The Hardest Journey of All.

August 13, 2015

A little too much on the title, I know.

We all have been through some harsh pathways in our time, that one which you got sick, or exhausted, or that time when everything went wrong, even what was dead right. But, if you are the kind of person that creates things – also known as artist, but not limited to that – you will surely understand what this post is about. The hardest journey isn’t on the outside world. It’s about getting that ONE idea, your favorite, that you think will change your life forever, that’ll show the world who you are, and actually bring it from the realm of thoughts into the hard and limited reality we live in.

I’ve been through it several times, and each one is different, some literally kill the idea, others just transform it into something else – which might be positive or… not. When you’re working on an idea, everything is perfect, our mind covers all the different possibilities, how to theoretically achieve each step, where to go from there and boom, you have an amazing result which you can clearly see BEHIND your eyes. Sometimes I stop at that stage.

Sometimes I like an idea so much that I procrastinate and postpone it to the point where reality tells me “yeah, now you DEFINITELY don’t have time to develop that” and then it’s dead, horror-movie style, coming back to haunt me every once in a while. On the other hand, there are those which I think I can take and bring to life in a viable manner. Of course I’m always wrong. My mind covers all the gaps and tricky parts with some theoretical crap (“If I have enough markers, shouldn’t be a problem to track”) or “I’ll figure it on the go” philosophy, even when I plan for some trouble, most of the imaginary steps are flawless.

So I start, working on the concept and initial steps. I’ll use my latest project as an example, just so this post is a little more understandable. About four or five months ago I was walking home from Gastown with a friend and telling him about this idea for an ad that I had, in which a user was able to control the weather using a phone app. The setting would be one of Vancouver’s back alleys, but shooting it would be a little complex because I would need a camera taking photographs at regular intervals, without moving, for a long time. Vancouver is safe, but I wouldn’t trust sitting beside my camera for two days, fighting off pedestrians, cyclists and cars.

Anyway, I was thinking of how awesome that would be, and what challenges would I encounter. Of course, it sounded cool for me, but I could find enough reasons not to push forward. A couple months forward I was home, back in Brazil, with nothing but spare time on my hands. My hometown weather is so crazy that I could have rain more than once a day and a very sunny sky a few hours from that. The weather app came back to mind and I decided that the to get that started I needed a script, since it was an ad, of 30 seconds or less. Also, I needed to find a place where I could put the camera to get all the weather variations without soaking it on the rain, not a dull composition to look at, not too much sky but at least a little, not entirely inside the jungle and, on top of all that, no cars or people passing by. All of that also would have to match the camera’s view and fit some compositing standards.

Long story short, after two days trying out every single window, door and view around the house, I found a good spot in the garage, taking up one parking spot. Two DAYS, for a place that wasn’t nearly as cool as the one I had imagined, but ok. Next step was to try it on camera, and think about the timelapse settings. In my mind it was like “so I’ll just set it up here, and take an HDR picture – so I have control over exposure in post – every X minutes for Y hours”. Then I got onto the math and I decided I needed 5 raw exposures at max resolution (20 megapixels) every two minutes for FORTY EIGHT hours. I don’t live alone, so there would have to be lots of warning the other people in the house not to go into my “shooting area” and signs and tape. Still doable.

Then I called a friend (Felipe Sampaio, one of the few people I know that can understand literally everything I say when geeking out about comp AND photography) and we started to REALLY set up the camera. Of course, the intervalometer wouldn’t work properly. Took us a couple of hours to sort that out. A little more time to get power to the camera to keep it on for two days straight. A sturdy tripod. Weather protection, tape, signs, which lights should stay on, which should NEVER be on, windows that couldn’t be opened (about this, we’re talking about a city which the average temperature is 30 degrees celsius), then we moved on to the lens. Fortunately, this little bit my mind got right and the 14mm looked nice enough. We did some extra set dressing removing stuff or hiding it from view so it wouldn’t look too cheap.

We let it run for a couple of hours, looked steady, no picture skips, intervals working good, exposure looking nice. Awesome. Let’s start. During the first night, I went down at some point to check it out and ended up messing up the exposure. I didn’t know what I had done until about 12 hours later when I was getting all sorts of under and overexposures. Crap. Start over.

This time I let it run the full cycle, for almost two days, didn’t mess with the exposure whenever I went to check the camera but one of the cards filled up faster than my calculations and I lost an entire night. Crap. Start over.

The third time, it ran the entire cycle. I got all the pictures onto my computer – over 100gb – and started to look for how to merge all those multiple exposures into HDRs. A couple of hours and I had a software running the conversion. 5 exposures of RAW files into TIFF HDRs. First, my hard drive wasn’t enough to store it all. Second, it would take TWO WEEKS to convert everything. COME ON! Crap. Start over.

Fourth time, by this time the people in the house were already getting mad at the lights on and windows shut. Two more days, I asked, this is the last time. See, how the heck would I have predicted all these fucking-up factors in my mind? Back to the camera, I set it to three exposures, half resolution (still much bigger than my final output), JPGs, to save space and processing time.

This time I didn’t mess the exposure, replaced memory cards before they were full, triple checked the power source so the camera wouldn’t shut down, reinforced my signs and tape, and let it run. FINALLY I was able to get the timelapse. Well, that first part at least. The processing would take two more days. All these steps wouldn’t take any time when inside my mind, this conversion would be done in a snap of my fingers.

A photo posted by Tito Ferradans (@tferradans) on

Luck kicked in again and the timelapse turned out good. I got all the weather I needed, rain and sun, clear and cloudy skies, a proper exposure at night, everything working. Next step, again, took me some time to figure out. I needed to time the voice over from the script and adjust the timelapse to fit that, covering the climatic conditions in the right times. After Effects time!

A video posted by Tito Ferradans (@tferradans) on

A few more days went into writing scripts and linking things together. Then I hit a wall on “how the hell can I loop the clock without looping the footage?”. I was explaining the process to my dad when he gave me a great suggestion which worked nicely in the script.

Now, why did I need that done now? In the original plan I had a phone and hands controlling the app, remember? I still had to shoot that element, shoot myself as a scientist, come up with a costume, greenscreen the whole thing, and see if it worked. I started with the scientist part. Cogo (Felipe Sampaio) came over and we spent hours disassembling the living room and fitting it as a soundstage with a load of lights, cables, microphone, camera and tripod. We decided to use a camera which I had never worked before – the original BlackMagic Cinema Camera -, but that should do the job better than my own – Canon 5D3.

A photo posted by Tito Ferradans (@tferradans) on

Set is ready, time to shoot. I didn’t mention the several round trips I made around town getting shirts, ties, glasses and a labcoat from friends. A few minutes of rehearsal, timing is on, 30 seconds is the max time limit, but I also couldn’t fall too short from that. And we couldn’t cut. Each take had to be good from start to finish. After a few (several) more hours, we got two good versions, one with glasses, one without. Before taking down the set we brought the footage into the notebook and tested the greenscreen key. It worked almost perfectly in the first attempt. Approved!

A photo posted by Tito Ferradans (@tferradans) on

We still had the hands to shoot, but that would require a different rehearsal, I needed to work on the motion graphics in the phone, we needed more people to handle lights, it wasn’t doable on that day. We took some of the gear out of the living room and into my bedroom (yay, sleep with 3k+ lights and tripods around!).

A video posted by Tito Ferradans (@tferradans) on

The following morning was all into solving the motion graphics to match the voice over and the timelapse. We got an extra pair of hands, I got several pairs of gloves – I thought it would preven the phone to feel my fingers touching the screen, of course I was wrong – and spent way more time than I like to admit practicing the hand movements and fixing the gloves issue with TONS of white tape, until the phone couldn’t feel my fingers anymore, and still, it would have to be at a very specific angle. How could I anticipate any of that?

Then we moved onto light rehearsing. Lighting had to change during the sunset and there were two nights in the lapse as well. All of this still had to keep the greenscreen evenly lit and not bouncing too much on my hands or phone. We were using the same lens used on the timelapse so distortion matches, perspective feels right and all. It was a 14mm, on full frame. We had to be ridiculously close to the greenscreen.

To help with the light changes we had an audio cue that played whenever we rolled so we could adjust the timing for the lights. “Ok, from this word to this sentence, you have to move the light down and then point it elsewhere before this other word starts” – that’s the kind of instructions we had on set. We were also shooting raw, so reviewing the clips was a little too complex. For that reason we just kept on shooting until the card filled up and we felt some takes could work. After unloading the cards we tested the greenscreen and timing and there were a few special ones in which everything worked together (the variables: phone feeling my fingers, me getting the animation timing right, greenscreen shadows and bounces, sunset light timing, day-night-day-night light transition, camera not skipping frames.

From there I felt I had all the “real world” pieces I need to put the ad together. Time to go into comp and face some different issues!

A photo posted by Tito Ferradans (@tferradans) on

Fortunately, this time the whole imagination idea got most of it right and I could control each element separately. Being so picky when shooting and processing them gave me great power in post, saving me from major issues. I’m not gonna describe the comp process because it would be too confusing (more than the shooting process, definitely), but it had three stages.

At first, when I realized I had everything I needed, I packed everything together and made a quick cheap comp that proved the idea worked. That numbed my mind, feeding it with thoughts of “see, it worked, it’s gonna be perfect!” and then I started to procrastinate because “if everything worked so well up until now, I’m definitely sure something will come up to fuck my life”, I bet you know that feeling. Nothing works without hiccups until the end.

In the second stage I let the project sit in my hard drive for about two months. I eventually looked at the rough version and fed me the same positive thoughts that “yeah, you made it! it’s gonna be awesome!” but that wasn’t enough to gather the courage to actually put the project to the test and push to the end. Then, one day I was biking around and another idea hit me, for a different project, one that I very much liked. Fortunately, I can’t keep TWO things incubating at the same time so, in order to focus on the new idea I had to finish this app thing.

The third stage – current one – is when I decided to face whatever issues would come up when I started to adjust the footage and merge it all together to achieve one final product. I’ve been doing it for a few days and was able to keep it flowing pretty well so far, fixing stuff, getting feedback and adjusting minor details. I was really lucky that the original footage/plates were shot properly and that I could take my time with them. Also, the fact that I had other people involved gives me an extra boost to finish it and don’t be the guy that holds up everyone’s projects forever!

In this entire time I’ve questioned my decisions, thought there would be better solutions for my problems, failed several times, started over about the same amount of times, lost precious time overplanning, and now, close to the end, I realize that if I just kept on going in spite of thinking there would be better solutions or better gear, I could probably have finished weeks (months?) ago. That’s something that also applies to my demo reel and that I’m starting to blend with my work pace.

There will ALWAYS be a better way to do things, faster ways, cleaner ways, better gear, better software, better plugins, but if I keep on waiting for them, I’ll never get anything done. We have to kill and mutate our ideas several times in the process of bringing them from our minds into reality. It’s up to us if this compromise will still keep them true to their original form or if they’ll get completely diluted and shapeless, turning into something that you’ll look back and think “heh, this is nothing like what I thought!”. I have several of these too, and even though they mostly don’t make out of my own audience, they’re important to learn the kind of things I can change and give up and the ones I have to carry along.

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