The Film Pit: What Digital Does

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Digital technology in film gets a bad rap. When CGI is used badly (and this does happen frequently) film fans often cast a wistful look back at the gloried past of practical effects. It’s no surprise then that we now have directors, like J.J. Abrams on the upcoming new Star Wars films, making a point to hark back to the good old days, with physical puppets and real, on-set movie magic galore.

But digital effects are used for more than dodgy looking monsters and unconvincing backdrops. This week, I want to talk about three subtle ways that digital effects are improving how we make films.

The ‘Three Continent Shot’

The way dialogue scenes are shot in blockbusters make it easy to film actors who are working different schedules. This is because they use a technique commonly known as Shot – Reverse Shot, where one half of the conversation is shot over the shoulder of one character, and the other half shot over the shoulder of the other. It’s simple, clean and means you can use body doubles of your pricier actors when they’re in their trailer.

So, what happens if all your characters are in the same shot?

This exact situation occurred with Thor: The Dark World. Marvel are well known for using a process that relies quite heavily on reshoots, based on a valid philosophy that you ‘find the film’ in the edit. The problem with that system is that these films use the most in-demand actors of our generation, who might not all be free at the same time for shooting a year after production was meant to be finished.

With the second Thor they got around this with what has become known as ‘The Three Continent Shot‘ where actors were shot in separate studios – literally all on different continents – and then edited into the same shot.

This sounds like a basic technique, but when you consider that in one image you have to adjust the scale and depth in frame of each character to one another and reposition them into the right angle for the actions to make sense, you realise how much digital effort these shots take. And that’s before you make the lighting consistent across a shot where three different takes and a background are all layered together.

Mad Max continuity

Let’s say you’ve finished shooting a big film and you’re in the editing suite. You’re putting together the big climactic sequence where all your story and action threads come together when, with horror, you realise that you’re missing something. A key line of dialogue wasn’t delivered in a shot where it was essential.

The usual method would be to record additional dialogue with the actor and ‘loop’ it in when that character’s mouth is off screen. However, that looks stilted and unnatural. You can’t afford reshoots because the actor is busy and expensive. What do you do?

Well, if you’re making Mad Max: Fury Road, you copy the actor’s mouth from a different shot.

In a wonderfully open and eloquent video the director of photography of Fury Road explained how they did just that. A key close-up of Charlize Theron was shot without the right line of dialogue. Because director George Miller was so confident with digital post-production, he told the shoot to keep going as he could cut it in later. In the editing room they were able to seamlessly copy in Theron’s mouth from a different shot.

Edgar Wright hates blinking

When an actor is not confident delivering their lines they often start blinking more than usual. If a director isn’t happy with a performance, they’ll normally run the scene again. However, blinking isn’t necessarily something you would notice on the day of the shoot. In the editing room, you realise that by excessive blinking a character seems nervous when they should be confident, distracted when they should be engaged. How can you fix something that fiddly?

As good an answer as any is to follow Edgar Wright’s lead and just delete the blink. In what might be the purest two hours of geek joy, Wright recorded a commentary for Hot Fuzz with Quentin Tarantino where he explained this process.

He says that he found takes where he loved the line reading but the actor was blinking too heavily, which can be a sign that maybe they’re concentrating on remembering their lines or are distracted. To go in to the edit and remove the frames where the actor was blinking is now an easy and routine thing to do.

Wright has earned himself the nickname ‘The Blink Nazi’ for his persistence on this issue. For Shaun of the Dead he removed the blinks of the zombies in the garden who get pummelled by thrown kitchenware, so their reactions would seem less human. Wright even went so far during the filming of Scott Pilgrim vs The World to tell actors not to blink during close-ups.

While it’s not all doom and gloom from the world of digital, fans of practical effects have had a sad week   hearing that industry legend Rick Baker has retired from film-making. He gave the world the vivid practical realities of werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London and everything creepy in Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

The sadness felt by the film world at this announcement is a firm reminder that digital can be used to great effect – but there’ll always be the childlike wonder at watching something happen with latex, rubber, and some craftily hidden fishing wire.

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