How Not To Be Seen

What you’ll see on the show

In addition to my writing and shooting duties on the show, I also do the occasional graphic. Most of the time, that means an animated title for one of the bits, as you may know from past blog entries. But once in a while, I do special effects.

These effects can be planned ahead, like the blowdarts I used on children in my “Blownadril” antihistamine commercial parody. There’s just no way we’re going to dart a kid in real life, so a computer-generated dart is the only way to make the joke happen.

Sometimes, I create effects to fix mistakes, or to more clearly demonstrate where the joke is in a bit. Like today. In the above photo, the joke is that it’s been so hot, the illegal immigrants are using a Slip ‘n Slide to come through the border. However, the way it was shot, the time of day, the color of the fence – all of these factors made it hard to see that there was a fence there at all.

Here’s the original shot:

The chain link fence is too dark. While it might do, it could also be confusing to viewers. The idea of sliding under the fence needs to be more obvious.

I took a reference shot and put it on my digital camera. It’s just a Nikon Coolpix, but when the zoom is all the way out, it has nearly the same distortion characteristics as the lens we shoot with on the show’s ENG camera. Also, the color depth is good, so I can dial up the contrast and hue to really come close to our video.

Then I went across the street to the construction site, parked the Vespa on the sidewalk and stood on the seat. I took this photo of the construction fence there:

You can see it’s pretty close in angle to the reference shot, and the shadows are all going in the right direction. I took it back to my office.

In Photoshop, I did an overlay, copying the new fence shot over the reference shot. After a little scaling and positioning, I created a mask and painted out all the areas that I wanted to see through. This included the hole in the fence, but not the fence on the left and the bush on the lower left.

I had to make the pavement look like dirt, so I sampled the color of the leaves in the original, and using another overlay layer, colorized it to match. I didn’t try to make it perfect, instead choosing to make it look like a shadow.

Next, I made a fake border sign and distorted it to look like it was hanging on the fence. I painted on a few shadows, and blurred it to look like the video, which has a lot of pixels, but the resolution isn’t quite HDTV.

Here’s the new overlay, ready to composite onto the video:

I saved the file and opened it in After Effects, along with the original video shot. Since the camera was handheld (extremely well, by the way – there was very little movement) the background video needed to be tracked so the overlay would move with it. Easy enough with all those crossing wires on the fence.

I applied the motion of the camera to the overlay and made a few positioning adjustments. Since the fence is backlit, I made it just a tiny bit transparent, which also allows you to see the action before the Mexicans make it through the fence.

When you’re doing a visual payoff like this one, the idea is not to be seen. It should look real, but be obvious enough so the audience gets it. The last thing you want viewers to do is math — connecting the dots from the premise to the punchline.

We do the math, so you don’t have to.

Click here to see the video clip.

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