Creating Advanced Video Graphics Workflow

Chris Kieffer Talks About Video Magic on Warner Bros. Features

by Mark Ulano CAS AMPS

The members who embody Local 695 are more than just production sound engineers. We proudly represent video engineers, television broadcast engineers and projection engineers alike. As the union continues to grow, in part by the increase in on-set demand and advancements in technology; our picture brothers and sisters are adopting new workflows to meet those complex requests in feature films and television broadcasts.


Chris Kieffer, a Y-4 Video Engineer (Video Assist, Video/24- Frame Playback) in Local 695, is part of an intriguing group of video graphic operators at Warner Bros. Production Sound and Video Services. Pioneered by Rick Whitfield, the small team of creatives are able to deliver end-to-end video graphics for intricate projects. In our fall 2016 issue, Vince Parker, who is also part of the team, highlighted the process while working on Passengers, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. We sat down with Kieffer to learn more about the unique workflow.

PS&V: On-screen graphics. Is that a generic term used in the industry?

Chris Kieffer: Well, usually we get Video Graphic Supervisor or Video Graphics. I’ve even gotten one 24-Frame Playback Operator. I’ve gotten Playback Graphic Supervisor. I mean, it’s all of them. There’s just so many different ones, but usually it comes down to Video Graphics.

PS&V: Who pioneered this group at Warner Bros.?

CK: Vince Parker and Rick Whitfield have been working for a long time together. Vince was the guy who did graphics and programming and playback with Rick on set. They were like this little group and then as productions got bigger, they needed more help. Rick would hire our department to come in, design everything, and then Vince and his team would program it and build it.

I was brought into it to do a project with Rick and while I was doing that, I needed some help. And he’s like, well, who do you want and I picked Coplin LeBleu. He came in. We worked great together and I’ve been going back to Coplin and other guys constantly over time.

PS&V: What differentiates you from traditional video graphic operations?

CK: A lot of the times when you work on a project, you might just hire a graphics company that only does graphics. And then, you’ll hire your playback guys to play it back on set.

We try to do all of it. We design, animate and program all of the onscreen content and use our playback guys and our gear on set. What we try to do is bring everything together—from pre-production to design and on-set operating.

PS&V: How big is the team?

CK: There are six of us as far as doing the graphics, programming and on set. But then we have the guys in the back also who supply, rig all the gear and get everything ready, too, in our rental department.

PS&V: How do new job opportunities come along?

CK: Different ways but generally word of mouth and guys who’ve worked with us previously. On Deepwater Horizon, we worked with Production Designer Chris Seagers.

PS&V: How did the process start?

CK: For Deepwater Horizon, Chris Seagers called me knowing I was at Warner Bros. He wanted us to bring all our guys and do our thing. I went out there to talk to him, went over the script—what he wanted—and we agreed to do the project.

Then I’ll come back and start doing all the lead design— coming up with what it’s going to look like—and bring in 695 members who do on-set playback or graphics. It’s hard, there’s not too many of them that can do both. Usually, you have a playback guy or a guy who does graphics but not both.

PS&V: It’s like Pro Tools in a way. There are those who know the on set and others who know the studio side but few do both.

CK: Yes. It’s a hard mix to find. And the ones who do have both skill sets are always busy.

PS&V: Is the part of the skill set to be able to respond improvisationally right then and make it work?

CK: Yes, definitely. In minutes, when we’re turning the camera around, you’ve got that much time to change your graphics. At the last minute, Set Decorator might just roll a medical cart onto a set and they know I’ll be able to power it up and figure out a way to get whatever graphic they need up on the monitor. Props will hand me a briefcase, pop it open, and there’s a monitor inside, and now I’ve got to figure out how to make this thing work so sometimes there’s a lot of engineering involved, too. Never a dull moment.

PS&V: Can you describe in a little more detail the creative workflow and the interaction with other departments that ends with the on-set graphics we see up on the screen?

CK: Every show’s different but it starts with the Art Department. They develop the concepts and the look for the project. On a show I’m working on now, for example, they send me the concept art and set drawings and a list of the various devices they expect to have on set … things like interactive iPads on door panels for keypads or airlocks, screens built into consoles, big wall displays or just displays on laptops and cellphones or TVs or whatever.

Based on the designs we’ve received, we build all of the video graphic elements and have the Set Decorator or the Director or both sign off on them. Based on what hardware we’re going to be working with, I’ll then have to engineer it all so we can work with it smoothly on the set. And sometimes, they’ll need us to program interactivity into the various devices so actors can trigger the sequence and make the scene look real. Or we have to figure out how to get our graphics into existing equipment, like some old piece of electronics or whatever it is that they need.

So throughout the whole process, we’re working pretty closely with the Production Designer, the Set Decorators, and the Prop Department, all of us ready to change things in case they change their mind at the last minute … which is pretty much a typical day for us.

PS&V: Is this something that’s evolved more recently? A kind of real-time interactive?

CK: Yes. We try to be as flexible on set as we possibly can. There’s just times when you can’t because of the scope of something.

PS&V: Are the tools changing so you can be more flexible?

CK: Definitely. Before it was a lot of Adobe Flash and other programs. You could do those changes on set, but that software itself is not really being supported or updated anymore.

We’re kind of moving things over to game engines like with unity because that gives us flexibility. Right now on The Last Ship, for example, everything on that show changes the day of, twenty times a day.

PS&V: Right there?

CK: Right then and there. Constantly.

PS&V: How do those changes get worked out on set?

CK: It depends on the director or whoever is making the change. But usually, we’ll look at it, and for example, they’ll say, “Can we have this guy more over here?” or “Can we just move or scale this or change something subtle?”

We’ll then relay it back to the playback guy or the graphics guy to make that change, hopefully, within enough time before they’ll begin shooting. Sometimes they don’t want to wait. So then it’s going to be as it is or you can make it green or blue or whatever you want.

PS&V: Going green or blue means that they’re going to come back and do it in post?

CK: Yes.

PS&V: Do they reach out to you at that point?

CK: They could but it depends on the show. It could go to a visual effects house or the editors or something like that. If it’s easy enough, we’ve done it sometimes where we’ll shoot, like, let’s say it’s a radar on The Last Ship. Vince would put up a graphic without all the blips of where the ships are because they just aren’t sure where they’re going to go. We’ll shoot that and then in post, the editors can add the ship’s blips where they need to be.

PS&V: Would that be one of those times where you provide graphics for pre-production, production and post?

CK: Exactly. Sometimes it’s not even just delivering the playback graphics we created to visual effects. We actually even do the visual effects—the actually finals out to film. So we try to cover the whole spectrum so when they come to us for onscreen graphics, we can provide everything.

PS&V: Do you see any trends in terms of onset visual graphics and playback versus green screen?

CK: People want to always implement new technologies like curved screens or transparent LCDs. Those are all cool, but we rarely have the time and the budget to actually explore those things.

Sometimes you get lucky on big features but it always kind of comes back to the same thing where we try to have as much in camera, as much flexibility as possible and just go from there.

PS&V: What projects are you working on now? Are any done remotely?

CK: Pacific Rim Uprising. Followed by Rampage and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Pacific Rim Uprising is in China and we’re doing everything remotely and then sending it out to China for playback on set.

PS&V: People don’t realize all the work it takes to get those images on screen.

CK: Yup. That’s the magic.

PS&V would like to thank Chris Kieffer for providing some great insight into their work. If you’d like to learn more, check out Warner Bros. Production Sound and Video Services, go online at www.wbsoundandvideo.com.