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Production Line : Benjamin Flaxman on Cutting Edge Technology and the Growth of Virtual Production


Tasty Picture’s studio producer & director, Benjamin Flaxman speaks to LBB on the cross media aspect of production and innovative technology

Production Line : Benjamin Flaxman on Cutting Edge Technology and the Growth of Virtual Production

Benjamin has directed commercials for some of the world’s biggest global agencies. His visually arresting work and cinematic style can be seen in campaigns for McDonald’s, Heinz, Arnott’s, Proctor & Gamble, Nestle, Oporto’s, Subway, Hungry Jacks, Red Rooster and The Coffee Club.

Benjamin is an experienced tabletop director who is equally well versed in getting natural and genuine performances from actors.

His approach is visual storytelling in a dynamic manner using in-camera techniques rather than visual effects. He strives to present the subjects honestly and realistically even if it’s heightened realism in order to maximise appetite appeal.

He has spent over a decade working closely with Australia’s most experienced directors and cinematographers to create a balance between beautiful tabletop imagery and breathtaking performance. For all his insights, Benjamin spoke to LBB...

LBB> Production used to be quite siloed, then it moved to integrated and now it seems producers can be media/platform-neutral problem solvers - what’s your take?

Benjamin> Production isn’t just one medium in this digital era. It used to be TV and possibly cinema. Then online / digital extended the end deliverables. However, these days the diversity of what content needs to be created is multi-disciplined. We might be shooting something solely for the digital space, or it could be broadcast and digital. We need to be across-shooting for a multitude of aspect ratios and take into an often long list of deliverables that can range in a wealth of durations and different formats. On top of that the moving image is not siloed and working in isolation. Most shoots will have a stills component integrated and working in tandem with the live-action shoot whilst making them all work in sync with each other to tight timelines and budgets. On a fundamental level what we do hasn’t changed. We are problem solvers. We are content creators. We are trying to deliver an impeccable result in generally tighter timelines and more expansive collaborations. In many ways, I like being able to create a synergy with lots of moving parts. Doing a straight 16:9 30-second TVC for broadcast and online channels is now more the exception to the rule. We have had to learn to be jugglers and well-planned and meticulous producers. 

LBB> Can you talk us through one or two of the most exciting recent productions that you’ve been involved in that you think had a really interesting innovation or technological aspect to them?

Benjamin> I’m lucky I get to work with a variety of cutting-edge technology under the roof at Tasty. Bolt Robots have been around for several years and are globally immensely popular because they allow for rock-steady, perfectly repeatable moves every time without camera shake and allow us to get the camera on angles and trajectories often not possible – certainly at the higher frame rates. One of my more recent highlights was being able to construct a 15-second commercial which was a singular take of a food subject in the macro world. We needed to travel around this subject to take in different characteristics in carefully crafted compositions and be able to travel to each one seamlessly and quickly but without disorientating the viewer in a very short amount of screen time. All the while being choreographed to a licenced music track. It worked but this would not have been possible in camera without this technology just a few years ago. That challenge and the possibilities are exciting.  

LBB> Virtual production is growing in popularity with film and TV (e.g. Loki and The Mandalorian) - what are your thoughts about its potential in the advertising space?

Benjamin> I couldn’t believe the technology when I watched The Mandalorian and how they managed to achieve the reflections and the art direction – and in such short timelines. So I, like much of the world, was entranced by The Volume. However, we all know that like all new technological advances, it has its positives and its limitations. This is an exciting new tool and essentially an extension of the green screen world we have been working with for decades but just with some remarkable advancements, especially when it comes to lighting. 

I think the cost is prohibitive in the advertising space presently but undoubtedly this will change as it advances and the tech gets cheaper. When the scales move so it is cheaper to use this technique overdoing it for real or against a green screen then I can see it taking off – and I am sure it will. 

I can see real potential for it in the advertising space when it comes to backgrounds and environments that are either costly to set build or the cost to trade with businesses who have to close their locations or stores down in order to shoot within them, especially if it's regular shooting such as fast food. 

The reality is we are moving the back end of the process in post-production where we would create the worlds in green screen to pre-production and develop them ahead of time. I think once advertising budgets can afford the process, there are some real opportunities to just improve the end result or to make production more efficient. 

Having said all of this, at the end of the day, it is still a tool. It is just a new one to add to our kits - like a green screen, a phantom camera, technocrane or a robot. It is something there we can draw on in the right circumstances to help us creatively or to get a better result. It shouldn’t be something to use just because you can, rather it’s the right technology for the creative brief. It would be amazing to explore what is possible with this new technology in the tabletop space. I’ve yet to see it done. 

LBB> It looks like, if it does catch on, it will involve quite a different workflow/process - is that something agencies and brands need to educate themselves on?

Benjamin> I think if agencies and brands understand what it does and why it benefits them, they will certainly have creativity written that keeps it in mind and makes some things that weren’t possible before now more feasible. I think knowing how the process works – with design, development and execution of the content on the screens being done prior and allowing time in the scheduling is an important educational tool. Probably the bigger learnings will be those in post-production and creatively so they know what the limitations are, how to work with them, and most importantly how to get the best out of it. It’s still very new but we will become experts very quickly.

LBB> With so many platforms to produce for, what’s your preference, to maximise assets across platforms or to produce content that’s more tailored to each content - or some sort of balance? What sort of conversations do you tend to have about this sort of thing?

Benjamin> I don’t really have a preference. I am all about the intent and the brief. I like good creative that engages the most that there is; clear messaging and storytelling or a production or technical challenge within the creative idea. 

Ensuring we can deliver high-level results regardless of platform or asset. I love briefs that have a diversity of content and being that juggler I mentioned earlier and being able to have or foster really strong unity and synergy between directors, photographers and cinematographers. At the same time, a singular story told in 30 or 60 seconds for one platform is equally rewarding but certainly a unicorn in this day and age. The conversations usually involve how do we adapt or make the best use of the budget and time to get the amount of content required in print and on screen. Budgets are not getting bigger and as the media continually broadcasts, costs of living are increasing so that the elastic band gets pulled and stretched increasingly each year. 

LBB> Tasty Studios boasts some pretty impressive Bolt Equipment, can you talk about what these robots can be utilised for and how diverse their application is?

Benjamin> At its core, they are designed to move the camera in very precise, fluid trajectories and be able to position a camera in almost any position and program-specific moves around the subject. They are essentially more modern versions of Motion Control developed during “Star Wars”. 

However, they are more robust and faster to use with the software and technology these days and the biggest characteristic difference is they can move extremely fast. This is blink and you miss it technology. So it can work on one of two levels – in standard frame rates and doing completely accurate and repeatable moves, or put a high-speed camera on it at 1000fps and suddenly you can have obvious camera movement in these slow motion shots which just wasn’t possible previously. Bolt using the Flair software is the leading brand of robotic technology in the world because it is reliable, quick and avoids camera shake and vibrations that many others struggle with. They are best suited in the tabletop arena because of this stability because, in the macro world, every vibration on the camera is magnified. They are perfectly suited in that case. 

Tasty is the only company in Australia to have two of them – a large and a small one. The benefit here is the small one can be used to move models or subjects or even lights whilst the larger one controls the camera. They can talk to each other so they can be precisely coordinated. 

Their one downside is they are very large and heavy so transporting and working in tight locations isn't very practical (but still possible) – this is necessary for the stability. So it is more of a studio tool in that regard. 

However, we will soon have a third smaller robot that will talk to Fred & Barney but will be extremely light and easily transportable and perfect for repeat moves on location. For macro photography, Fred will still be the best tool to use for that application but our new robot will expand the options and ease of shooting on set – especially with lifestyle and talent-based applications or needing to navigate tight locations.  

LBB>How has integration of these technologies changed production ie. the speed of shoots, the accuracy of shots etc?

Benjamin> They have really just opened up the creative ideas further by being able to entertain possibilities that may not have been possible previously. In some cases, this technology, once programmed and set up, can be efficient (like not having to chase focus on tracking shots every time as it's programmed). It is more about being able to achieve a desired result with the right tool which in itself is efficient. Rather than trying to achieve a result with a manually operated tool and trying to get it bang on every time. So not so much changed but evolved.  

LBB> What are the technologies that you have your eye on that either are having a big impact on how production is done - or have the potential to change things in a big way?

Benjamin> Technology that makes it easier to shoot for different aspect ratios at the same time would be intriguing. The Volume is the latest interesting proposition and I feel has far more longevity and possibility than 3D did a few years ago. I think it’s just always being educated about what technology is doing, how it is improving, and being open to experimenting with it. Not getting stuck in the headspace of this is how it was always done so must be this way is a risk of obsolescence. Staying relevant but also understanding that we can keep expanding the toolbox so there are so many tools available but it doesn’t mean you have to use them all on the one project.

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Tasty Pictures, Mon, 17 Apr 2023 02:08:22 GMT