Shooting on location in a Noah-grade downpour, we were drenched but happy. The sheeting rain obscured the fact that our "Vietnamese field" was really a canyon near Hollywood and the photogenic mists created the only "Southeast Asian" weather we’d been granted in four sunny weeks of production.
We covered most of the sergeant’s death scene: plodding through the field, hit by an unseen sniper, he flailed to the ground as his men scattered, he sprawled face down in the mud. We shot the sergeant falling face down to hide his features, because that day the part was played by a crew member doubling as the actual actor, who was off on another production.
The actor who played the sergeant was back the next day for his close up, but the blinding sunshine, the bone-dry field and the naked desert hills were back too; all we had to do was make that day’s footage look just like the stuff we shot the day before.
Matching footage is a common production problem, but luckily, one with all kinds of solutions. We’ll show you how to match shots made in separate locations, how to solve problems (like the sergeant) at a single location and how to bring disparate places together through compositing. Before we wrap, we’ll divulge some directing and editing tips that’ll make your fakery more convincing.
Oh, about the sergeant: waiting until late afternoon, we parked our tallest slab-sided grip van across the sun’s path to throw a huge shadow on the ground. We soaked the shadow area with water from 55-gallon drums; drenched the actor to match and shot all his closeups from angles high enough to frame off the surrounding sunshine and the giveaway hills beyond. We got our downpour from a garden sprayer that pumped rain in convincing style. In post, we then cooled the sunny color temperature down to drizzle-blue and the resulting closeups cut together perfectly with the rainy wide shots.
Matching Different Locations
The most common multi-location matching problem involves stock shots. Establishing shot of Eiffel Tower (with cheesy accordion on sound track), CUT TO sidewalk cafe. Trouble is, you’ve faked the cafe on your back patio and this fact is painfully obvious. To improve the match, you’ll want to work on both the stock shot and the cafe set.
First, lose the cliche Eiffel Tower. Try to find a Parisian street with readable signs in French, a street that might have a cafe somewhere up ahead. This will tell the audience where they are and form a plausible relationship with the backyard set.
Then fix the patio. Swap the resin chairs for classic wire models and get an umbrella with Pernod ads on it. Place a laser-printed menu with a readable Plats du Jour or some-such on the table and don’t forget an ashtray because the French still smoke. This is called "selling the gag." We’ll have more to say on this later.
Sometimes you need to combine different locations into one. I once created a show in which I staged a bank robbery at three completely different spots: a building that resembled a bank, an actual bank and a public phone booth. My ten-year-old hero catches sight of the baddies escaping from the stand-in bank, glances up to see the real bank’s sky sign, then rushes into the phone booth (which was actually miles away) to morph into an adult superhero.
We made the matches using two techniques: so-called "glance-object" cutting and screen direction. As its name suggests, a glance-object pair is a shot of someone looking off camera that’s cut with a shot of what he or she supposedly sees. This editorial pairing tells the audience that the looker and look-ee are in the same location. By cutting to the bank sign from our hero’s look and then back to him, we established boy and sign to be in the same place.
To integrate the phone booth, we established it with a glance-object combination and then cemented the spatial relationship with screen direction. Our hero looks off-right to "see" the booth, then runs "toward" it and exits the frame, screen right. In the matching phone-booth shot, he runs in from screen left, makes his transformation in the booth, then rushes back off screen left. And he then runs into frame from screen right at the bogus bank location. The matched action and screen direction bring the phone booth and bank together.
Matching Different Conditions
The opposite of matching different locations is matching conditions at the same location, but in different shooting sessions. Simple continuity can be a frustrating hassle in any shoot, as actors show up in different clothes, or worse: "Hey: you dyed your hair green!" "Yeah, it’s green now. Is that a problem?"
After continuity, the trickiest match is light: sunshine or overcast, long or short shadows, noon white color or sunset orange. If you’re going to match multiple shooting sessions, go for a neutral white balance in all of them (you can dial in a uniform sunset or whatever in post). If the day-to-day weather’s uncertain in your area, avoid ostentatiously sun-splashed lighting. However, if you do have available power, you can sometimes simulate sun by pumping blue-filtered light into closeups.
When the problem is a missing actor like our sergeant you can sometimes double the performer as described above; but this is tough to pull off when there’s dialogue. In this situation, have a stand-in play the scene with the actor present, for reference. If practical, make a rough edit with the stand-in and play it later for the missing actor, so that she or he can replicate the rhythm of the main scene. Use the tape yourself to ensure that the actor’s orientation and eye movement will cut smoothly with the earlier footage.
In fact, a 12-volt VCR/TV combo and a work tape of previous footage are indispensable tools for matching everything about lighting, performance and continuity. Planning helps too. In another project, we rented an antique milk delivery truck. The cost was so high that we could only afford it for one day, though it appeared in a sequence that took three days to shoot. To solve the problem, we shot all the truck setups together, out of sequence, and we pre-planned the other camera angles to frame off the spot where the vehicle was (no longer) parked. The whole business was complicated by the fact that the truck’s supposedly pre-dawn rounds had to be shot day for night, but that’s another story.
Nowadays, most advanced amateur and professional videographers can combine separate elements by placing foreground subjects in completely different backgrounds through the process of digital compositing.
How much you use this post-production technique depends on how well your computer system works. The chromakey controls on stand-alone switchers are okay for titles and brief composites; but they fringe somewhat under most conditions and the results can look disappointing.
Some digital editing packages, like Adobe Premiere, include a compositing feature that works pretty well. But for truly seamless integration of subject and background, you may want to add a plug-in that does compositing, like Boris FX or a stand-alone compositing program, like Adobe After Effects, which is specifically designed to feather, defringe and otherwise blend the images. For the most finicky work, you can export your raw materials to a still image program like Adobe Photoshop or Corel Photopaint and build composites, frame by painstaking frame. (Even these programs do a better job when assisted by compositing software plugins.)
In compositing, matching action is more critical because components from different locations appear on screen at the same time where they can be directly compared. Recently I shot some footage of my daughter to add to our summer vacation video by compositing her onto the Staten Island ferry. I got most of it right: posing her against a plain blue sky, I aligned her to match the sun angle on the distant Statue of Liberty in the background shot (at least as I remembered it) and she raised her arm just the right amount to "point" at it.
But when I tried compositing her with a distant Miss Liberty, the proportions were all off. With a lot of patience, I was able to scale her down to fit the background footage, but not all software allows this. Again, the moral is, there’s no substitute for reviewing the "A" footage when setting up the "B" shots.
Directing and Editing Tricks
With compositing or any other matching process, you can’t simply juxtapose elements and expect them to work. Your success depends largely on how well you sell the gag, that is, how cunningly you supply extra evidence that your separate pieces are really one.
For example, pretend you’re shooting Son of Matrix. You’ve got plenty of wide shots of a giant factory but you’re not allowed on the grounds to shoot scenes with actors. To combine the two, you plan your sequence like this:
1. Establishing shot of factory.
2. Closeup of hero (in distinctive leather overcoat) against wall that matches factory shot.
3. Another factory wide shot with small-size hero composited in. As he moves forward…
4. …Action-matched closeup of hero as before.
See how it works? The opening wide shot can remain on screen long enough to solidly establish the locale. (Because it’s a "straight" shot it will withstand audience scrutiny.) The introductory close shot of the hero includes a visually distinctive feature, the overcoat. When you Composite the hero into the second wide shot, he’s small enough to be visually plausible but still identifiable through his signature overcoat. Because the opening has already established the factory, this second wide shot can be brief enough to conceal the fact that it’s a composite. Finally, the matched action with the hero’s second close shot ties the composite to it.
Another trick is to use portable elements in both locations. Shooting in a convenient alley, a ho-hum director might have the bad guys drive up and pile out of the car. A good director, however, might use the car door to glue alley and factory together:
5. Baddies drive into shot and stop. Passenger looks out window.
6. His P.O.V.: the factory framed in the passenger door window. The door swings open.
7. Medium shot: the passenger Baddie jumps out of the car.
Because we see the door at the factory location, we assume that the whole car and its passengers are there too. In fact, the director simply drove the car to the factory, aimed the camcorder out the passenger window and then pushed the door open.
If I’d been smarter in shooting my bank robbery, I could have placed the same prop bus bench (with a distinctive ad on its back) in both the main locale and the phone booth location. Then we’d see the left half of the bench bleeding off screen right as the boy exited right. And we’d see the right half bleeding off left in the matching phone booth setup.
Editors depend on directors to supply the raw material for blending elements together. But there are also tricks that are pure postproduction. Aside from matched cutting and compositing, most of these tricks involve blending.
Color blending is the easiest technique. Footage from the factory, the alley and the wall are all shot with a neutral color balance. Now the editor imposes a faint greenish tint across all of them, partly to indicate that they take place within the "matrix," but partly to give them all the same look. (Science fiction films, from Blade Runner on, rely heavily on the use of color design to unify disparate elements.)
But the most powerful blender of all is audio. Present the ominous rumbling hum of the factory under the establishing shot and then roll it under every subsequent setup. Stitch locations together with split edits, in which the audio starts the new shot before the video or vice versa. By laying the screech of the baddies’ tires under our hero’s closeup, the editor establishes that their car is in the same place even before we see it. (If the director was on the ball, our Hero will look offscreen toward the tire sound.)
And deep down, under all the sound effects, the music is pulsing and jangling under every shot in the sequence, mainly for emotional reinforcement, but at least partly to help blend everything together.
Finally, it’s worth repeating that you shouldn’t linger on what you’ve doctored. Even the finest fakery will give itself away if the audience can study it long enough.