'An American Girl: McKenna Shoots for the Stars' VFX

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'An American Girl: McKenna Shoots for the Stars' VFX
Magical Text
Wire Removal
Panty Lines
Bulletin Board
Time Lapse
All Pages

American Girl VFX


Visual Effects: Feature Film

Universal Studios/ NBC/ Mattel


Finally, the world can know the words: "An American Girl: McKenna Shoots for the Stars", The latest movie inspired by everyone's favorite collections of dolls. Apart from the title design, I was also brought on board to do a large part of the visual effects.


Though the live action film is a very down to earth story of a little girl living in Seattle, Washington, there was just enough need for movie magic to keep me busy. From designing and animating magical text, to removing wires and correcting wardrobe malfunctions. These little bits of movie magic literally had me incorporating every trick of the trade that I had to make sure the end product was as seamless as the producers needed the film to be.







Because my background is primarily motion graphics and animation, the original sequence I was brought on board to tackle was of magical text flying through the air.


Within the story, our character isn't as focused a reader as she should be, and we had to figure out how to make her struggle visually interesting. The idea was to have her reading, and using a POV, we get into her head and see how the words would literally glow, lift off the page, and dissolve in puffs of smoke around her.


To execute this effect, the art department made prop books and binders with blank pages. They were filmed at various angles and focal lengths, and the best shots were put together for me to add all the text to. Since all the text being shown on the pages was entirely digitally created, we were able to select which words and phrases we would like to effect as we pleased.


Of course that didn't always work out as planned. For example, one of the shots we wanted to use for a close up of a page was of a different book. If you check out the still images on this page, you'll see the similar shot used for two different books, where I not only changed the book cover to match shots, but even added sparkling fingernail polish to her thumb, since she had to be wearing that in the scene!









Some of the most difficult effects are what appear to be simple. This is the case of wire removal shots. The idea is that in production something needs to move on screen by an unseen hand. That is when 'wire' is used to essentially puppet a normally inanimate object from off screen.


There are certain techniques which are used when shooting to make the wire as invisible as possible as it's being filmed, so that extra work won't have to be done in post production to 'remove' it from the shots. This is in deciding to use monofilament, black thread or white thread in relation to the lighting and the background. Or using as little wire as possible, or dressing the wire behind set objects to hide the length and origin. All of these are basic techniques to make life more simple and none of these techniques were used when filming this movie.


Now, to understand the complexity of problems that occur with wires in the shot, it is important to note that in all shots, the camera and/or the wire is moving. This means that you cannot just paint out a simple straight line because it has to match from frame to frame, 24 frames per second, and any little hiccup in the grain pattern or background texture in even one single frame is going to draw your attention. This means that very large sections of background have to be fabricated, motion tracked, and matted for the entire length of the shot, even if the wire is only visible for a few frames. Then there is how the wires effect light and even cast shadows. All of that needs to be corrected as well.


The best example of complexity was the original wide shot that included 4 different wires (why the hell were there 4 different instances of wires? I AM SERIOUSLY ASKING THIS!), moving horses in front of, and behind the wires. Moving tracking shot with out of focus foreground matting, and varying instances of background depth that eliminated the possibility of consistent tracking in different parts of the frame. This took my entire bag of tricks even down to hand rotoscoping the distant horse's hooves to remove the wire in front of them, frame by frame.


Cry me a river.









Since the movie is about gymnastics, there are a lot of specialized talents involved on-screen and one of the most significant is the incredible athleticism of the gymnasts themselves.


In one particular scene, because of a wardrobe conundrum, one of our gymnasts was wearing a body stocking under her unitard. This not only created wrinkles, but also visibly poked out from under the uniform. Unacceptable! Well, if we can remove wires, why the hell not panty lines too?


So frame by frame we go, and smooth out those wrinkles, extend some skin here or some unitard there (and even the stray foreign shadow thing on set) and at the end of the day we have a very well coifed competitive gymnast looking her best!









Sometimes visual effects are not used to correct anything, but to actually change the content on the screen. In this case our McKenna is taking a test, and as the scene was cut together, it was decided that higher numbers needed to be added to the test to make it feel a bit more dramatic and overwhelming.


Luckily it was only a few shots, and each was very short. The first was in changing the number '3' to an '8'. As Vince Marcello, the director pointed out 'can't we just flip that 3 over to make it an 8?'. I thought that was a great idea, and that's what we did. With a bunch of motion tracking and color blending to make it match the paper.


The real difficulty was in making our '4' into a '14'. As simple as it seems, it was different from the '8' effect as I didn't have anything on-screen to create the number '1' from. So the challenge started at fabricating a number '1' with the correct texture and color, but then had to exist in 3D space, within a shallow depth of field, with a rack focus, color shifts, foreground objects blurring and effecting the element, and then tracking it on a piece of paper that is not consistently moving, as it is a page the is rolling and buckling.


Luckily it was very short.










This was an odd but important visual effects correction that dealt with performance. In the shot, we have one character speaking to a second character. The speaker in the foreground hits her performance beats perfectly, but then we notice that in this otherwise perfect take, our background character gets distracted by something off screen and her eyes dart away, distracting us!


If that's the best take for performance, then that is what you have to go with. Luckily, as we see here, we can tweak things and make her eyes do what we want with them.









This is another interesting content changing effect. For various reasons, sometimes props have to be added or changed in post to correctly portray specific information that wasn't available on the day it was shot. In this case we needed to add a flier to a bulletin board with specific information on it.


First off, I design a flier with a custom logo and bring together the proper information so it recreates the look and feel of a similar flier in a real-world situation.


Once approved, the next step is to create the final version for the shot. This is done just like if we were shooting it in real life -- print it out on a piece of paper! From there I re-scan it into the computer and with it the texture of the paper and the way the ink interacts with the paper itself. It's all very subtle, but important. We don't want it looking fake.


Next we fit it into the shot. You'll notice that the scale is actually way off. Adding an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper to the board with scale that matches the focal length would turn everything out of proportion, so I frame it so that it's covering up tell-tale scale references like the blue plastic clip. You'll also notice that there is a very shallow depth o field working against us manipulating the paper star in the foreground. The easy choice is to frame our page behind it and make the depth of field work for us by turning the foreground star into a compositional depth-cue.


Lastly I polish it with a slight grade to add some accurate light variation and play with the focal plane hitting our page to integrate it into the scene better. in this quick shot, no one will ever be the wiser.







These couple of shots are actual time lapse shots that are then manipulated further to depict what we need.


In our first shot, we wanted the skyline of Seattle to appear to lapse over the course of an entire night. The original footage never went very dark, so some day-for-night color correction was added, with smooth transitions in and out of it. The big problem, then, is that the buildings need lights. And not only do they need lights, but they need to change over time, as if it were over the course of an entire night into morning! So, yes, every single individual light was drawn into the buildings, and then were turned on and off to make it look random and natural as if people were selectively bustling through the city while it sleeps. Adding a final camera move to the shot helps marry the imagery all together.


The second shot is more static, and properly color timed, but we needed to add the menace of a storm coming through. In the foreground I added rain gradually increasing in intensity and in the background added a subtle but important lighting strike to punctuate our tension. With a thunder clap added in sound design, the shot will be complete.