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switchback drop

Whistler, B.C.-based Switchback Entertainment is always pushing the envelope in their production of rad ski videos they’ve been making for Salomon. Last year, I blogged their video featuring Tron-style EL-wire-embellished skiers ripping it up in the moonlight. Their newest video mixes fire and ice, creating the illusion of skiers slashing through a newly burnt forest. It’s so visually engaging, I just had to ask how they did it. Here’s what Switchback’s Jeff Thomas, who directed, filmed, and edited The Burn, said:

When you see “action sport” type films, shorts, and edits, you don’t typically think of visual effects. We have seen a few videos using VFX but it’s not as common as major motion pictures and television. However, we felt for this episode some VFX would be able to drive home a feeling and an idea that wouldn’t be possible without them. Our goal with “The Burn” was to create an episode that could merge action, artistic filmmaking, and reality. Over the last year I had skied through a bunch of “burn zones” and always had this feeling that the forest was not totally dead and that it was still kind of watching you. So that’s where the idea was born — a four-season cycle of a forest fire and how it was never totally dead, just evolving.

switchback log

We have been asked over and over again whether the snowy forest was actually on fire, were the trees really smoking/steaming, and if there are actual embers coming out of the snow. As cool and scary as that sounds, no, there were not. Luckily, we have Blair Richmond, who works for Switchback Entertainment and who has worked as a VFX artist on some major motion pictures and projects, so we were able to capture the idea of “keeping the forest alive” through the use of his expertise. We thought if we were able to pull it off in a non-cheesy way it would achieve a cool effect and really drive home the idea that the forest was just evolving.

Throughout the filming of the ski and snow scenes, we always tried to picture the shots as if they were still smoldering and we framed up the most charred trees that we could find. We wanted it to also feel like the forest was watching the skiers and that they were merely just passing through its realm. Once we had all the footage and I had the rough edit done, we started figuring out if adding VFX still would be cool. Blair had some VFX elements, and we filmed some additional fire/smoke elements, and he started adding the smoldering/embering effect to the images. Blair used The Foundry’s Nuke to track, animate, and composite all the fire, smoke, etc., elements into the shots. He also used it to retime and key the plant timelapse at the end of the film. He used Adobe After Effects and Autodesk Maya to do some particle work to customize the embers and smoke/steam effects.

switchback tree

It was a loooooong process. We would go shot by shot, talking about what each shot needed to keep the edit flowing and as fresh as possible. He would track each shot, animate the embers, and ember by ember add them into the charcoaled forest, plus anything else that I would randomly throw his way. Through the edit we also added things like embers popping out of the snow and fire reflecting in icicles just to keep things moving and drive the theme/narration home. I also used the programs Color and Magic Bullet to remove certain colors from the images to only have the warm colors (orange, red, and yellow) present when there was snow involved.

switchback forest

Also, we have been asked about some of the aerial footage and how close we were able to get to those smoldering trees. Those shots were filmed using a remote controlled helicopter (about 3 feet wide), a light, small rig that was able to float right above the tree tops and up and down the trees we wanted. A lot cheaper than the real thing!

The R/C helicopter was custom built from the ground up by our good friends here in Whistler, Heli Video Pros. It utilized CNC-cut parts and custom motors, blades, and speed controllers. It was built to lift DSLRs up to the 5D. Flight times ranged from 5 to 10 minutes depending on the weather (batteries were affected by the cold and the altitude or air density). It was flown in manual mode. The heli is approximately 3ft by 3ft, made to be specifically small and portable to fit in the Pelican case in a RTF (ready to fly configuration). The team consists of two people: a pilot and gimbal op. We sent a wireless live video feed to video goggles using a 5.8Ghz downlink.

switchback fire

Other than the heli footage, the whole thing was filmed on Canon DSLR, mainly the Canon 7D. We typically use the Sony FS700s now but still find the 7Ds a handy tool.

At the end of the video we wanted to drive home that over time after the snow melts the forest does begin to regrow. So Blair added steam to the snow melt and we timelapsed a little bean plant growing in front of a blue screen in our office, and he comped that right into the burn forest. At the beginning of the video we wanted to have a lightning strike to begin the fire sequence. Well, we couldn’t get a good one on film so we filmed some stormy clouds by our office one morning and Blair took a photo of a lightning strike, animated it, and we had our simple lightning strike.

A lot of what was accomplished in regards to the VFX was just problem-solving and trial and error. How do we accomplish what we wanted was often as simple as doing it ourselves and building it at our office. We are not a big crew (3 guys), so we really do build and do it ourselves. We never planned to try and fool people, but we wanted to make something that was visual and gave the illusion that we wanted in a non-cheesy sort of way.

And, it doesn’t hurt having a guy that sounds like a wise Optimus Prime being your narrator.

Goli Mohammadi

I’m a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

I was an editor for the first 40 volumes of MAKE. The maker movement provides me with endless inspiration, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. Covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made.

Contact me at snowgoli (at) gmail (dot) com.


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