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This Is It—The Film That Almost Never-Never Was

November 18, 2009 | By

The back-story to the highly publicized Michael Jackson concert film, This Is It, is almost as interesting as its enigmatic foreground entertainer. What they had planned to do was a series of concerts with a 90-foot LED screen projecting stereoscopic music videos and vignettes behind the stage, and at times, Jackson would even interact with the background in ways never seen before.

Scene from THIS IS IT

Scene from THIS IS IT

Santa Monica-based Entity FX, and Culver City-based I.E. Effects were among the facilities involved in creating these stereoscopic sequences, which are presented in “standard” 2D in the theatrical release, (which, at press time, had just toped $200-million worldwide).

Among the effects Entity FX completed is a fantastical parade ground in which thousands of soldiers dance as the camera dollies passed them. Entity FX digitally created the environment and turned nine dancers into multitudes while also co-directing the shooting of the necessary elements. Another vignette has Michael’s character jumping through a window in a hail of broken glass as bullets whiz past in super slow motion. In another shot, Jackson and his dancers cast huge shadows on a stylized 1930s city skyline as they perform their routine. These giant silhouettes were intended to serve as a projected background for live dancers during the performance.

Aaron Kaminar, I.E. Effects’ visual effects supervisor and lead artist on the project explained that, “When the whole thing started it wasn’t anyone’s intention to create a feature film. But that changed after Michael Jackson’s death. We felt it was our mission to honor his vision and finish the work, according to the instructions in his notes to us. Those notes, from the days before he passed away, were our final directions.”

The shots completed by I.E. Effects include key sequences from the Thriller video, a new Thriller logo, a full CG animation of Vincent Price’s head, and a stunning CG Boeing 707 for the grand finale. “The bulk of the Thriller section was a rather complicated effect from the technical standpoint,” said Kaminar. “There is a chandelier swinging around inside a creepy old haunted house with ghosts swinging on it, whooping and hollering.”

Practical footage for the Thriller sequences was shot at Culver Studios under the direction of Bruce Jones, using Pace HD’s Fusion 3D stereoscopic camera rigs. The shots were then matched to CG effects created at I.E. Effects.

“The ghosts were shot separately on a greenscreen stage using a large stand-in for the chandelier. We then tracked the CG chandelier to the set prop and added dynamics, so that all the crystals on the chandelier would behave properly,” said Kaminar. “Ordinarily that’s challenging enough, but when you add the fact that it’s stereoscopic, it becomes exponentially more complicated.”

Adding to the complexity of the shot, the two-camera rig was positioned on the end of a moving crane, panning, tilting and zooming. “The chandelier stand-in was rocking and moving around so the tracking was pretty complex,” said Kaminar.

Scene from THIS IS IT

Scene from This Is It

To deal with the convergence issues that inevitably crop up with a moving camera, the artists at I.E. Effects relied on metadata fed directly from the Pace HD camera rig. “The camera metadata gave us frame-by-frame information on the convergence distance, the separation between the two cameras, as well as the focal length and the f-stop settings.” The Thriller sequence also includes a visualization of Vincent Price’s famous narration, with the actor’s head floating inside a crystal ball.

“There was an audio voiceover recording of Vincent Price doing the monologue, but there was no video associated with it,” explained Kaminar. “So we did a performance capture with an actor and mapped the movement of his face onto a CG Vincent Price.” Facial motion capture is one of the most difficult challenges in animation, especially when it’s lip-synched to a locked audio track.

“Rather than using a traditional motion capture rig, where you lose some of the fidelity based on the capture resolution, we used a technique that required a little more grunt work,” explained Kaminar. “We painted a grid of lines and dots on our actor’s face and shot his performance with three HD cameras at increments of 45 degrees.”

“The rig for Price’s face used curves instead of bones. Those curves followed the musculature of the face so the deformation looked natural and behaved the way that muscle and skin do,” explained Kaminar. “Obviously, our model’s face has different proportions, so we had to write custom scripts for converting the animation of the actor’s face to the relative positions on Vincent Price’s face. We tried to find an actor with similar features, but it’s impossible to find someone that has the exact same proportions. So we had to take all the animations of the actor’s face, relative to a pose of his face in a relaxed state, and translate them onto the rig of Vincent’s face in a relaxed state.”

This process provided a reasonable approximation of the final animation. I.E. Effects then used traditional facial animation controls to fine-tune the performance.

Jackson’s concerts in London were intended to end with a full-scale, stereoscopic Boeing 707 taxiing out on to the stage in profile, with its wing hanging out over the audience. Then a real gangway would lift from the stage up to the door of the CG aircraft. A real door was built into the screen. Jackson would then exit the stage through the door into the CG plane. As the music played, the aircraft would then taxi into the distance, turn around, and take off over the audiences’ heads—a thrilling finale to what was supposed to be the concert event of the century.

“The technical challenge in that shot was that it had to line up perfectly, and interact with the stage and the performance,” said Kaminar. “During the rehearsals, first at The Forum, and then at The Staples Center, they set up the screen on the stage, so we were able to do tests with the actual door in the screen and see the stereoscopic footage of the plane behind the stage.”

“Michael Jackson was a pop icon who redefined music,” said visual effects producer and founder of I.E. Effects David Kenneth, “It was an honor to be working with him, not knowing it would be his last performance. Our entire crew felt a significant emotional loss when we heard the news of Michael’s passing, but getting to finish meant we could do our part to realize his vision for his final project.”

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