05 Jun 2010

Making of the Penn & Teller Exit Gag

For the 12th episode of Captain Disillusion, which covered The Amazing Meeting 6, held in Las Vegas, I wanted to create a very special exit gag. The magician duo Penn & Teller are synonymous with TAM, and while I knew it wouldn’t be feasible to get them to appear in the episode, I wanted to figure out a way to do it anyway.

The solution was to use the stylized nature of CD’s world and FAKE it. So I impersonated both Penn & Teller as CD-style characters in a composite special effect shot. But the illusion wouldn’t be complete without Penn’s inimitable voice. Luckily, the great James Randi was able to arrange for Penn to record it especially for me and it’s a favor I am very grateful for.

Here’s how it all went down:

Audio Recording

We agreed to record over a Skype voice connection. Skype is a great way to communicate and we use it at Openfilm 24/7 (and no, they’re not paying me to say that). I set up my computer in such a way that I could record Penn’s incoming audio in high quality, on a separate track, isolated from my own microphone, into Cubase (which is an audio program similar to ProTools).

Penn was very gracious and professional (well, aside from making fun of my character makeup). He did about 6-8 takes of the line in a variety of ways. I then went through the takes and created a “perfect take” by combining sections of the best readings. Also, anticipating that I would have to lipsync to this audio on camera, I added short beeps, like a countdown to cue myself when to start talking. This is the same technique used in ADR.So the on-set audio of Penn sounded like this:

“BEEP BEEP BEEP Remember, kids: love with your heart, but use your head for everything else. (pause) BEEP BEEP BEEP Oh! Uh… Captain Disillusion!”

Filming

Because I decided to do the entire episode in HD, I had to make sure the P&T performance was filmed in the highest possible quality because it involved green screen compositing. So while the normal parts of the show were captured in 1280×720, the P&T foreground material was filmed in full-blown 1920×1080.

One Saturday, Enrique and I came to our soundstage where we have a medium-sized green screen backdrop always on standby. It was tricky to set up the camera angle and lighting because the background plate for the shot (the red room with CD in the center) did not exist yet. I had to “eyeball” it.

We first did Teller’s side. Neither Enrique nor I knew how to properly tie a tie, but luckily, someone at the studio helped out with that. I wore different gloves for Teller that made it *slightly* easier to do the card sleight. I also had to use jumbo playing cards (which I picked up at Walgreens). I couldn’t recreate the look of Teller’s high hair line short of shaving my head and, in retrospect, I didn’t quite nail the facial expression. But it works. We did a few takes and after I was happy we paused so that I could remake myself into looking like stage Penn.

I wore some extra layers of clothes to bulk myself up and used a liberal amount of extra hold hair gel to slick my hair back and make it appear that it’s in a ponytail. During both setups, Enrique played back the Penn audio as a reference, much like in a music video (but without a posse of hot girls grinding on me, sigh…).

With Enrique’s help, I got through everything in about 4 hours. We finished right on schedule (yes, I made up a schedule, ‘cause that’s what filmmakers do) and went over to get some delicious slices at Steve’s Pizza, across the street from Greenwich Studios.

Post-production

After picking the best take for both Penn and Teller sides, I superimposed them roughly on the Avid to see if it all works together. By making the Penn image proportionally larger, the illusion of the two characters together seemed to work well. I then exported the shots to After Effects where the actual compositing was done.

Working with 1080 footage is not fun. It’s a constant tug of war with the computer’s processor. But I managed to key the images really well, removing the green and creating a ready-to-superimpose image. One challenge was removing a couple of reference markers that were accidentally left on the green screen from a previous shoot.

I noticed that the timing of “Teller” throwing the card created an opportunity for another joke: I could have the card tumble through the air and smack Captain Disillusion in the face. And so, using the audio again as a reference, I noted when the hit would occur and made sure to mime getting hit during main production, when filming the background plate.

Once that was in the can, I was finally able to put all the elements together. This part was relatively straightforward. After a cleanup job on the edges of the set, (the shot to accommodate P&T had to be pretty wide) I put the foreground characters in.

Original background plate

Cleaned-up background

Final composite

The last step was to take care of a million little details like animating the wall debris, the card hitting CD (which was done by making a scan of both sides of the actual card into a 3D layer in After Effects), matching the lighting, adding grain and of course adding Mr. Flare glowing in the back and animating him dimming out whenever “Penn’s” hand covers him.

It might seem like a crazy effort for a little exit gag, but I think it was worth it. The shot fit the style of the episode and made an impression on many viewers. Ironically, it seems like 30% of people thought that actual Penn & Teller made an appearance on Captain Disillusion, which only tells me that CD’s job is far from done!