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...