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A bird’s-eye view of World War II

Emmy-winning documentary created for HISTORY includes 300 animations and 79 VFX shots created with Adobe video tools

When a television program wins an Emmy award for Outstanding Graphic Design and Art Direction, it must be something special. World War II from Space, a program commissioned by HISTORY, is a stunning 90-minute documentary visualizing key events from World War II from the vantage point of space. This was a huge creative endeavor with 300 animations and 79 VFX shots—all completed over the course of one and a half years by U.K. production company October Films and visual effects studio Prime Focus. Simon George wrote and directed the film, while Prime Focus created the VFX, led by Design and Animation Director Hazel Baird, and Creative Director Simon Clarke. We had a chance to sit down with George, Baird, and Clarke to discuss how the video tools in Adobe Creative Cloud, allowed them to create their own bird's eye view.

Adobe: How was World War II from Space different from other projects for Prime Focus?
Clarke: It was the first time that a show like this was created only using visual effects. The only live action is the interviews. Prime Focus engaged with October Films to co-direct, in a way. We wanted to make learning about World War II much more appealing to younger audiences, more exciting than black and white film images. We asked ourselves how we could get a new generation interested, while still layering in the amazing information we had from our faithful historians. Ultimately, we created 78 minutes of pure CG content for a 90 minute program.

Adobe: Can you tell us a little more about what makes World War II from Space special?
George: We were recounting the battles and shifting tides of the war from a bird’s eye view, so there was enormous reliance on animations and VFX to tell the story. We had to rely on globe-spanning maps and highly detailed computer animations to recreate events from Pearl Harbor to the atomic bomb. We wanted to create a new style that would be relevant for all ages and that would be visceral, informative and visually stunning.

Pop Culture Lens

Adobe: With so many VFX shots and animations over 90 minutes, what were your biggest personal challenges as a filmmaker?
George: I really liked the idea of telling the story from space, because it was such a grand concept that had never been attempted before but so many things in World War II were occurring simultaneously, and each influenced the other. There was also massive global geopolitical wrangling and the only way that can be captured in a visually stunning and meaningful way is from space. But I have to say as I started, I didn’t know if it was a good idea. Nine months into storyboarding, drawing, and designing, I still had some doubt: could we make it work? As a filmmaker, it is difficult to think of an idea that is so enormous. When you are shooting a drama, you have finite resources. Yet when you are building everything in CGI, anything is possible. Our biggest challenge was how to rein the show in, yet make it exciting.

Adobe: How did you stay organized with so much going on?
George: The hub we used to stay in sync was a combination of Adobe Story and Adobe Premiere Pro. The last thing I wanted was a bunch of different drafts of the script flying around, so I used Adobe Story for writing. Once I made changes, they were instantly reflected online so the producers, editors, and designers could see where my head was at in an instant. Then I had all the interviews with people like Pulitzer prize-winning historian David Kennedy transcribed and brought into Adobe Story. Everything could be shared instantly. We married the transcoded text with images and grabbed bits we needed using metadata and put them onto the Premiere Pro timeline.

Map Lens

Adobe: How did you actually capture the interviews with all of these top historians and military brass?
George: We had to be pretty methodical to keep everything organized. We flew to The Pentagon, San Francisco, and to a variety of places to interview leading historians. We shot the interviews on ARRI ALEXA cameras in ProRes, so the project was pretty large. Then we came back and got the files transcribed. We imported clips into Premiere Pro and put clip numbers on the text in Adobe Story. So rather than doing cuts on paper, we cut them together in Premiere Pro on screen, live. The integration between Adobe tools saved a massive amount of time. We could even type in a word and locate that particular text and put a clip in, literally saving days. That’s the challenge with documentaries: there is so much material to keep organized. We had the concept down, but we started seeing how it would really come together once we started cutting everything together in Premiere Pro. We would even block things out as rough storyboards, such as the Pearl Harbor attack, scan them into Premiere Pro to see how it was working and get a good idea of how to move forward.

Adobe: Tell us more about the actual design process?
Baird: I started off creating mood boards to show the different design approaches we could do. Once I had an understanding of where to go I started designing the look of the different styles (lenses). There were about six, Tech lens (UI Graphics), Pop Culture, Graphic lens etc. But because of the varying lenses I was worried that it could look a bit mismatched so I came up with a grid that is present in all the animations that ties them together. I used After Effects to create my storyboard images. I prefer using After Effects so I already understand how the elements are going to move. I have worked like that for years and like that approach.

Tech Lens

Adobe: What were you responsible for, working with the team at Prime Focus?
Baird: I was responsible for all the animations. For example, the six styles (lenses) were created in After Effects. Our team at Prime Focus would get the written notes from Simon George detailing what needs to happen in that scene (battle scenes, maps, etc.) and then we would use one of the styles to bring it to life visually in After Effects. If there were mock ups of old documents we would create these in Photoshop and then bring it into After Effects to animate.

We worked a lot of the more complex sequences out using a combination of CINEMA 4D and After Effects. The integration between these two programs is fantastic for speeding up the workflow. Every time there was a text shot, we would design it in 3D. We also did a lot of the post-production in After Effects to simulate atmospheric conditions and made a lot of particle fields.

Adobe: What were some of your favorite scene elements?
Baird: I loved doing the title sequence, as well as the scenes where I had to mock up documents to look like blueprints. I researched 1940s documents and maps from the War Museum in London to get a sense of the style back then. We often dirtied the images in Photoshop and then brought them into After Effects. The tech lenses looked great too; it really helped bring certain scenes to life. The photographs where we used parallax to give depth came out brilliantly and we used a combination of After Effects and Fusion (VFX) to create this effect. We were proud of how they looked on screen.

Paralexed Lens

Adobe: When did you start believing that the whole concept of using an orbital view of events would work?
George: We had the design down but also had the first six minutes of the film working, and we recognized that the look was exciting and visually stunning. We showed it to HISTORY and they were very excited with the results. But then when they wanted to roll with it, we started to feel a lot of pressure to move quickly, so we had to stay focused and work long hours. Every time something was finished, we put it back into Premiere Pro, so we didn’t have miscellaneous files disseminated all over the place.

Adobe: How was the film finished?
Baird: The initial coloring we did for most of the animations in After Effects didn't change much. We then brought all the shots into Premiere Pro and made any last tweaks. After that, we did a three-day color grade in Baselight to balance everything out and create a slightly darker grown up feel. We finished 80 shots that required a ton of motion tracking in eight months. We had a lot of image volume to work through. It was a little grueling, with long days and late nights, but it was also very rewarding.

Real Globe Lens

Adobe: Would you do this again?
George: This project has been quite a learning journey, in terms of telling a huge story in a way that brings all the visual conventions and imagery of modern war reporting to World War II. But I think it really gave viewers a fresh interpretation of the war. Telling almost everything graphically is so freeing and exciting. Yes, I would do a project like this again. The process was fascinating and we’re happy with the end result.

Clarke: As a result of the success of World War II from Space, we’ve been talking about creating other types of shows like this with October Films. It has opened the eyes of other commissioners and broadcasters. These types of projects have always had a very stereotyped format, and now there’s an appetite to try to push the visual aesthetic to a whole new level. There is a whole new generation to expose to the history of their fathers and grandfathers. From a social point of view, it's quite important. We’re translating the legacy to a new audience in a visceral and powerful way that enables them to engage with it. It is important for us to keep pace with the audience’s level of expectation, so the stories can survive and be passed on to a new generation.

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Posted by: Adam Spiel on Oct 29, 2013 at 1:36:14 pm After Effects, Customers

Darren Orange moves from role-playing games to feature films

Creative Cloud powers the production workflow for Reactor 88

Reactor 88 is an independent production company based near Chicago with a unique focus on creating films based on role-playing game narratives. The company’s first production, InSpectres was released in September 2013 and the team is hard at work on their second film, Dead News Report. We spoke with Darren Orange, CEO of Reactor 88, about their films, their inspiration, and their tools.

What drew you into filmmaking?

It was a complete accident. I wanted to make video games originally, but when I made a short film to illustrate the concept for a video game idea, I got hooked on the filmmaking part. I dropped my game aspirations and start making movies. I made a lot of short films at first and it grew from there. I will never forget my first project. The weather was extremely cold and we were all in shorts and t-shirts but I had such a blast working with my team. It brought home to me how collaborative filmmaking is. I realized I would never have experiences like this in video game work - fun though that must be, too.

What is it about role-playing games that provides great content for films?

Role-playing games at their core have always been more about telling stories than about creating worlds. And for me personally, as a filmmaker it makes sense to me to focus on telling great stories. There are a lot of other creative people in the role-playing game world who are passionate about creating the worlds. I am comfortable relying on their talents and putting my efforts into the characters and how the narrative unfolds from their personalities. This is another example of the collaborative aspect of filmmaking that I love.

How long have you been using Adobe Premiere Pro?

I've used Adobe Premiere since 1999. I started on version 5.1 or 5.0. I originally learned how to use the software to create anime music videos. Only after that did I realize I could make any kind of film this way. Learning to edit was amazingly liberating: I realized what kind of power this put into my hands. Later on I drifted over to Final Cut, but I'm back with Premiere Pro now.

What made you switch back to Premiere Pro?

To be honest it’s kind of hard to say why I ever left Premiere Pro. I think maybe it was just peer pressure. I came back because Premiere started to support so many different native formats, including H.264, which we used to shoot InSpectres. It was so much easier to work in Premiere Pro than it was in the other software. I'm glad to say that I'm staying with Premiere Pro now for good: it's just the best editing platform out there, no question. Adobe has done a fantastic job at pushing development and making the Creative Cloud video tools into the most capable, the most dynamic, and the most complete workflow solution there is.

You used Adobe Audition extensively on InSpectres.

Yes we used Audition for pretty much all the sound for InSpectres, from sweetening the audio recorded on location to adding sound effects to the final mix and 5.1 surround sound for our DCP for our theatrical release. We worked in Audition over an eight-month period and it was a great experience. We pushed the limits of our hardware, but the software could just keep on going. The most impressive thing for me was the noise reduction, which allowed us to retain over 90% of our location sound: it was a massive time and cost saver. But it also matters to me as a director to be able to use as much of our original audio as possible.

Was it hard for you as a video editor to get used to Audition?

Audition was easy for me to pick up and learn. It felt like I was editing video so I found the transition was very easy. My co-producer Sean Czaja has lots of experience doing sound work and he was also able to get up to speed in Audition very quickly.

Sean also did all of our visual effects shots for InSpectres in After Effects.

In your next film you are moving to an all Creative Cloud workflow. What led to that decision?

I don't want to have to worry about which applications will work with which, or whether they will support industry standard formats and cameras. And I need support I can count on, no question. Simply put: Adobe rocks when it comes to working with everything out there on the market and the community around Adobe is like none other. Another thing that matters to me, which many filmmakers seem to forget about, is that, at some point, you are going to have to archive your work. Do you want to archive your work across all kinds of different software and be unsure of future support? Again, Adobe is the clear choice for me.

Tell us about your next project.

Dead News Report is a post-apocalyptic story about a group of survivors trying to reach a news station which they discover is still broadcasting. This film has been a long time coming. The original concept was created by my mentor Bill Allan back in 2002. Since then, a lot of things have changed: it’s no longer a kind of newsroom drama, but much more of an epic story. While there are zombies in the picture, the film focuses on the characters. The story is all about people finding their purpose in life and how that purpose can affect others.

Is it hard to move from comedy to such intense drama?

Not really. I generally lean towards more serious work anyway. That being said Dead News Report is going to be challenging for the actors in terms of where they need to go emotionally. I try to learn everything I can about everything involved with the film. This includes researching real-world examples of the emotions that the characters experience. I think as a director not only do you need to be technically excellent and really connect with the actors, but you really need to feel what the actors are going though. It's a kind of empathy, getting that connection with the performance and helping the actors get there by understanding how the things that they are experiencing would affect people in real life.

Where do you hope to go with Reactor 88?

We have a whole slate of films that we would like to produce. We have a very pragmatic strategy. We want to keep our focus on turning games into movies. The feature after Dead News Report gets back to that and we already have the first draft for that script. Going forward I hope we will evolve into a preeminent intellectual property production company.

What would you advise someone who is considering moving to the Creative Cloud production tools?

What are you waiting for? Take everything you're doing now and just plug it in. The system is designed to support your workflow at any stage. Take any scripts or concepts and get them into Adobe Story and go from there. It’s so nice having every part of pre-production to postproduction all in one place and knowing that all the pieces will work seamlessly with each other. It runs on OSX or PC and there is even a free version of Story. Get started now, there's no excuse!

Darren Orange has been a Creative Cloud member since July 2013. He is the founder of Reactor 88 and has been at the head of its production development since 2003.

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Posted by: Adam Spiel on Oct 28, 2013 at 12:11:27 pm filmmaking, postproduction

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