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Up in the Air Step by Step

Dec 23, 2009 12:00 PM, By Ellen Wolff

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Up in the Air step by step

The signature image from Paramount Pictures' Up in the Air shows actor George Clooney framed in an airport window, gazing out at the tarmac. The shot depicts a meditative moment that any airline traveler can relate to, but it also exemplifies how digital collage techniques can deliver the perfect frame that director Jason Reitman desired.

"I think people have gotten used to seeing perfect movies," says Visual Effects Supervisor Jamie Dixon of Los Angeles-based Hammerhead Productions, which handled the 90 visual effects shots for Up in the Air. "We don't have to put up with many compromises any more."

Reitman had captured the original plate photography on a clear day early in the production, but he later wanted the shot to work as an introspective moment during a snow-filled sequence. "He needed this exact footage because the action of George Clooney was perfect," Dixon says. In addition to adding signs of snowy weather to the scene, Hammerhead had to remove a number of elements in the plate photography that distracted from the mood Reitman wanted.

"In the original shot, there's a catering truck driving around and a giant airplane that lumbers through the background," Dixon says. "That's the reality of a busy working airport. They shot the best that they could get, and we tuned it in post to give them what they wished they could have shot."

Even though the camera isn't moving, the plate needed to be stabilized. "There's always gate weave—it's the nature of film running through a camera—so we had to take that out," Dixon says. A filter was then applied to seven stabilized frames to create a still image that had no film grain in it.

"We would apply our own film grain later to match the film grain in the plate," says Hammerhead co-supervisor Justin Jones.

Jones was Hammerhead's hands-on supervisor for this shot, and he used Apple Shake throughout the process. "We had to create a frame with no vehicles moving around," he says. "So we took slivers from around 10 other frames in the shot that didn't having anything moving in them, and then we pasted those together." Armed with this clean background, Jones rotoscoped the moving vehicles and pasted the clean image over where those vehicles used to be.

"Once we took out any movement, we noticed that there were some windows across the tarmac where you could see the reflections of the moving vehicles that we had removed," Jones says. "That wasn't apparent until there were no moving vehicles! So we also had to patch those out."

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