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Seeing double?

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For the film Anna & Anna, Iceberg Design was given the task to create the illusion of a person who has a doppelganger, a ghost or a double. To put it simply, we had to make it look believable that the lead actress, Karena Lam, was not just playing two roles, but interacting in the given scenes.

topimage.jpgMost of these scenes are easily achieved using the common method of ‘split screen’, where the filmmakers will shoot Karena playing one role with a stand-in, then the other role likewise. The effect is accomplished in post where we digitally paste the two halves together. For these scenes, the production crew could easily handle the different ‘plates’ and accomplish them on their own without much supervision from the special effects director.

However, there was a request to push the limits of special effects further, and I was required to be on the set to plan out the elements required to achieve the illusion. With the given script and clear directions of what was needed, I started planning the stages of shooting, which helped me extract the most of what could be captured in camera and from the actress, which then in turn helped greatly in the post-production stage.

mirror01.jpgIn Anna & Anna, there were close to 30 effects scenes by the time we completed post-production. Besides the ‘split screen’ scenes, there were also shots that had to be digitally altered, stabilised and chroma-keyed. Here, I will talk about the scenes that needed the most attention to create the final illusion.

Every special effects shot has its own unique challenge. In one scenario, the challenge was to shot in front of a mirror, where not only do we see the two Karenas, but their reflections as well. Before I go on, I should mention this: you will never be fully prepared enough for shoots like these – there will always be on-the-spot changes that will lead to even more planning (or less, if you are lucky). From all my supervising experiences – especially in features and programmes – I knew to expect last minute changes to keep me on my toes. So, I always try to plan for the ‘most challenging’ scenario.

mirror02.jpgBack to this mirror scene – the ‘most challenging’ scenario did creep up here. While on set in Shanghai, the director wanted the two Karenas to physically interact while in front of the mirror. To describe the scene: one Karena has to re-arrange the collar of the jacket that the twin Karena was wearing, whilst in front of the mirror and carrying on a conversation. This scene was a crucial turning point to the story, and after a little bit more planning, we commenced shooting.

There was no shortcut or easy way around this shoot. We took a number of plates for the various scenes, and for each plate, Karena would be acting the two individual roles with a stand-in. This meant she had to act the scene out several times with the exact physical movements, while maintaining the same timing for the conversation.

mirror03.jpgThe entire crew, along with the director and Karena, were supportive. At times, Karena would miss the timing by just a second, but in order to make the scene work I would push her to do another take.

Another illusion would be the scene where Karena pincher her doppelganger. This was a simpler task, since the interaction between the two is shorter, but still involved specific planning, which would spare us the extra time needed in post-production to fix or correct the shots. Here, the same routine is again applied, and though I was not on set, I left behind a detailed breakdown of the things needed and a list of the required shooting procedures.

mirror04.jpgOnce the production wrapped up, the 35mm film was sent to Kantana Lab in Bangkok, where the scenes with special effects were scanned to sequential data files and sent back to Iceberg Design in Singapore.

Two more artists from our team were pulled in to take on the mirror scenes, taking on the task of rotoscoping, or to put it simply, the cleaning up process. Our compositor and designer, Benny, then spent a major part of his time getting the key shots right, removing elements from one plate and tracking them seamless with another. In some cases where parts of Karena’s face was blocked by the stand-in, Benny would re-create the parts digitally and replace them.

pinch01.jpgSelects were then scanned from the original 35mm negatives as LOG space RGB data files and kept in native DPX format right through post till print. Our Quantel eQ cinema suite, equipped with a high-definition projector, allows us to load in our customised LUT (look up tables) and preview the RGB data files in the colour space as it would appear when printed on to the final Kodak 2383 positive film.

This gave us a “What you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) set up that allowed us to preview how the special effects would turn out immediately. All completed shots would then be sent, via FTP, to the director in Hong Kong with the LUTs burnt in so that she could respond with her comments. We would then make the necessary changes, if required, and send the final sequential LOG RGB data files of the composites to Bangkok. There, they would integrate the effects scenes with the entire movie and print it onto positive film.

pinch02.jpgThroughout the entire post-production process (as with all our cinema release jobs), whether film or HD-origin, our final deliverable to the print labs are stored as data files on hard disks instead of on tape. This workflow, although tedious, ensures that the final print is not compromised due to compression.

Overall, the process of communication via ftp and email went smoothly. At the premiere screening of the movie we were glad to see how all our preparations, from the special effects to our cinema ready system, has contributed to the finishing of this movie. Last but not least, we would like to thank Ascension Pictures and PIP Productions for this valued opportunity.

Alfred Sim is Iceberg Design’s Animator/Designer, and has worked on a myriad of local feature films such as Kelvin Tong’s Men in White and the upcoming Jack Neo feature slated for release early next year.

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