Take Me to the Movies

2D Compositing

With the excitement surrounding the awards season for movies and television, I thought I would look at the technology behind the scenes.  Visual effects are the processes by which imagery is created and/or manipulated outside the context of a live action shot.  There are several different categories of visual effects and I tend to be more interested in the smaller shops working in “2D compositing.”  These small boutique special effects shops are often overshadowed during the awards season by the larger rivals working on the big-budget films.  Unlike larger effects houses that focus on computer-generated imagery, or CGI, smaller boutique shops are specializing in “2D compositing”.  Through which it takes images from multiple sources, such as discrete camera shots, and combines them in a single scene.

If you saw either La La Land or Hidden Figures this year, you saw first-hand these special effects in many scenes.  One of the year’s must buzzworthy scenes was the opening of La La Land where for five minutes there was nonstop singing and twirling on a LA freeway.  This scene was accomplished by stitching together a succession of cuts – the camera occasionally whipping from dancers on car hoods to cyclists to performing acrobatics – to make the sequence appear as if it were filmed in one brilliant take.  A typical visual effects shot lasts mere seconds, perhaps just a hundred frames.  La La Land’s opening scene contained more than 8,000, requiring hundreds of computer renderings and terabytes of data.

This digital wizardry also transformed many scenes in Hidden Figures which included simulating a space launch and space travel.  To accomplish it, they incorporated actual footage of earth filmed from the International Space Station and space capsule diagrams from NASA to make the scenes look more authentic.  This kind of painstaking detailed work requires almost an obsession with being invisible and letting the story flow.

Next time you are at the movies, take a moment to step behind the scenes and learn about the technology involved with every second of the movie.  It’s overwhelming how integral technology has become in movie making.

–Jeffrey CornwellCornwell_Jeffrey_resized