How it was done: Going Full Circle with motion control

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To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Digitas, UNIT9 and Envy Advertising recently created a powerful promo called Full Circle.

The ad is centred around the first black female astronaut, Mae Jemison, and promotes The John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum’s new interactive documentary app, JFK Moonshot.

Below, Jonathan Pearson, director at Unit9 and Bill Wright (head of motion graphics), Kieran Baxter (senior flame artist) and Greg White, MD, all at Envy Advertising, explain the processes they used to ensure a seamless viewing experience.


Explain your approach to the project and what you wanted to achieve?

JP: With both the 50-year anniversary of the moon landing and being one of the most celebrated aspects of JFK’s legacy, it was a real privilege to work on a script that carried such an historical weight. I’ve always been a bit of a space geek too, so this was very easy for me to like. The film features JFK’s famous ‘We choose…’ speech (effectively the official start of America's journey to the moon), along with footage of Apollo 11 lifting off - all huge historical moments both literally and thematically.

Yet the film takes place through the eyes of one person and is entirely set within that character’s living room. My approach was to create a film where you could feel the effect of this gigantic endeavour but on a very human, personal level - to kind of walk that tightrope between this massive historical significance and then what that was like for a young girl watching at home.

BW: Obviously, what we needed to achieve was led by Jonathan's vision, so getting the shoot right and having a good dialogue between Martin (Waller), Jonathan, myself and the rest of the crew was crucial. There's always a push-and-pull aspect to any job between the director's aims and what can be achieved in CG and compositing - the end result sits somewhere in between those two slightly divergent lines... Ultimately, we wanted to get as close as possible to the storyboard while adhering to a tight deadline without compromising the visuals.

GW: From working with Jonathan previously, we were familiar with his meticulous approach and brilliant eye for detail. We knew that every element of the project had to be carefully considered and respectful towards the final piece. The orbital move around three generations meant that casting and set design were a key consideration and rebuild was a major part of the environment and project itself. The motion-controlled ‘orbital’ move that allows for the transitions between the time periods was supervised by Martin Waller and Bill Wright, who were tasked with the scene extensions behind the TV and ensuring the details and ‘fittings’ were respectful of the art direction and unique period itself.


How did it work collaborating with the different teams?

JP: There were several challenges on this film, so close collaboration from the outset was essential. Firstly, because of logistical reasons, we shot in the UK rather than the US, meaning we had to cast an African American family here. Fortunately, London is an extremely diverse city with a sizeable Afro Caribbean population, but it still meant casting the net wide. The next challenge was getting the details of the set right. The first two periods featured in the film are 1962 and 1969, so the jump in time isn’t that big, but enough that things would evolve with our home. We did extensive research and then used that as a jumping off point with our production designer, Chris Lightburn-Jones, who started to bring all of those details to life.

The biggest challenge of all, however, was the technical aspect. The film’s title is Full Circle and featured one uninterrupted camera move from start to finish. I knew there were a number of ways to achieve this but the big question was ‘what does that camera feel like?’. For me, it was an orbit - something that plays directly into the themes of the film. The only way to achieve this precise and deliberate feel was to use motion control (MoCo).

But because the camera would see 360 degrees of our set, it meant the MoCo rig would eventually see itself. What followed was an extremely close collaboration between myself, my editor Toby Conway-Hughes and the team at Envy Advertising led by VFX supervisor Martin Waller. Countless conversations were had and revisions made to pre-visualisation until we had the move, timings and speeds as close as we possibly could to the set designs and rig that we’d be using on the day.

BW: In terms of our workflow here at Envy, it wasn't vastly different from many other projects. However, due to the MoCo element all renders had to work flawlessly together and every pass and render had to slot in seamlessly to the next.


What was the most technically challenging part of the project?

JP: The MoCo aspect was certainly the most challenging part of this film. The initial solution to the fact that the camera would see the entire set was to invert the MoCo rig and suspend it above the set so it would hang into it - its base being on the ceiling rather than the floor. But along with schedule constraints, it also meant that furniture would have had to have been placed in an extremely unnatural way (due to the size of the rig’s head) so this was ruled out.

The solution was to re-build the gap where the rig’s arm entered the set in CGI. This then meant shooting multiple passes on the day. And despite very precise planning and previs, MoCo is always time consuming and little challenges inevitably arise on the day. We had a very successful shoot, but the hurdles continued in post where we then had to essentially stick everything back together. Many late nights ensued as the team at Envy, primarily led by our amazing Flame Artist Kieran Baxter, refined the film and pored over the minute details.

BW: It was tricky and like a lot of jobs with a multitude of technical challenges to be worked out, it grew legs. However, it comes down to how well you deal with those secondary technical issues as they arise. We had a very small lead time on this considering what needed to be done, and we turned it around in 20 days. It was certainly one of the tightest jobs timewise that I've been involved with.

KB: Having worked on motion control jobs previously, I knew that planning and communication was key. With such a tight schedule, the team did a great job on set and captured everything we needed to make the visual effects process as seamless and possible, from tracking passes through to beautiful lens flare passes. MoCo is essentially a lot of the same takes, so having a great editor made the conform and shot distribution a breeze.


How close to your original vision is the final film? 

JP: Because of the technical nature of the film and rather elaborate camera work it meant extremely precise planning so it's damn close! I started out designing the move by using my kids’ Simpsons toys, doll furniture and a set built from a cardboard box and filmed it on a small camera taped to a chopstick (essentially, what would be the arm of the MoCo rig). That then went to a storyboard artist and from there into previs where we used the precise measurements of the set that was being constructed. We matched lenses in the computer and at the same time I put together pages of lighting references for my DP Gary Shaw. I always say a film is as good as the plan you put in place, but with this one it felt like even more was decided before we shot. That only ever meant that we’d end up very close to what I’d imagined.    

BW: For me, it certainly looks like and is respectful to Jonathan’s vision, and certainly what I envisioned it to look like in my mind after being given the brief. Moonshot was one of those rare jobs, perhaps due to the iconic subject matter, wherein the result is somehow more than the sum of its parts - it just has a little bit of magic in there.




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