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Surviving an Ultimatte Shoot

The Writer/Producer/Director/Editor's Nearly-Complete Self-Defense Guide By Bill Barrett
opening graphic

For many years traveling matte blue-screen photography has produced highly convincing movie magic by using strictly optical, mechanical, and chemical means. As the industry developed, and as most commercials were now being shot in film but finished in video, the introduction of the Ultimatte series of instruments permitted composite mattes to be made electronically in post. As an additional benefit, a new degree of creative influence over the final composite image was made possible.

Ultimatte is primarily a linear and additive process, unlike chroma key, which is an all-or-nothing digital switch. This allows Ultimatte to provide subtle shadows of the foreground subject falling on the background "plate". Also, unlike chroma key, Ultimatte will provide a far more realistic edge around a foreground subject (or more correctly, a complete lack of a visible edge). Smoke, reflections in glass, deliberately out-of-focus elements, semi-transparent objects, and fine detail in hair in the foreground scene can all be held with Ultimatte, but are all lost with the much simpler chroma key process. In short, Ultimatte can make scenes look absolutely real that can't be produced any other way.

Two Most Common Video Operating Modes
For the project being shot in video, Ultimatte will provide a final composite matte right there on the spot. Often this is done with one foreground camera, looking at the blue stage, the actor, and maybe a special prop or two; and one background camera, looking at the background set. The background set is sometimes a miniature, a product shot, or might be almost any sort of a "normal" settinng.

The other very common mode of operation is to have one foreground camera, and a previously recorded background scene played back from a time base corrected tape playback. These background scenes might be computer generated, or stock footage, or scenes previously recorded for time or distance reasons.

In either case the final, finished composite matte shot is recorded then and there, with no additional work needed in post.

The great assurance of seeing exactly what the final frame looks like in realtime as it is being recorded, is a vast if not crucial benefit to the video producer on a rational budget--especially considering how often filmed matte shots fail, and need to be re-shot to correct defects when the matting process is performed entirely in the film domain.

Realizing that most people are impatient--especially in this business, we're now going to give you all the deepest trade secrets of shooting for maximum impact in Ultimatte composites.

  • Imagination comes first, and is the most important factor. Nothing beats a deep, primal, good idea.
  • It's not the equipment that does the work, it's the people. It's experience, not chips and wires, that makes the magic.
  • Thorough prior planning is absolutely crucial to success. In any highly technical shoot, you just can't wing it without putting a torpedo into your budget.
Now for some details...

We'd first like to draw a distinction among several different Ultimatte styles or situations. Your idea can be surrealistic, placing live actors in a cartoon world, or a computer-generated imagery background.

In our opinion, Ultimatte is at its most powerful in forming absolutely realistic final scenes. Maximum use of all the visual tricks of lighting mood and motivation, and fully three-dimensional thinking, combined with blue set pieces for stairs, walls, and other physically interactive environmental factors, will make for a final frame that engages the cognition and satisfies the credibility of the audience.

In the best cases, even we can't tell where reality begins and ends. Naturally, this can become a bit complex to shoot for reasons we'll shed some light on shortly...

Often, a simple "weatherman" situation will fulfill the needs of the script. Using our "Ultimatte To Go" method of highly streamlined production techniques, this kind of thing can be done easily on location anywhere at all. In fact, with a little forethought, even somewhat complex blue-screen scenes can be shot in this cost-effective simplified road mode, needing only an adequate shooting space, and not a fully equipped video studio situation at all.

Especially in a simplified shooting situation, the most important single factor in a successful Ultimatte shoot is a fresh, creative idea. It doesn't need to be a blockbuster, just clear, simple, and appropriate to the script material. It's far better to do something simple and elegant that works, than to over-reach what's available and make some second-rate visuals.

old car

Figure One shows famed announcer Jack Dalby leaning on the radiator of an antique delivery truck. This represents a good use of a simple situation, since the truck is a still photograph. Jack was able to convincingly put down his waxing rag and tin wax can onto the radiator--and then lean on the radiator himself. A blue wooden box on the blue stage was placed to coincide in position with the top of the radiator.

The box served two purposes. One was to simply receive Jack's shadow so it wrapped correctly over the radiator. The other thing the box did was to give him an actual weight-bearing structure to relate to by leaning on, and it provided a solid something to put things down on.

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Related Keywords:Ultimatte, composite mattes, chromakeying, blue screen, green screen


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