Interview - The Marmalade


Christian Fritz
Lead Developer Spike
The Marmalade

Creative Effects Company

 Lippmannstrasse 79
22769 Hamburg 
Hello and thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Tell us a bit about your company, when did you start, what are your goals?
The Marmalade was founded in 2006. The idea for the company was conceived when one of the CEOs of the Hamburg based Post Production house 'Schönheitsfarm' met one of the CEOs of the SFX crew 'effectiv team' on the shoot for a beer commercial. The two got to talk about their work and and it quickly became evident that by combining the respective approaches of the companies – real, physical and virtual, computer-based effects – special effects shots could be taken to another level.
It is our aim to consistently produce great and beautiful imagery and occasionally push one or the other boundary in the process.

Do you collaborate with production companies or manage everything in-house? 
Wherever possible and practical, we prefer to take on responsibility for the entire project, or for the part of the project that requires our expertise. The reason for that is, that it allows us to use a holistic approach, tackling the creative challenges from many sides at once. The more companies are involved in such a process, the greater the administrative overhead gets. Communication is not as direct, things may get lost in translation.
Having said that, being able to work collaboratively is of course very important, agencies and the end client hire us to deliver work that benefits their products and their marketing strategies and we work together towards that aim, contributing images that are exciting and beautiful to watch.
What programs/plugins/scripts do you use? 

On the software side, we mainly use Softimage XSI, Flame, Nuke, Smoke, Nucoda Filmmaster, After Effects, Photoshop, Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Pro. Depending on the project, other tools like Mudbox or Massive may also be used.

On the hardware side, we mainly use Vision Research Highspeed Cameras (Phantom Gold, Phantom Flex), but again, depending on the project, we might also use the ARRI Alexa, the Red Epic, Photron Highspeed cameras and whatever works best for the shot we have to pull off. We use Spike for Moco work, all sorts of self built rigs and widgets, and all the tools in our workshop, drills, mills, turning lathes, welding equipment a.s.o.
You everything from model-making to pyrotechnicians and fluid specialist. How do you keep up with all the changes in technology? 

It is very important to remain focused. Technologies change so fast and frequently that one could easily spend the entire time just trying to keep up with those changes. No work would get done whatsoever. On top of that, many new technologies that sound great and exciting when announced, are no longer that exciting once one looks closer into them, only to discover that their shortcomings often far outweigh their benefits.
Our work begins with an aim that we want to achieve. If we already know how to get there, fine. If we don't know yet, we do research, teach ourselves, look into new technologies. We aim to find solutions to our problems, not the other way round.
With the market becoming more and more competitive, what do you believe is a must that an artist has in his portfolio or skills?

Hmm, that is actually not that easy to answer. One important thing is to be aware of the constraints that are imposed by time, budget, physics a.s.o. and then being able dance around those, so that it looks to outsiders as if those constraints weren't there. I guess that this applies to very many disciplines in art, engineering, even life in general.
YAJUICE looks great. What were the challenges on this project? Can you give us an insight on the process, the goals of the project and the difficult parts? How much (if any) is 3D?

A main challenge with that spot was the sheer number of shots that we had to produce. The director of that spot, Karina Taira, had prepared a huge mood board, lots of photographs that exemplified the mood, the spirit that she was after. We had to find and produce moving images that carried that spirit. This approach is in stark contrast to other situations where the exact look look and the details of that shot will already be pinned down during preproduction. Both approaches, as different as they may be, have their place. For us it is a great exercise to work in such different contexts, we get to exercise the head, heart & hands in equal measure.
There's no 3D whatsoever in that spot.

What were some of the challenges on MAHEEV?

During preproduction, animatics had been produced in XSI, to determine the camera move and the exact placement of the vegetables and fruit in space. This involved quite a bit of back and forth between our clients and us. This of course meant that we later had to reproduce the animatic exactly as it was agreed upon during shooting. In this case it was extremely useful that the Spike software includes a virtual studio into which we could import the assets of the animatic. So as Spike moved the camera through the initially empty studio, we could see in the software what the camera was supposed to see at that particular moment and arrange the set accordingly. To get as close to the vegetables as was necessary, we had to use a 'Revolution' snorkel lens. The Revolution lens has two prisms built in which allow for the optical axis to be turned into any direction (no longer aligned to the camera). On top of that the image can be rolled optically through the entire 360 degree range. This is useful to shoot in very confined spaces where you normally couldn't properly place a camera. The Spike software had to be adapted to take all that optical trickery into account.

What is the typical starting point in a slow motion / VFX commercial? How long does it usually take? How much of it is just trial and error?
Starting points are different, depending on the project. In some cases ideas have been worked out, and storyboards have been created by the agency before we become involved in a project. In other cases we are just presented with a basic idea, verbally, or in form of a short treatment, and thus we become involved in finding the best and most exciting ways of visualising those ideas, in which case we typically create storyboards and/or animatics.

We think of how to best turn the ideas into images, what the right tools are. Sometimes it is very clear which way to go, at other times we all sit together and consider the advantages and disadvantages of various approaches (in camera, 3D animation, compositing) and then figure out a way that may involve bits and pieces of each of them. Then we typically perform tests. This test phase is essential, even if we have we done similar work before, because very often tiny variations of a method can lead to very different results. This is also the phase were happy accidents sometimes happen, and it is very important to be open for those. Trial and error is often a part of this process. One must understand however, how to use it in a meaningful and straightforward manner. There is no use in throwing stuff in the air all day long and waiting for somthing exciting to happen. This preparation phase can last from one day on very simple jobs to several weeks for the big and challenging ones. It is important for us to have the effects more or less nailed before the actual shooting happens, because shooting days are mostly dedicated to lighting the shots. Shooting days are expensive, as they typically require the most gear and the largest crew and it doesn't make sense to spend the available time working out the details of an effect. 
What other supporting departments do you typically involve on an average project? How large does this list grow when you’re working on a longer project like BRAUN: BRANDFILM?

Most of our projects can be pulled off by our core team, which can be roughly divided into the following departments: Creation (ideas and writing), Storyboarding, Production, (physical) SFX, Food Styling, Model Making, Camera and Motion Control, DIT (data wrangling), Editing, Colour Grading, Compositing, Graphic Design, 3D Animation, Compositing, Audio Mixing, Delivery.
Occasionally we outsource some construction or paint jobs and enlist the help of a very talented stop-motion team.
For some jobs we always use freelancers (gaffers, grips, camera assistants, make-up artists, runners). Even those, however, are usually taken from a small pool of people that are familiar with our way of working. We do strongly value a friendly and focused atmosphere on set, and having a great crew that is experienced in working together is key.
Do you use the same techniques from one project to another? What is your company’s strongest point (creative concepts, motion capture, storyboard, animating, VFX)?

Well, obviously we don't want and need to reinvent the wheel on every new project. So we have a number of methods, rigs, recipes and procedures that have proved themselves reliable and flexible enough to be used and modified in several projects. But hardly ever is there a project that we can just cruise through, and achieving an apparently subtle variation in the look of something that we already had done before sometimes requires a very different approach.
Our strongest point in our view is not a particular department or process, but the integration and crosslinking of our departments and processes, in service of developing the best solutions to creative challenges. That, and a certain level of fearlessness when being faced with a task that seems impossible at first.
Was there ever something you wanted to do in a project and couldn’t? (Technology wise) Which design do you believe was the most difficult to achieve?

Bumping into technological and also physical limits is actually a constant part of our work. The point is to not just throw the hands up in the air and say that it is impossible (our clients wouldn't appreciate that), but to find alternative solutions that still honour the spirit of the original idea but are possible to pull off.
It is hard to say which project was the most difficult one, but the 'Direct Line - Car Crash' is certainly very high up that chart. Building a huge Newton's Cradle like set, using cars instead of small steel balls was quite a challenge, compounded by the fact that we only had a very limited number of cars that we could crash and that there were only two weeks between getting the treatment and the shooting (and having to prepare and shoot the sister spot 'Direct Line - Pound' at the same time).
Tell us a little bit about 'Spike'. What sets Spike apart from any other High Speed Motion Control System?

Spike was born out of a creative need. We had often thought about how great it would be if we could use a moving camera in a high speed shooting situation. This had traditionally been difficult/impossible for a number of technical reasons and only became feasible when digital high speed cameras became good enough to be used for high end production. When we looked for such a system, we couldn't find any and eventually challenged ourselves to come up with a tailor made solution.
What sets Spike apart is that it is currently -– to our knowledge – the only general purpose High Speed Motion Control System in existence. We have seen (and also built and used ourselves) other rigs which were great for a very specific task, like rotating a camera around a centre point, but useless for anything else. With Spike, you are completely free to design any camera movement that the shot calls for. And apart from being able to perform that move faster than any other system we know of, what really makes Spike work as a creative tool is the ease, flexibility and interactivity with which those moves can be designed. The creative process involves exploration, iteration, fine-tuning, beginning again and you want your tools to support this process instead of getting in the way. Spike was designed with just that in mind.
What techniques do you use on a project GWA EFFIE that deals with matching virtual environment with real footage?

Actually, everything in the GWA EFFIE spot was shot in camera, and apart from colour correction, some retouching and the occasional compositing of two passes, no computer work was involved at all.
In projects where we indeed have to match virtual with real footage, we use the regular tricks of the trade: 3D tracking, exchanging camera moves between Spike and 3D Animation/Compositing software, mirror balls for matching lighting, extensive set documentation using photos and pen and paper, the good eye and experience of our 3D Animators and Compositors.
How important is it to have a proper education in this field?  

Few of us have a formal education in the field. Most people got into contact with this line of work by chance and we consistently find that the qualities that are most important for our way of working aren't necessarily being taught in school.
The ability to work in a team and under leadership is essential, but also being able to discharge large chunks of work without needing constant supervision. The understanding that what is best for your specific part of the project is not necessarily also the best for the greater common aim. Being able to work under constant (time-)pressure and having a high frustration threshold.
The quality with which somebody discharges (apparently) mundane tasks, like sweeping the studio floor, is often a good indicator of how that person will eventually approach more important tasks. 
Having a formal education on top of all this of course never hurts and all kinds of skills may sooner or later become useful.
Do you still find time for projects outside the advertising industry? What do you have up your sleeve for future projects?

Oh, we can't go there... our client's really wouldn't appreciate that! Let's just say that we aim to continue to produce breathtaking imagery. Keep checking our website!
If you had the opportunity to spend a day with anyone from this industry, who would it be?
Hard to pinpoint that. It would be somebody with the ability to surprise us with unusual points of view. Or even better, somebody who'd throw a nice big party for all of us, because in between all of the hard work, we need to relax a little every once in a while!