Turning the Turing Test on its Head in Olivier Orand’s “Thursday Night” Music Video
Director Kays Al-Atrakchi captured the new futuristic music video with a Pocket Cinema Camera 4K and used DaVinci Resolve 16 Studio and Fusion 16 Studio for post
Can you be too human? The machines seem to think so in the new music video from French EDM artist Olivier Orand. Pitting human vs. machine, Orand’s music video for his new track “Thursday Night” tests one’s humanity and shows what happens when it’s deemed too much.
Directed by filmmaker Kays Al-Atrakchi, the music video was captured with a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K during a one-day shoot that involved mostly green screen shots. The futuristic world was then created using Fusion 16 Studio and DaVinci Resolve 16 Studio for visual effects (VFX), along with color grading and editing.
“I find Olivier’s music very inspiring, so I wanted to craft a visual interpretation of his work that was ambitious and unique but also entirely doable within our limited budget,” says Al-Atrakchi. “The typical budget for a music video with more than 260 VFX shots can easily climb into the six-figures, but we managed to pull it all together for a tiny fraction of that, thanks in large part to the tools we chose.”
Al-Atrakchi’s inspiration for the music video came from the famous Turing test created by Alan Turing in 1950. “The purpose of the test is to determine if the respondent is a human being or a machine. I started thinking about what the reverse of such test would be – what if a machine was the one posing the questions to a human in order to determine their level of humanity?” Al-Atrakchi explains.
“The overall futurist approach, ‘cyberpunk/AI’ universe, is really great and fits the sound design very well,” says Orand. “The sequences based on the actress vs. machine, with the internal view of the lens, rhythm of images and progression of different emotions ending on the beautiful picture of the burned body, are superb!”
Selecting a Camera for Green Screen
During preproduction, Al-Atrakchi and Cinematographer Steven Strobel looked for a camera that would work well with the type of green screen shoot they were envisioning.
According to Al-Atrakchi, “First and foremost on our list of must-haves was resolution and color accuracy. When working with green screen footage, it is absolutely imperative that the camera’s sensor is picking up precise color information and is not dithering or binning pixels at the ingest level. From a post production perspective, heavy compression and chroma subsampling are deal breakers for this type of VFX-centric project. The ability to shoot in an uncompressed RAW format was a huge factor in determining if the camera was going to be able to handle this type of shoot.”
“Another factor was the ability to have a good low light sensibility. We were working with very limited resources, and Steven and I knew that we would be coming a bit short of the light levels that we needed,” Al-Atrakchi continues. “We also needed a high degree of dynamic range. The set was top-lit, and our light bank was hung relatively low, which meant that in order to have the footage ‘sit’ into the CGI environment we were risking getting overly dark shadows on the bottom of the frame. Using aggressive fill lights would defeat the purpose and yield a flat-looking shot that would have not composited well with the CGI backgrounds. I needed to have access to a wide dynamic range in post so that I could lift shadows as needed and not have the top of our lead actress’ head (which has blonde hair) be overly bright or blown out.”
Since they had a limited time window for the music video’s lead actress, Augie Duke, they needed a camera that was easy to maneuver between setups, so they could move quickly, and that had a small footprint, since the green screen space was quite small. Last but not least, Al-Atrakchi also wanted to shoot some of the angles in slow motion.
All of this led Al-Atrakchi and Strobel to the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K. Al-Atrakchi explains, “The Pocket Cinema Camera 4K’s dual native ISO was a selling factor, particularly knowing that we could bump it to 1600 or even 3200 without risking unworkable noise levels. When I got to look at the footage in post, even the takes that we did at 3200 were clean and useable without needing any denoising, which can negatively affect detail in the footage. Also, the camera’s ability to handle up to 60fps at full 4K DCI resolution in the RAW format was ultimately necessary for our green screen pulls.”
Using the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K helped keep the team on schedule during their quick day of shooting. “Going into the shoot, I had a pre-rendered/pre-viz list of all the angles that we needed, and it was quite ambitious. Being able to keep the camera rig small was a big benefit, since we could move our tripod and slide without needing to remove the camera. This made changing our setups quick and allowed us to get the shots we needed on a very tight schedule,” says Al-Atrakchi.
Using a Layered Approach for VFX
Al-Atrakchi worked with Editor Derek Drouin for the music video’s edit in DaVinci Resolve Studio. Working side by side, Drouin edited the video and Al-Atrakchi created the CGI elements.
For the VFX pulls, Al-Atrakchi followed Drouin’s creative vision. According to Al-Atrakchi, “Derek made very specific choices regarding the various angles and takes. I gave him carte blanche on picking the shots that he felt best told the narrative that I wanted to tell. Some of his choices were surprisingly unconventional, at times picking moments after we ‘cut,’ but the camera was still rolling and captured Augie’s very natural and unexpected reactions.”
Al-Atrakchi used Fusion Studio for the music video’s keying and rotoscoping, as well as to add VFX elements such as lens flares, motion blur and depth-of-field blur. Then he would import the shots back into his DaVinci Resolve Studio timeline and composite them together using the built-in Fusion page’s alpha channel or add and screen blend nodes. Along with using DaVinci Resolve Studio and Fusion Studio, Al-Atrakchi also used Blackmagic Design’s DeckLink Mini Monitor interface to drive his main playback/grading monitor.
Al-Atrakchi explains, “Back in DaVinci Resolve Studio, the various elements were brought in individually and composited right into the timeline as stacked video tracks, sometimes as deep as seven layers. The standard VFX workflow of integrating all of the elements of a scene, including the actors’ footage, and then ‘baking’ everything into a single file never made much sense to me. I like to have as much flexibility as possible all the way until the final render, so maintaining all of the VFX element layers separately in DaVinci Resolve Studio was the best option for what I needed.
“Creating this sort of ‘visual layer cake’ not only allowed me to color grade all the various elements with a high degree of precision, but I could also continue to add VFX processing, adjust the opacity and determine the degree of shallow depth of field that I wanted for each shot.”
Al-Atrakchi’s layered approach relied heavily on DaVinci Resolve Studio’s speed. “I was working with a timeline that had at any given time four to seven 4K and 2K video layers being composited in real-time, each with its own set of color nodes, as well as effects such as optical blur, flares, noise reduction, glow, and color space transforms. All this was playing back in real-time; that is basically unheard of anywhere outside of DaVinci Resolve Studio.”
Al-Atrakchi continues, “One of the challenges of working with an extensive amount of rendered CGI images is that every minor change and reframe can add hours of computer re-rendering to the process. In many cases I needed to be able to enlarge the shot or focus on a specific section of the screen, ideally without having to re-render or lose precious detail and resolution. With DaVinci Resolve Studio’s Super Scale algorithm, I could resize my shots sometimes by as much as 400 percent without the image becoming too soft. It was an incredible timesaver to make changes to the size of my footage without worrying about the footage getting blurry or having other unacceptable resizing artifacts. With the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K footage, I could turn a medium shot of Augie into a close up. With the CGI EXR renders, I could go from a wide render of the mechanical elements to a close one without even thinking about having to re-render the sequence.”
Since some of the music video’s shots are 100 percent CGI, Al-Atrakchi needed the animated shots to have the same natural handheld motion as the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K footage. For this, he used DaVinci Resolve Studio’s Camera Shake OFX to add a subtle and natural movement to the CGI footage.
Throughout the music video, Al-Atrakchi wanted to control the degree of blur and bokeh in the CGI background, as well as for the CGI tubes attached to the back of the chair that Duke sits in.
“Normally this is something that would be handled by a VFX artist in a separate VFX software,” Al-Atrakchi explains. “However, in DaVinci Resolve Studio, since I was working with separate layers on my edit timeline, it was as simple as using a Lens Blur ResolveFX node in the background layers and using Power Windows to apply the blur amounts as needed.
“A mistake that I see in many green screen composites is that the background blur added by the VFX artist doesn’t match the camera footage. This is often a dead giveaway that the shot is a composite because there is not a natural focus falloff between the foreground actor and the super blurry background like there would be in real life. By using DaVinci Resolve Studio, I could achieve just the right amount of shallow depth of field and continue to fine tune all the way until the final render without being locked into a pre-composited VFX shot.”
Leveraging DaVinci Resolve 16 Studio’s Newest Features
DaVinci Resolve 16 Studio was introduced in public beta while Al-Atrakchi was finishing the music video, which allowed him to take advantage of the update’s new features for his post work. For example, Al-Atrakchi instantly started using DaVinci Resolve 16 Studio’s new Adjustment clips feature, which allows you to apply effects and grades to clips on the timeline below.
“It gave me the ability to finalize each of my shots without needing to compound the clips into a single one and losing my ability to tweak each individual layer on the spot,” says Al-Atrakchi.
“I also used DaVinci Resolve 16 Studio’s new Neural Engine Speed Warp motion estimation tool on several shots to slow down the footage beyond the 60fps that we shot at, all without any unnatural results or artifacts. In addition, I could also apply the slow-motion retiming to all my CGI shots as needed (which were all rendered at 24fps) without any discernible artifacts,” Al-Atrakchi continues.
Al-Atrakchi had generated the music video’s computer screen shots with animated graphic elements and other text and shapes that he created in Fusion Studio. However, when he imported them into DaVinci Resolve Studio and began to finalize the project, he realized that they looked a little too clean for his creative vision.
“DaVinci Resolve 16 Studio has a new Analog Damage ResolveFX node that did just the trick for adding CRT-style scanlines to the shots. A little went a long way toward making them feel more part of an internal command center,” notes Al-Atrakchi. “I also used DaVinci Resolve Studio’s Flicker Addition ResolveFX to add some subtle flickering to the images, which also made the shots feel more dynamic and rhythmic to better match the vibe of the music. I then finished the look of the computer screens by utilizing a Glow ResolveFX which added a pleasant smudging of the highlights, almost as if the pixels of the screen were being overdriven by the data bursts.”
“While lots of different features came in handy throughout the project, for me the biggest benefit of using DaVinci Resolve Studio is that editing, VFX and grading are all in a single creative workflow,” Al-Atrakchi concludes. “I can literally jump between the edit page and the Fusion page or the color page at the click of a button, and I do so constantly as I work and refine my projects. After doing this for a number of years, I cannot imagine working any other way. My ability to fine tune each and every shot as needed – whether those tweaks involve what would traditionally be considered a VFX task, an editorial task or a color grading task – is, in my opinion, a game changer.
“Having everything in an under-one-roof workflow was a huge timesaver on a project like this. I don’t think I would have been able to finish post on this video in such a short period of time without access to the tools and functionality of DaVinci Resolve Studio. Additionally, the new DaVinci Resolve 16 Studio update arrived just in time, and some of the new features seemed almost custom made for my needs on this video.”
About Kays Al-Atrakchi
Born and Raised in Florence, Italy from a Middle-Eastern family, and then relocating to America in his early teens; Los Angeles-based writer/director Kays Al-Atrakchi has fully embraced his multi-cultural upbringing as a defining characteristic of his work.
Al-Atrakchi’s road to directing and writing has been anything but traditional as his first professional decade was focused on composing original music for films. It was only in 2006 that he turned his attention to directing. Despite this unconventional route, Al-Atrakchi’s love for storytelling was apparent even from an early age in Italy, when he would often direct his friends into elaborate multi-episodic science fiction and action narratives that he would shoot on his father’s camcorder.
When his family relocated to Central Florida, Al-Atrakchi’s love of film pushed him to connect with the emerging collective of young Central Florida filmmakers. Al-Atrakchi clicked instantly with one of them, Daniel Myrick, and the two began collaborating on a number of projects, including the beginnings of what eventually became one of the most successful independent films of all time, “The Blair Witch Project.”
After “The Blair Witch Project’s” incredible success, Al-Atrakchi, along with Myrick and several of the other Florida filmmakers involved, relocated to Los Angeles.
In the epicenter of the film industry, Al-Atrakchi doubled down on his desire to find an outlet for all of the story ideas that had been accumulating in his mind. His first short film “Appntmnt” proved an instant success, screening at several prestigious film festivals and gathering a number of awards and accolades. Next, Al-Atrakchi embarked on the production of a much more ambitious, and heavily VFX driven sci-fi thriller, “In Lucidity,” as the foundational basis for a new media franchise. On his third project, “E.A.S.,” Al-Atrakchi tapped into his multi-cultural influences by exploring of the tenuous nature of immigrants in a near-future/near-apocalypse United States.
Over the past decade, Al-Atrakchi has continued to rapidly accumulate a number of credits and experience ranging from narrative projects to advertising campaigns and a variety of visually ambitious music videos. His upcoming feature film “The Astronaut In The Woods”is currently in development with plans to go into production in the Fall of 2019.