Create an EPIC, dance-driven, cinematic music video for pop artist Jackson Wang, set inside a sprawling, nightmarish POST APOCALYPTIC environment.
The video follows Jackson as he dance-battles his way to confront his apparent nemesis: the queen of a burning, urban wasteland, full of decay, ruined skyscrapers, massive fires, upturned cars, tons of rubble and a massive industrial throne room at the base of a derelict nuclear power plant.
With only two weeks to prep, and another two weeks for post, how do we create such epic visuals for the modest budget available AND accommodate the tight schedule?
Traditionally, we would shoot this one of two ways:
Find an apocalyptic-looking location full of rubble and debris. Luckily, we have a few places in LA that fit the bill. However, they are fairly small and low lying. They don’t feel like a massive derelict cityscape, so we would have to augment that material with complex VFX work.
The video needed to feel moody and dark, so shooting during daytime was out of the question. Shooting it all at night, however, would create many other issues.
First, our shoot dates were at the height of summer, when the nights were incredibly short. Second, lighting up large areas of a practical location at night – and with practical pyro effects – is prohibitively expensive.
Additionally, the location we considered was “out of the zone”, which would necessitate increased transportation and hotel costs for the crew.
All of this meant we would go massively over budget.
The advantage of this approach is that we can stay in one location and shoot indoors where we can control the mood and the light.
A major disadvantage of this, however, is that now every shot becomes a vfx shot. And in the video, we have many long “oners,” some lasting up to 30 seconds.
The cost of roto, tracking, keying, 3D modeling, texturing, asset creation, rendering, compositing, cleanup and integration would not only blow up the budget, but it would put us well outside of our delivery schedule by a factor of at least 3x.
The only solution would be to eliminate all of the dynamic camera movements, lock off all cameras, and simplify the shots. In this case, it’s a no-win situation. VFX work is long and expensive. Our epic video would be both dull and over-budget and schedule.
Neither of these were viable options.
Using the funds we saved on location, transpo, vfx and travel, we were able to shoot on our VP stage.
VP allowed us to stay in one physical location for the duration of the shoot AND have control over some of what would otherwise have proven to be chaotic shooting conditions. This is a beautiful thing.
Now that we were not hindered by a practical location or blue screen, we were able to go for it in terms of the virtual environments.
Synapse is fortunate to have an incredibly fast and skilled VAD team. We created the two large purpose-built virtual location assets using Unreal Engine in less than a week.
This allowed us to spend the rest of prep period testing and helping the physical art department hone in on exactly what needed to be created practically to help sell the illusion.
Because we were able to shoot this entire video IN-CAMERA and the smoke, fire and large set pieces were all virtual, we did not have to worry about shot length, shooting handheld (the majority of the video), or shot count.
We were able to avoid the pitfalls of everything that comes from shooting traditionally with a lot of VFX. There was no keying, no roto, no locked-off shots to simplify for vfx and no greenscreen spill.
For example: We had a lot of handheld shots of dancers moving very quickly through the frame, their hair and clothes flying and motion-blurring all over the place. This would have been a nightmare in a traditional VFX workflow. But because these types of shots were all captured in-camera, none of them were a problem. All of the visual elements and movements all blended together perfectly.
Another benefit to shooting content like this on a Virtual Production stage with Unreal Engine driven environments displayed on the LED volume screens is that our talent really felt like they were in this world. It felt real and tangible, and that therefore affected their performances… for the better. There wasn’t a need to “imagine” a post apocalyptic hellscape that was going to be “done later in post.”
In fact, after the shoot we got a call from our editor saying, “How in the hell did you guys shoot this? What the heck was the budget on this thing?!!”
When we explained to him that we shot Jackson on our virtual production LED volume stage with all of the imagery captured in-camera in real time, his jaw hit the floor.
Within two days of the shoot we had a rough cut…
To have this level of rich, complex visuals “in the can” immediately after a shoot is unheard of.
All that was left to complete the images were some VFX enhancements to the practical on-set fire effects, the soul-sucking smoke effect and the glowing eyes with the characters. All of these minor additions were easily tackled in the time we had left in post-production.
All in all, using Synapse’s approach to virtual production allowed us to stay on-budget and on-schedule, while at the same time creating a rich, cinematic world that would have otherwise been completely unachievable with the resources we had.
And the final result speaks for itself.