Powerband Films Pushes Extreme Sports Cinematography to the Limit with Fujinon Pl Lenses

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Powerband Films Pushes Extreme Sports Cinematography to the Limit with Fujinon Pl Lenses

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FUJIFILM Optical Devices U.S.A., Inc.,
10 High Point Drive
Wayne, NJ, 07470

Press release date: May 29, 2012

Wayne, N.J. – On a given shoot they may be capturing the grueling tension of a 24-hour car race or the adrenaline excitement of a 400-foot motorcycle jump. But veteran extreme action sports cinematographers Mike “Mack Dawg” McEntire of Mack Dawg Productions and Jay Schweitzer of Powerband Films know one constant: the rock solid performance of lenses from the Optical Devices Division of FUJIFILM North America Corporation.

McEntire and Schweitzer recently put FUJINON’s Premier PL mount zoom lenses, the 75-400mm/T2.8 – T3.8 (HK5.3×75) and the FUJINON 24-180 mm/T2.6 (HK7.5×24) to an extreme test, shooting “Red Bull: New Year. No Limits” jump event for their independent feature documentary on daredevil distance jumps. Both lenses were mounted to Red Epic cameras in this extremely challenging environment. The shoot occurred at night with dense fog. For the event, a snowmobile and a dirt bike jumped in tandem over a section of the San Diego Bay. The snowmobile jumped over 400 feet, and the dirt bike soared just shy of 400 feet. In order to capture the jumps in their entirety, the two cinematographers needed lenses that were sharp, wide open with a long range on the zoom. They found the ideal fit with the Fujinon Premiere PL glass.

McEntire is the owner of Mack Dawg Productions, a company known globally as one of the top action sports film companies. Mack Dawg has been producing extreme sports films since 1988. McEntire and fellow extreme sports cinematographer Jay Schweitzer started Powerband Films to collaborate on the “On the Pipe” series of freestyle motorcycle films 10 years ago. The “On the Pipe” films have been the definitive films on dirt biking since their collaboration began.

McEntire relied on the versatile 75-400mm again on a RED Epic camera to shoot the Rolex 24 GRAND-AM car race in Daytona Beach for Continental Tires. McEntire explained, “Both events required varied focal lengths. I found the 75 to 400mm range to be incredibly useful. It’s the longest range PL mount zoom lens available and with unbelievable 4K performance. Even shooting at a wide open T2.8 aperture for the Red Bull event, staged at night with serious fog to contend with, images were razor sharp edge to edge. It provided great-looking, slow motion footage that we like to use a lot.”

For the Rolex race, Continental wanted artsy footage for a one-hour television feature. “I was able to shoot all night in marginal light and produce amazing results,” McEntire described. “In the daytime, I captured high-speed action employing ND filtration to shoot wide open without any flare problems. My goal was to capture beautiful shallow depth of field material that you don’t normally see in a car race. I would’ve had a very hard time trying to do this with any other lens. Having a long zoom that performs like the FUJINON 75-400 in all types of light was a dream come true. This lens made a real difference in my images – at both events.”

Many of the events that McEntire and Schweitzer shoot are daredevil jumps, stunts and professional sports where the athlete has just one attempt to get it right. They have to nail a perfect shot every time. McEntire said, “The FUJINON 75-400 mm is absolutely the best lens I’ve ever come across for this type of work. The build quality is fantastic, with buttery smooth gearing that makes pulling focus a treat. It delivers a punchy, crisp image with black blacks and colors that pop. After such a great experience on these very demanding shoots, I’m looking forward to trying out the other two zoom lenses in the Premier series with upcoming productions.”

To view footage cinematographer Jay Schweitzer shot for the “Red Bull:New Year. No Limits.” event with the 24-180 mm Premier Series PL Mount lens, please click on the link above.

About MackDawg Productions
MackDawg Productions was formed in 1988 and has been at the forefront producing action sports content since that day. To date, Mack Dawg Productions has released over 40 films encompassing skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, dirtbiking, as well working on motion pictures, national commercial spots and TV programs. Today MDP is alive and well, focused on several documentary projects as well as continued work on high-end commercial, viral marketing and TV programming. http://www.mikemcentire.com/

About Powerband Films
With more than 30 years experience capturing the full-throttle excitement of athletic competition, Powerband Films boasts a crew of some of the top action sports cinematographers in the world. Whether shooting landscape scenics, time-lapses, or high-speed competition. On the water, in the mountains or off the road, Powerband strives to deliver a masterpiece of art and wonder using motion picture images.. Visit http://powerbandfilms.com/

About Fujifilm
FUJIFILM North America Corporation, a marketing subsidiary of FUJIFILM Holdings America Corporation consists of five operating divisions and one subsidiary company. The Imaging Division sells consumer and commercial photographic products and services including film, one-time-use cameras, online photo services and fulfillment, digital printing equipment and service. The Electronic Imaging Division markets consumer digital cameras. The Motion Picture Division provides motion picture film, and the Graphic Systems Division supplies products and services to the printing industry. The Optical Devices Division provides binoculars, and optical lenses for closed circuit television, videography, cinematography, broadcast and industrial markets. FUJIFILM Canada Inc. markets a range of Fujifilm products and services. For more information, please visit www.fujifilmusa.com/northamerica, or go to www.twitter.com/fujifilmus to follow Fujifilm on Twitter. To receive news and information direct from Fujifilm via RSS, subscribe at www.fujifilmusa.com/rss.

FUJIFILM Holdings Corporation, Tokyo, Japan, brings continuous innovation and leading-edge products to a broad spectrum of industries, including electronic imaging, digital printing equipment, medical systems, life sciences, graphic arts, flat panel display materials and office products, based on a vast portfolio of digital, optical, fine chemical and thin film coating technologies. The company was among the top 16 companies around the world granted U.S. patents in 2010, and in the year ended March 31, 2011, had global revenues of $25.8 billion*. Fujifilm is committed to environmental stewardship and good corporate citizenship. For more information, please visit www.fujifilmholdings.com.

Robin Hoffman
Pipeline Communications
(973) 746-6970

Pipeline Communications
277 Valley Way
Montclair, NJ 07042
(973) 746-6970
cell: (917) 763-8069






At 4x HD, This Is Probably the Most Epic Time-Lapse Nature Video Ever

There are a lot of time-lapse videos floating around the Internet but Tom Lowe’s TimeScapes is the one to see before you die. The film, an hour-long tribute to the beauty of the American Southwest, is the culmination of two years of shooting and the first video to be sold directly to viewers a 4K resolutionvia Lowe’s website. The trailer below is just boring old HD (1280 x 720 pixels) — and it’s still pretty impressive — but you can get a sense of the scale of 4K resolution (4096 x 2304 pixels) from the graphic below and the version on YouTube. To own the special 4K edition of the film in all its 140-gigabyte glory, download it here for just $299.95. The HD download is a little more affordable at $15.95. Lowe discusses the making of the film and his distribution strategy in an interview below. 

The Atlantic: What was the genesis of TimeScapes?

Tom Lowe: I started shooting time lapse as a hobby back in late 2006. Over the years, I started to get positive feedback online, at places like Vimeo, which led me to continue developing my skills as a time-lapse shooter, which in turn led to more positive feedback online. Eventually, I moved into shooting time lapse full time, when a wealthy backer from New Zealand sent me $100,000 and a Red MX digital cinema camera so I could spend a year and a half making my debut film, TimeScapes.

How did you get into time-lapse photography?

Like all good things, I sort of drifted into time lapse by accident. I had been camping out at Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California, and notice how amazing the rocks looked in the moonlight, backdropped by the stars and the Milky Way. I asked all my friends in the film business how I could shoot the rocks and stars at night, but none of them really knew. A well-established cinematographer named Francis Kenny, ASC, eventually saw a post I made at the Reduser.net forum and sent me a private message telling me that I could use a Canon DSLR still camera to shoot time lapse at night. The next day, I ordered a Canon 350D DSLR, and the rest is history.

[optional image description]Production photos (TimeScapes)

What drove your decision to distribute the film yourself online? Could you describe your distribution strategy?

I shot the film over two years on a budget for only $200,000, with a lot of help from sponsors like Canon USA and Kessler Crane. I edited the film myself, at home, in my living room, at 4K (4096 x 2304) resolution, on a tricked-out gaming PC. This whole thing was done on almost no budget, so right now, just selling Blurays and high-definition downloads from our own website, we are nearly profitable. We should be turning a profit within the next month or so, I think. We screened the film for IMAX in Los Angeles a couple days ago, and are still waiting to hear back from them. Plus, we have not even sold the domestic TV or foreign TV rights or anything. So we are extremely optimistic about making a good return on our time and investment. If any distributors or sales agents are reading this, give us a call!

[optional image description]4K resolution compared to normal high definition resolution (Wikipedia)
What do you want people to take away from the film?

Among other things I hope to inspire people to go out into the outdoors and enjoy these amazing places. I also hope the film connects with people on an emotional and spiritual level, and that it means something unique and personal to each person.

What’s next for you?

Hopefully a big, proper IMAX film, then I want to pursue a career as a feature film director, along the lines of my heroes Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick.

For more information about TimeScapes, visit http://timescapes.org/.

Avicii Totally “Le7els” Miami at American Airlines Arena, June 8

AviciiConcertReviewMiami1.jpgPhoto by George MartinezSee the full 39-photo slideshow of Avicii at the American Airlines Arena.

Avicii’s Le7els Tour
American Airlines Arena, Miami
Friday, June 8, 2012

Better Than: It being past 11 p.m. and not knowing your kids’ whereabouts.

Avicii is taking over.

He’s captured the hearts and minds of America’s neon-painted youth as if he were some kind of Swedish one-man boy band. And last night, the American Airlines Arena was full of screaming, wide-eyed fans who weren’t ashamed to scream along to “Le7els,” both times around.

They even sang along to his other songs, and that’s how you know he’s got them.

Because of the venue, and because the crowd was 16 and up, the 21-year-old superstar hit the stage at about 9:30 p.m., much earlier than
his headlining spot at Ultra Music Festival a few months ago.

AviciiConcertReviewMiami2.jpgPhoto by George Martinez
Of course, in no surprising manner at all, he opened his set with his biggest hit, “Le7els.” Some more cultivated and mature fans might have found this to be a bit too obvious, but the general response was more than positive.

Of course, there was also the insane stage presentation to make up for it. On this tour, Avicii has spared no expense to provide one killer visual performance. He stands in what would be the brain of a giant face, flanked on either side by big leafy shaped screens. The whole thing is 3D-mapped and covered in lasers, so as to transform into any sort of image, video, or color scheme imaginable.

AviciiConcertReviewMiami3.jpgPhoto by George Martinez
The tour is billed as something unlike anything dance music has seen before, and that’s partially true. Granted, epic light shows with massive presentation aren’t new. Daft Punk, anyone? But Avicii is blazing a trail as the first DJ to headline a national all-arena tour.

It definitely changes up the atmosphere. It feels less like a rave and more like a concert. Yet you still see all the usual signs of a rave — glow sticks, pacifiers, girls crying at their boyfriends in the hallway.

Singing along with your best friends in the crowd is a nice way to get a good view. But you still kind of wish that everyone was in one giant pit together on the floor. Still, now that Avicii has opened the doors, there will definitely be more DJs following in his footsteps.

AviciiConcertReviewMiami5.jpgPhoto by George Martinez
Throughout the show, these die-hard fans were going bonkers. With almost every drop, it seemed like Avicii had just played their favorite song, and these kids seemed to know all the words. They sang along emphatically to his remix of “Sweet Dreams” and recent single “Silhouettes.”

About an hour into his set, the stage setup got even more impressive as he dropped a remix of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Otherside.” Turns out, the forehead of the giant face that serves as Avicii’s DJ booth can be raised even higher. And adding to the epic effect, smoke and lasers shot out from underneath it.

Avicii hung in the air under a spotlight and a camera captured and broadcasted his face in real time via the stage’s LED screens. Then it all went another step further … The lit-up, smokey DJ booth came flying out over the crowd, flashing red and white lights like some kind of flying saucer.

AviciiConcertReviewMiami4.jpgPhoto by George Martinez
There must have been a camera mounted to the bottom of the flying DJ booth, because live images of the crowd flashed on the LED screens. And as Avicii hovered above our heads, he dropped big hits from Tiësto and Swedish House Mafia vs. Knife Party before his spaceship returned to dock atop the head. It all looked very Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

By now, the set was winding down. So it was time for a second-round of “Le7els” madness. But this time, Avicii mixed it with vocals from Gotye’s number-one single “Somebody I Used To Know.” The crowd went nuts as the screens flashed ultra-bright ribbons and bands of color. And when Etta James’s vocal sample kicked in, the face grew some glittery lips and sang along, again.

A highpoint near the end was his remix of Robyn’s “Hang With Me.” Backed up with images of beautiful sunrises and sunsets, roller coaster rides and wooded roads, the euphoric melody set a chill and building ambiance.

AviciiConcertReviewMiami6.jpgPhoto by George Martinez
Avicii played a couple more tracks. But soon the lights faded and he stood in silence. Well, besides the thousands of screaming voices.

“Avicii, Avicii, Avicii,” they chanted as he made the shape of a heart with his hands. They continued chanting. And they would get their one more song.

Closing out in old-school style, Avicii unleashed a drop of Zombie Nation’s classic “Kernkraft 400,” and everyone sang along to the track’s iconic hook. A minute later, he gave the crowd heart-hands one more time before disappearing into the smokey abyss.

AviciiConcertReviewMiami7.jpgPhoto by George Martinez

Critic’s Notebook

Personal Bias: Avicii fans can’t clap on beat

The Crowd: Neon house freaks in their late teens and early 20s, not giving a fuck.

Best Auxiliary Characters: The couple that tried to sneak into the General Admission pit by jumping over from a railing almost 10 feet above the ground. It was a good try. You should have run faster.

Avicii’s Setlist Highlights:
-“My Feelings For You”
-“You’ve Got The Love”
-“Fade Into Darkness”
-“Sweet Dreams”
-“Save the World Tonight”
“In My Mind”
-“Le7els/Somebody I Used to Know”
-“Hang With Me”
-“Kernkraft 400″

Follow Crossfade on Facebook and Twitter @Crossfade_SFL.

Location Info


American Airlines Arena


American Airlines Arena

601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, FL

Category: Music

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Galaxy S III First Impressions

I keep returning to the same train of thought: with the Galaxy S III, Samsung has been successful in completely consumerizing Android.  And they have a powerful brand platform.  The Galaxy S III is a huge marketing win for Samsung, as it provides a consistent branding message across the world, and across the five largest wireless carriers in the US.  Gone for now are carrier-cultivated names like the Samsung Galaxy S II, Epic 4G Touch.  Verizon, ATT, Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular customers will know the flagship device as the Samsung Galaxy S III.

Yes, the overarching theme that I come away with after working with the Samsung Galaxy S III for a couple of days is the very thing that Android purists and fans will hate most: this is the first Android device that I can say without a doubt is ready for the mainstream user.  I’m referring solely to the other 99 percent of us; those that want a consistent, fluid experience with some great features that can be accessed without rooting or tweaking the phone.  Thanks to a solid combination of specs and ease-of-use, I could safely recommend this phone to the power user, the social media buff, the media junkie, and the first-time smartphone buyer.  And at the end of the day, most of them would be very pleased with the package.

I’ve been working with the international Galaxy S III, which offers a 1.4 GHz quad-core Exynos processor, 1 GB of RAM, a 4.8-inch Super AMOLED HD display, 8-megapixel camera with 1080p HD video recording, a 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera, 2,100 mAh battery, Android 4.0 with a new build of TouchWiz, and HSPA+ 21 Mbps connectivity that’ll work on ATT in the US.  It directly competes with other Android flagships like HTC’s One X and EVO 4G LTE, and is coming to five carriers in the US beginning on June 21st.  The US build will swap out the Exynos chip for a 1.5 GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 CPU, and will be bundled with 2 GB of RAM and 4G connectivity (LTE or HSPA+, depending on your carrier).

  • The Galaxy S III launches amidst some tough competition; most notably, HTC’s One X.  HTC’s flagship comes very close and offers a great (albeit different) user experience, but from a software standpoint, it still needs some polish around the edges.  I get the vibe that HTC is trying to double dip between the tech and mainstream consumer crowds with Sense 4, whereas Samsung is gunning for the mainstream crowd, territory that Apple has long dominated.  HTC’s approach is great for those of us that enjoy tinkering with our smartphones, and I give the company credit for creating a less polarizing UI that will appeal to both mainstream users and tech geeks (a historically strong demographic for the company).  As for HTC’s “appeal to everyone” versus Samsung’s “appeal to the mainstream” strategy, it’s anyone’s guess as to which is more successful long-term, but I’d wager that Samsung’s distribution agreements with the five US carriers will place it in a very lucrative position that HTC hasn’t (yet) been able to enjoy with their flagship.
  • The international Samsung Galaxy S III is available in 16, 32, and 64 GB variants and can be purchased in pebble blue or marble white.  If you can’t wait for the US variants, it’s available now for a lot of money at online retailers like Negri Electronics.  I’ve been working with the marble white model, though I think I’m partial to the pebble blue.  ATT’s exclusive red model sounds really appealing, provided it’s a dark red.  Both phones come in at 8.6mm thin and weigh 5.6 ounces.

  • The design language is typical Samsung, as you’d expect; all variants are glossy and made of plastic.  The volume rocker is on the left side; power button is on the right; 3.5mm headphone jack is up top; and the microUSB charging port is on the bottom.  Those against non-removable batteries will find the Galaxy S III to be appealing; the phone’s 2,100 mAh battery and microSD card slot can easily be accessed by removing the back cover.
  • More on the design.  Rewind back to the global announcement day, and I was on a plane, headed from San Francisco to London.  Thanks to a series of meetings and events that I needed to attend earlier in the week, I hadn’t had the time to follow-up on every news article.  So as such, I missed most of the final rumor posts about the Galaxy S III.  The Galaxy S III was placed in my hand at a meeting that morning, prior to the circulation of press releases and associated images.  So unlike many of the people reading this, I held the actual phone before I saw the press images, and as such, my opinions of the design were formulated in a different manner.  I see a lot of criticism about the Galaxy S III’s look on the web, and while some of it can be chalked up to Samsung’s plastic design language, I’m seeing a number of comments against the design in itself.  Design preferences are obviously subjective, but if you’re at all on the fence, I’d strongly advise checking it out in a retail store.  The press images don’t do an adequate job of conveying the overall design and feel of the smartphone in the hand.
  • Connectivity has been strong thus far.  With the international version, you lose 4G LTE connectivity in place of HSPA+ 21 Mbps (which works well on ATT), but gain slightly better battery life as a result.  Working with a non-ATT branded device (read: no always-on-regardless-of-speed “4G” indicator) is testament to how often the network switches between HSPA+ and other 3G variants, but when ATT’s HSPA+ network is in action, speeds are zippy.  In testing in Charlotte, San Francisco, and Phoenix, I noticed download speeds between 3 and 6 Mbps, with bursts as high as 7.1 Mbps.

  • So far, battery life has been exceptional.  Despite powering a 4.8-inch HD display, I’ve been able to easily make it through the day, even while throwing it some tough curveballs.  Yesterday, I removed the phone from the charger at 4:00 AM EST for a full day of travel and meetings in San Francisco.  With two hours of calls; an estimated 200 text messages; reading several emails and responding to approximately 25 from the phone; light web browsing; roughly two hours of music playback while traveling; and downloading a few apps; I was able to make it until just after 7:00 PM PST.  Your mileage may vary depending on the level of customization you apply to the phone (obviously, things like live wallpapers, news, and weather all take a toll on the battery), but it’s a strong contender in the battery life department.  While I’m still running final tests, it easily goes against the international Samsung Galaxy Note and appears to best the international HTC One X.
  • The level of customization and things you can do with the Galaxy S III is impressive.  Instead of making it “just another Android phone,” the Galaxy S III offers a ton nifty customizations to the software that are intended to make the device easier to use.  Some of my favorites:
    • Integrated battery percentage indicator
      Something I’ve been waiting for on Android for years.  Without rooting, you have the option of a battery percentage indicator at the top of the display.  This is a feature I use on every single one of my smartphones (and get irritated when I don’t have the option – ahem, Windows Phone), so the ability to access it without downloading a separate widget is incredibly useful.
    • Tap to return to the top of a list
      While viewing a list (I use it most often in Contacts), you can tap two of your fingers on the top of the phone, and the Galaxy S III will scroll to the top.
    • Missed call and text vibrate notification
      I chalk this up to receiving 200-300 emails a day and to a lesser extent, my desire to always make sure my email and text message folders are clear.  But this is an incredibly useful feature.  When enabled, you can pick up the phone and it will emit a quick vibration if you have any missed calls or text messages.  Sure, there’s the notification light, but the vibrate offers an extra touch and saves that half a second between waiting for the light to illuminate.  And a bunch of half-seconds equate to at least 30 more seconds I have throughout the day.  Yep, that would be my 24-hour media mindset talking.
    • Voice features
      You’ll see this one on full display in the review, but it’s a cool little feature that I’ve really been enjoying.  You can assign the phone to recognize a specific voice command at the unlock screen and perform certain tasks.  For example, I press the power button to access the unlock screen, say “play music,” and it automatically starts up my music.  I also use “check text messages” quite a bit, which as you would expect, is programmed to take me directly to my Messages app.  It’s important to note that you can make the voice command your own; if you want to direct Galaxy S III to show you missed calls when you say “Aaron Baker rocks my socks,” you can program it appropriately.

Small software features and tweaks along with powerful specifications make this device a fantastic upgrade to the Galaxy series, and prove that Samsung is thinking outside of the Android box.  This is the kind of Android experience that I’ve hoped to see for years: powerful technology with the flexibility of Android and iOS-like fluidity.

  • Samsung Galaxy S III

Mistika Helps Control Chaos for Nike Campaign

Press release from SGO:


Los Angeles, CA – Hollywood-based Identity FX employed SGO’s Mistika to help complete the interactive portion of Nike’s “Quick Controls Chaos” transmedia campaign promoting the brand’s Jordan CPV.3 athletic shoes.

The CP3 Jump Man website features basketball player Chris Paul and is available online as an interactive experience under the search string “Quick Controls Chaos.” Designed for online customers to dynamically experience a Nike product launch, the unique ad campaign was made to generate a transmedia experience destined for the web, live events and broadcast. Online users are able to interactively participate in the commercial by operating a camera, ensuring that no two viewings would ever be the same.

Despite facing tight and unforgiving deadlines with multiplex project management challenges coupled with the pressures of a client-driven commercial scenario, Identity FX victoriously accomplished sensational results. They delivered complete post production services which ranged from data management, editorial, pre comp, visual effects, colour correction and online finishing, using Mistika.

“Mistika allowed us to read in R3D files at full resolution, in 5K without transcoding and therefore saving us a huge amount of time,” said Leo Vezzali, Co-Founder and Stereoscopic Supervisor, Identity FX.

The production team created an impressive set-up, made up of the largest single array of RED EPIC cameras ever to be used on a commercial at the same time.  An array of nine arc-mounted cameras, moved once, for a total of seventeen camera positions with a single camera overlap, were used. The Identity FX team faced the daunting task of creating a one-thousand frame-length final product, comprised of the seventeen individual camera positions that captured up to twelve green screen layers, per camera, in a 170 degree arc. “To put this in perspective that’s a total of 11 hours of 5K footage captured over a two and a half day shoot.” David Scott Van Woert, Owner and Producer at Identity FX, emphasised.

Most record-breaking high-level projects bring with them a series of labyrinthian challenges, and this was no exception. One example that illustrates the sheer complexity, was how the team had to provide a seamless basketball play to the end-user, which ultimately had to be built from interwoven, disparate takes. The footage incorporated a chain reaction of various interdependent scenes that included a man on fire, a mounted policeman rearing up, a “Vancouver Kiss,” a fan falling from the announcer’s booth, and, dramatically, a child almost being trampled by a horse.

“Simple logistics and safety concerns were paramount, along with the early realisation that we would not be able to do this in a single take, across an eighteen-camera array.” David explained. “There was not enough glass available to rig eighteen cameras together using 14mm prime lenses and secondly, even if there were, and we were not concerned about safety at all, this scenario would dictate that we would have had to paint out the rig in every shot, from every angle.”

The team also faced the monumental task of isolating the moments of action in the basketball play, into separate green screen layers across the array. The camera array had to be moved backwards and forwards for each and every layer, which, in itself, resulted in additional issues that required resolving. This involved matching the action across multiple takes and various array moves across up to a dozen different layers, as well as processing an increased volume of 5K RED EPIC material at 48fps across the entire timeline.

VFX Supervisor Richard Stammers on Prometheus

There are no outright spoilers in this story about the visual effects work in director Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, although there are hints — even one about the scene that Glenn Kenny, chief film critic for MSN Movies, describes this way: “It is insane, one of the most perfectly perverse and beautifully executed pieces of shock cinema I’ve seen in years, an absolutely breathtaking and staggering and exhilarating set piece that kind of reminds you of every sick thing that cinema is good for.”

The year is 2093 and the crew of the spaceship Prometheus is on a quest for the origin of mankind after discovering what might be a map. After two years onboard in deep sleep while a robot named David (Michael Fassbender) tends the ship, the explorers wake up on an alien planet that supposedly holds the secret — a secret not without peril. And a gooey paranoia sets in. “The paranoia becomes palpable, and a lot of its impact comes from how dramatic and dazzlingly seamless the special effects are,” writes Christy Lemire of the Associated Press.

The comments from Kenny and Lemire might invoke images of Alien, director Ridley Scott’s first sci-fi horror film, released in 1979, and his last until this year’s highly anticipated Prometheus. And, it’s tempting to think of Prometheus as a kind of prequel to Alien or perhaps a side trip, but as critic Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic puts it: “You’re more likely to enjoy Prometheus  if you go in thinking less about Alien and more about Scott, with his emphasis on images, tone and atmosphere.” 

The realization of that emphasis, and the drama and seamlessness of the effects, often rested on the shoulders of visual effects crews. Richard Stammers, visual effects supervisor, took leave from his work at the Moving Picture Company (MPC) to lead the group of 10 vendors, including MPC, that created the film’s 1400 visual effects shots. But the vision was Scott’s. “Most of our previs started with sketches and storyboards that Ridley [Scott] drew,” Stammers says. “He obviously has a fantastic vision for images.”

Extensive Previs

Scott worked with Halon Entertainment in LA for pre-production, and Halon artists previs’d an opening sequence. In addition, a previs team from MPC worked with Scott and Stammers on an action sequence, a crash of the Prometheus and an alien ship, and the Prometheus landing sequence.

“Ridley [Scott] got excited about previs, I think, for the first time,” Stammers says, describing the process of previsualizing the landing site on the alien planet.  “Ridley had a definite idea of what he wanted: A desolate desert with no sense of life or vegetation, and with storms, atmospherics, lightning. The concept art I saw from visual-effects art director Steve Messing was along those lines. When I realized we had to create the landscape in CG, we set up an interactive Maya scene so we could build and adjust the landscapes live with Ridley.”

To create the hero landing site, the team at MPC knew that Scott’s reference was Wadi Rum, a desert location in Jordan with tall, sheer, heavily eroded walls. “It was used in Lawrence of Arabia,” Stammers says. “There’s actually a lot of reference to Lawrence of Arabia in the film. You see David [the robot] watching the film when everyone else is in hyper sleep. Ridley loved the idea that the place the crew was visiting was a huge valley and they’d be dwarfed within.”

So, MPC utilized digital elevation files and Google Earth to generate simple geometry of the Wadi Rum valley. “Then we added the Prometheus ship and other elements based on a series of sketches Ridley did, and adjusted it until we got the look and scale Ridley liked,” Stammers says. “We lined up the cameras based on his sketches. When we worked out what we needed, we went to Jordon and shot the location from a helicopter. We did match moves of those shots to track and build point cloud data that we could mesh into the mountain shapes. And when we went to Iceland, we chose a location that would blend into Wadi Rum. The final shots have the ground of Iceland and the valley walls of Jordan.”

It was up to the crew at MPC to blend the flat grey Icelandic landscape with the red walls of Wadi Rum, adding snow-capped mountains and turbulent skies.

“We gave Ridley printouts of everything,” Stammers says. “He storyboarded on top with descriptions, and we’d redesign shots. He draws pretty much everything, and he sketches quickly. Every day, he’d come to the set with drawings of what he wanted. When we were discussing a VFX shot, he’d look at his monitor, draw what was on the screen, and then draw in the visual-effects element we needed to add. I could pass that on to our visual effects vendors, saying, ‘Here’s your brief.’ It was a great starting point.”

That interaction carried on throughout post-production as well. “It was totally amazing,” Stammers says. “And, a great way to work. We could print out frames from the Avid in sequences that his editor put together. He’d sketch on the top. We’d scan them and send them to the visual effects vendors. We’d show sequences to him, he’d draw, and we’d adjust.”

Shooting Stereo

Location work took the production to Iceland, Jordan, and Scotland, but most of the 90-day shoot happened at Pinewood Studios in London with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski shooting in native stereo with 5K-resolution Red Epic cameras. “We shot with the cameras parallel rather than converged,” Stammers says. “The main reason was to alleviate work and pain in the match-move and compositing processes in the visual-effects pipeline. By removing one of the moving, movable parts of the camera rig, namely the convergence, we could reduce the time spent on the stereo match-move. With the cameras always pointed to infinity, we didn’t have to track cameras with animated convergences.”

But that meant the images had to include extra room for convergence to happen in post-production. “If you looked at the output of a camera you would see the full frame and within that, a framing guide that was 93.5 percent [of the full image], which we could use to reposition the images,” Stammers says.

“Without a convergence pass, the stereo in raw form is uncomfortable,” he adds. “Generally in 3D, you want to converge on a subject so the audiences’ eyes are trained there.So in post we took the left and right images, aligned them, and animated the appearance of convergence by moving the images together or apart. If you watch a 3D film without glasses, the area that looks sharpest with no doubling is the area of convergence.”

While shooting, the onset crew did temporary alignments to check. They gave those temporary alignments to the editorial teams so they could watch the film comfortably and have a rough guide for edits. “Company 3 conformed the final edit in DI,” Stammers says. “Sean Santiago, our post stereographer, set the final convergence with them so everything flowed comfortably.”

“For us, the main issue with [stereo] 3D,” he adds, “is that there are so many digital formats that are always changing, and Red is always updating software, firmware, the camera, the chips. Every time you work on a show with Red cameras, you have to re-evaluate where you are. So I did a lot of investigation before setting up a basic color pipeline that worked specifically with the resolution of the Red Epic. It was the first time I’d worked with source 5K material.”

Calibrating Color

In addition to the additional work necessitated by the dual images and high resolution – double the tracking, double the match-moves, double everything, Stammers needed to tailor the color pipeline to fit Scott and Wolski’s working method. “We worked with what Red recommended,” Stammers says, “and then made some slight adjustments based on what Dariusz [Wolski], the DP, wanted to see and what he wanted to view on set on his color-calibrated monitor. We made sure we set up the color pipeline so we could understand what he was doing, and then sent it to all the VFX vendors.”

Those vendors all worked on ungraded shots that had a full dynamic range. If the DP had applied a grade, the vendors would re-apply that grade before delivering. “The vendors want the cleanest, most unaltered image with the greatest color range without artifacts,” Stammers says. “Color choices made on the day of shooting are rarely adhered to when the scenes are cut together, so we needed to maintain the flexibility to change the color grade right through to the final DI process.”

Who Did What?

Stammers gave most of the visual effects shots to MPC, Weta Digital, and Fuel, with Hammerhead, Rising Sun Pictures, Lola, Luma Pictures, Prologue, and two one-man teams from Pixel Pirates and Invisible Effects working in-house on comps and cleanups.

MPC, led by visual effects supervisor Charley Henley, was the lead vendor with around 450 shots. “Ridley [Scott] felt they could do great environment work, as they had done for his Robin Hood and Kingdom of Heaven,Stammers says. “They did everything on the planet surface that the crew of Prometheus visits. So, rather than sharing work, we had them create the human and alien space ships, and therefore they also did the space travel shots and shots of the planet’s atmosphere with cloud formations and electrical storms. Any time you see exterior planetary landscapes, that’s all MPC’s environment work. They also created the epic crash sequence and the alien ship rolling toward Vickers and Shaw, as well as some small creature sequences and prosthetic enhancements when the crew get infected in the film.”

Weta Digital handled the majority of the creature work, though, creating around 250 shots, supervised on set by Everett Burrell and at Weta by Martin Hill. “They created the hero alien known as the Engineer,” Stammers says. “That was a digital representation of the actor they had on set, suited in fantastic prosthetics.” 

Weta also created an opening sequence in which an Engineer sacrifices himself. “We see inside his body, his DNA being pulled apart,” Stammers says. “It’s a beautiful moment. They also created some disgusting, gory moments that will be well remembered for years to come. There’s an automated surgery that’s realized with CG robotic arms, and a great combination of prosthetic and CG body parts – it’s really gross.”

Fuel VFX had the next-largest number of shots, supervised by Paul Butterworth. “They created fantastically original designs for the aliens’ holographic effects — pixilated, ghost-like holograms of fleeing figures that play beautifully in 3D,” Stammers says. “Ridley wanted the holograms to look decayed, like they were thousands of years old.”

Hammerhead also created a holographic representation at the beginning of the film to present a message from Peter Weyland, but one of their trickiest sequences was helping one of the characters lose his head. “For the most part, that’s an elaborate split screen using a prosthetic head, but they had to do body removal and track in [the actor’s] face onto the prosthetic head in stereo,” Stammers says. “They did a great job of seamlessly blending it.”

Rising Sun dramatically augmented close ups of a partially practical sandstorm that had been established in wide, full CG shots created by MPC, and picked up several monitor comps. Lola augmented the faces of the Engineer characters. “Ridley wanted to shoot as much practically as possible,” Stammers says. “So we bulked out the 7-foot-1 actor’s head and body with the prosthetics and makeup to sell him as an 8-foot giant. The slight drawback was that in bulking out his face, his features became disproportionately smaller. So, Lola rebalanced his features to make him look more godlike, more perfect.”

In addition, Luma Pictures created a floating holographic screen, and Prologue put a welcome message into a holographic cube, created a dream sequence, and made the opening titles.

“We definitely had our challenges,” Stammers says of the film. “And the pressure involved … If I had stopped to think that I was working on one of the most highly anticipated sci-fi films in a long time, I would have gone crazy. But everyone jumped to the challenge and did a fantastic job.”

As for working with Ridley Scott? “I learned a huge amount, but if I had to put my finger on one thing, it’s that nothing is set in stone. The thing you think is most precious could go at any point. You have to be prepared to lose your favorite shot for the greatest good.”

Images © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.