Recently we released into the world my latest music video project: Cate Hamilton “Traces”
I’ve directed VFX music videos before, but not at this scale. For this production, we rented a greenscreen studio and shot super high quality material lit by our impeccable director of photography, Brendan Swift, and had an amazing international post production team consisting of a lead VFX artist / animator / designer from Colombia named Luis Mejia and VFX assistant / chroma keyer Kevin Trujillo.
First, Cate and I started off with exchanging reference images. Cate wanted a surreal / fantasy world for her video, with a trippy and somewhat vintage vibe. We landed on referencing the animated version of Alice in Wonderland for the visual inspiration.
Once we had a baseline theme, it was time to translate that into our own original visuals by remixing our references. Here are some of my preliminary sketches/storyboards inspired by the reference images above:
Two “must have” scenes Cate wanted in the video was 1: To be sucked into a mirror and 2: Have her hair turn into a waterfall.
First I drew out storyboards for concept #1, where Cate walks up to a mirror that’s on the ground, touches it, the mirror ripples, and then she is “sucked in” disappearing from frame. For our budget and resources, transporting in a large, heavy standing mirror was going to be way too much for this project. And finding a mirror with a Victorian flourish would be even more difficult and expensive. Cate had this mirror in her apartment that was light enough to easily transport, so we decided to use that. With this smaller mirror in mind, I illustrated a scenario where she could “discover” the mirror leaning against some fantastical object in the VFX world. So an outdoor “forest” or “park” environment made the most sense. Additionally, I knew from my experience as a production designer that finding a way to mount such an object mid-air would be very tricky and take a lot of time on set. So leaning it on the floor was the best bet for our packed 1-day shoot schedule.
For the waterfall transformation, I created this comp to illustrate the idea for my VFX artist.
The biggest challenge on set was figuring out how to shoot this in a way that both allowed the effect to shine, and also made sense within the narrative of the video. The solve was to have her lean over the chair and have her hair cascade straight down over greenscreen boxes.
A greenscreen cloth was folded and used as a pillow under her head. We spent quite some time arranging her hair in just the right way so that it fell smoothly downward, with no stray locks that would make chroma keying the edges difficult later on.
We flipped the video in post, as Cate wanted us to shoot her “good side.” But honestly Cate is gorgeous from every angle! (Also note that I changed the color in post. Most of our color shots were done practical, where Brendan actually set up color filters / gels to create the exact color effect we had in mind right there on the greenscreen. This particular shot needed alteration in post because we shifted the location of this moment from the palace to the mountaintop after seeing our first pass of VFX. It just made more sense as a transition out of the mountain scene to do it this way.
Here’s an example of our color on set compared to the finished comp. On set, you can see the gel and lighting setup above her head peaking out on the edge of frame:
The color was slightly adjusted slightly in post for uniformity, but the original lighting setup was wonderfully done.
Here are another couple of examples of Brendan’s practical lighting on set. Practical lighting in a VFX scenario really helps lend an aspect of realism to the visuals that gives them added dimension.
In anticipation of the music video shoot, I put all my boards together into an animatic that spanned the entire duration of the song. As a director/storyboard artist and editor (As a rule I absolutely only edit my own projects, I do not edit for any project that I have not directed myself, even though I’ve been offered editing jobs many times!), I am able to put together boardomatics / animatics very easily. Sketches were done on my iPad in a program called Procreate, which is what I use for most of my commercial boarding work. Some images were exported as transparent PNG’s which I was able to use to animate in Adobe Premiere Pro using keyframes with plenty of bezier for smooth movements. Sure, some drawings and movements are rough around the edges, but shooting boards are NOT meant to be masterpieces! They are simply guidelines to help a director think, and to make sure the whole team gets on the same page. I’ve been drawing/painting since childhood, so the illustration aspect comes natural to me, and editing is something I’ve done since high school, so being able to work through something like this myself in pre-production really opens doors to creativity for me. Through the animatic process, I was able to figure out pacing, shot placements, transitions, and shot ideas in a much more fluid manner than if I was just sketching the boards 2D.
Because this was a one day shoot, I wanted to be as economical with the shot list as possible and ONLY get the segments and shots we absolutely needed. Unlike other music videos where you shoot coverage of the entire song multiple times and stitch things together in post, this VFX adventure needed to be edited in pre-production. If we went in without a clear plan, we’d end up wasting a ton of time and energy on shots and moments we may not even use!
In the final cut, the timing did get shifted around just a bit here or there, but the shot order never changed. If you want to check out the entire uncut animatic sequence compared to the final cut, here is the link on my youtube: https://youtu.be/lZdozRXJEUw
On set, I used the full length animatic as my key guide for the entire production. Using my trusty iPad and a loud portable bluetooth speaker, I had full control over playback and was able to time Cate’s movements and performance with the exact cuts we needed.
A few more behind the scenes vs final VFX composition comparisons:
Behind the Scenes shots of our shoot day! Photo by Qinza Malik Khan of Membrane Pictures:
Another thing about this video is that with artists who come to me for multiple projects, I like to keep a visual thread going – some subtle references to the work we did before. With Cate’s previous music video, “Exist” the lyrics related to time, we had one major scene with a mirror, and her walking into the shot from the right side of frame at the beginning. So here we had her come in from the right side again, right up to the mirror, which became a portal to this other world. In the mountain sequence, a large clock in the sky replaces the sun, referencing time.
Without further ado, here is the final cut. As of today, it has over 100 likes and 0 dislikes. Not bad!