Look who is riding "The Commuter" train!

ESPN developed an idea for a spot to cross-promote Lionsgate's upcoming movie "The Commuter". The concept called for New England Patriot's Rob Gronkowski to be inserted into a custom edit of the movie trailers.

ESPN CreativeWorks wanted Gronkowski to appear as if he is riding the commuter train next to Michael, an ex-cop character played by Liam Neeson; who is approached by Johanna, a mysterious stranger played by Vera Farmiga, which gives him the task to uncover the identity of a hidden passenger, and work against the clock to solve the intense and dramatic puzzle.


The idea was to have Gronkowski's humorous personality to interact with the movie characters conversation, delivering expressions, and funny lines as if he was part of the scene. They wanted to do it seamless and realistic, and that's where I came on board. I was approached by ESPN to help them with the design of the visual effects for the production. I teamed up with Steve Cohen of Manhattan Place Entertainment to tackle on the shoot and the technical needs to create a convincing effect on the insertion of Gronk in the train.

After reviewing the movie footage from the trailers, I made a selection of the different angles we could insert Gronkowski in. We clipped all the scenes from the movie trailer in those angles, and created an edit inserting Gronk funny lines in consonance with the actual lines of the movie.


For the green screen shoot, we setup two cameras in opposite angles. The main camera was locked capturing the "on screen" action at 4k. This served the purpose of having enough latitude in the footage all around Gronk, to compensate for the tracking of the train movements in the final compositing. The second camera I placed it at almost 180 degrees from the main camera at the other end of the room. This second camera was synchronized with the main camera to provide the inverted image to insert later as Gronk's reflection in the train window. 


This setup also called for two green screen rigs. Since I was trying to imitate the moody lights condition of the train car, we decided to use Digi Green which would allow to have a decent key under dramatic low light conditions in this case.

For Art Direction, I decided to make Gronkowski wear a slate blue t-shirt, this choice played a role in the final color correction, keeping him integrated with the medium tonalities of the movie trailer scenes. I also went "hands on" to craft a generic newspaper prop, and a second paper for his "sharpie" message.

On the pre-light day I asked to mark the position of both cameras for each of the movie plates. We used color coded tape to mark the three points of the tripod, and wrote down the lens, height, distance, and incline. We spent the day setting up every angle, every plate, so the next day would run smooth with Gronk, which we had for about 3 hours.

The main camera was then roughly keyed on the set against the pre-selected plates, in order to ensure we were matching the angles for his insertion. Here adjusting Gronk shoulder levels were critical to match the angle of "his seat" in the movie.


I decided to use a simple low back chair wrapped in Digi Green, instead of bringing a replica of the train seat as it was suggested in initial meetings. I figured keying just Gronk would allow me to have a better chance to cover any slight tracking mistakes, instead of trying to match perfectly the straight lines of a train seat agains the movie. We placed another person to pose as Liam Neeson in front of Gronk, so he could lock his sight and react to him in the right angle.

The post-production was for me a fascinating process to bring the keying of Gronkowski to a cinematic level. For this I use Flame Premium to do all the compositing and color grading work. 

The main job consisted in pulling masks and keying the Patriot's athlete in place. The first scene took a fifteen hour rotoscope on Johanna, to separate her alpha channel to the level of detail that didn't missed a hair. After keying Gronk, I added the tracking information to his layer so he could move along with the shaking of the train. Finally I used the Matchbox Color Corrector to create luma gain keyframes that increased the light on him every time a lamp passed through the tracks in the window.


One of the most fun parts of this VFX job was to create a plate background for Gronks medium and closeup scenes. His seat in the movie is obviously empty, so there was nothing shot there, so I had to create that scene from scratch.

Since Gronkowski was supposed to be sitting in front of Liam Neeson, I grabbed a still from one of Liam shots and digitally erased him from the frame. I cut a seat from another scene in the movie and then angled it onto my plate, adding some shadows and painting the top and bottom of the frame over the letterbox. Finally I pulled some of the track motion from a wide scene and inserted it on the windows, matching the focal length of the original plate.


Painting this plate from bits and parts of the movie was fun, but most important, it was an effective plate to hold our athlete for most of his interactions in the spot.

Here is the final plate with the added "shake" of the train tracking, and the keyframed incident lights of the tracks. A whole scene made from nothing...

This project was really exciting to execute from the VFX angle. The result was a fun spot that tricked even trained eyes into looking twice to realize Gronkowski was not part of that train scene.

I was blessed to work with a talented team of creatives, producers, and technicians. Thank you ESPN for trusting my work, and giving me this fun opportunity.


Here is the final spot... 

October Magic

"In baseball, October is the month where hopes and heroes take their place center stage, is the month where magic is in the air". For me, this means the opportunity to create my own kind of "magic" directing the MLB Network opening for their Post Season games.

This year, the client approached me with the idea of having a kid and his dad coming to a baseball game. They wanted the kid to find a series of magical events leading him to a fantasy room to find the World Series trophy standing under lights, and then transforming into a platform projecting some of the greatest moments in playoffs history. At the end, the dad finds his son and all turns back to normal, leaving open visual cues between the reality and the imagination of the kid.

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This year challenge was to complete this "full-visual-effect-loaded-two-and-a-half-minute-open" in only two weeks, including preproduction, shooting, editing, all VFX compositing, and sound design.

With the first draft of the script in hand, I started drawing my storyboards to make visual sense of the piece. Boards are sometimes overlooked, or loosely done, but in this case I knew having detailed boards would help us greatly to speed up the production, and get the piece done in the short time we had. On the boards I preplanned every single shooting angle and the logic of the sequence. The boards helped me also to communicate the idea to the production team, the Director of Photography, and also my VFX team in post. Everyone was in sync with what needed to be done, and the end result expected for each shot.


The shoot took place both at MLB Networks Studio 42 for the "magical trophy room", and at Citi Field for all the narrative scenes. We needed to have an authentic vibe on the shoot, so we picked a day the actual Mets were playing a double header, this way we could capture some of the actual anticipation and energy of people at a game.


Sticking to the schedule and the boards was key to optimize the shooting. Working with kids is always a challenge, but our little talent was great taking directions and delivering for the camera. So we were lucky to "get" the shots fairly quick, and even do some variations on his performance.

The boards where followed with discipline, and every angle was covered. Here are a few translations from the storyboards to the final scene comps.


Post production was coordinated through several teams. The rotoscope guys were in charge of cutting all the alpha channels needed for the comps, the team worked around the clock in staggered shifts to complete the many seconds of mattes needed. CGI was in charge of creating and animating the 3D trophy transformation, and to provide mattes for the final comps. I took the final edit and did the finishing on the Autodesk Flame Premium. It was a great collaborative effort spread through the MLB Network team, and the creative forces at REVEAL.

Often my favorite effects are the ones that are not seeing or perceived in the final product. The smoke and mirrors and "problem solvers", the ones that create a new reality. Where I get to create and force what is real to my will. In this open,  I've got to create computer generated "eyes" to force our talent to not look at camera in one of the best takes we had for the end scene. Also worked in hidding many logos, structures, and elements not desired in the scenes...

 A side by side of the original raw footage (left), where "Danny" accidentally looked at camera in the take where he was great for all the rest of the shot. I created a new set of CGI eyes to make "Danny" look to down to where I wanted (right).

A side by side of the original raw footage (left), where "Danny" accidentally looked at camera in the take where he was great for all the rest of the shot. I created a new set of CGI eyes to make "Danny" look to down to where I wanted (right).

 Another example of the collaboration of the teams involved in this production. My notes (above) where taken by the guys of creative services at MLB Network to produce a new reality. 

Another example of the collaboration of the teams involved in this production. My notes (above) where taken by the guys of creative services at MLB Network to produce a new reality. 

After racing the clock, sound design was added and the final opening went on air for the initial playoff game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros. A second version of the piece was done for the Yankees vs Indians game.

Another year of baseball, and another fun project to be part of. I'm proud of everyone who was involved in materializing this idea, and thankful for being able to collaborate with such talented people every year.

 Chris Pfeiffer, the mastermind behind this openings. Working together for over 13 years...

Chris Pfeiffer, the mastermind behind this openings. Working together for over 13 years...








Timeless Vin Scully

It was the utmost privilege to co-Direct and be a part of the production of "Timeless", the MLB Network opening for the 2016 Baseball Postseason.  The subject was Vin Scully and the retirement of one of the most legendary voices in baseball, the most compelling story this season and possibly the year.

 Directing for the VFX portion of the piece.

Directing for the VFX portion of the piece.

We flew to Los Angeles to shoot Scully at Dodgers Stadium.  The concept was to follow him as he arrived to work from his car all the way to the media booth. Along his walk we would see flashes of the greatest calls he ever did.  As he sat at his desk the point of view would turn into a dark room of memories so we could bring the spectators to relevant moments of his 67 year career in that booth.

The approach was to shoot with an organic feel and let him walk and prepare for the game as he always did.   We rehearsed and choreographed our two cameras the day before.  My client Chris Pfeiffer and I discussed the shot list as we scouted the path Scully always took into the stadium.  Then our DP, Samson Chang, established the moves and angles with the camera team.

On the day of the shoot, we were all anticipating his arrival.  As he stepped out of the car, our two RED cameras went to work.   One camera, on a MoVI, followed his steps and the other handled the establishing and details shots on sticks.  The walk went pretty fast.  We had to make the best use of the natural light and the speed of the cameras since we wanted an epic slow motion feel.

 Vin Scully delivering "they always do" referring to the great unpredictable moments in baseball.

Vin Scully delivering "they always do" referring to the great unpredictable moments in baseball.

I moved into the booth to make sure the locked shots for rotoscoping the classic "memories around his desk" were done at the right angle and set correctly for the VFX. In the end, this was all accomplished in no more than a half hour, which was all we got from the extremely busy schedule of Vin Scully.  Literally, there were several Dodgers and Rockies players already in line to visit Vin at his booth and take pictures with him as we finished shooting.

On the post-production side, I used the Autodesk Flame Premium at REVEAL to conform the cut done by my talented friend Jonathan Wendell, I also used the Flame to create the spotlight memories comps, and to design the color grading and mood of the piece. I also worked on Zaxwerks Pro Modeler to model the 3D logo of the National League Division Series for the end of the piece.

In parallel, I had the opportunity to work on my first VR (Virtual Reality) project.  I took our company’s VR camera and placed it on Scully’s chair at head level before he arrived.  I was able to record and capture a few minutes of his view while the Dodgers were having a batting practice in the afternoon. 

In the end, the client was thrilled to have this additional piece featured on MLB.com as "Vin Scully View from the Booth".  Learning this process and how to comp in a 360 environment was a new and fascinating experience for me.

Lastly, for MLB Network’s repurposing uses, I took the master spot that aired into Adobe Premiere to recreate the Flame comps in an editorial friendly platform.  The network was extremely happy with the piece and their production teams wanted to use the spot in their shows.  This required me to provide them with a way to insert different players under the spotlights featured in the spot.  MLB Network is an Adobe facility so I made a simple stack on Premiere, bringing the light effect and the color grading very close to what was done in Flame, which gave their editors the ability to make the changes they needed with a simple drop of the footage in the Premiere layer bins.

The final piece was narrated by Tom Selleck and the music was scored by the talented Ulysses Millan.  It delivered powerful emotional visuals along with a fabulous script that highlighted the impressive career of Vin Scully and his influential voice in sports through the decades.  A beautiful reverence paid to the man who has seen it all in baseball. 

It was a truly humbling experience to work on this piece, which from the moment it went on air was blessed with compliments... as Forbes Magazine called it "The Greatest Baseball TV Ad of All Times"

"Beam me up, Scotty"

Got assigned by ESPN to create a few VFX to enhance a Co-Promotion between the 2016 Home Run Derby and the premiere of the new Star Trek Beyond Movie.

The idea was to combine baseball with Star Trek! so by the magic of editorial work, Joe Castellano at REVEAL took lines from the several movie trailers creating a mini story where the USS Enterprise gets attacked by unidentified objects that later reveal themselves as baseballs that had been hit by different Major League sluggers.

My role here was to take scenes from the actual movie and compose many baseballs hitting the ship, as well as creating the illusion that the characters of the movie were looking or flying by planet Earth. 

 Autodesk Flame view of the compositing

Autodesk Flame view of the compositing

Through the use of Autodesk Flame I generated a particle system for the scene, replacing the particles with nodes of textured 3D baseballs. I added a particle bouncer defining the surface of the ship so the computer would analyze the physics of the balls hitting the Enterprise. Later I added digital light sources to match the scene and color corrected the particle system as a whole to attenuate the effect and make it more believable. Finally added some motion blur and manipulated a few shadows traveling over the surface of the ship to create a complete illusion of the baseballs hitting the USS Enterprise.

The VFX work was done in tandem with my talented friend Craig Lamson, who took also a few scenes replacing missiles by baseballs and created a beautiful warp traveling baseball effect that worked great as a transitional cut.

 To support the promo story, I had to insert planet Earth into the movie scene, adjusting color and tracking to match the movie clip.

To support the promo story, I had to insert planet Earth into the movie scene, adjusting color and tracking to match the movie clip.

Finally, as any good ESPN promo we needed to create an end card reflecting both the tune in action to the Home Run Derby and the Star Trek movie, so I decided to create the HRD logo in a 3D style close to the style of the already established Star Trek logo. We animated the logos over the movie trailer backgrounds provided by Paramount Studios and the result was a fun co-promotional piece with a very effective story.

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