Shooting VFX on the Alexa Mini

Shooting VFX on the Alexa Mini

VFX (Visual Effects) are a HUGE part of modern filmmaking

I've always been a big fan of VFX, but I've never found myself especially good at them. Directing and shooting are my strong skills - After Effects gives me a headache, which is probably the main issue.

When I got called to DP this shoot with the guys at Indiewhip I was super excited to be a part it, and especially excited to be working with some experienced VFX artists. We were going to be shooting a composite shot of a hand placing a BottleKeeper over a beer bottle, and the BottleKeeper changing colors. At face value that sounds simple, but there were three separate segments of the final shot that needed to be filmed separately and composited - the BottleKeeper getting placed on a bottle, a beer bottle plate, and then the different colored BottleKeepers.

Here's the final shot.

Note: On top of the stinger, these were also designed to be used as closing titles on other commercials for BottleKeeper that Indiewhip had already shot

Breaking it Down

I got the call to shoot this around a week before the actual shoot, and the first thing Brian (Director) asked me was if I knew any good local Gaffers. I told him that I actually didn't, but that I'd put out a few calls. The name I got back from multiple people was Walter Stone, and he was a pleasure to work with. Having a good gaffer on set makes a HUGE difference in the final product.

When I asked Brian about the look he wanted, he pointed me towards the product photography on the BottleKeeper website. We didn't have to exactly match that image, but we wanted it to be relatively similar so it would be consistent to the brand.

Our reference image of the BottleKeeper.

Thankfully that setup was pretty clean and simple - two big strip lights creating big smooth highlights on the bootle, and a little fill in the middle. I shared the image with my Gaffer before the shoot, and we briefly discussed our plan for lighting the image.

Leading up to the shoot Brian and the Indiewhip guys had figured out the rig they needed to accomplish the floating bottle - a beer bottle with a stick on it, and a BottleKeeper with a hole in the back of it. This allowed our hand model to place the BottleKeeper on the floating bottle.

We needed to shoot on a chroma-screen so the shot could be keyed out over the various backgrounds we needed, so we decided to cover any bits of the rig that ended up in the frame with chroma-green gaff tape.

We also had to shoot with a very tight shutter angle to remove motion blur, as any blur was going to create issues with keying out the footage.

Our bottle rig

We shot Prores 4444 XQ on the Alexa Mini from, on my Contax 85mm lens. We wanted a long lens to avoid any distortion in the bottles in our final shot. We also wanted relatively deep DOF for the key, so I was around f5.6. Between the shutter angle and f-stop we were losing a lot of light, so we had to make sure to punch in as much light as possible to get good exposure. I believe we were at ISO 800.

Our Empty Studio - Cyc Lights on.

The Studio

When we first arrived on location (Motion Cyc in Boston) we had to make our first big decision - whether to use the Cyc lights or not. Cyc is short of Cyclorama, which is just the technical name for the infinity walls you see in studios. They have lights built into the studio designed to evenly light the wall, but the problem was that the background lights were all tungsten. We briefly considered lighting everything with Tungsten, but quickly decided to just not use the Cyc lights. 

We also knew that we would need to film a green BottleKeeper, and that the green screen wouldn't work for that. The Indiewhip guys brought a pop-up chroma screen that was green on one side and blue on the other, and we decided to just use that for everything - starting on the green side.

Funny Note: For the first time EVER in my career, I got to set and realized I didn't have a single quick release plate on me. I had to send Denis to the local rental house to buy one from them that would fit my Benro Tripod, and thankfully they had one in stock. While he took care of that we started lighting the studio, so it didn't set us behind schedule at least. ALWAYS DOUBLE CHECK YOUR GEAR!

Our first order of business was figuring out our frame and lighting the background consistently. We threw the bottle into frame and realized we only needed to light around a 4ft square of the giant backdrop, so we did that using 2 Kinos with all bulbs on. We went all daylight with the Kinos as well.

Once we had a good background light going we added the two Key lights for the bottle, which were another two Kinos shooting through Diffusion. Adding the diffusion created the smooth soft reflection you see in the final shot, rather than our seeing individual Kino bulbs reflected. We spent some time flagged off reflections of stands and other parts of the studio, and added a 4x4 bead board overhead to add some fill to the arm that would be entering our frame.

Another important part of the VFX was getting each shot framed as closely as possible to the one before it, which we did using my SmallHD 702 Brite Monitor. The 702 allows me to capture a screenshot at any point in time, and then overlay that screenshot over our live feed. This allowed us to accurately match up every aspect of the various shots to make sure the bottles were in the same exact position. We also ran an Osee Directors monitor for Brian to make sure he was happy with everything.

Our Lighting Setup. We turned off all the practicals before actually rolling.

Once our lighting was where we wanted it, we had to be very careful about any changes we might be inclined to make. We didn't want to move the camera or focus at all, and we wanted the lighting to stay consistent.

First Shot - The Hand

The first shot was the BottleKeeper being placed on the modified bottle by our model. The toughest part of this shot was her putting it on quickly without the bottle vibrating too much (It would look weird once it got keyed out). After a few takes though she got the hang of it, and we got our final shot.

The BottleKeeper being placed on the bottle - green gaff card covered our grip equipment.

Tweaking the position of our Bottle Keeper.

Second Shot: The Colors

The second shot was the different colored BottleKeepers for the stinger. We only needed about 3 seconds of footage for each one, but we wanted them all to match up exactly with the original silver one, so we used that frame overlay tool to ensure the thread positioning and angles of the bottles were all the same. Instead of cutting holes in them all to fit the original rig, we just hung them by their caps from a grip arm. The caps would be keyed out, so having them in the shot wasn't an issue. We did find that the c-stand was reflecting in the BottleKeepers though, so we covered it in black gaff tape. Once we had shot all the colors except the green bottle, we flipped our green screen to blue for the final bottle shot.

Pre-VFX shot of our various colors.

Shot Three: The Bottle 

Our last shot was bottle you see at the beginning of the final shot - we didn't want to show the bottle the model had been using in Shot One because with all the rigging we had behind it we couldn't light it well - our goal was to light the arm and silver BottleKeeper.  

The bottle was hard-cider bottle that Indiewhip had removed the labels from. Our gaffer rigged the bottle in front of the blue screen using a little plate that we put on a grip arm, which we covered with white poster-board.

For lighting we turned off two bulbs in each of our "Key Kinos" so that the strip lights would still be there, but wouldn't be as pronounced. We added a small tungsten light behind the bottle, and tweaked its position until we had a nice amber glow to our drink. Brian added a combination of dulling spray, water, and glycerin to make the bottle look like it was covered in condensation, and would add a little salt to the cider and stir it to make our bubbles. Once we had rolled a bit of the bubble action and were happy with it, our VFX director Monty asked Brian to spray the bottle a few times so that we'd get a bead of liquid running down the side.

That's a wrap!

Once we got our bead of liquid we started breaking everything down and heading home. The VFX and Color Grading was done by Monty and Rob from Finish Post, who did an amazing job putting all the pieces together.

Thanks so much for checking this out! If you have any questions feel free to drop them in the comments below!

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