Anatomy Of A Song


Entering the end of summer…Beautiful, crystalline August days in Seattle, and a sense of tension and expectation at Mode Studios. It's generally quite clear by this time in the year how our busiest season will play out. The coming fall had already filled in well, with a new opera to design in Calgary; an awesome new holiday arena concert show where we were designing lighting, video, and sets; a new show with our constant cruising client, Holland America; and of course, a very full LDI.

Now the blessed phone had chimed again, this time with another stalwart collaborator, Nickelback. It's been a great year for Nickelback. The band's new CD, All The Right Reasons, had busted out with several singles charting high and a summer tour that brought in fans and earned them enough revenue to be trailing only Bon Jovi and The Stones in 2006 receipts. With summer sliding into fall, the band decided to commit the show's production to a live DVD release. A taping date quickly loomed, so we huddled with Nickelback tour manager (and FOH audio engineer) Kevin “Chief” Zaruck and Nickelback's gifted lighting designer, Chris Maeder. The mandate: bring the show up to the next level to give the recordings production values that reflected the summer's successes.

We quickly settled on expanding LED real estate on stage, adding additional side screens, stage-left and stage-right. We brought Scott Bishop from I-MAG Video from Nashville into the discussion. I-MAG provided the LED package (a 14' wide by 18' high Barco D7 10mm LED screen. They also provided a six-camera IMAG rig with switching), with Scharff Weisberg teaming up to provide Hippotizers and the side G-LEC screens. In addition, we were going to create new content for three of the hardest hitting songs. One of these, “Animals,” is the show's opening tune.

“Animals” is a tale of young love: illicit, unapproved, consummated, and caught. It's a perfect rock n' roll song, with fast driving, backseat sex and desperate chases. The band wanted the number to explode through the cover art from All The Right Reasons, which featured a '68 Ford Thunderbird careening down a barren desert highway. The media would rapidly swing into the car, showing the driver's point of view, as the oncoming road unreels in a time-lapse rush of scenery, highway, atmosphere, and danger.

There were two possible approaches to what we wanted to do with the number. We could accomplish the CD cover animation by actually filming the same car with a motion control camera rig, creating a cued series of movements that we could do with the car itself on a soundstage. Then, with a camera truck (sometimes known as a process rig), we would put the same motion control camera on a modified truck and replicate the camera move while zipping down a similar rural highway. Add a whole bunch of locked-off camera point-of-view zooming down roads, and we had most of the song's substance. The problem with this approach was twofold, a matter of available time and money. We needed to have all three of the new song sequences created within about two weeks, which was very tight. We also faced a limited budget in creating the media. These two factors led us to the second approach: available stock footage of driving POV, coupled with a digital 3D creation of the CD cover animating.

After getting a signoff on the approach from Chief and Maeder, we started to assemble footage. We already had some great driving POV media from Artbeats in our library, but it was all footage shot in daylight, and none of it was time-lapse. We started by taking this footage and speeding it up by 400%. It is possible to do this in many editing or compositing applications, like Apple Final Cut Pro or Adobe After Effects, with good results. We really wanted to preserve our image integrity with the speed up. Often, simply remapping time (as the process is widely called) can lead to some choppy results. Fortunately, we had a secret weapon in our arsenal for this task, Twixtor from RE:Vision Effects. Twixtor is a plug-in for After Effects that does highly accurate frame-to-frame interpolation. It is the perfect tool for making beautiful, slow motion footage and is quite good at speeding it up while preserving a liquid, smooth nature. We also used several color effect plug-ins to stylize the otherwise drab daytime clips. QuickTime itself has a lot of built-in plug-in functions, and one of these, Color Style, got put to use quickly. Color Style adds solarization to the image (a grainy sort of overexposure) as well as posterization (a process that makes footage look more illustrated). We also used Trapcode's Shine plug-in to add more color blow out. Shine is used all over the place to accomplish the ubiquitous beams-of-light-streaming-from-the-footage effect. By dialing these beams all the way out and pushing the Boost Light function, subtle and beautiful color is added to an image, while also giving it a sort of bleach-bypass blown-out feeling.

The stock we had on hand was not going to fill all the gaps. We also wanted to really tell the story of driving and then parking somewhere remote for our illicit backseat love. So I began canvassing available stock footage on Getty Images is a great resource, bringing together a dozen or more individual stock companies in one clearinghouse website. We had developed a sensational relationship with Getty in acquiring lots of specific rights-managed footage of Frank Sinatra for this other little gig we did, so I felt confident we'd get what we needed. I hit the jackpot right away with Getty's PhotoDisc/Eyewire's Road Trips footage. It was already time-lapsed, and this had been accomplished the best possible way: by overcranking the frame rate in the camera while filming. We would not have to tweak timing on this footage. We did apply our color tricks, though. We also found a great collection of driving POV footage from Rocketclips. With these two collections added to the mix and filtered in After Effects, I began to construct the cut for the tune.

I'm a pretty good 3D artist. We have used Avid Softimage XSI at Mode Studios for a long time now, and we've just added NewTek LightWave® v9. I was fairly accomplished at using these applications to generate digital matte paintings, virtual sets as it were. I certainly was not up to the task of creating a '68 Ford T-Bird from scratch and then animating it in a kinetic landscape to simulate the CD cover, at least not in the time allowed. The question of the car model was answered at, a great online resource for 3D assets. Turbo Squid is to 3D models what stock footage is to video. They have massive libraries of pre-made models, and I lucked out immediately, finding an appropriate 3D model of the car.

This didn't help my inability to do anything with that model, however. So, I turned to an outside expert, Larry Butcher. We worked with Butcher extensively to create many of the complex animations used in Sinatra, and he has a huge depth of experience beyond that, including working on some of the most challenging digital matte composites for the James Cameron movie, Titanic. He is a ringer with LightWave 3D®. He quickly jumped on board, bringing some of his own super-Jedi-graphics friends with him. Together, they used LightWave to match the camera angle on the CD and animate the camera move into the car. They then used another application, Vue d'Esprit from E-on Software, to create the 3D landscape of the prairie and match the sky. The two pieces of media were then composited together to create a fantastic whole. After some notes and adjustments, Butcher and his team did a beautiful job of exactly recreating the cover and then animating it.

While Butcher built our opening three-second shot, I moved the edit for the remainder of the tune from Final Cut Pro into the compositing environment of After Effects. I used After Effects to add an elliptical mask to the footage. The media was going to be playing back on LED screens that had an aspect ratio taller than it was wide, so the mask gracefully established this border and gradiated the image to black as it approached the screen edges. We do this a lot with screens in order to de-emphasize the edges and make media look more like an organic scenic piece. I also applied a very slight lens distortion to the elliptical footage to give a sense of peering through into another world — an oblique stylistic homage to the film, Being John Malkovitch. Finally, I used the After Effects Wiggler tool to take a piece of footage at the end of the song and jumble the frames up in a percussive fashion. This matched the rhythm of the drum explosion at the end of the tune and really pushed the media energy up.

When we construct a song like this, we typically cut the tune right to the music, but to make effective footage for use in media servers, we then cut it into verse, chorus, bridge, etc. We give extensions to these clips on either side, so that the cueing can be fluid on site, closely matching the timing of the live song. With this process completed, we finally ran the footage through Canopus' ProCoder to recompress it into MPEG2 format, the preferred flavor for the Hippos.

Finally, associate designer Tommy Hague worked out the specific cueing for the grandMA with Maeder, making sure the song ran correctly and that timings were preserved. On September 14, in St. Paul Minnesota, Nickelback immortalized our new amped up version of the All The Right Reasons design, with “Animals” kicking the show off in kick ass style!



After Effects:

Final Cut Pro:



Getty Images:


Softimage XSI:

Lightwave 3D®:

Turbo Squid:

Vue d'Esprit:


Suggested Articles:

Christopher Robin, a Production Manager at Star Design Event Services, put together the stage for an Independence Day concert by The Davisson Brothers

SETUP Studio developed and implemented a hi-tech lighting rig, with GLP fixtures as the centrepiece.

Bandit Lites, Moo TV and Clair Global have joined forces to offer a safe and controlled venue to artists at the Steel Mill.