 9 (September 2004)

Visual Notes, Part 2

In 1981, the debut of Music Television (MTV) helped spin the obscure music video medium into a new entertainment genre. Initially, innovation was relatively easy to achieve, as nearly every type of visual element was deemed inventive because it simply had not been done before. During the past two decades, the art of creating a music video has definitely evolved, as music videos have run the creative gamut, from novel to controversial to, unfortunately, blasé.

Last month, in Part 1 of this series, we examined cutting-edge projects that, through imaginative CG and video techniques, are raising the bar for music videos higher than ever. And this month, in Part 2, we look at digital artists who are taking the art form ever further by creating groundbreaking CG imagery and innovative video sequences that borrow the best techniques from other entertainment genres, including cinema (What If), theater (Your Game), short film (I Tiki U), art (Trance/Dance and Other Living Things), and computer games (With My Mind). As a result, these novel hybrids are redefining music videos and breathing new life into the medium.

When it comes to creating music videos, there is no chicken-and-egg quandary; the music, rather than the video, is conceived first. However, this linear process became scrambled for the Detroit-based rock band Robb Roy's What If. Instead of the band seeking a partner to generate the accompanying imagery to its song, in this case, it was director and digital artist Kevin Carrico who approached a band member, pitching a visual concept he believed was in harmony with the band's lyrics and melody.

For some time, Carrico longed to incorporate a cloak-and-dagger story line along with a black-and-white film treatment into a project, but had little opportunity to do so—that is, until he heard What If. With its moody tone, the song became Carrico's muse, as he created a visual story of emotional depth that unfolded in a classical motion-picture fashion.

Carrico interpreted the song as a plea to belong and be accepted. To him, the ultimate state of not belonging is not being alive or real, and a character that best exemplifies that is a doll, like Pinocchio. "I started thinking how lonely it would be knowing you can never belong, and this became my starting point," he says.

Over the course of a year, Carrico worked with the band to distill the essence of the song into a series of visual sequences whose style resembled that of films from the 1960s. In particular, he used an ominous film noir treatment, enhancing the soulful song through the use of contrasting black-and-white imagery.
The imagery in What If is computer-generated, with a few exceptions, including video of the band members (appearing here on the monitor), which was shot with a Sony 24p camera, whose crisp format maintains a cinematic quality and composites well wi

The result is a portrait of loneliness, told through the visualized thoughts of a modern super spy. "I wanted a Stanley Kubrick Dr. Strangelove look blended with a silent-film style," says Carrico.

Surprisingly, rather than creating this retro film design through cinematography, Carrico achieved it using state-of-the-art computer graphics, including 3D animation, a digital character, and virtual sets. "This is not a style you typically see in 3D animation," Carrico points out. "However, it's a look I've always liked, and I've wanted to do a project of this artistic level for a while." Directing brightly lit, product-focused television commercials didn't allow him that opportunity, nor did any of the other pop-rock music videos he had previously produced. "I wanted to break out of those molds with an idea that was off-center from the norm."

Carrico would have done so by building physical sets and then filming the action if given an unlimited budget. But the reality was that he was working with limited funds. Being in the unusual situation of having both digital artistry and directorial experience, Carrico knew he could achieve his cinematic storytelling through the use of digital tools and techniques. And the extent to which he could rely on CG was even more apparent to Jon Synnestvedt, Carrico's founding partner at 3D animation boutique Skylight Digital Images.

"I started laying out the video in [NewTek's] LightWave as an animatic, thinking I'd film a large part of the action in HD and composite the video into synthetic sets," Carrico recalls. "But the more I discussed this with Synnestvedt, the more he convinced me that we should do most of the work in LightWave."

In the end, all the imagery became computer-generated, with three exceptions, two of which appear on a bank of video monitors (which are 3D models) in a sequence reminiscent of the war room scene from Dr. Strangelove. One segment includes clips of the band members, who were filmed with a Sony HDW-F900 24p camera.

That footage is interspersed with shots of another live performance in what appear to be home movies that the main character (who is 3D) begins watching. These video sequences—depicting the character's thoughts and imagination—feature real actors, whom Carrico filmed with a Panasonic AG-DVX100 mini-DV camera. Later, he processed the footage so it would resemble grainy Super 8 film from the 1960s.

The last live segment, shot in HD, immediately follows the home-movie segments. In it, Roy imagines himself celebrating something only a real person has: a birthday.

"It's unclear if the movies are scenes from the character's past or just scenarios he longed to experience but never did," explains Carrico. "But in the final shot, you discover that the guy is not real, but a toy from a spy kit, wishing it were alive."
Director Kevin Carrico used a bleak film noir style for What If, with stark lighting and obscuring, deep shadows, along with integrated fog and silhouettes.

The use of color, in addition to establishing an overall mood, also played a major part in the storytelling, especially in the "war room" sequences. Carrico used black and white throughout the video, but when the character sees himself as real in the birthday party segment—his perceived reality—the director applied color, although that eventually fades once Roy realizes his situation.

Key to pulling off the surprise ending was the integration of a digital character that looked like a real person, but not so real as to contradict the story ending. Handling this particular modeling mission was Synnestvedt, who referenced photographs of the character's live counterpart in the home movies while constructing the digital double. To make the model more authentic, both he and Carrico applied photographic textures with Right Hemisphere's Deep Paint 3D, and used Worley Labs' Sasquatch hair-simulation tool for the character's locks.

To ensure that the model moved as lifelike as it looked, Synnestvedt used Kaydara's MotionBuilder to apply motion-captured data, provided by mocap studio Motek, to the model. Afterward, he and Carrico were taken aback at the overall realism of the CG character. In fact, at times it looked too real for the story line, requiring Synnestvedt to cut out some of the more believable action.

Like the main character, the sets are virtual as well, built in LightWave and textured with Corel's Photo-Paint. And Carrico doesn't regret going digital for that task, either. "Had I used video, I would have been committed to certain camera angles or camera distances, or I'd have to reshoot the scenes," he says. "With CG, I was able to control all the variables."

Nevertheless, Carrico admits that despite his familiarity with computer graphics, it still was difficult, as a filmmaker, to embrace the medium for achieving photorealistic character performances. But he changed his tune halfway through the project when he realized that nearly all of the scenes up to that point had been done digitally instead of being shot live. "There were parts I was hard-set on filming, but once we figured out how to do it in CG, we were able to do it faster and cheaper," he says. "After that, I kept asking if there was anything else we could do in CG, because I was finding that I had more control retaining the cinematic look, and that was very important to me. Digital tools enable you to be not only extremely photorealistic, but extremely artistic as well."

Achieving this cinematic style in LightWave, however, required experimentation with filters and software plug-ins to eliminate the typical "electric, self-illuminating" look that is a computer graphics hallmark. These programs included Evasion 3D's Shadow Designer for controlling the shadows that were vital to the video's theme, and DigiEffects' Cinelook and Delirium tools for a film-stock look. "I didn't want even one frame to look CG," says Carrico. "Even though there are some modern references in the video, I wanted it to look like the sequences were shot in the '60s. Moreover, I wanted it to be one of those atypical examples of 3D that you see now and again, usually in animated short films from Europe."

Without a doubt, What If pushes the state of the art in music videos with its cinematic and storytelling appeal, so much so that Carrico describes the project as a music-based short film. Unfortunately, Carrico has had to find outlets other than MTV for this offbeat project, one of which is the Web. "Ironically, the video and song are about fitting in," Carrico says, "but the video itself doesn't exactly fit into the typical music video world."

Your Game uses enormous, elaborately detailed backdrops, created as CG matte paintings, to provide a theatrical feel to the music video.

The dazzling stage sets—with extensive cityscapes, modern dancers, a high-kicking chorus line, a swaying gospel choir, and singers and dancers dressed in period costumes—look like scenes from a major Broadway musical. In one instance, the sequences resemble Chicago, in another, 42nd Street or Wonderful Town. Surprisingly, they're none of these, but rather a music video by Australian-based Babyfoot Productions for international production facility Partizan London.

The video, showcasing UK Idol winner Will Young and his new single Your Game, is broken up into a series of increasingly elaborate stage sets that are presented in rapid-fire rotation, starting with a single spotlight focused on the stage and eventually transitioning to 350 dancers stepping their way across a seemingly enormous set. Incredibly, none of the segments are repeated through the production.

"The entire video clip pays homage to a number of MGM musicals, but with a digital twist," says Mike Seymour, visual effects supervisor at Digital Pictures, which generated the effects and composited them into the video for its client, Babyfoot Productions. "As with all musicals, choreography is at the heart of the production, and in the video, we blended traditional big-production numbers with an edgy modern aesthetic that was achieved using state-of-the-art effects."
Your Game uses enormous, elaborately detailed backdrops, created as CG matte paintings, to provide a theatrical feel to the music video.

The scenes are ambitious for any stage production, let alone a music video, especially one for a newly crowned pop artist. But with Idol fever running high worldwide, producers wanted Young, and his video, to get the ultimate star treatment. In fact, one constraint imposed by directors Michael Gracey and Peter Commins of Babyfoot Productions was that the grand-scale effects could not upstage the vocalist. "Because of this, many of the most spectacular shots appear on screen for only a moment," says visual effects supervisor Peter Webb, "but long enough to leave the audience wanting more."

Using high-quality 35mm film rather than more economical video, director of photography David Wakley shot the live action over a four-day period. Later, the film was transferred into a digital format for editing and compositing, at which point the group retained the cinematic quality of the 35mm format by finishing the project in uncompressed HD resolution rather than the lower-quality SD that's typically used for music videos.

In keeping with the majestic look and style of the production, the historic State Theatre in Sydney, Australia, served as the main set locale. However, as the scenes in the video progressed, digital artists had to extend the Theatre well beyond its structural walls. Commins achieved this by creating extensive CG matte paintings with Discreet's 3ds max and Corel's Painter. Then, before the film shoot, he printed the bottom portion of the mattes and used them as large set pieces measuring approximately 36 feet wide by 10 feet high. This, in turn, allowed Wakley to take close-up and mid-range shots of Young and the dancers against the partial backgrounds. Moreover, the CG artists were able to use the shadows and reflections on the set pieces as reference points for digitally extending the backgrounds in postproduction.

Later, the compositing teams used Discreet's Flame and Inferno as well as Apple's Shake to integrate 3D and live-action elements with the CG mattes, including more than 350 actors and actresses who were filmed against greenscreen and added to the base plate. The background, meanwhile, was enlarged sevenfold, to a height of more than 82 feet, to support the project's elaborate design.

All told, well over half the project features digital video and CG effects. The most ambitious of these appear in a Chicago-inspired sequence in which dancers move in sync with the cars of a CG train that thunders across the stage on an overhead bridge. Using 3D, the digital team previsualized this complex action to resolve a number of issues, among them how fast the dancers needed to traverse the stage in the time allotted. Later, on set, the directors viewed the CG composites to judge the pacing, timing, and the speed of the performances.

The constantly evolving array of backdrops and cast members reaches a crescendo in the final sequence, which transitions from 150 dancers to a pullout shot from the back of the State Theatre. Next, the camera pulls back even further, moving out of the building and through a virtual cityscape dotted with theatrical neon signs that grow more distant in the background. Then, it zooms in again, eventually focusing on a dimly lit stage. Only instead of Young standing in the spotlight, as he did in the opening, there's a janitor who, after a last swoosh of his broom, turns out the lights.

What happens when two creative artists/designers have a little free time on their hands? If it's the husband and wife team of Steven and BenniQue Blasini, partners in the visual effects boutique BFX Imageworks, they create a music video—and a song to go with it.

Indeed, the Blasinis wrote the lyrics, composed the score, and performed and recorded the song under the fictitious band name Blazique. For a second act, the couple filmed and edited hours of video footage—starring themselves, of course—then created computer-generated imagery and digital effects that they later added to the video. For an encore, they received a Videographer Award and a Telly Award, given to outstanding television, video, and film productions.

"The project, called I Tiki U, began one day when I, being of Spanish descent, told my wife, 'Te quiero,' which means 'I love you' in Spanish," explains Steven. "BenniQue, who is obviously not Spanish, replied, 'I tiki U, too.'" Over the next year and a half, during downtime between feature-film projects, the couple turned that personal joke into the award-winning music video that tells the story of their whirlwind romance through the use of live action and computer graphics. The video begins with stunning shots of the couple performing amid the blaze of a setting sun. Then, reflective of the humor that initiated the project, it transitions to lighthearted segments of the duo in various costumes and an animated sequence of themselves as "bobblehead" cartoon characters.

"I think so many music videos today lack a story element," says BenniQue. "In contrast, I Tiki U is more like a short story; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end."

Foremost, the video served as a creative diversion for the artists, who at times found themselves so immersed that they would work on the project for 12 to 18 hours straight without realizing it. "We need to be creative all the time," says Steven of the passion that drives the couple. He also used the project as a learning tool, familiarizing himself with a new Panasonic AG-DVX100 24p camera he had just purchased.

With camera in hand, the couple took to the road, shooting at nearby Los Angeles locales and using their Dodge Caravan as a makeshift dressing room. "We tried to find places where we could film for free, but there were times when we liked a spot and would sneak a few shots," says Steven. "It wasn't always easy, because we were also trying to perform." He recalls one incident when a park ranger asked what they were doing, to which they responded, "taking some vacation pictures." They left, but only after getting the desired shots.
Created by Steven and BenniQue Blasini, I Tiki U features the couple in a number of roles, including an Egyptian queen and slave (above), as well as an animated segment with themselves as digital characters (below).

Obtaining the footage of the sunset scene was especially challenging because of the short time frame between the so-called "magic hour," when the shadows are deep and everything is awash in a red glow, and sundown, when the gray of evening settles in. "We wanted a shot of all 'four' band members—which is me at vocals and playing the drums, and Steven playing the guitar and keyboard," says BenniQue. "It had to look like four different people, so we had to change for each take, but we had to act fast, before we got caught and before the shadow movement became too obvious in the shots."

These shots turned out to be so striking that many people who see the video ask about the effects in them, but there are none in that segment. "About 10 percent of the project is pure videography, and that's some of it," says Steven, who, along with BenniQue, co-directed the project.

In fact, directing was just one of several roles each assumed. BenniQue found herself on familiar ground as the video's art designer. She also proved to be a quick study as makeup artist and costume designer, selecting uncommon garments from local thrift stores. However, her stint as a musician required more than a little practice—despite the fact that the drums she plays in the video are CG. "I had to play 'air' drums, which was far more difficult than it sounds. I have good rhythm, and I thought, how hard can it be to keep a beat?" she recalls. "I'll never say that again; drummers don't get enough credit."

Steven similarly had to learn to play "air" keyboard, as the only real instrument in the video was the guitar that he plays. "I imagined where the notes were on an actual keyboard, and later a musician friend verified that I was doing it accurately," he says. A cost-saver, the virtual keyboard also gave Steven the ability to create a "key" effect midway through the video whereby the ivories begin popping off and floating into space.

Nearly half the video contains digital imagery, a large portion of it requiring frame-by-frame rotoscoping, accomplished in Adobe's After Effects. At one point, Steven devised a method of using NewTek's LightWave as a compositing tool, in a way that he would have normally used After Effects, so he could obtain full camera motion for a sweeping crane move without having to track the images while mixing the media. In short, he used After Effects to cut the mattes, from which he generated alpha channel images. Next, he used the alpha channel images to apply a black-and-white clip map image to represent a portion of the 3D model to be clipped. This essentially generated a cardboard-like cutout of the images, but in actual 3D space. For generating the shadows, he used the 2D version of the cutout, made it invisible to the camera, and turned it 180 degrees so it would cast a shadow just as a 3D element would.

"I thought I'd be limited in my options because the cutouts would look like cutouts," Steven notes. "But I was able to get dramatic sweeping shots that didn't make the images look flat at all."

After completing all the filming and CG work, Steven edited the video using Adobe's Premiere Pro, and then output it to DVD format using Adobe's Encore DVD. In addition to submitting I Tiki U to film festivals, the couple is using the music video to showcase their work on multiple levels: collectively as a song/video package and individually with the song and video as separate pieces.

So what will the Blasinis do next? "We have at least five more songs that we wrote and are hoping to make videos for," notes Steven, "so stay tuned."

A music video is the fusion of two artistic elements: music and visuals. While most use film, video, and animation to accomplish the visual portion, there is one art form that's often overlooked—digital fine art. And as CG art pioneer Laurence Gartel illustrates in a recent music video collection called Trance/Dance and Other Living Things, it's one that can raise the music video bar.

Gartel recently tapped the modern art segment of this seldom-used music video resource to create what he calls "digital music movies," which establish a visual melody to 28 songs by a range of "offbeat" techno-music recording artists featured on a compilation CD/DVD from Raggaforce Entertainment. Just as each song on the disc is unique in style and rhythm, so are the accompanying images—thousands for each single on the release.

"The multimedia disc contains a kaleidoscope of visuals, moving and working in a unique way to look more like evolving art than anything else," describes Gartel.

To create all these visual elements, Gartel dug into his personal image reserve, a 30-year collection spanning the early days of computer graphics to the present. In addition to altering some previous works, he also generated new content using 2D and 3D software, video, traditional painting, and graffiti art. "My bailiwick is to do it all, and that is why the images look uncommon," says Gartel.
Gartel's unique artistic style is autobiographical, representative of his cumulative experiences, both professional and personal.

Like the graphics themselves, the tools Gartel used to make them could be from the annals of computer graphics. Some of the earliest pieces were crafted on a Commodore Amiga computer and the first Apple Macintosh. More current works were created on an iMac running a range of software, including Adobe's Photoshop, Corel's Bryce, Curious Labs' Poser, and Electric Image's Amorphium, as well as a proprietary fractal-based program the artist had written himself.

During the past year, Gartel began making collages by integrating the imagery—traditional and digital, past and present—in perfect time with each song. Having never synchronized imagery to music in this manner, Gartel soon realized how laborious a process it was. "You can't just throw a bunch of images together and hope they coincide with the music," he says. "The music is precise." So Gartel listened to each song repeatedly, interpreting the tone and style of each one. Then he listened some more, familiarizing himself with every note.

Only then was it time to compile the accompanying visuals and "evolve" them to the beat of the music, which Gartel did inside Apple's iMovie video editing software with assistance from his friend Steve Danzig. Each four-minute song track contains approximately 10,000 interrelated stills and video and animation segments, all of which were created or manipulated on the computer. Yet, as Gartel explains, the "still" images are not static photos, but actual artwork that has been processed for the video medium. They evolve, or animate, as they are played in succession, he says, so in the end they tell a story.

Gartel's hybrid music collection is, indeed, a true multimedia project. Not only does it embrace a range of visual media, but it can be played on a stereo, computer, or television, depending on whether the audience wants an auditory or visual experience, or both,

"We are living in computer times, when anyone can use a swirl filter, for example, but it's how you massage the pieces and make the great leap from static art to multimedia storytelling that make a project like this so different," explains Gartel. "People have a difficult time labeling this type of work, and I like that. I see it as a new genre of performance art and entertainment merged into one, new cutting-edge art form."

It's not uncommon for a music video to contain clips from a film, especially if the song is on the movie's soundtrack. Rarely, though, does a music video incorporate images from a computer game. But a recent collaboration between the band Cold and Midway Games proves that music videos can be fun, and games.

In what may be the first project to unite the two popular entertainment forms, Cold and Midway created both the song and the video to With My Mind based on Midway's Psi-Ops action/adventure game. Directed by Marc Webb, the creative mind behind several other Cold music videos, this project features a live performance by the band integrated with CG animation from the game.

Both Midway and Cold agreed on the content and the style of the video, which takes viewers into the world, and mind, of the game characters in Psi-Ops. This unique title from Midway breaks the usual shoot-'em-up game mold by combining traditional weapons with "psionic" (mental) powers, including telekinesis, remote viewing, mind control, mind drain, and aura viewing.
The band Cold and Midway Games joined forces to create a song and music video for the game developer's Psi-Ops title. Aside from footage of the band, the music video also contains CG imagery from the game.

Because Cold wrote With My Mind specifically with Psi-Ops in mind, the song lyrics closely follow the game's story line, as does the imagery. In fact, some 40 percent of the visuals in the video are from key CG scenes within the game. Crafted mainly in Alias's Maya, the character models and animations are somewhat lifelike, though their features and expressions were slightly exaggerated for dramatic effect.

The other 60 percent is footage of the band's performance. For these sequences, the band's stage set was designed to resemble the Psi-Ops environment—harsh and foreboding. "The lighting matches the feel of the game and worked well without any post manipulation," notes Bill O'Neil, project editor.

To match the moody feel of these video segments, the artists stripped most of the color from the CG footage during the film-transfer process, increasing the black levels so very little color showed through. To augment this dark style, O'Neil and producer Jim Tianis chose to use fast, choppy cuts that gave the video the same sense of frenetic energy, urgency, and tension present in the game.

As for Midway's decision to use the music video to promote a computer game, senior product manager Randy Severin explains, "Cold's fans are video game players, too. It's a great way to reach basically the same audience."

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor atComputer Graphics World

Curious Labs
Electric Image
Evasion 3D
Right Hemisphere
Worley Labs