CGSociety :: Production Focus
22 March 2013, by Meleah Maynard
David Lewandowski would always choose confusion over boredom. So it’s okay with him that some parts of ‘Tiny Tortures,’ the surreal video he directed for a track on musician Flying Lotus’ recently released Until the Quiet Comes, aren’t completely spelled out. The storyline behind the darkly magical video comes through loud and clear. Elijah Wood stars as a former baseball player who is relying on prescription drugs to ease the guilt he feels following a car accident that killed his girlfriend and cost him an arm. In his drug-addled grief, he hallucinates about the regeneration of his missing limb and winds up overdosing in response.
In addition to directing Tiny Tortures,
Lewandowski wrote the treatment for the video and created many of the animations and visual effects using Maxon’s Cinema 4D. Well known for his work on TRON: Legacy, Lewandowski recently served as the lead graphics animator on Oblivion. He and Steven Ellison (aka Flying Lotus) connected via Twitter. “Steven wanted to learn more about animation so he put out a call out saying he was looking for the head-vampire of C4D, and people directed him to me,” Lewandowski recalls, laughing.
The two got in touch and started spending time together in Los Angeles, talking about art and movies. Lewandowski gave Ellison some animation tips, and when it came time to find video directors for his latest album, Ellison called on his new friend. “We have a lot of common interests,” Lewandowski explains. “We share a big love of Asian cinema, particularly Japanese animation, and we have a lot of music we connect over.”
Lewandowski’s talks with Ellison reminded him of his love of Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 animated, cyberpunk film, Akira, and his disappointment that the live-action U.S. version got cancelled before being made. “It broke my heart when the film got cancelled, so in some ways the impetus for this video came out of my frustration and sadness,” he says, explaining that he loved the “telekinetic, hallucinatory” nature of the film. Nailing down the look took several motion and camera tests, and Lewandowski admits to worry a bit that the subject matter was too dark. But, ultimately, he and Ellison were happy with the concept and the look. “It’s a midnight, pure-black song, really, so we went with it,” he says, adding that shooting began in June and post-production was completed in November.
Hallucinating In the Dark
Elijah Wood is a mutual friend of Flying Lotus and Lewandowski but, even so, Lewandowski didn’t quite believe that the real Elijah Wood was going to be in the video until he showed up for the shoot. “I sent Elijah the treatment and he said, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’ but I’m a fan of his and I totally thought an impersonator was going to show up or something,” he recalls. “But he came through and was fantastic, and really supportive of the project and vibe.”
In the video, Wood is seen lying in the dark on his bed next to a nightstand strewn with prescription drug bottles. Suddenly, everything from spare change and guitar picks to baseballs and a smart phone begin floating over to him, coming together to form a cyborg-like replacement arm. Concept artist Ben Mauro came up with the design for the arm, and was one of several members of the freelance creative team Lewandowski pulled together for the video.
Footage was shot on a RED Epic and edited in Final Cut Pro. Tracking was done using Pixel Farm’s PFTrack, and After Effects was used for compositing. “Everyone on the team went through a 48-hour crash course to learn PFTrack and it made our lives so much easier,” Lewandowski recalls.
Dustin Bowser supervised much of the VFX for “Tiny Tortures.” CINEMA4D was used for animation and rigging, and because they were shooting in extremely low light, Lewandowski designed and built a rig that could work under those conditions. The practical arm-nub that was fabricated with silicone for many of the shots, was scanned using Agisoft Photoscan, so that a digi-double could be swapped in for the CG arm shots. “I wanted to shoot this as dark as possible, single-digit foot-candles and do effects over it, letting everything live in shadow” he recalls.
In order to do that, Lewandowski upgraded the arm rig to include dimmable strips of LEDs to ensure good visibility without light pollution in the plate images. Additional LEDs were used in parts of the room in the shadows to add parallax information for PFTrack. Motion capture for the arm was pretty straightforward, Lewandowski says. “Sometimes, we used a prosthetic arm stump and we digitally squeezed the pixels to remove where his real arm was concealed.”
Character Technical Director Bret Bays and Rigging Technical Director Patrick Goski came up with rigging solutions to make the arm appear to be growing together. Ultimately, though, the CG arm rig was slow and difficult to work with, Lewandowski recalls. “It was a great rig, but we had to model and buy so many assets for it and create the wires from scratch; it just wound up being pretty cumbersome.”
XREFs ultimately saved the day and made the rig more manageable, Lewandowski says. “Patrick encouraged us to play around, so we built a complex hierarchy of XREFs and that allowed us to all keep working at the same time in the same shot, which was effective.”
Lewandowski also credits Goski with using C4D’s new sculpting tools to create the eye-catching shot of the coins floating out of a bowl on the dresser. The idea was to have the coins rise from the bowl, form a sort of double helix and then move across the room toward Wood. “Patrick did around 100 animations to get a double helix that still felt loose and abstract, and did the simulation with MoDynamics to really nail it.”
Asked to name his favorite part of the video, Lewandowski unhesitatingly points to the shots in which the arm is being formed by all of the objects around the room. “That was so important for me, and it was a two-day scramble where I was animating all of the pieces trying to make it feel real and natural,” he says. “It was challenging because it was so dark, and I knew we would only see about 30 percent of the work once it was graded down. I wanted to do something close to my heart and it turned out that something was really, really dark.”
Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.