Golden Sq and Disqo brush up on historical figures
Golden Sq and its production arm Disqo have carried out the production and VFX on a series of morphing idents for Viasat History, as part of a multi-channel rebrand.
With the strapline ‘Bringing History to Life,’ the idents feature different figures from famous paintings flowing into live action actors in modern day scenarios. Paintings include Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Portrait of The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries’ by Jacques-Louis David, Portrait of A.S. Pushkin’ by Orest Kiprensky, and portraits of Cleopatra VII and Elizabeth 1.
The idents are airing from the 29th April 2014 for the channel, shown across the Nordics, Central & Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Russia & CIS and Africa. The main focus is on European history, revealing the secrets of the past and how it defines us today.
The creative brief, as explained by Viasat Broadcasting Creative Director Simon Mitchell and Graphic Designer Simone Heineck, required a visual approach that links the past and the present, and makes the past relevant for the audience. “With the rebrand, we are moving away from the purely graphical approach of our previous idents, to a warmer, more human, live action feel,” said Mitchell. “We want the idents to feel that we are bringing history to life. The approach was influenced by the work of artist Dorothee Golz and photographer Leo Caillard.”
Heineck added: “We needed to find a VFX house and production company that could bring these paintings to life in a beautiful and visually rich way. As soon as Golden Sq sent us a test they had created for ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ we knew they were the right people for the job.”
“After being approached about the idea, initially for Girl with a Pearl Earring, I thought I’d scour our office for anyone with a vague likeness.” explained Golden Sq VFX Lead Harry Jarman. “ I got a couple of our staff to strike the pose from the painting, then compared these images to the painting. After this I found an appropriate location in the office, and filmed one of our Production Assistants posing, then looking to camera, as per the painting. From this footage, we produced test transitions to show proof of concept. This gave the client the confidence to pursue the idea. The challenge was to take just the head from an old portrait into a wide screen TV format and still make them recognisable.”
“We worked closely with Viasat in the casting stages, to ensure that the actors closely resembled the respective historical figures, through to the hair, make-up and wardrobe stages,”said Disqo Director Danny Vaia. “Albeit with a more ‘modern’ style of appearance.”
“Casting was obviously crucial,” said Paul Evans, Senior Producer at Viasat Broadcasting. “Fruitcake did a fantastic job in London, some of the likenesses are almost creepy! The transition from the painting to the actor had to be smooth, and we couldn’t have achieved it if the face shapes and bone structure hadn’t been right. We found that the texture of paintings worked better than photographic images. We wanted a spread of images across history and it was important that they were relevant for our audiences worldwide – so the Pushkin image might not be immediately recognisable to a British audience, but it is iconic in Russia.
Disqo Executive Producer, Dominic Bunjevac added:“We used mix and overlay on the shoot to ensure that the framing of the live action lined up with the artwork of the historical paintings, so that the live action towards the end of the idents would sit within the visible area, when the end graphics resolve on screen.”
Croatia was chosen as the location to accommodate certain aspects of the creative – relatively generic European architecture and an availability of interiors that would look the part. “The shoot was a really great experience for us,” said Evans. “I’d never shot in Croatia but Zagreb’s a great town, our crew was great, and Dominic and the Disqo team made the whole process very smooth.”
According to Jarman, the lookalike actors chosen for the idents definitely made the post job more straightforward. “We were able to seamlessly blend the portrait and contemporary characters together, creating a subtle transition that, in most cases, is barely noticeable. To help with the process of transitioning from the original image to the real life scenario, we strategically positioned elements in our contemporary scenes that suggest similarities to the original paintings. The paint texture from some of the original paintings was copied and applied to the modern scenes. In some cases, extra elements were created and tracked into the backgrounds to improve compositions.”
In some cases, the painting is so recognisable that just the face is enough to register, for example Girl with a Pearl Earring. “We also subtly altered the grade and texture of the backgrounds, in order to make them more painterly,” said Jarman. “In most cases the basic geometry of a head was brought into Flame, and object tracked in Action, so that it matched the position of the live action head as closely as possible. By aligning and projecting the painted head onto this, I was able to give the painting some dimension, as the real head moved.”
Further adjustments were made using the Distort tool in order to morph between the real head, and the projected painting. “The eyelines needed to be adjusted to match to the live action,” said Jarman. “I painted up some digital eyeballs based on each original painting. These were projected onto spheres in Flame, with highlights restored, then re-composited back into the painting. A setup in Action enabled me to match their movement to the live action. The last step was to match blinking on the painting, so when the animated painting and live plate were morphed, the action of the eyes matched.”
According to Paul Evans, Cleopatra was the trickiest to transition because of the graphical nature of the painting. “ The shapes and sizes aren’t naturalistic,” he explained. “We shortened her hair and removed an asp from the painting to help make it smoother.”
“To allow elements [in Cleopatra’s portrait] to be able move over each other, I needed to isolate them and create what was hidden behind other parts of the head dress, before sending them to Nuke to apply the morph process,” explained Jarman. “ The painting was done in Flame. Nuke was used to project elements of the graphic image onto geometric shapes, that were camera tracked to the live action girl. This gave the 2D image dimension when it twisted. Further adjustments were made using the morphing tool in Nuke to blend between the graphic image and live action shapes. Transitions between various elements were staggered to make the change more interesting.”
“Ironically, despite it being the transition that we found the most challenging, we’ve had some of the best feedback from it,” added Evans.
The Girl With Pearl Earring, Napoleon, Pushkin and Elizabeth sequences all used Autodesk Flame. “I used blurring and difference techniques to extract painterly textures from the original pictures,” explained Jarman. “These were applied to the live action at the beginning to help make them more recognisable as the original pictures, additional dynamic colour correction also helped get closer to the feel of the original picture. Some additional elements were camera tracked into the ‘Girl with Pearl Earring’ sequence to help with the composition. We used a supplied still of a cupboard which was projected onto basic geometry created in Nuke to give it more dimension.”
“On the Elizabeth sequence we isolated the Ruff and painted in behind it in Flame, so it could morph independently into the white scarf,” continued Jarman. “Queen Elizabeth had an intricate embroidered bodice, which did not blend comfortably into a modern leather jacket. Paul asked us to keep the leather jacket right from the start, so we just applied a dynamic grade to help blend it into the old painting. It seems to work quite well, [evoking] shades of Tilda Swinton in Orlando.”
“We were shooting vignettes really,” said Vaia. “Taking these historic characters and putting them into slices of modern life. It is all about making those transitions work between the graphic image and the live action – and there’s a lot more storytelling in there than you first realise.”
“Girl with a Pearl Earring’ by Johannes Vermeer, 1665
‘Portrait of The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries’ by Jacques-Louis David, 1812
‘Portrait of A.S. Pushkin’ by Orest Kiprensky, 1827
‘Elizabeth 1 – The Darnley Portrait’ artist not known c1575
Golden Sq VFX Lead: Harry Jarman Producer: Anna MacDonald Production Company: Disqo Director: Danny Vaia Executive Producer: Dominic Bunjevac DOP: Nick Bennett Casting Directors: Fruitcake Stylist: Karen Smyth Production Assistant: Will Newis Playback: Andrew Spindle Gaffer: Dean Brkic Modern Times Group’s (MTG) Viasat Broadcasting Creative Director: Simon Mitchell Senior Producer: Paul Evans Graphic Designer Simone Heineck Editor: Paul Evans Composer: Wayne Jones