White Label Land
By Jacob Dickey
Maverik’s branding is all about thrill, excitement, and customer satisfaction, but that doesn’t always mean mega giveaways and GoPro shots from extreme motor sports. Trumpeting the release of MTN DEW WHITE LABEL in Maverik Convenience Stores, the team at Catapult Impact and Maverik’s CREATE department conceived and produced a memorable high concept video that feature’s Maverik’s media spokesman, Nitro, as he discovers the mysterious and ethereal “White Label Land” hidden in the back reaches of a mysteriously foggy soft-drink cooler at a Maverik store. As the Director of Photography, Editor, and VFX artist with Catapult Impact, it was my job to translate and refine the initial concept from Maverk into a visual language and style that would inform our decisions when shooting.
Jeremy Mathews (Maverik writer/director) imagined Nitro stumbling through some mysterious fog in one of the Maverik store drink coolers, and then ending up in an ethereal endless white space inhabited by a yeti, and the White Queen (played by Jess Allington). That kind of endless white space can actually be much more difficult to achieve than one might expect–and even more so when the art direction calls for talent wearing all white, sitting on a pristine white couch with a white furry yeti, all while featuring a flat white soda can. A green/blue screen would have caused considerable color spill that would have increased our post production time just in keying, removing the color spill, and then trying to fix the resultant skin tones. On the other hand, overexposing the background for a pure white look would be very difficult to do without also blowing out reflections and highlights on the all-white art direction.
With that difficult task ahead of us, it became immediately apparent that we were going to need extremely specific lighting needs with perfect control of color, spread, and intensity with separation from background and foreground, and we would need cameras with enough dynamic range and color response to capture that separation from the overexposed background–but not so much dynamic range that we couldn’t easily clip the background. By far the most cost effective way (let alone the most convenient and stress free way) for us to achieve that was on the Express Stage at Redman Movies and Stories. I’ve used the space a number of times for green screen shoots or with a black backdrop, but it’s default setup is actually designed for endless white walls. We used two included Arri SkyPanels to light up the walls and had them flagged to block any top-lighting on Nitro and Jess, and then used the included Arri L7-C as a colored rim light, and a Nila Boxer with a four foot softbox as our key. I threw two additional 500w tungsten PARs into the side walls of the room because we were shooting fairly wide in many shots and that helped make sure that even the side walls remained clipped.
It was important that the background was clipped for this type of effect for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the idea was that we wanted to be able to play around with the placement of our actors and set pieces within a much larger imaginary space than what was possible to shoot in actual space. In the finished video, Nitro appears to be standing 20 or so feet away from Jess when in reality he was standing 3-5 feet away. Shooting on an 8 bit RGB format, red, green, and blue values max out at 255. Since that is the maximum brightness value able to be retained, anything lit brighter than that isn’t recorded in the video file, and is considered “clipped.” When you have a background that is completely clipped (either clipped at the black point with RGB values at 0 or at the white point with values of 255) it becomes much easier to move things around just using basic masking because you know you don’t have variability in the background which would show up as a gradient otherwise. In the few instances that I needed Nitro to move in front of a composited set piece, it also made it incredibly easy to simply identify the RGB values of 255 as the alpha layer to get a perfect key–even easier than getting a good looking green screen composite, but harder to shoot and set up without the right control of the light and dynamic range.
On set we had Braydon Ball (Maverik’s in-house photographer) as the camera operator so that I could focus on the lighting and staging. Our “A” camera was a Sony A7s II at 4k with a fast Zeiss Vario-Tessar 16-70mm, and our “B” camera was a Nikon D750 with a Nikkor 28-300mm FX. Both cameras have an exceptional working dynamic range and color reproduction even in their native h264 recording format, and both have similar high ISO with low noise options for lots of flexibility with everything lit almost entirely with LEDs. The whole system can be wirelessly controlled with an iPad, so we were able to sit down with Jeremy at our monitor and create the look and feel we wanted in just moments with full control over color temperature, tint, and intensity. While I’ve never shot anything quite like this on the Express Stage, I’m always impressed by the extreme versatility and convenience it provides, literally shaving hours off our shoot day while at the same time pushing the quality of our sound and captured images to their upper limits. Not even a week after shooting in there Bryan Clifton (Owner of Redman Movies and Stories) started playing with other lighting configurations to make it even easier to take advantage of that idea of white point background clipping as a “clean color” alternative to green screen compositing that requires spill suppression and resultant loss of skin tone color acuity, and I can’t wait to see where we can push the limits of live action composites from there.
Catapult Impact Producer Dave Wall, in addition to organizing the shoot and pre-planning, did an amazing job pulling double-duty as Art Director locating and securing the all-white props, set pieces, and costumes requested by Jeremy in a short period of time. His management of the shoot made it much easier for us to focus on doing our creative work, and having the Express Stage made it much easier for him to do his organizational work. This was one of those shoots where the team and resources really came together to be greater than the sum of our individual parts, and we ended up with a finished product that makes us all proud to say we had a hand in crafting it.