Layer Upon Layer Upon Layer

Posted Sunday, January 13, 2013, 12:10 PM


I first saw Photoshop when it came free on a coverdisc on a magazine and my friend Dion installed it on his PC, back in the early 90s. He thought that I, as an artist, would find it useful to create some of the artwork required for our little projects. But after opening it up I was mightily confused. This was probably version 2.0, and it did not come with a manual (before the Internet, before PDFs, physical books were the only way manuals were provided). I was completely lost by the multitude of buttons, tools, menus, and icons. Where do I even begin? So for the first couple of times I scribbled colourful swirls and then just sat there. I couldn't figure out how to do straight lines, the mouse had no easy way to draw like a pen, and so clumsily I moved the pointer around a few times, achieving nothing.

It was about five years before I opened up Photoshop again. I had just been hired as a website designer for the first time, and I was completely new to the specifics of that job. I was hired solely on my artistic abilities and my familiarity with computers, but had no specific experience with HTML or Photoshop graphics. So I was allowed about two months just to familiarise myself with both those things.

Now I had a purpose for using Photoshop. I was given a Wacom drawing tablet, and with a goal in mind could go through all the steps to achieve an image. How do I create a box with round corners and highlighted edges? How do I create a drop shadow, a gradient, or coloured text? This was version 4.0 of Photoshop, so certain things did not exist yet - no multiple Undo, no auto dropshadow and glow (known as Layer Styles), no Batch Actions. But I had a manual, I had a few excellent quality guide books, and a mailing list of Professionals including some Adobe employees, all of whom were really helpful.

And the key to using Photoshop effectively is understanding layers. Unlike drawing or painting, where you're stuck with a single sheet of canvas or paper to just pile stuff on top of itself, with Photoshop you have individual layers which you can move, erase, recolour, distort, fade transparency; an infinite amount of adjustment, for each individual small part that you choose. It's a fantastic way to create.

Over the years I've learned a lot more about Photoshop, that there are multiple ways to achieve the same thing, that each subsequent version adds features that make some jobs a lot easier, it integrates better with Adobe's sister-products, and evolves and adapts to be useful for new technologies.

And one day I had to learn to use another of Adobe's products, called After Effects. When I first used it, I didn't understand just how powerful it could be. It seemed like a fewer-featured Photoshop. But in fact its role, to composite different video elements together for Visual Effects, requires such specific tools that comparing it with Photoshop is futile. After Effects is its own thing, and arguably even more powerful.

But one similarity, that it uses even more effectively than Photoshop, is its use of Layers.


I am slowly working my way through each shot for my Steampunk short film, "Eleanor Xandler: Temporal Detective," mostly in chronological order, and have just completed one of the most complicated shots of them all. And that's because it's a shot I didn't actually film on the shoot day. I realised, after looking at the rough edit, that there were a couple of shots that I really needed in order to transition from one shot to another effectively, and I had not thought ahead enough to have filmed those shots, so I wondered if I could make them up using what I could find amongst the clips I had.

One particular shot was from after I had called "Cut!" and the actress playing Eleanor, Sarah Breen, looked over to me to check if I was happy. That glance was all I needed to convey what was required, so I had now found my missing shot. Simple. But there was another shot I needed that was vastly more epic, and luckily this is where shooting on greenscreen, and having plenty of Behind-The-Scenes photography, each come in handy.

I wanted an Establishing Shot, one that shows the audience the location where the scene takes place, and orients them to where the characters are standing in relation to each other. I hadn't thought to film such a shot, because in my head I knew where everyone was. But that's not good enough, because of course I know, it's my story. I know plenty of things that the audience do not, it's my job to make sure all of those things are conveyed where necessary, be it through dialogue, performances, or editing. So now I had to create a shot that told everyone where my two characters were actually standing.

And where they're standing is in a huge dark smoky warehouse, filled with junk and decorated by 1880s style structural architecture. I had to create an over-the-shoulder shot of Eleanor entering through large doors, pointing her weapon at the Professor who was at the far end of the building, all while showing off how large and beautiful the warehouse was.

The warehouse 3D model had already been built, as an exterior and in preparation for all the interior shots that I was going to composite, but only in a limited fashion. Only build what you need, as anything more is just going to slow down the process. Well, now I had to expand on that, as this additional unplanned angle meant more of the warehouse would now be seen. I added in extra features, including a spiral staircase, an extra wall, a couple of piles of junk, and additional detail on the interior skylight roof.

During the shoot I had a B Camera, which is a second camera recording the shots from different angles and framing, giving me extra footage I can cut to should I need it. One of those shots was almost an over-the-shoulder of Eleanor, except from the wrong side, and that section of it was only 30 frames long. I needed 100 frames at least, but I clipped the shot out, flipped it to match the angle, and then stretched and reversed the shot a couple of times to extend its length. This can sometimes be glaringly obvious, I've seen reversed shots in feature films before and there's a few physics giveaways that you can spot sometimes (a turn or a blink in reverse looks slightly peculiar) so in order to hide the trick I made sure the part of the shot that was Eleanor would be completely out of focus with the depth of field.

In the far distance is the Professor. None of the shots I had of the Professor were full length, they all cut off at his knees or higher. Extremely luckily there was a single photo taken amongst the Behind-The-Scene images which included the Professor's legs, so I grabbed that, flipped and scaled them to match, and then animated them to match his movement, which wasn't much but still had to be done.

Unfortunately the angle of the Professor shot didn't match the perspective I needed, which was most obvious with the Console Panel he was standing at. So I had to replace the console with another BTS photo, which meant I had to cut around the Professor's arm (a technique called Rotoscoping) so that it looked like he was manipulating the controls accurately. The side of the console prop also has no surfacing, so I had to fill in that blank as well.

The warehouse is full of smoke, steam, and dust, because this is Steampunk and that's what the goggles are for, so I had to layer in not just multiple instances of atmosphere, just like if there had been a smoke machine on set, but I also had to include the shafts of sunlight that came through the door and skylight.

Couple all that stuff with the camera move, which is a pan down from skylight to Professor, that I had to track and match, it makes for a very complicated shot that should, in viewing it, go by quickly and seamlessly, and convey exactly what I wanted, that the space of the building is so big, and this where the characters are standing.