Visual aesthetics ride the roller coaster journey of trends. Currently the process of making video look like miniature toys is a popular look, and why not? Called tilt-shift photography, this stylized look takes real world footage and turns it into a visual toy box. Expansive landscapes and steel behemoths are rendered to tabletop playthings; a world in the palm of your hand. Video builds on this photographic illusion, changing real-time motion into a false staccato of stop motion animation. The popularity of the tilt-shift look is in part due to the accessibility of 35mm lenses, the ability of DSLR cameras to shoot video and the software capabilities of editors to simulate the look in post-production. This article is about the latter: how to create the tilt-shift look in post. It’s a process that can be done in most editing software and visual effects packages. With a little bit of effort, the virtual effect can be hard to discern from the practical tilt-shift image.
Tilt-shift photography derives its name from the tilt-shift lens, a lens which has two unique movements: tilt and shift. In creating the miniaturized look it’s important to understand tilt. A tilt lens is able to rotate the lens, or tilt it, in relation to the camera body and image sensor, causing objects that are at varying distances from the camera to fall into focus. Objects that fall outside of the narrow band of focus fall off in a lens blur.
There are obstacles in trying to make true tilt-shift video footage. A tilt-shift lens can be expensive to purchase. There’s also a learning curve in using the lens properly to achieve the desired outcome. In order to create a realistic miniature look with a tilt-shift lens it’s best to shoot from a distance, over a wide range, with a close foreground and distant background, and with the camera positioned at a high angle. Finding such a location with an interesting subject and gaining access to shooting rights can be tricky. This is why the post-production process of creating this look is at a great advantage. This leads to the first step in simulating the miniaturized tilt-shift look.
The many websites that allow the user to download stock footage or offer a video sharing service make great content available to anyone who wants to find it. The best footage to use for this technique is wide-angle scenes that are shot from a distance, preferably from a height, looking down on the subject matter.
Make sure that there is a notable amount of z space – the distance between the foreground and the background. Picture the ground, or floor surface, of the image as being a flat geometric plane that stretches off into the distance. The image is helped in this technique by having a good number of objects lying across the range of the z space plane. At the same time, if these objects extend vertically through the image they can prove to be troublesome, requiring a greater amount of detail in matting them out. Footage that contains moving objects helps to sell the effect, as time is manipulated to make it look like the shot was created using stop motion animation.
Setting Up the Project
This article will reference Adobe After Effects because its toolsets are easily accessible for this technique. It should be noted this same technique can be completed or slightly modified to work in most editing applications.
Once the footage is selected, place it in a new composition by itself. Select the footage and in the menu bar go to Layer>Time>Time Stretch, then in the pop-up window enter 50 percent for the Stretch Factor. This will speed up the footage to playback at twice its normal speed, cutting its duration in half. In the timeline, adjust the work area to cover only the new duration of the clip. Select the clip and in the menu go to Effects>Time>Posterize Time. In the Effect Controls panel adjust the Frame Rate in the Posterize Time effect to four frames per second. The playback of the clip should appear to be sped up and stuttering, as if it were a series of still images brought to life.
Masking the Subject
Double this clip up so there are two copies of it, one on top of the other in the timeline. With the top clip selected, use the rectangular mask tool to draw a long narrow mask that intersects the image. Reveal the properties in the timeline by typing M on the keyboard with the layer selected. Change the mask mode from add to subtract and type F on the keyboard to reveal the Mask Feather property; set this to approximately 50. The mask feather will need adjustment after more effects are applied to improve the composite. Adding a subtractive mask to the top piece of footage “pokes a hole” through it, meaning any effect applied to the top piece will be seen outside of the mask but the area inside the mask will reveal the footage below.
Blurring the Image
Select the top clip and in the menu bar go to Effect>Blur & Sharpen>Camera Lens Blur. In the Effect Controls panel set the radius to nine. Again, this is a property that will need adjustment contingent on the footage being used. Make any adjustments to the Camera Lens Blur at this time, taking note of the changes to the image in the Composition panel. After the blur is set, select the mask on the top layer, make adjustments to its position, and feather, so it blends in well with the bottom non-blurred layer, framing the subject to help it stand out.
The bottom layer, the layer in focus, needs adjusting to help it appear as a miniature. Select it and in the menu bar select Effect>Blur & Sharpen>Sharpen. In the Effect Controls panel, adjust the Sharpen Amount under the Sharpen effect to about three or four.
Finishing the Effect
In order to finish the effect, the overall look needs to be tweaked. Create hyper-real colors by increasing the saturation and introducing more contrast to the overall image. Some of the details will bleed into one another but not deteriorate the image. This can be achieved by using an adjustment layer. Adjustment layers influence all layers below them. By placing an effect on an adjustment layer, the effect is applied to all underlying layers. Add an adjustment layer by going to the menu bar and selecting Layer>New>Adjustment Layer. A new adjustment layer will appear as the top layer in the timeline. Select the adjustment layer and in the menu bar go to Effect>Color Correction>Hue/Saturation.
In the Effects panel increase the Saturation property to 20. This isn’t a number set in stone. The amount a clip’s saturation is boosted is contingent on the footage used and the desired outcome. The goal is to make the subject of the clip appear to be a toy, not a full-size object. The boosted saturation lends itself to this illusion by taking it out of a real world color range. With the adjustment layer still selected, go to the menu bar and select Effect>Color Correction>Curves. In the Effect Control panel adjust the Curves filter with an S curve. Slightly raise the high values, gently lower the darker values, and try to keep the mid-range about the same. This will stretch the dynamic range of the image and increase its contrast. At this point the composite is ready to prepare for the final render; it’s important to look over everything and fine tune any parameters that are in need of adjusting. If the composite looks good, render a file into the desired format.
The miniaturized tilt-shift look is fairly popular and it’s fun to play with. The great thing about simulating this look in post is it gives the editor the creative freedom to explore different variations on the look. Any style is an aesthetic choice; giving the editor the ability to create what they believe is the right look. Such creative decisions are an opportunity to sit down in the edit bay, play with the toys and have fun.
The best way to get a feel for the miniaturized toy look of tilt-shift is to watch some great examples. Fortunately, the video sharing sites of the Internet are home to the best examples there are. Here are some particularly well-known short films utilizing this technique.
• One of the most critically acclaimed is the short film “The Sandpit.” It gives a day in the life of New York City and is visually breathtaking.
• There is no place on Earth as magical as Disney’s Magic Kingdom. For decades, their engineers and artists have wowed audiences with model making and incredible attention to detail. In A Model Day at Magic Kingdom you’d think they built it all with their skilled hands. This time, it’s the real thing.
• A display of the finest miniaturized-toy-look short films wouldn’t be complete without some cars rolling around a dirt track and crashing into each other. Add in a robotic dragon and you have a great toy box with Metal Heart.