The meta video bluescreen scene in ‘Wag the Dog’

On the film’s 25th anniversary, find out how they made that ‘Wag the Dog’ scene with Kirsten Dunst.

UPDATE: Now available on Amazon.

Inside issue #3 of befores & afters magazine is a feature story about ‘meta’ moments in visual effects. These are times I identified in films when characters appear to be utilizing visual effects, CG or animation hardware or software, but really aren’t, while sometimes actual visual effects trickery is required to both make it seem as if the characters are using that particular tool, and to actually pull off the resulting imagery.

Here’s some examples: scenes like the scanning scene featuring Susan Dey in Looker, another scanning moment involving the appearance of Robin Wright inside an actual USC ICT Light Stage in The Congress, the fake editing of stand-ins involving Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in The Running Man, the bluescreen Albanian ‘fake war’ shots of Kirsten Dunst and some potato chips in Wag the Dog, and the pretend 3D software interfaces made for Bloodshot.

Here’s a special preview of the magazine article with an excerpt that looks at the fake Wag the Dog scene, which is now celebrating its 25th anniversary. Hope you enjoy!

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From deep fakes to fake news. We all know now that the manipulation of imagery and video is possible with modern visual effects tools, and that it can, thanks in part to real-time rendering and game engines, now happen largely in real-time. It was in Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog (1997)—made at a time prior to the advent of these real-time tools—where not only were these fake news possibilities humorously exemplified, but also with somewhat of a foreshadowing of how they might even occur, technically.

In the film, a war in Albania is fabricated by a Hollywood producer (played by Dustin Hoffman) in order to distract voters from a U.S. presidential sex scandal. This even includes the creation of fake footage of an Albanian village war zone sequence aimed at generating sympathy around an orphan played by Kirsten Dunst. The footage is shown being filmed on a bluescreen stage, with several layers of details manipulated in a studio control room, even down to the ‘live’ replacement of potato chips being carried by the orphan with a kitten.

So, once again, there was a requirement to show firstly the video manipulations themselves, as well as the ‘behind the scenes’ of the characters pretending to be behind those actual manipulations in the control room, which effectively meant revealing on monitors how imagery could be pushed and pulled around and how live composites of the bluescreen plate shoot could switch to final Albania village environments. Behind that VFX and 24-frame playback work was E=mc², Inc., led by CEO Rob Morgenroth, who notes the major challenges at the time of dealing with TV screens in films.

“Back then, it was a very big deal to rig the television monitors for that sequence. It took about a week to prepare the equipment. Remember, the screens were CRTs, not LEDs, so 24 frame synchronized camera-to-monitor electronic slaving was required. We were running all the video at 24.07 or so FPS, and all the monitors had to be adjusted to 655 line/48 hz, and we had to hide literally thousands of feet of cable behind the monitors to the 24 frame modified video 3/4″ playback decks.”

Add to that challenge the need to run all this imagery live while actors mimed pointing to it or operating the ‘gear’. Morgenroth notes, in fact, that “the toughest thing then, probably, as it is now, is timing an actor’s activity, i.e. pointing at a screen and it comes up to precisely the right content at precisely the right time, to electronic delivery so that it is captured on media correctly as envisioned by the director.”

The most talked about moment in that fake Albanian village sequence is the aforementioned chips-for-the-kitten shot. The shot itself was pre-done before the shoot, as Morgenroth explains.

“We had the ‘unknown’ actress (this was pre-Spider-Man) hold the chips, shoot her on video, be physically still while we replaced the chips with the kitten, and resumed shooting video. We used each shot as elements in still frame, and used a switcher in post to fade between the two shots. Then we saved the edited video, converted it into 655/24 frame video, and played it back on set. Again, try to imagine timing the actors so that they would point to the monitor at the right time, because the video was rolling—it couldn’t be slowed down or sped up to match. Today it is much simpler with digital content, digital playback, and live switching. But the problem today is that shots like the ones we did then are too simplistic and much more complex effects are requested.”

Feature image: Kirsten Dunst and Dustin Hoffman on the bluescreen set for the fake Albanian war scene in Wag the Dog. (Copyright © 2017 New Line Cinema. Source: Alamy)

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