"Motion" Pictures: Asylum Effects Photo Collage for Canon Spot

Sometimes a very simple-looking effect belies the tremendous amount of technical wizardry involved in its creation. The much-discussed Canon Rebel XSi campaign is a perfect example. Tiny stories unfold on screen through series of still pictures taking on the form of a moving collage. Scenes of fun at the beach or a high school football game—the kinds of subjects many Rebel users are most interested in photographing—unfold in successions of stills that provide a feeling of movement while exemplifying the power of the still image. At first glance it might all seem less involved than most high-end commercials. It’s all still photos, after all. It’s only when you stop and study how intricate these collages are that the postproduction challenges declare themselves.

For Visual Effects Supervisor Paul O’Shea of Santa Monica-based Asylum, the issues became clear soon after Director Andrew Douglas brought him the concept, while Douglas was pitching Grey Advertising to get the job. O’Shea notes that Douglas and the agency creatives were open to different ideas, not just about how to achieve the effects but also about certain aspects of what the effects would look like. “A lot of stuff comes into Asylum,” he says, “and occasionally you’re asked to be the creative resource you want to be. Sometimes [clients] just want to know how you’re going to execute something, but other times they want to know your thoughts about the brief. This was one of those times.”

O’Shea recalls that one of his initial ideas turned out to be a bit too flashy for its own good. “To start with,” he says, “I thought it would be great to use still images to create a virtual three-dimensional environment and then create the sense that the still camera is moving through this space, taking still pictures from different points of view. We did tests, but it lacked the photographic aesthetic the client was looking for. It felt more like Google Earth than something about still photography. I think Andrew put it best. He said, ‘You can see the hand that’s doing it.’ When we worked it out, it became more about making and showing nice photographs.”

Douglas staged the scenes over a four-day shoot and covered them using 10 Canon still cameras configured to shoot at nearly the highest frame-per-second rate possible, which meant that they’d have to use an image quality setting somewhere between the smallest JPEG and the RAW format. The higher the quality of each of the pictures, the longer it takes the camera to process and buffer, and therefore the fewer you can capture in a single eight-to-10-second burst.

“It would have been nice to use the RAW format,” O’Shea says, “or even HDRI”—High Dynamic Range Imaging created in Photoshop and similar image processing software by combining several shots of the same subject at different exposures into a single 32-bit picture with an extremely high range of tones—“but it was obviously very important to be able to get as many images in each burst as possible.”

The result of the shoots was some 70,000 still images, O’Shea reports. The plan had originally been to “offline” the spot in Avid by assigning durations to individual frames and then returning with the elements to Asylum to “conform” the original, higher-res JPEGs in Autodesk Flame. But it quickly became apparent that the best way to select from among the vast number of stills and to observe the detail necessary to make this very graphics-intensive campaign work was to see everything at its original resolution.

So Editor Michael Elliot at Mad River Post decided to use still photo editing software Adobe Lightroom and its Library module as his key editing tool. “He broke things down into takes the way he would use Avid bins,” O’Shea says, “and each camera was assigned a letter. There was a certain discipline involved in bringing all these pictures into Library.”

For his first cut, Elliot selected 170 stills. He used Library’s display tools to get the images to stack up and come on and off at set durations to act as a guide.

Asylum’s Miles Essmiller created a script to bring the selected JPEGs into Flame (running on HP boxes under Linux OS), where O’Shea oversaw the creation of the movements and the geometric interplay of the images. “We wanted to tread the line between forming nice graphic shapes and making sure the photographs and the stories they tell are what holds the viewer's attention—something like an Edward Muybridge photograph or a David Hockney [composite] Polaroid.”

As with all commercial work, there was quite a bit of back-and-forth collaboration about the first cut among the editor, director, agency creatives and client. But making slight adjustments here or there was a more complex operation than it would have been for a project comprising a series of standalone shots. This was a moving collage. Changing out one image or making tiny alterations to the speed of movement or to the movement itself would affect everything that followed.

This was where O’Shea made extensive use of Flame’s Expressions function. “The hard part from our point of view was making sure we didn’t build ourselves into a corner so that when the edit got changed we would have to go back and manually alter the effect that a single frame change would have on an entire collage," O'Shea notes. "You can see it drives through the images in a very linear way. If the director, for example, says he wants to make one small change in the middle, everything else will have to change, too, unless you try to build it as an enormous number of separate layers. So you start out and think that once you start making changes, you will wind up driving yourself mad.”

Instead of going mad, O'Shea was able to use the Expressions function, which ripples the effect of a change through the entire piece. “If I change the duration or decay rate of a particular frame, we can ripple that through all the subsequent frames automatically. It’s a nice way of using the software to make it as flexible as possible.”

He notes that Flame's Expressions feature helped them turn the job around within a very tight two-week schedule. Ultimately, however, the intent of the spot was to hide all the technology that went into making it and let the still photos be the stars. “We started out very technical,” O’Shea sums up. “You think what we’re going to do is create virtual cameras, and we were all very excited about it. We just ended up having nice photography speak for itself and letting the flow of the action drive the way things develop on screen.”