‘Big Time Adolescence’: indie filmmaking and clever VFX

Big Time Adolescene

The art of invisible split-screens, paint-outs, smoke additions and tattoo removal.

Here at befores & afters, you might mostly read about the visual effects in large blockbuster films and television shows. However there are, of course, a plethora of independent projects featuring intricate – but often invisible – VFX work.

One such project is Jason Orley’s Big Time Adolescence, which recently debuted on Hulu. The American High film, starring Pete Davidson and Griffin Gluck, tells the story of a teenager coming of age under the not-terribly-helpful guidance of his college dropout best friend.

While not a ‘VFX film’ in any regard, Big Time Adolescence still features a number of effects shots, including flying baseballs, split-screens and element removals and replacements – even individual leaf paint-outs. Behind that work was Shaina Holmes, who runs Ithaca, NY-based VFX studio Flying Turtle Post, while also teaching at Syracuse University and, formerly at, Ithaca College.

Relying principally on Blackmagic Design’s Fusion Studio, Holmes tackled the shots on the film with the help of a crew that includes mentees in her own post production mentorship program from the Ithaca area. Holmes talked to befores & afters about the approach to Big Time Adolescence’s VFX work, including the realities of making an indie film and just getting shots done.

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But first, take some time to check out the individual invisible effects shots in this reel.

b&a: How did you come to be working on this film?

Shaina Holmes: This is the fourth or fifth project that American High was working on in their first year in business. Every couple of months they would shoot the next one. I’ve been involved with all of them. I would roll off of bidding one project to be actually doing shots and then for the next one I would be in pre-production.

During production, I’d be getting calls from the set, things like, ‘Hey, we’re shooting it like this. Is that okay?’ Or, ‘Sorry, we shot it like that already…’. I was constantly in contact with them, but because of budgetary reasons, I couldn’t be there on set all the time. Plus I have my full time day job teaching visual effects. But whatever they needed me to do, I would try to accommodate it.

So in some ways, I was a remote on-set supervisor for a lot of it. The post supervisor would call me up and say, ‘They’re shooting this today and I don’t think it’s the way we planned. So what do you think?’ And then I’d just have to make a decision right on the phone with them, and I suffer the consequences. If pick the wrong approach, then I have to do the work to fix it.

Shaina Holmes
Shaina Holmes.

b&a: I think you use principally use Fusion for your visual effects work. How did you use it for Big Time Adolescence and in teaching?

Shaina Holmes: I’ve been using Fusion since 2001. Fusion has been a really good option on all levels. Not only was it cost effective for my company, but I can also train students on the free version in class. I try to teach concepts and that you should be able to cross into any platform and still create the same effects.

b&a: In terms of the workflow for the effects in Big Time Adolescence, how did things move from editorial to you? Did they do any mock-ups of the VFX shots they needed?

Shaina Holmes: Well, there were a number of split-screens where the editors would cut out out dialogue that someone is saying and do a fluid morph between the cuts. Then we’d need to paint out all the artifacts and make it seem like nothing ever happened, as if this is how the camera captured it. It’s a huge trend.

You’re trying to create frames that don’t exist. They’re usually trying to cut out something when there’s a big action happening. You might have an arm coming down and then cutting out any frames will take that motion away. So, you have to think, where do you get it back from? I might take an arm from one frame and a finger from a different frame – it’s all about Frankensteining something together. We didn’t have to do too much on this project, but others have been heavily using that technique.

b&a: One shot seemed to involve the removal of a whole bunch of leaves on the ground from the plate – how did you handle that?

Shaina Holmes: With that one, they were like, ‘We forgot to sweep…’. That was the last shot I got. The whole edit was done and they sent me that after the test screening. It was supposed to be summer so they asked if I could add some more summer trees and get rid of all the leaves. I thought to myself, ‘With what ground?’ I painted every single leaf out with the clone tool in Fusion.

b&a: There’s another shot where the inside of the car needed to be smoked up a lot more. Was that with smoke elements?

Shaina Holmes: We usually we try to create our own stock elements, especially for smoke because they usually need to have so much interactivity with the actors and their gestures. For that shot, we were able to use a lot of different layers of atmospheric smoke that we already had. We roto’d out each plane of the car to create depth – objects in front of the actors, behind the back seat and behind the actors.

We had to create something that looked a bit more unique and felt like it was getting denser throughout the entire scene. Some shots had a little bit of practical smoke in it and it was too heavy, so we had to try to reduce some of that.

b&a: How were cell phone screens approached?

Shaina Holmes: All these movies that they’re doing with American High are based around high school. So what’s the main form of communication between high school students? It’s cell phones. So we came up with the idea that production would hire an on-set graphics person so that, even if they couldn’t be supplied during the shoot, they would at least be creating the graphics so we could get a base for what they wanted.

Certainly things come up in editorial that they can’t predict. But for the most part, a lot of the phones and screens we could get done practically and just make minor modifications in VFX instead of having to do 50 phone comps – that would be way more than the budget.

b&a: Then there’s the baseball shot where you added in a CG ball. Can you break that down?

Shaina Holmes: For that shot, they called me after the shoot and said the baseball pitching machine was too loud so they didn’t have it on throughout the shoot. And then at the end of the shoot, they didn’t get a chance to shoot the element plates.

They were going to hire a second unit to get all the shots they needed at the end of the main unit shoot. That happened but they still didn’t get a chance to shoot the baseballs, and I didn’t know that until I got the shot to work on.

That was in December, in the middle of winter in Syracuse. And it was freezing with snow and ice and everything on the ground. I talked to the post supervisor and I said, ‘Hey, can we just go rent a camera, you and I, and just go shoot it?’ And she said, ‘Okay.’

“I might take an arm from one frame and a finger from a different frame – it’s all about Frankensteining something together.”

So we got a camera, got some shovels, got my computer out and looked at the footage that we had and set up the camera in the same or as close to the same position as we could. We got the shake for the backboard that we needed when the ball has contact with it, as one element. Then I had my coordinator with me, so I had him throw the ball imagining he was the pitching machine so we could see how it reacted in the environment and how it would bounce after hitting the backboard on the ground and roll up off screen.

Now, we couldn’t use that footage itself because it was a completely different camera and lens, as well as being such a different time of year that it would just be so much more work to do that as a practical element to roto back in. So CG was actually the better option for this. We had to create a couple of ball animations that were hit with different trajectories and then a couple that were swings and misses.

b&a: One of the shots that was seamless looked to be covering up Pete Davidson’s tattoo. How did that come about?

Shaina Holmes: In that particular shot, he was supposed to be younger. It’s showing him growing up, so he didn’t have as many tattoos then. I think when they shot it they didn’t realize that his shirt was coming up in that scene. I believe that came up in editorial and they flagged it there.

First we tried to create some skin texture and graft it onto that area. But there were a number of shadows and his wrist was moving a lot that it always felt like there was still a hint of a tattoo there. So it was really difficult to balance removing it and keeping skin texture there without doing something more expensive like a CG arm.

In the end I made a decision that, well, if we can’t remove it, we’re going to cover it. So I decided to extend his sleeve and the client liked that idea so much better. It was basically about coming up with a solution that worked for everyone, but also something that was more attainable for the time and the budget that we had.

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