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Todd Jacobsen Iron Man

  • Client: Self

  • Work Performed: Motion Graphics (Photoshop, After Effects), Sound Editing

  • Project Date: 2009

Usually when I have some professional downtime, I like to try to push myself to learn something new. Every artist knows the old story: “Do what you can to keep the creative mind fresh and sharp.” The thing that makes this easier for me? Nothing more than the simple urge to reduce the amount of everyday paranoia (e.g., keeping a roof over my head and food in my stomach) that threatens to rot my brain when I’m between projects. These two exercises — “Iron Man” and “Smoke Signals” — were born of a desire to learn more about motion graphics and expand my horizons in Adobe After Effects. And I’ve always been fascinated by DVD menus, especially the more successful ones that encapsulate the movie into an exciting teaser “commercial” that doesn’t give everything away and ultimately makes the viewer want to get lost in all the features the DVD has to offer. So back in early 2009 I picked two movies, kept them as different as possible (one was a blockbuster “popcorn” movie, the other a thoughtful independent film) and set about to create my own little commercials. I purposely gave myself no more than three 8-hour days per project to quickly prove these concepts “start-to-finish,” keeping the processes loose enough to be somewhat happy with the results. I wasn’t too concerned with conventional DVD menu screen resolution or specs, or length, or super-tight audio/visual editing, or anything else like that. The idea was simply to throw some ideas against a wall, see which ones stuck, and maybe learn a trick or two in the process.

I should also quickly note that both projects were executed completely on my trusty 2002 Dell Inspiron 8600 laptop. A couple of weeks after completion of these exercises, the laptop’s hard drive bit the dust and all the source materials from these projects — and everything else for that matter — were lost forever. The only things that survived from this period were the highly compressed test .mp4s I’d rendered after each project’s end, which I’d luckily transferred to a thumb drive a few days before the crash. (Whew.) So my apologies for that part of the output of these pieces.

So on to the project(s)…

I found an unedited section of one of the main themes from “Iron Man” to be a really exciting piece of music with its time changes and pulsing metal guitar/orchestra arrangement, and thought from 01:10 to 02:37 of this track would be a great jumping-off point.

And in wanting to pay homage to the film’s comic book roots, I came up with the concept of having individual comic panels morphing into movie clips. But the biggest part of the challenge was finding action-packed clips from the film that didn’t have another piece of music behind them. Fortunately, there happened to be four or five that fit the bill.

Then came the fun part…trying to find places for them! After a bit of trial and error, I accidentally happened on to a spot for one clip in particular (the scene where Tony Stark uses his lasers to smash the glass in his workshop) and everything else seemed to fall right into place. It began to feel like there was an already-established rhythm within the clips I chose, one that seemed to sync nicely with certain parts of the track, and the idea that each clip’s sound effects and dialogue could be used as a metronome of sorts felt like serendipity. I decided to expand on the concept a bit more by having the morphing comic book motif and the music work as closely together as possible, so better to emphasize the shifting rhythms of this great piece of music.

Once I found where all the clips needed to go, and placed them roughly so their sound effects and dialogue were somewhat in sync with the music track, it came time to set up the comic book pages. I started by downloading a comic book panel template, flipped and reversed the template to change up the layout from page to page, and found a typeface with dingbats that looked like action comic book lettering.

I chose some scenes a few minutes before and after each film clip, and rendered individual frames from these scenes to use as story panels that would help with sequencing the comic page. I ran each individual film frame through a couple of filters in Photoshop to give them a bit of a comic book halftone feel, then cropped and scaled them to fit their respective frame spaces in the template.

It was kind of fun to come up with Marvel-style dialogue for the panels, and if you look very carefully you’ll see a few little jokes hidden in there. (Well…I thought they were funny.)

The beginning and end frames of each film clip were also given the halftone treatment, and these treated frames served as starting and stopping points for each clip’s morphing effect.

I’m not quite sure if my method was the best way to achieve this part of the madness, but it seemed to work fine for this purpose: the comic book pages the audience sees flying toward them (after the DVD titles are in place) is actually one huge Adobe Illustrator/Photoshop composition. (I don’t remember the exact dimensions, but I’m pretty sure it was a lot larger than 7500 X 5000.) After finishing its flight and landing in its final spot, I pulled the composition around “under the camera” in After Effects like a huge bedsheet to get from one clip’s position to the next, with a slight amount of drift during the playing of each clip just to keep things alive.

The beginning and the end of the menu were a lot of fun to sound design. I wanted the titles (“Play, “Chapters,” “Bonus Materials,” etc.) to whoosh in from the audience’s POV and land with a resolute clank, so I fashioned this sound with some stray .wav files I found on the internet and altered them with Sony’s ACID software:

1) a jet engine shutting down — I played it in reverse, compressed its length, then cut quickly at its loudest point;

2) a heavy metal hammer hitting an anvil — I lowered its pitch substantially;

3) a baseball bat hitting an empty oil drum; and

4) a door slamming — I slowed it down and added some reverb.

I mixed these sounds together in ACID to create one singular clip, then sound-pitched just a bit lower so when the first clip starts (as Stark lands on the ground in Afghanistan), that particular clip’s clanking downbeat would play in somewhat of a tonal fifth above that clanking sound I created.

I ended up fading out and silencing Stark’s relaxed and laid-back dialogue during the last clip; to leave it in seemed to distract a bit from the rising tension of the music track.

Most animated DVD menus have a looping function in case the viewer doesn’t select something after a certain amount of time. The tension rise near the end part of this piece of music always felt to me like a good place to stop, and thankfully the end dovetailed nicely back to the beginning. So I copied the downbeat plus a few seconds from the beginning, tacked that on to the end of the piece, feathered the two edges in ACID so no one (hopefully) would notice, and quickly pulled the “bedsheet” back to the first position. The clanking downbeat of that first clip helps to sell the loop transition.

This one actually took four 1/2 days instead of three. (Good thing my production manager was lenient.)


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