Joe Schenkenberg, better known as Joey Shanks, is a digital illusionist of sorts. Every day, he works with magical magnetic putty, giant bubble explosions, technicolor teleportation effects and more to produce some of the most hypnotic visual effects on YouTube, Vimeo and, recently, PBS Digital Studios – all of which he refines with Red Giant effects.
Shanks first discovered his love for filmmaking during college in 2002. While he was not a film major, he and his friends made films in their spare time. He realized quickly that the art of visual storytelling was an important outlet for his creativity, a passion that he would turn into a lifelong career. He started capturing everything on camera that he could, creating visual effects out of anything from salt shakers to hydrogen peroxide. Eventually he got good at it; so good that his first-ever stop motion film, Wiggle Room, won the award for best animated short at multiple film festivals. Most notably, it took first in the USA Film Festival, qualifying Shanks to submit it to the Academy Awards for the year’s best animated short.
His next big idea was an experimental short film called Sci-Fly. It included cosmic elements created in-camera using household objects, paying homage to older science fiction films that have since become cult classics. To raise funds Shanks launched a Kickstarter campaign. The Sci-Fly campaign was so successful that it was featured on Kickstarter’s homepage, and his audience expanded astronomically.
To thank donors and up the ante, Shanks posted behind-the-scenes promotional material to the campaign site. Little did he know that his backers weren’t the only ones keeping an eye on his visual effects. At the time, PBS Digital Studios was in the process of opening its new studio and was looking for programming. A representative saw Shank’s campaign and behind-the-scenes work and asked if he’d develop a web series for PBS.
“There’s not really a huge demand for what I do, but I’m able to present it in a way where people are interested in watching it,” Shanks said. “It’s really important for me to feel that no one’s ever tackled this subject, that an effect has never been captured this way, to get me interested in pursuing it. I like coming up with a concept that I know is really original and making it work.”
The result is a web series called Shanks FX, which is based on his love for creating VFX with household items. It is an expansion of the behind-the-scenes visuals he had created for Sci-Fly, only this time the behind-the-scenes shots actually make up the entire series. Dedicating each episode to the art of creating homemade visual effects, viewers can experience the filmmaking magic firsthand. Joey works constantly to create new effects with his own spin and Shanks FX documents his journey.
“I wanted to make videos that were fun to watch,” Shanks explained. “Regardless of the intent, I have always taken the post part of the filmmaking process really seriously, and put in an endless amount of time into editing, sound design and effects to make sure the work looks great.”
To keep his videos and PBS episodes unique and visually appealing, Shanks used Red Giant’s Magic Bullet suite of visual effects plug-ins.
“I’ve always tried to make my effects as good as I can in camera, but the good thing with Red Giant is, with all the effects they offer, you can subtly enhance what you have shot,” Shanks said. “I can bring out the colors to make shots pop a little bit more. You’d never know I use any filters on a lot of the content I put out, but it’s these subtle enhancements that make the stars shine a little bit brighter, or the colors come out a little bit more. I use Red Giant plug-ins on just about every project I produce.”
Red Giant’s Trapcode Suite is a regular on Shank’s desktop, as the 3D effects, especially Particular (the industry-standard particle system for Adobe After Effects), allow him to fill out many of his homemade ones. “A lot of the time, I’m trying to make my visuals look grand and epic in scale. Sometimes what I capture in-camera doesn’t always have that larger-than-life feel. Trapcode allows me to fill in the gaps to create a fully realized composite.”
Using Trapcode Particular, Shanks is able to fill out his DIY holograms, which he says originally lacked color and the necessary vapor particles that give them a more realistic and visually appealing look. When creating his cosmic backdrops for “Creating the Cosmos” (the episode and effect he is most proud of), he finds he always seems to want more stars, and just adding a handful of tiny stars at varying depths and sizes in Particular really makes the shot come together.
For the Shanks FX episode, “Illusion of Spaceflight,” Shanks created cloud particles that, when placed by the camera, created a feeling of movement. “I blurred them out so much you don’t even know they are there, but it makes all the difference for creating a sense of movement and dimension,” he said.
A lot of the Shanks FX episodes deal with light painting techniques, so Shanks blends in digitally recreated light streaks using Trapcode just to add more of a “wow” factor. Since he’s combining the effect with pre-existing light streaks, viewers can’t tell what’s digital and what’s created in camera – but it always looks unique. “It’s not digital, it’s not practical, it’s a hybrid that helps my work stand out from everyone else.”
Shanks used Red Giant on his entire PBS series, even adding the recently released Red Giant Universe to his arsenal of VFX options. He has a vast array of customized presets, and depending on the effect he’s going for, he checks and unchecks certain boxes to add minute distinctions.
Because Shanks can customize the look and feel of his videos so seamlessly, he is able to focus more on his level of creativity rather than technicalities. On his latest video, Rebuilding the Intersellar Black Hole, he used his custom-made filter preset that combines three Universe plug-ins: Holomatrix, Carousel and Masked Blur. The look is designed to give off a film/Instagram vibe, but he was able to take the time to pick and choose what elements of the plug-ins he wanted to use.
By customizing the plug-in settings to create more subtle, natural effects, Shanks was able to make certain the red fire elements in his video really glowed and popped, and the effect became something completely its own. Red Giant’s plug-ins give him the power to put as much as he wants into the effect and, unlike many other tools, they don’t dictate what his film is going to look like. The in-depth adjustment controls allow him to determine that himself.
With a resume of impressive projects, Shanks has been tapped to teach a course on special FX for the Stan Winston School, an educational institution known for its expertise in visual effects education. Launching on Jan. 20, the eight-hour web course focuses on creating the cosmos, holograms and reverse motion effects.
This past summer, Shanks acted and was the practical effects supervisor for Matt Johnson’s next feature film Operation Avalanche, which is set in 1969 and centers around a couple of spies who infiltrate NASA and break into Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 movie set and steal his front screen projection (FSP) secrets to help fake the moon the landing for the US government.