Directing for Today's Internet (scroll down)
Directing for Today’s Internet
By Randal Kleiser (1998)
I first heard about the idea of Digital Entertainment Network (DEN) in 1998 from Marc Collins-Rector, who was one of the original founders of Concentric Network Corporation. He explained his concept for DEN, creating original programming for the Internet, targeting viewers who don't usually have shows made for them.
It sounded like a fresh and interesting pipe dream. When I heard it was actually happening, about a year later, I contacted him about becoming involved.
Marc asked me to direct "Royal Standard", a project
that was aimed at 12 to 20 year old computer-savvy kids. I was very
interested to try a whole new type of media production and distribution.
The show was broken down into seven six minute digitally produced
episodes, to be shot in nine days. Additional interactive elements were
to be shot by a second crew, including set visits, profiles of the
actors, props, and costumes. Viewers would be able to click on costumes
worn by actors and buy them. The episodes were to be digitized,
compressed, and turned into Internet compatible video files that would
be released once a week. Anyone, anywhere in the world would be able to
view them on demand and to give feedback about the episodes.
In February of 1999 I had my first meeting with a harried twentysomething executive from DEN, who said, "I haven't been downloaded on anything about this project."
I began picking up the specific challenges for directing in this new medium.
The state-of-the-art of streaming video technology here at the end of the century is quite primitive. The screen is about the size of a postage stamp, the image has low resolution, the movement is often jerky, and the colors are limited.
This is because even with digital compression, there is an overload of information being thrust through the phone lines and into the 28 K or 56k modems of most consumers. The rate is 7-15 frames per second. All this will change. The quality of the image, color, movement resolution and frame rate will improve as consumers acquire wider bandwidth through cable or satellite connections to Internet servers.
At the moment, however, there are restrictions that prevent shooting images in a standard fashion. Understanding these led to testing new techniques to maximize the limitations of current technology.
Because of image size and resolution, medium shots and close-ups must tell the story. Wide shots have to be very simple to work. In fact, all images read better the simpler and bolder they are.
The amount of change in the image from one frame to the next determines the fluidity of streaming. The more pixels that have to be redrawn, the slower the transmission. For this reason, camera movement is prohibitive. Whenever the camera moves, every pixel in the image changes, causing jerkiness.
The "Production Guidelines Manual" from DEN suggests avoiding pan shots, dollies, and zooms.
When I read this, I began to wonder how to make the show visually interesting. About that time, I was watching the news on TV and noticed the weatherman indicating patterns on the map behind him. He was clearly against a green screen, watching a monitor so he could point to the right parts of the map. Live compositing. A solution.
Since camera movement was not an option, the composition of the shots became much more important. This necessitated that every setup be storyboarded in advance. We studied a book that is terrific for all directors, "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way". There is a chapter on composition that illustrates scenes staged in flat, unimaginative ways, then demonstrates ways of creating two point and three point perspective to give dynamism to the frames.
We studied the use in CD-ROM games of computer graphic sets and limited actor's movements within frames. (The best examples are "Myst", and "Riven".)
Every shot was pre-blocked according to the storyboards, so that the backgrounds could be shot first. One digital camera was on the actors against the green screen, and another on pre-prepared still backgrounds. Staging freedom was limited on the set. After shooting, say, a master shot, the live camera could zoom in on a character, while the background camera could zoom in on the background still. In the live composite monitor, I could adjust and move the actors, cameras, and background plates until the desired storyboarded setup was achieved.
Using this technique, we were able to accomplish up to 60 setups a day.
In our pre-production meetings, we decided to create three different types of backgrounds, depending on the scene.
Digital stills were the first type. We photographed existing environments with a digital still camera in some cases, and in others, downloaded photos from the Internet. By going to the "Photodisc.com" website, we could search for any image, download it, and alter it using an Adobe Photoshop program to piece together desired backgrounds.
For example, one scene takes place in a Russian farmhouse in the snow. We found an image of a farmhouse, and another of a snowy ridge. In Photoshop, we pasted the building into the environment. That became our background plate into which we did a simple matte in the AVID editing system and added a video shot of a car driving up to a stop that we shot in Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles.
This technology is very fast and easy to use. We shot the car in the morning of the first day of shooting, and it was matted into the background by the end of the day.
The second type of backgrounds were virtual sets. The architecture of the set was designed in a program called 3D Studio Matics 2.5, by computer graphic artists.
Once the completed set existed in the computer, I sat with the artist and determined where each setup would be, based on the storyboards, using a virtual camera that could be moved around with a computer mouse to capture the angles.
After the angles were chosen, computer, textures were mapped on the walls and furniture. Each background setup was then printed out into a still image to go to the green screen stage for the live compositing.
The third type of background was digital video. This was for where we wanted to have moving background action. There is a sequence in a cybercafe where we wanted to have other customers working on computers in the background. We shot several extras moving about and working on computers in the DEN offices and used this tape as our background plate.
Another scene takes place at a picnic table at a park. We shot backgrounds for each setup, determined by the storyboards, at Venice Beach, then composited them behind the actors on the green screen stage. This way we were able to bring some visual life into a dialogue scene that lasted several pages. In the background, there are birds, dogs, people walking, and rollerbladers.
From a directing standpoint, this technique is terrific. Background action can be set once, then it will never change from one setup to the other. This eliminates problems, with matching, weather, light or outsiders wandering into the shot.
These video backgrounds were composited in post production.
WORKING IN LAYERS
Working in layers of images also allows the director to add anything to a scene in front of or behind the actors.
In one scene, the script had an actor walking up to a house. On the green screen stage, I came up with the idea of having him pull up in a limousine instead. On the stage I had the actor crouch, then stand up like he was getting out of a car, and mime slamming the door. We later shot the limousine and added it as a layer in front of the actor. It looked just like he was getting out of it.
The mood of the sky in any scene can contribute greatly to its impact. Roiling storm clouds, white cumuli nimbus clouds, a moody dusk, a blazing hot sky, are all dramatic tools. In our show, we developed a series of sky plates to control the look of each scene.
To shoot a fight sequence involving eight characters, we knew video streaming would be a problem. Our solution was to shoot the sequence entirely in silhouette against various solid color backgrounds. That way, the refresh rate would involve only the outline of the fighters, rather than all the photographic details of the actors plus background.
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DIRECTION OF MOVEMENT
Because streaming video scans onto the screen from left to right, images moving in this direction stream better than images moving right to left. I refrained from having any movements in this direction, and actually ended up flipping an entire sequence because there was one shot that had the wrong direction of movement for the streaming process.
Most computers have mono-speakers and the sound quality is low. Enunciation and projection of actor's dialogue is critical, and multiple layers of audio don't come across well. Like the visual, everything must be bold and simple.
When the images come across to the viewer, they are seen in a format of 256 colors. Dark colors can turn black, so it is important to light in a high key.
Striped clothing or patterns that have a lot of detail do not transmit well.
ACTING AGAINST GREENSCREEN
For actors, green screen sequences require a lot of imagination and a director who can communicate the setting and situation.
There are many cases where the actor must look at an "X" painted on a stick to indicate an eyeline.
Older actors seemed fairly lost, until they were shown the live compositing on the TV monitor. Then, they could tell what kind of environment they were working in.
Young actors took to the technique easily. They completely understood a virtual environment, probably from exposure to video games and computer work. One of them said it was like rehearsing, where you imagine the surroundings. In post production, there are tremendous advantages to having shot the actors on green screen. If one actor gives a great performance and the other isn't up to par, you can find the other actor's best take and paste it in, completely invisibly. It is also possible to speed up a sluggish delivery or remove unwanted pauses. The director can increase or reduce the size of the actor in the frame for dramatic emphasis.
Working in the rapidly changing field of digital production for the internet reminds me of what it must have been like in the early days of silent movies when there were no rules…a Wild West feeling.
It is evident that consumer bandwidth will broaden, and in the near future, directors will be able to shoot high-definition images that will fill wall-size screens anywhere in the world at any time.