Making Of: Muse – Sing For Absolution video
I wrote this blog when I was a Director and co-owner of Ark VFX which is unfortunately no longer around. But the article is worth a read so here it is:
A little after we (Andy Turner, Steven Tappin, Rich Right and Greg Staples) setup ArkVFX in 2003, we managed to land our first big job.
It was through Colonel Blimp and it was for a pop promo for Muse. We’re all big fans of Muse and considering how big they were (and still are) we were so excited to be doing something for one of the biggest bands around.
The track was the title song from the Absolution album “Sing for absolution”. We were invited to produce a treatment for it and after listening to the track over and over we had this idea about Sisyphus, who was the king who was condemned to forever push the boulder up the mountain only to watch it roll down again. Though after writing that treatment we kind of though it needed to be something bigger and more epic. That’s when we went back to our roots and thought about what we’d actually love to see and do, and since we’re all massive Sci-Fi fans came up with a crazy idea of sending them into space on a mission to save humanity!
Now saving the world in a epic space adventure way kind of has it’s problems! not least of which was that we had a budget and a tight timescale to work with, just 8 weeks for 3 CG artists and an illustrator. Although pretty early on, after concepts for the ship and suits were finalised, we realised we’d have to draft in 2 extra people to model these “hero” assets as they were used a lot and we wanted them to be perfect. So we really had to be clever in what we showed and how we went about it. The first obstacle was that the band had to feature in the promo in some way. We didn’t really want to do just shoot the band playing and try and shoehorn that in somewhere and we also didn’t really have the budget to do both a traditional performance shoot and an epic CG adventure. Luckily Muse were up for doing something a little different and went for our idea of having them as the crew of the spacecraft. That meant we had to figure out a way of getting them into the spacecraft without blowing the budget on a set.
We’d already done some R&D into this little problem and our solution was to only shoot their heads and digitally composite them into fully CGI environment. One little trick we thought of was the “toilet seat rig”. Basically it was a rough proof of concept video we shot using a set of Christmas tree lights arranged around a cardboard “toilet seat” that one of us wore over our head! The idea was that when shot in a dark studio, the little lights would replicate the lighting we wanted to use inside the helmets, we were thinking of the sort of internal lighting in the diving helmets developed for the film “The Abyss” or the Space Suit helmets from “Alien”. The “toilet seat rig” was kind of a Heath Robinson contraption that allowed us to prove that we could get a good effect from only shooting what we needed to, both keeping costs down and at the same time achieving a cool effect.
Some of the concept designs produced during pre-production.
Once we’d sorted that we started work in earnest on the huge task of creating the video, We’d already had a very good idea of what we wanted to happen throughout the piece. We’d storyboarded it thoroughly. It was set in a distant future where the world was under some enormous threat, another ice age had begun and Muse were piloting an Ark (see what we did there?) which contained cryogenically frozen people awaiting a new life on a distant planet.
We already had quite a bit of experience in Sci-Fi since we’d all worked on a couple of games when we used to work in the games industry, and actually we’d produced huge amounts of CGI for the intros and cut-scenes from a game called “Independence War” which at the time were considered groundbreaking. That stood us in very good stead when it came to planning and executing the large number of shots that we needed in our animatic. We knew where we should use matte paintings, place cameras, use animation and camera movements to add excitement and get the most bang for the bucks. That’s one of the huge strengths of Ark, as a smaller company with massive experience of creating epic on a budget, we know exactly how to direct incredible looking sequences with an eye on production costs. People are always amazed at how we can get things looking the way they do on the budgets we’ve worked with!
Matte paintings were used extensively.
We used Lightwave 3D to produce all the animation and rendering on “Sing for absolution”. We all had vast experience with it and really love the way it’s simple and fast to work with. It’s an invaluable tool to have if you need to really crack on with things. At the time we were only 4 or 5 people and actually most of the shots were produced by just 3 of us. You really need to have a good handle on your toolset when you’re working this fast, we were creating shots and going from storyboard to final render in hours sometimes, each of us taking control of everything in the pipeline from modelling through to composting. It was quite scary at times! it was an awfully big task for such a small team. But through it all John Hassay who was then commissioner at Colonel Blimp and our producer Anna Brunaro were incredibly supportive and encouraging. They pretty much gave us free reign to come up with the ideas and run with them.
One other unique thing was that we’d had the idea that we would like to produce our own sound effects for the video. Amazingly the band and the producers said ok, go for it! Again, we’d had experience designing sound effects for videogames and trailers before so we produced a soundtrack designed to work alongside the music track which added an extra edge to the promo.
Once all the shots had been completed and the edit locked down, we took the frames down to be graded at The Mill. That was a very interesting evening of watching someone masterfully altering the colour balance, gamma and tones of the work you thought was “perfect”. The grade is one of those things that has a massive effect on the film, it suddenly brings the work to a new level of polish and we learned a lot about the grade from this promo.
While we were making the video, a cameraman was sent from the record label to come and shoot some footage of us making the video, we tried our best to explain what the was going on but to be honest it was just a lot of us pointing at a screen and trying to look like we knew what we were doing, which of course we did.