• A Tapeless Workflow in Iceland

    Written by Stephanie Argy
    American Cinematographer Vol. 86 Issue 9, p84. September 2005

    When Icelandic athlete and entertainer Magnus Scheving set out to create the children’s series LazyTown, he knew he wanted the show to have a whimsical feel all its own. “I wanted people to say, ‘I’ve never seen this look before, what is this?’ I wanted to do something absolutely different, and I wanted to use live action with puppets and 3-D backgrounds.”

    Scheving gathered a team of artists and technicians from all over the world, and they devised an innovative tapeless workflow that not only combined all the elements Scheving wanted, but also did almost everything in real time on set. This brought production and post much closer together, something that the show’s director of photography, Tómas Örn Tómasson, found very exciting. “It was really teamwork,” says the cinematographer. “It was nice for me to realize that shooting in this technical environment was almost like shooting on a normal set.”

    Scheving has traveled around the world to promote health and fitness, and he says many parents have asked him how to inspire their children to develop good exercise and nutrition habits. In response, he wrote a book, Go, Go Lazy Town, which spawned a mini-industry in Iceland that includes live theatrical performances, a non-profit radio station, and a model “economy” in which children collect LazyTown bills to buy healthy services and products.

    The television show LazyTown began to appear on Nick Jr., Nickelodeon’s programming block aimed at preschoolers, in August 2004. Filled with physical comedy and athletic stunts, the show stars Scheving as Sportacus, a superhero whose mission is to make physical activity and healthy lifestyles appealing to young children.

    In developing the series, Scheving turned to Hypercube, a company that facilitates the interaction between manufacturers and users of advanced technology. Hypercube’s Mark Read, who eventually served as LazyTown’s executive producer, visualeffects supervisor, producer and technical director, devised a full-resolution (1920x1080 4:4:4) virtual-cinematography facility for the show, setting up a workflow that allowed most aspects of an episode to be realized at once. In 82 days, the company built a studio in Gardabær, Iceland, that could house every phase of production, from screenwriting and storyboarding through post and delivery, and assembled an international crew of 163.

    LazyTown combines real actors and puppets with virtual environments. “We’ve created a live-action cartoon,” says Claudia Meglin, the show’s post supervisor. “It’s hard for even production insiders to judge where the border is between the real world and the virtual world.” Roughly 20 percent of the shots were done on real sets, but the rest were shot against greenscreen with minimal set dressing and few props so that fanciful CG backgrounds could be added in. But rather than compositing the shots later on, a Emmy winning video engineer and Ultimatte operator Richard Welnowski used Ultimatte HD digital to pull a key on set and insert the appropriate background, so that while Tómasson was shooting against greenscreen, he was actually seeing the shot the way it would finally look. “We were driven by the short production schedule, and this allowed us to finish most of the scenes on set,” says Meglin. Each episode had about 60 to 70 virtual sets and was shot in less than six days.

    Once Tómasson chose a camera position for a shot with a virtual background, his crew lined up the Panther dolly on that spot. Tómasson’s grips, Ægir Gudmundsson and Jonas Gudmundsson, used a Sharpie to draw a grid on the stage floor to speed up the positioning of the dolly and to more easily measure its motion. “The first position of a scene became a reference point for the 3-D background, and if we moved the dolly, it was measured from that point,” explains Tómasson. “The director and I picked the right background for the scene, virtual camera operator Bill Dorais put it up, and then Richard Welnowski pulled his key and we were ready to shoot. This might sound complicated, but it all happened within two minutes after I found the right frame. Because of our system, I had no boundaries, and I was free to move the camera where I wanted — and very quickly.”

    The show’s virtual backgrounds were created in the 3-D application Maya and then formatted in Motion Builder, which matched the real sets seamlessly with the virtual environments. Meglin explains that Motion Builder was created for motion capture but has been adapted for use in virtual studios. “It’s mostly used for previsualization, but we proved it can be used for final output.”

    Tómasson shot the show with a Thomson Viper FilmStream, shooting 24p at 1920x1080 in 4:4:4 RGB 10-bit color space. Meglin says that one compelling reason to work digitally in Iceland is that the country has no film lab. “When you ship material out, you risk losing connection to it,” she says. Moreover, the only tape involved in the production was the final master. The images were recorded as DPX files, with embedded metadata, and all audio was stored as WAV files. Sound and picture were maintained in a centralized Storage Area Network with a database that associated the assets with their related metadata throughout the production and post processes.

    The recording and transmission of information about shots and scenes normally involves a lot of work for numerous people, but in this case, the metadata streamlined the process. The editing department, which used Avid Adrenalines, received the footage pre-logged, and other departments could access data from set such as lens focal length, tilt and camera height. If there was camera movement, that was also recorded, and it could be applied later in a CG environment.

    In addition to the metadata, the alpha channels Welnowski created when he did his on-set keying were also maintained so that they were available throughout the pipeline. This made it simple to color-correct foregrounds and backgrounds independently, and it also meant that the backgrounds could easily be replaced later in post if the needs of the story changed. According to Meglin, filmmaking in Iceland is generally done on location, and the local crew had little experience with shooting greenscreen. “At the beginning of production, we budgeted more for clean-up, but because the crew could see the results of their work, live on the studio floor, they learned very fast. After two or three months, the keys that came from set were perfect, and we didn’t have many fixes to do.”

    Tómasson made his own discoveries about the greenscreen process. “There is a myth that one should overexpose greenscreen by 2/3 to 1 stop, and underexpose bluescreen by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop,“ he says. “I think the confusion is created because people mix spot reading with incident reading. It can be misleading to use spot reading when finding the exposure for screens from which you want to pull a key. When shooting on a screen, no matter what color, it is crucial to measure the shooting exposure with an incident meter. You should use spot meter to see if the screen is evenly lit, then take a normal incident reading to find the base. “

    Tómasson shot the hard sets with an aperture of f1.8 to f2 1/3, but he found himself shooting at f4 to f5.6 for the greenscreen setups, and he generally used a gain of -3. “The settings of the camera were really neutral, so we could do whatever we wanted afterward,” he says. “If anything, we made it a little more contrasty, a little more saturated, but not too much.”

    “Because so much of the show was shot against greenscreen, it was important to use very sharp lenses, so we used Zeiss DigiPrimes,” said Tómasson. “We had the whole set of the DigiPrimes but most often I used the 10mm, 14mm and 40mm He tried to help the compositor by shooting primarily at a 90- degree shutter angle to make sharper edges, which he also felt was more appropriate to the fast-paced, action-oriented style of the show.

    Tómasson framed for a 16x9 aspect ratio for the international market, but he protected for 4x3 because that’s how the show is being broadcast in the States. Because he could see everything that would be added to the image, he could adjust his composition if he felt that his original position was interacting with the virtual background in an undesirable way. “The most difficult task for me on Lazytown was to come up with a usable and beautiful frame where I had a human beings, interacting with a half-body puppets, and keep continuity in the height between them through out the show,” he notes.

    The LazyTown puppets were designed by Academy Award winner Neal Scanlan (Babe). One challenge created by shooting in HD was that just as the camera sees the slightest flaws in human complexions, it also picked up the deterioration of the puppets’ latex skin; as a result, their skin had to be replaced every three weeks. Moreover, to make the actors fit better into shots with the puppets, the makeup artist had to adjust the actors’ skin tones to more closely match those of the puppets.

    Thanks to the real-time on-set comps, Tómasson was able to see how his lighting would combine with that of the virtual world, and his technique evolved over the course of the show’s 35 episodes. “In the beginning, we were a little cautious, a little bit flat, not too contrasty,” he says. “I didn’t want to clip the signal because that would have been bad for compositing. Since we did not shoot the show in a filmstream mode the latitude is similar to standard-definition digital video; if we clipped something, it was gone, so the exposure had to be exactly right. As I got the feel of it, we were able to add more contrast without blowing details.” In general, he lit a little softer than he might have for a film negative, or the Viper’s FilmStream Mode. His key sources tended to be large and soft, such as 12K HMI through a heavy 20’x20’ silk or 6K HMI through a heavy 12’x12’ silk.

    LazyTown is scheduled to air in 22 international markets over the next year, and the filmmakers have been asked to create 18 more episodes, as well as develop a LazyTown feature. “We consider the series a great rehearsal for the next step,” says Scheving.
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