The Virtual World of Mezzo

By Bankston, Douglas | American Cinematographer, April 2006 | Go to article overview

The Virtual World of Mezzo


Bankston, Douglas, American Cinematographer


Perfection is difficult to achieve in the commercial world. Brutally short production and postproduction schedules hamper the fine-tuning of shots and visual effects, but the visual nature of the commercial - rapid-fire imagery, smash cuts, small-screen presentation - helps to conceal those flaws.

For the Djarum Mezzo cigarette spots "Race" and "Leap," Sway Studios in Westwood, California, refused to adhere to the "good enough" commercial philosophy. The effects-laden spots, in which couples race through an idyllic architectural setting, were treated as big-screen, mini motion pictures; they were shot on 35mm, scanned at 2K, and visual-effects work was performed at full 2K resolution. The amount of rotoscoping, tracking and compositing was extensive because the world the actors were running through was an entirely computer-generated (CG), photo-realistic environment. "This is the most complex CG spot I've done," says visual-effects supervisor Robert Nerderhorst. "It's also the biggest project Djarum has done, and its first CG spot."

The agency's original storyboards depicted a group of people running in an all-white environment, which would have been much simpler to realize. Director Joseph Kosinski's take on the context was drastically different. "The goal was to create a setting that was both stylish and timeless," he says. "Because the agency's concept was so abstract, I wanted the environment to feel as authentic and tangible as possible."

Kosinski created specific look treatments, including in-depth previsualizations using 3ds Max, to show the agency. "In our videoconference call with the agency," recalls Nederhorst, "it was clear they were concerned about the process because they were new to it. It's a good thing we did the previz as religiously as we did, because we had two days to shoot the entire campaign. With the motion-control rig, we knew it was going to be a challenge, so we really had to stick to our previz and shooting boards. Our script supervisor, Daughn Ward, was constantly communicating with the AD and AC to make sure we had everything we needed. Being in direct contact with those people was key to our success on set." Kosinski adds, "When the agency arrived on the day of the shoot, they said, 'It's all computer generated?' They couldn't believe there was nothing on the stage."

There was something on stage: greenscreen, and it was on the walls, the floor, and even the ceiling. The Sony soundstage measured 150' long, 40' deep and 25' high, large but not quite large enough, which meant the greenscreen was a bit too close to the action. The result was a significant amount of green spill on the actors, who were wearing white. Values on parts of the actors when compared to the background were often the same, which caused headaches for the Primatte Keyer and a keyer written by Sway's compositing supervisor, Marc Rienzo. "The whole theory behind my keyer is to be able to pick the background green values and then the foreground green spill," says Rienzo. "It was written with heavy spill in mind - to be intelligent, if you will, about how to separate the foreground." Nederhorst adds, "Once we realized the keys weren't going to be perfect, we told Claudio Miranda, the director of photography, to just make the people look pretty and we would make the rest work." This reguired a hefty amount of tracking and roto work on the actors; aiding this process were the one-light 2K scans from Pacific Title, which provided much better subject definition, particularly in hair.

"My initial idea," says Kosinski, "was to shoot this at the Getty Center, but they don't allow commercial shoots. The client then asked for the word 'Mezzo' to be embedded in the complex, so at that point we decided to do a unique design." The intricately designed mountaintop complex was built by designers Kevin Cimini and Oliver Zeller in consultation with the director.

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