Not sure if you’ve heard the great news but NASA made the AdAge Viral Video Chart in September thanks to Brian Adler’s awesome video “Ground Control” for the Zero Robotics Video Project. While the video earned over 1.5 million views online and became a terrific piece of marketing for the NASA, DARPA and MIT co-sponsored competition, it earned Adler $11,900 for his first place win! (Not to mention some fantastic visibility in the digital space and an outstanding sample of work for his reel!) Combine that with the $1,000 he won for the NASA Venus Transit Video Time Capsule Project and it sounds like this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Adler, Tongal and NASA. We had a chance to catch up with Brian Adler – December’s Tongaler of the Month – to ask him some questions about his winning Tongal experience and our exchange leaves little doubt that he has some serious filmmaking knowledge to share.
Caleb Light-Wills – What inspired you to enter this competition?
Brian Adler – I liked how the stakes increased from student to student in the original idea. This is important for any story, no matter how short or long. Starting with a simple kite, moving up to the RC plane and ultimately the Space Station creates a sense of anticipation for the viewer, hopefully leaving them asking “What’s next?” even at the end. My goal was for them to want to research and learn more about the program.
CLW – What did you think of the other videos?
BA – The other videos were great. There’s so much talent out there. Coming from a visual effects background, myself, I especially liked Colin Levy’s “Show Off.” Great story telling, strong cinematography, CG and compositing. It’s amazing how much work goes into so many of these projects.
CLW – What does it feel like to take home 1st place?
BA – I’m thrilled to have won and to have created some buzz and awareness for this educational program. And frankly, with the amount of time and money spent upfront to create the spot, it’s nice to be able to cover the investment.
CLW – How did you come up with the pitch for Ground Control?
BA – Basil Tase’s original idea pitted the three kids against each other, directly interacting, as each tried to one-up the other in the same location. I twisted the idea and separated the kids, since I wanted to be sure to appeal to kids of various backgrounds in different locations. But I still wanted to link them with a common bond, their aspirations. So, I thought a creative way to connect them would be using the aerial objects they control, ultimately connecting all of them to the International Space Station and the Zero Robotics program, including the other kids actually competing.
CLW – How long did it take you to create “Ground Control” and what was your process like?
BA – Start to finish, the process took about three weeks. My producer-editor, Jared Lark, and I shot a rough animatic and cut it together for timing. We posted the casting breakdowns for the kids and narrowed it down to a few Skype interviews in a couple of days. The biggest challenge was finding a school that would allow us to film there, and it turned out the L.A. center for Enriched Studies, just a block away from my house, came through. We shot downtown on my friend’s roof early in the morning, moved to the school before lunch, then drove down to Palos Verdes for the park shot and Palm grove in the afternoon. Getting four locations in one day with the sun where we needed it in each was the biggest challenge. Since we already cut the animatic and the spot consisted of only four shots, we were able to cut the spot in a day, so we could send the plates to our talented CG artist, Ryan Johnson, who also designed the titles cards, to animate the kite and spheres he built and to Rick Shick, to start compositing. Those guys were both heroes.
CLW – What kind of equipment and programs did you use?
BA – We shot the entire spot on a canon 7D with a wide-angle fisheye lens on a simple doorway dolly and portable track. DSLR’s are difficult to focus outdoors with lots of light and small screens, so the 7D’s slightly smaller chip provided a little extra depth of field while dollying. After I got the moves I wanted, I checked focus on a monitor to be sure. We used a couple of mirror reflectors for our key light when the sun was behind our subject, and Bill Sloggatt did a great job panning the reflector on shots when our subject was running, like the girl flying the kite. We cut in FCP 7, used Maya to create the kite and spheres and Nuke for all the final composites and color.
CLW – The tilt-transition is a great effect; can you talk a little bit about how you achieved it?
BA – The key to any effect like this is really just good planning. I tried a few different tilt and pan speeds and angles in our animatic, which was critical in determining how the movement would work from shot to shot. I also used a circular polarizer on the lens to help match the glare and saturation. Rick Shick did the rest to stabilize and correct speed and angle inconsistencies with Nuke. He also did an amazing job compositing the first space station shot into the girl’s iPad and maintaining the reflection to make it feel real.
CLW – One of my favorite components of the video was the trailer-like sequence containing the footage NASA provided. Did you have an idea of how you wanted that to play out or did you have to dig into the footage before deciding on the cards, timing, etc.?
BA – I wrote the title cards as part of the original pitch and started editing the NASA video before we even started filming. I knew it would be difficult to explain the program in sixty seconds, but it was important to us to show the excitement and connection between the students at home and the astronauts in the space station and I think that’s why our video won.
CLW – What’s next for you on Tongal or otherwise?
BA – I’m putting the finished touches on a TV show I created for Style Network while working on some tentpole features as Executive Producer for Gentle Giant Studios. I have a great idea for a soft drink spot, if there are any beverage companies out there who want to give Tongal a try!
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