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Frames Per Second: Jim Fiscus Creates a Motion Piece Through Layered Stills


Jim Fiscus Motorola ad
© Motorola/Photo by Jim Fiscus
The finished Motorola ad, which was also the basis for a video made using the parallax effect. You can watch the Motorola commercial at the bottom of this article

A new commercial for the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx, shot by photographer Jim Fiscus for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, shows people checking their mobile devices as they move through a busy airport terminal. Or rather: As they appear to move. The video shows first one person and then another, then the point of view pulls back, and pans across people seated on a row of airport chairs, then pulls back even further, showing more people in front of the row of chairs. The full tableau is shown in the still ad that Fiscus also shot for the campaign: Two people in the foreground, the row of seated passengers in the middle ground, and some travelers moving through the airport terminal in the background.   

Unlike most still-and-video shoots that require the photographer to switch from a still camera to a video camera, and relocate all the models to a second set lit for video shooting, Fiscus shot both the still ad and the commercial on a single, strobe-lit set, photographing elements of the scene as layers. In-house animators at Goodby then turned Fiscus’s images into a motion piece using a technique known as the parallax effect. “It’s a static image, and the ‘camera’ or POV [point of view] moves around to create the effect of motion and depth,” Fiscus explains.  

Kim Miles, art buyer and print producer at Goodby, coordinated the shoot, and Fiscus says it was both fun and efficient. “They came up with a smart way to communicate and to get both print and motion from a still shoot,” he says. As with much of the complex advertising work he does that requires him to shoot multiple plates for composites, the Motorola campaign required careful planning and pre-visualization to make sure all of the elements worked together realistically and attractively, even as the point of view shifts between and among the characters.

The Pieces
Fiscus, who is based in Athens, Georgia, flew to the international terminal of the San Francisco International Airport to shoot the background for the ad. “It’s a really pretty place,” the photographer says. Natural light streams in from several directions through panels of glass, but there was only a short period of time during which he had permission to clear passengers from the area and could photograph the walls without beams of light or hot spots hitting them. In the finished ad, he says, “It would appear to be an airport but not any specific airport.”

He first shot the background for the scene on an Arca-Swiss F-Metric camera with a Phase One IQ180 back. He used a 47mm Schneider Optics lens. “You’ve got the backplate shot in one go, to make damned sure you’re walking out of there with something first, because you don’t know if there’s going to be an earthquake or your camera’s going to break,” he says. Next, he changed to an 80mm Schneider lens and shot pieces of the same scene in high resolution to provide additional elements that could be pieced together and provide plenty of bleed. Fiscus notes, “There’s duplicate coverage on everything.”

After shooting the airport, he would move into a studio where an airport set had been built, under controlled lighting, but first he had to determine how much lighting he would need. So in the airport terminal he placed stand-ins—assistants, agency creatives—in the positions where models would be standing or sitting in the finished ad. “All the lighting angles were recorded, as they are on any layering job,” he says. He also made sure there was sufficient space between each person so no one’s head was blocking or touching anyone else’s as the point of view in the parallax piece moved. In the ad, Fiscus notes, “You want it to appear filled with action but you want it to be simple and clean because you don’t want a lot of tangencies.”

It was also essential that he determine his focal plane: “What’s going to be in focus?” Fiscus says. “You march out there with your extras, and you say: Here’s where the foreground characters are going to sit and there’s the middle row and here’s where the background characters are going to be. And then you take your tape measure and you say: I’ll have to be in focus starting eight feet from the camera back 30 feet.” He then calculated at what f-stop he would shoot the scene in the studio, and determined how much lighting he would need to illuminate the full depth of the area he was shooting. “Does the camera pull [focus] at f/8, does it pull at f/11, does it pull at f/16? There’s a direct correlation between budget and the point the camera pulls focus,” he notes. “What we’re trying to do is create the minimum necessary depth so that I don’t have to throw up a lot more lights to achieve more depth. To pull an extra stop costs twice as much.”

Directing Characters
The models were shot at Smashbox in Los Angeles on a set built by Dino DeGuiceis to recreate the airport scene. Eastside Studios was responsible for casting. The still ad, which is displayed in airports around the world, had to represent travelers from multiple continents. Fiscus gave each character a name and a brief story about where they were traveling to and what they were doing in the airport. Fiscus explains, “This is how I direct talent. I create a fictional story, and for a few frames they become the characters.” The woman portraying a traveler from Central America is “no longer the girl who works at Whole Foods in Santa Monica, [California,] and sometimes models.”

To help them get into character, Fiscus shot the entire tableau first, before he began shooting each character separately, he explains. “If you try to direct them as if they’re objects, they don’t feel comfortable enough to be real.”

Once he captured the “global” view with all the characters in place, he could concentrate on shooting the characters in each layer, as well as any additional information in the scene that might be shown as the point of view moves in the parallax effect, such as details on the airport chairs. “We concentrate on our foreground people, and capture their performance and then move them out of the way. Then we concentrate on the middle-ground people to get their performance on the benches and get them out of the way. Then we concentrate on the people standing in the background.”

To capture the models, he switched cameras, shooting a Mamiya RZ, again with an 80-megapixel back. While most of the characters were shot with a 90mm lens, he says, he chose a lens “one step wider for the foreground people.”

Lighting
To light the set, Fiscus had to recreate the ambient light from the airport, but also make each character look good. While a single light source on a model “can look flat,” he says, using multiple lights “creates a greater depth.” He estimates that he used about 17 lights. Most of them were bi-heads; the rest were used to create sculptural lighting on each model.

“There was fill everywhere,” he notes. In all the layered composite shots he creates, he says, sculptural lighting is essential. “If you look at the pictures that I do, there are usually a number of lights that are used.”  

Eliminating shadows was essential in the Motorola piece, he says, because as the point of view shifted around them in the parallax motion piece, shadows on any of the characters would make them looked “masked.”  “The lighting had to one: Be beautiful. Two: Sculpt the people three dimensionally to allow for a sense of depth. And three: Be forgiving enough to allow movement so we could move around and not reveal the shadow side on anyone.”

Finishing Touches
On set, Fiscus and his digital tech from Burn Photo in Atlanta created a comp of the finished ad, which served as guide for the retouching team that has collaborated with Fiscus on many of his composited images. Fiscus also delivered high-resolution files—the backplate alone was 250 MB—to Goodby. The parallax video has gone viral, racking up more than one million views on YouTube, and the still ad is now on display in airports.

“This is a brilliant and cost-effective way to obtain a motion piece off of a print shoot,” Fiscus says. “I enjoyed doing it.”

Client: Motorola
Agency: Goodby, Silverstein & Partners
Executive Creative Director: Christian Haas
Associate Creative Directors: Aaron Dietz & Mandy Dietz
Senior Art Buyer/Print Producer: Noah Dasho
Art Buyer/Print Producer: Kim Miles

Watch the Motorola commercial below:

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