The DVD of Season 2 of “The Guild” was released this week exclusively on Amazon.com. Amazon is also offering the Season 1 DVD as well. As a bonus, when you buy either of “The Guild” DVDs, you get digital copies in both standard and Hi-Def in your Amazon Video-on-Demand Library, so you can watch them from your Roku box, or Computer. It’s a great deal. Mean while, I thought I’d use the occasion to update this blog entry from last February, which talks about the creation of the final sequence in episode 12, “Fight”.
Right now is an exciting time to be involved with web video. The new media space is changing on an almost daily basis providing creators with new, and higher quality, venues for telling their stories. Producers are stepping up with increased production values and more polished offerings … It’s a great time for innovative story telling, and one of those innovative stories being told right now is Felicia Day‘s hit webisodic comedy, “The Guild”.
I’ve been a fan of “The Guild”, since Season 1. So much so that when I heard Felicia was working on Season 2, and looking for folks to help in various ways, I fired off an email to her and raised my hand. That started a dialog ultimately resulting in the final sequence of the Season 2 finale of “The Guild”.
It was a tremendous experience to be a part of the show, and I thought I’d write a bit about the process we went through, and some of the things we did along the way. Not so much for VFX/techie types, but for folks out there who may be thinking about incorporating VFX into their own web content, or are just generally interested in how a VFX artist will take an idea and work with a director to incorporate it into a finished effects sequence.
Some time before Thanksgiving, Felicia emailed to say she’d written an effects sequence into the final episode of season 2, and was wondering if I was still interested in helping out.
Hell yeah, I was!
Naturally, like any web producer on a budget, Felicia was concerned about being able to achieve her vision for the episode while staying within a very tight budget. In the end, I think we managed to realize both goals due in large part to having a great crew with a really clear, consistent, idea of the kind of effect we were going for.
Felicia described the scene: “Basically I am standing and looking at something traumatic and then, akin to WOW, my “ghost” leaves my body and starts running away. Ending shot is close on my “ghost face” running.”
Shortest VFX concept development discussion ever!
I think just about everyone on “The Guild” crew is into WoW on some level … Some of us on a deep, ongoing, and quite possibly pathological, level. Whatever the association, or level of obsession with the game, when Felicia threw down with that concept everybody knew exactly what she was talking about and what we were trying to achieve. This is a big break, as these kinds of conversations can sometimes take weeks, or even months on larger productions, and involve extensive, and costly, pre-visualization work. We were already way ahead of ourselves.
Felicia Day running down the "stairs" on the green screen stage
The discussion went on to things about just how far into the WoW paradigm we wanted to take this. I went into WoW, got my main killed, and spent some time breaking down all of the elements in terms of look (Having spent more hours with a dead character in Warcraft than I’d probably own up to, the bulk of my research was already done … Who said playing WoW was unproductive? At this point I think it might even qualify as a tax deduction.)
There is a lot going on when a character dies in World of Warcraft. The world goes monochrome, the character is lit independently of the scene with a kind of Bela Lugosi vampire light from below. They become semi-transparent. There is smoke emanating from the character’s “ghost”, and, if you’re outside, there is this huge glowing vortex overhead that creates membranes that flow over the sky down to the horizons. Lighting sources are kind of blown out, and everything is a bit grainy.
I shared my notes with the rest of the production team, and that generated enough feedback to really give me a clear idea of the scope of the effort and the look we were going for, as well as a basic approach to how the sequence should be shot. We were going to go for kind of a hybrid-look, and not looking to match the Warcraft paradigm in every detail. Codex wasn’t really dead (which would make a potential Season 3 difficult, though not impossible), but having an out-of-body experience, so the idea was we would put her “ghost” in the Warcraft look, but keep the world around her looking normal.
Codex running down the stairs in the final composited shot.
Okay, so we had a concept, so how do we do that, get what we’re looking for, and not spend a whole lotta’ money to do it?
In order to keep costs down, and keep the scope of the VFX work manageable, I suggested we go with an almost all 2D approach using an available green screen stage to shoot Felicia/Codex. To save time, and eliminate the need to do a lot of tracking/matchoving, we’d work with a locked-off camera, shooting the background plates first, and then use a real-time software chroma keyer on set so that director Sean Becker could line up shots/camera angles on the green screen stage to match the backgrounds.
As far as the green screen shoot itself, the show was lucky enough to have a very experienced Director of Photography, John Schmidt, and Gaffer, Jared Hoy, with professional experience in doing green screen shots (Both of these dudes do lighting for Network TV and other shows and really know their stuff.) They knew exactly what to do, and more importantly, what NOT to do when lighting a green screen shoot (Some DPs tend to over light the green/blue screen, producing a lot of color spill wrapping around the actor’s face which is a big time-waster to deal with. Not the case here.)
Just as an aside, one of the things that added so much to this effort, and to the production of “The Guild” in general, is that Felicia Day has managed to pull together an extremely talented crew of working industry professionals, most of whom, like myself, started out as fans of the show. I believe that combination of professional expertise, plus personal involvement/vested interest in the show, plays a large role in what has made “The Guild” so successful.
So while Sean, John and Jared went off to do some tests (and finish shooting the rest of the season), I started playing around with some images trying to come up with a look for the sequence.
The key things to creating a Warcraft-like ghost look would be desaturating the green screen images of Codex, rendering her monochrome, and making her somewhat translucent, layering that image with a wave of smoke that would emanate from her body. I used Apple’s Shake for 98% of the compositing, painting, and rotoscoping work, while relying on Apple’s Motion for the smoke particle simulations.
The look was coming along, but I didn’t feel that the ghost was really standing out against a colored background image, so I decided to diverge from the WoW look a bit, and created a simple halo, or aura, around codex. This was done by using the matte of Codex’s image coming out of the green screen extraction to mask a simple white color card. I scaled that up a bit larger than Codex, creating a white outline around her, and then keyframe animated the brightness value of the aura to make it “breath”. The result was a pulsating white halo that helped pull separate Codex from the background and add to the supernatural look.
I felt the Aura around Codex helped pull her out of the "reality" of the scene.
Next smoke was composited behind, and in front of, Codex. The result created somewhat of a volumetric lighting look that, while relatively easy to achieve, really carried a clear impression of the game look that we were shooting for.
The weekend before Christmas, Director/Editor Sean Becker sent me a hard drive with all of the background and green screen shots, as well as a Final Cut Pro project with his mock-ups (temp comps) of the shots in a cut sequence to serve as my visual and timing reference.
Sean and I would be getting together for lunch the following Monday to discuss the sequence and hammer-out any remaining details before I got to work on things. Getting the footage ahead of this gave me a chance to put additional questions together and analyze the footage for any potential issues (of which there were none.) In preparation for this, I took the first shot of the Codex ghost emerging from her body and put together a temp comp using the look that I’d been developing. This would give Sean and I a chance to see just how close, or not, we were to having the look nailed down. As it turned out, we were pretty close. Sean loved the look.
Felicia Day as Codex flees from the party, leaving her body behind, in the Season 2 Finale of "The Guild".
While all of the review work and discussion done over the following few weeks took place in emails and on the phone, I can’t stress how important this meeting was in terms of setting the overall working relationship for the project. While we all tend to live by emails, tweets, and other forms of electronic communication these days, nothing can take the place on one-on-one time when establishing a creative partnership, and you really get a much better idea of how someone communicates.
The business part of the discussion was actually quite brief. Sean liked the look, and wanted to move forward with it. I had all the info and materials that were needed at that point, so it was time to get to work for real.
I can’t say that the work itself was either complex or difficult … It wasn’t. Although the finished sequence contained a little bit of every kind of 2D magic … Roto and paint work, wire/rig removal, green screen extraction and compositing, it was all pretty easy stuff as compositing projects go … A big part of that owing to good pre-production planning. But to clarify, when I say easy I mean that while it was quite time-intensive, probably over a hundred hours or so, the fact that the plates and gs materials were shot so well made it that much easier to put the elements together. Also the Director/Editor provided me with such great reference materials and access when there were questions, and that made the whole process come off without any major glitches.
Along the way, a couple of “what if”/experimental shots resulted in a “Hey, would you mind rendering me a final of that, I think I can use it …” from Sean Becker, so what started out as a 5-6 shot sequence wound up being more like a 10-shot sequence, which is pretty much par for the course.
I wound up delivering the final shots, on schedule, just as Sean was cutting the episode together.
It was a great experience, and even better yet, an opportunity to work with an up-and-coming crew on a show that folks are going to be talking about for years to come.
So if you’re producing a show for the web, or some other low-budget venue, and you’d like to add some vfx into your story, don’t be afraid to try. Find an artist who understands both your strengths and limitations, and can work with you to get your vision on the screen. Don’t be afraid to solicit some help from someone who works in the field, even if it’s a low/no pay gig. Odds are, if they have the time, and are into what you’re trying to do, they’ll probably help you out. Feature film VFX today tends to be done in large scale environments where each artist plays a small, highly-compartmentalized, role in the overall project. The opportunity to take on a small project and handle all aspects of the effects work, in a way that it becomes personal, is something a lot of folks will jump at.
Felicia Day, Kim Evey, and all the folks at “The Guild” keep pushing the limits of web video and changing the game with each season of the show. It will be very interesting to see where the show goes next in Season 3. In the meantime, I’m very happy that I was able to add a little bit of VFX icing to their Season 2 cake.
All images Copyright © 2009 RobotKittenGigglebus Productions, All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.