Retro VFX: Cloning Freddie Prinze, Jr.

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In 2005, a new show called Freddie starring Freddie Prinze, Jr. briefly made it onto US television screens. While the show’s one and only season may not have been that memorable, its opening titles were pretty cool – they featured a number of ‘Freddie’ clones getting up to mischief in one continuous shot.

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Concept art which was part of the planning for where to place greenscreens during the motion control shoot.

Back then, I was able to interview visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun about that 24 second long clone shot. At the time, Okun graciously provided me with some nice concept and planning imagery relating to the work, but I never saw any final stills, or, crazily, even the actual opening titles themselves! YouTube had just started but there wasn’t much on there yet, and I was in Australia where I doubt the show ever eventually aired.

But just a few days ago I somehow came across the titles while flicking through YouTube, and remembered the fun notes Okun had provided to me about shooting the scene motion control, where the greenscreens would be placed to aid in compositing, and then on the challenges of post. Sadly, a previous incarnation of vfxblog was lost to a server crash, and only some of the site can be found on the awesome Wayback Machine. But the text is still there, along with a lone concept image. Anyway, I’d thought I’d now share the titles and Okun’s text with readers again for a fun look at how those neat titles were pulled off.

Jeff Okun: This was a blast to do. The premise here is that Freddie is all things to all his family and friends. They wanted a main title to reflect this so Bruce Helford, Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Conrad Jackson (the show’s creators) came up with the idea of having Freddie continually clone off into a new Freddie for EACH person’s needs.

It is one 24-second long continuous moving shot where Freddie begins making-out with his girlfriend on the sofa, clones off to open a jar for his sister-in-law, leaving the original Freddie still kissing on the sofa. His Niece needs help with her homework so he clones off from the jar opening Freddie. His Mother walks by and smacks the kissing Freddie in the back of the head, causing him to clone off him and leap over the sofa to have a discussion with her, while, his sister needs help opening a bottle of wine, so the Freddie (helping with the homework) clones off to help her. Freddie’s pal, Chris, enters and starts to make a move on the kissing girl on the sofa, who is still kissing the original Freddie, so the Freddie arguing with Mom clones off and removes Chris from the sofa. While Freddie and Chris discuss this, Freddie clones from that Freddie to join the girl on the sofa still kissing the other Freddie. And then he grabs the girl and they exit frame left together, leaving the original Freddie sitting on the sofa alone.

Pretty cool, eh? Confusing? You bet. How do you work all this out? Charts! Graphs! Lots of discussion. A bit of rehearsal. And keeping your fingers crossed.

After it was all blocked out we spent an evening on the Freddie set with stand-ins acting all the parts out. The guy who played Freddie would do all of the Freddies so we could see what was physically possible. We wore him out ‘real good’!

Seeing that rehearsal made it easy to understand the zones of the set we were going to work in, which made it very easy to understand where the green screen was going to go and where the tracks for the motion-control camera needed to be.

Obviously we needed a guide take. This is something where I asked Freddie to play all the Freddies himself in one take so we could base all of our timings for every other take on it. Freddie did it for me about eight times, no small feat I assure you.

Once we had that in hand, it all became a matter of matching starting positions at each point a clone was going to happen and the speed of his cross over to the next event. We used video playback for that. Our video assist guy, Mike Spikell from Video Hawks, was a real hero for keeping it all together and organized. We never had to wait for him to show me a split or temp comp of where we were at.

The first real pass, the Freddie kissing the girl on the sofa, went very well. But I think Freddie was kind of unhappy with it and we had to do it a lot of times…either that or he really enjoyed kissing the girl…just kidding. It was a two take deal and Freddie is a truly consummate professional.

Each take of this pass and every pass had to be the full length of the shot. I wanted to have the insurance of being able to use the blank parts of the set (the areas where no action was taking place) in case I needed to patch up a jumping pillow or sagging couch or moved chair or whatever.

At the point defined by the guide where Freddie #1 clones into another Freddie, we used the frozen video to position him to match himself. That way the clone would start on the movement of splitting apart and all we needed to do was use an articulated wipe to reveal the new Freddie.

We did this for each and every clone/split. It took all day long to shoot. And besides all the matching, you had to keep on top of the energy of the performance and of course, all the acting. There was a lot going on and it didn’t help that all the show’s producers, show runner and creators where all hanging around to see the magic. Made me a bit nervous.

So now we hit post, which was done at Modern Video Film in Burbank. My friend, Mark Intravartolo, was the artist on the shot for me and I must say I really handed him some fun with this one!

First thing we discovered was that the motion-control did not line up. It did that most horrible of all horrors type thing – it sort of lined up. If it just didn’t line up we would have caught it on set. But when it sort of lines up, meaning it lines up here and there and drifts in and out of perfect…boy that really makes it hard. So we spent a lot of time fixing the MoCo error.

After that we got into the real meat of the job – rotoscoping. We needed to be able to separate a few of the Freddies from the character he was interacting with so we could clone at a later point than I had originally thought. Just the ones where Sofia and Mom walk behind the sofa Freddie.

Next we began the actual clone work. Now let me tell you about making clones…you got to wear one of those long white doctor’s coats with the buttons up the side instead of the front, big black rubber gloves and one of the mirror thingies on your head… and when the lightning strikes you have to laugh insanely.

And that is really not too far from the truth either.

John Pasquin was the director. He was very patient and easy to work with as well. I ran back and forth between Freddie and John all day long – probably 5-10 miles, but then I needed the exercise.

The details of the clone drive you nuts. What needs to be visually simple is extremely complex. You have to decide how he clones specifically: When does the head come out, from where, is it solid all the time or 2-3 frame fade in, does the clone wipe down or to the side or what? Does he go in front of himself or behind and on and on and on.

Obviously each clone has its own issues and answers that are directed by the motion and action. But the difficulty comes in when someone wants something other than what that action dictates. For example, the very first clone, the one from the kissing Freddie to the jar opening Freddie was done about 45 times. And they still are not in love it. We tried articulated wipes, fades, color corrections, speed changes, repositioning, glowing, blurring and on and on. And when we finally did define the clone, the network wanted something completely different. I think the version we turned in looks fantastic and seamless, but it wasn’t easy – which is why I love it so much.