Jamie Caliri’s artistry flies to top spot

There were few outstanding commercials during this year’s Superbowl broadcast, but no one would contest that United Airline’s «Dragon» soars above them all.  The Fallon Agency (noted for its recent work on Sony‘s «Balls» spot) and Duck Studios (duckstudios.com) allowed Jamie Caliri the freedom to get this commercial into our heads and hearts.

I had a chance to get a few questions with Jamie to talk specifically about Adobe After Effects‘ role in the commercial.  Ultimately, it was a collaboration of many different elements, hardware, software and people that brought all of the pieces together under Caliri’s direction.

If you haven’t seen the commercial, you can view it from United Airlines’ website by clicking here.

[Ko Maruyama]

So Jamie, what was your background before you started the studio?

[Jamie Caliri]

In terms of background, I picked up my first movie camera in 1977 at the age of 7.  Like many film people my age I think Star Wars was a big influence.  Those Star Wars «making of» documentaries were so inspiring. I got into  photography in high school and then went off to Cal Arts to study animation and filmmaking.

I directed commercials and logo treatments using in-camera technique s in the early to mid 90’s.  In the late 90’s I abandoned animation and directed live action music videos.   I have also worked over the years as a professional photographer.

To be clear, every job is a different nut to crack, so I do not have a  permanent studio. The end credits for «Lemony Snicket» and United Airlines’ «Dragon» spot were made in Ojai, CA (near my home), and we rented space and geared up for each job’s needs.

[Ko]

Do you have a kit of tools, either rigging or otherwise that you consider to be a necessary part of any puppetry piece like Lemony or Dragon, whether it is in-camera or computer generated?

[Jamie]

«Lemony» and «Dragon» were really different from each other in terms of process. «Dragon», being stop motion, required that we needed to have a full shooting space, lights, c-stands, and a complete workshop for construction. I have many tools I bring to bear on this type of project.


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[Ko]

Any particular tool you can’t do without?

[Jamie]

The camera movement system was the most crucial. The rest amount to a odd assortment of wood shop tools. As far as the digital side goes. We used my scanner and printer. Duck Studios  supplied us with the rest. Duck went out of their way to make sure we had what we needed. Kim Blanchette also brought a huge amount of animation rigging equipment. He had all these random armature  pieces.  Kim and Morgan Hay would  ‘Frankenstein’ these together for each shot.


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[Ko]

Since you began your studio, how many projects have you worked on and what scope of production styles does your studio cover (broadcast/film…3D/stop motion…)

[Jamie]

The only two projects I have made here in Ojai are the «Lemony» end titles and «Dragon».  The one area I steer clear from is straight 3D-CGI.  So many people do it so well and I do not enjoy sitting in front of a computer, so it’s a bit of a life style choice.  «Lemony» was all Photoshop and After Effects.

[Ko]

Aside from the hardware, x-acto blades and cameras, any software in your pipeline?

[Jamie]

Well, on «Dragon» my brother wrote a program called -Stop Motion Machine- (SMM). It was the interface between our Leica and the animator. SMM also calculated camera moves that were all hand dialed on a manual motion control rig that I made back in college. We used the basics, PS, AE, and FCP. that was about it.


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[Ko]

Wow — a talented family.  It’s nice to be able to call on your brother to code an application to calculate motion control data.  Was this a Mac script, or full-blown application?

[Jamie]

Stop Motion Machine(SMM) was a fun project to see develop. Dyami wrote it in Java. He doesn’t own a Mac and didn’t have access to the camera we used. He was writing the code in San Diego in his off time. He would up load the betas and I would test them. Leica has a USB interface app that allows  control of the cameras  aperture and shutter speed. This mini app also displays a live feed.

Our first idea was to get the code for the app from Leica and  build up from there. They declined to send the code. So Dyami came up with a quick and fun plan. SMM would run along side the Leica app and screen grab shots from it’s live feed window. These screen grabs would be used for animation testing. SMM did so much more. If we needed a new function Dyami could usually turn them around in a couple of hours. SMM was so  essential to our project.

[Ko]

So Dyami wrote this on a PC without seeing the components or being able to test it on the Mac?

[Jamie]

Yeah, I sent him a screenshot of the interface, and he created an application that would actually automate the entire computer: filling in dialogue boxes, moving the cursor around to the proper parts of the remote control panel, all of that.  He even set up a «fail-safe» save feature that would cache all of the discarded frames into a separate folder.


�2006 Caliri Stop Motion Machine Patent Pending: Dyami Caliri
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[Ko]

Do you complete most of the artwork outside of the computer?  Or is it fairly evenly weighted, considering all scanning and printing that goes on?

[Jamie]

I guess technically it all was completed in the computer. But, nothing was drawn or painted in the computer. Some elements looped through the computer. So the drawings of the characters were scanned with the painted textures, printed out, and shot on set…

[Ko]

…ultimately bringing them back to the computer: After Effects?

[Jamie]

Yeah, then bringing them back in.  If we thought that we may need duplicates of an item we would make sure it was re-printable by the computer.

[Ko]

How do you implement Adobe After Effects into the production pipeline?

[Jamie]

Adobe After Effects was  essential to our process on «Dragon».  Each shot was given a project, even if it had no compositingor effects.

The scenes were big — 2560 by 1920.  Anytime we would finish a version of a shot, we would output a 720x405 quicktimewith dv compression. This would be seen by a «master animatic» AE project that would auto load any newly worked on shots.

So when I wanted to see our entire progress I wouldn’t have to wait for the whole project to render. I could just open «master animatic», and because the scenes were small and compressed, they would load quickly.


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[Ko]

You had to pre-render everything for this «quick viewing».  Easier than creating proxies?

[Jamie]

Yeah, the small renders just made it easy to handle.


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[Ko]

Multiple frames in a single composition?

[Jamie]

This was my personal color-grading system: After Effects.  I could see all of the scenes, side-by-side.  Then, with several comp windows open I could make color correction decisions, while still being able to see the context of the animation and the entire clip — rather than using the After Effects default single frame preview.


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[Ko]

Do you use any playback software or RAM caching software like GridIron X-Factor, Nucleo, or Iridas’ Frame Cycler for viewing these elements?

[Jamie]

We weren’t slowed by playback speeds; it was the rendering time that we avoided by creating the master animatic file.  The animatic was very important. As for RAM caching software or image preview applications, we didn’t use any of those.  None of us had much experience with them, if we had heard of them at all.

There is only one shot that doesn’t have stop motion. It’s the close up of the boy falling asleep. But that shot dx’s into Dad jumping into the dream: all stop motion. The close up of Dad flying to the island was animated in After Effects‘ 3D environment. The birds behind him were stop motion(SM).  Many skies were laid in with AE. The wide shot of flying to the island was built in AE, but each bird flight was SM on Blue screen. Everything else was fairly pure stop motion.

I tried to think of After Effects as just an advanced compositing and color correction tool for «Dragon».  I also new that in a pinch we could turn on the 3d mode and emulate a shot if we had to (close up: Dad flying to Island).

[Ko]

Any snags that came up between preproduction, animatics and final animation?

[Jamie]

As we looked at the boards on Dragon, we realized that the front of the Dad’s house would only be seen for a short bit and the camera was hardly moving. We decided to build the house and the reverse at 1/2 scale of our normal scale and comp in Dad. Dad was about 9 inches tall. We shot the Dad puppet in a matching doorway. We had to scale our camera moves  accordingly of course.

This really saved us in the end. We had a big push in the final weeks. By making the scale so small it allowed for  portable sets. Morgan was tapped out on puppet building so I put the house sets  together with  foam-core and hot glue.


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[Jamie]

During post production the duty of fire animation was handed to our background artist Patrick Macioroski.  I wanted the fire to look like paper that was shot on set.

First, Patrick painstakingly hand animated the fire. The idea being that we would make it look like we used a replacement technique on set. The animation was fantastic, but it didn’t jive with the rest of the spot.  I knew that if the fire was bugging me it was bugging him too.

We  realized late in the game that we needed to recreate the fire. Patrick used Apple’s Shake and came up with the final fire animation by using a complex system of seen and unseen shapes. The fire had about 20 — 25 visible layers.  Shapes were rotated and slid under mask shapes.  Later, I brought the layers into After Effects, adding color, shading, and drop shadows.

[Ko]

If there is a single property that you use in After Effects over all others, what is it, and how do you use it — — or, which is your favorite?

[Jamie]

I like to throw in some optics  compensation and reverse optics  compensation here and there. It’s all over «Lemony». It adds a «through the looking glass» (Lens) look, as if we dug up the oldest lens we could find to shot with.

[Ko]

Are there things that you’d like to see in Adobe After Effects that would make what you do easier, and why? (How do they pertain to your type of  production environment)?

[Jamie]

I’m still not so great with After Effects‘ animation tools. I could blame the interface but it’s  probably just experience. I’m interested to see the new interface that After Effects 7.0 is sporting.  With the 3D environment, and film resolution sized projects, you quickly run into memory errors during rendering.  Let’s just say that I wish that AE would take  full advantage of the power and RAM in the computers we use.

[Ko]

After Effects 7.0 allows for the use of a little more RAM.

[Jamie]

We’re on After Effects 6.5 — I haven’t upgraded to 7.0 yet.  It is definitely a step in the right direction.
[Ko]

You’ve created several acclaimed pieces, including the latest Superbowl spot for United Airlines called «Dragon».  I’m sure technical readers will want to know what your shop spec is.  What cameras do you shoot on? What machines (Mac/PC) do you run?

[Jamie]

«Lemony» was made on four dualy G5‘s. Two were dual 2.5s and two were dual 2.0. We had to rent a few more at the end for rendering. «Lemony» was made by scanning in drawings and textures. combining them into photoshop files. The characters were made as layered PS files and brought into AE as Comps.

On «Dragon» we had two G5s. both dual 2.7s I believe.  We used an Epson 2200 to print on real water color paper. We used a HP scanner, I think it was a 8200. We used Silverscan software for scanning. We shot with a Leica digilux 2, (not an SLR) and of course Stop Motion Machine by Dyami Caliri running on a mac mini.

When we finished the shooting and wrapped up the sets, I took the project home on my new G5 quad. The last tweaks, color, and final render were made on that machine. I then brought the whole project back to Duck Studios in Santa Monica for archive.

[Ko]

So any favorite plugin these days?  AE, Photoshop or other?

[Jamie]

On both «Lemony» and «Dragon» we used AE pro straight out of the box. No extras. With that said, I’d like to think the «magic» of these spots is not so technical. It has more to do with filmmaking.

[Ko]

Well, I think it’s obvious to everyone who sees your work — your filmmaking «magic» talents show through.  We can’t wait to see what tricks come next from you and your team of artists and animators.  Thanks for spending a little time with us to answer these questions Jamie.

[Jamie]

Thank you.

………………..

To contact Jamie Caliri for Feature Films, contact Chris Smith at Paradigm in Beverly Hills (310/288-8000)

For animation, both analog and digital, contact Mark Medernach at Duck Studios (310/478-0771)

For more production pictures from the making of United Airlines’ «Dragon» spot, navigate to: http://www.jamiecaliri.com/united/