Brian Higgins, creative director at creative collective, Flavor, recounts breaking away from small screen work with dark, funny, and very bloody feature, Middle Man.
Hitting the big time in a booger t-shirt
In 1999, I started as a junior working with After Effects in Maya at the Interface Media Group in D.C. One day, I saw a guy come in one day with hair down to his shoulders, shorts, and a T-shirt that had a child's drawing of a kid at a lemonade stand. Except instead of a lemonade stand, it said, "Booger sandwiches, five cents" on it. Everyone who went into the Flame suite got espressos, and they came out seemingly blown away. I asked who the guy was that was working in there. They said, "That's Dave. He's our Flame artist."
I made it my mission to get into that room whenever I could, and stay nights and weekends and learn the box.
I was already into compositing at that point, but that was the first time I saw Flame. I made it my mission to get into that room whenever I could, and stay nights and weekends and learn the box. You know you've made it when you're wearing T-shirts to work with "booger sandwiches" written on it; that’s big time.
At Flavor, we work with Flame, Lustre, and Flare but we have always sold talent over gear. Half of my clients have no idea what software or what tools I'm using. Once in a while, I'll throw a schematic up and they'll go, "Wow, that's a lot of circles and lines," but really, they're paying to work with my team and I and not for all the gear. So, it's gotten leaner over the last few years, but the jobs are still out there. Especially at the higher end. Back then, it was the exclusive, big room that the facility was built around, and that was one of the main economic engines of the company. I wanted to be part of that action.
From desert to desk
The director of Middle Man is a longtime client and friend of Cutter Studios, Ned Crowley, the chief creative officer of McGarryBowen, a rather large ad agency. We've worked with him for years. He needed to take a sabbatical from his job, and he’d written this script some years ago for one of his improv friends from back when they were on the Chicago comedy circuit in the 80's. Jim O'Heir was on Parks and Rec and was the leading actor in the film.
Jim got involved, and then he went out and shot in the desert for three or four months on and off. He asked us if we would be interested in working with him and we said, "Of course." After helping out with a couple of sequences for a rough cut to help visualize things, and get it into festivals, I was responsible for the finish, the visual effects, the color grade, and master.
Blood splatter and street signs
Most of our visual effects work was gore, which, as someone who works 90% in commercials, is kind of rare. It was pretty exciting to blow the tops of people's heads off, and add muzzle flashes, blood splatters, and all sorts of stuff like that.
There were some effects where you had to add rain for continuity, where we ended up using wonderful crock rain matchbox for a bunch of shots. Beyond that, it was cleanups; changing road signs and storefronts, and seamless continuity visual effects that are the norm these days.
Regarding studying the look, the DP came in and sat with us for the color session for about a week. I spent a few days, unsupervised, getting everything going in Lustre. He sent some stills ahead of time that he’d worked up in Photoshop and then I got sequences roughed in around those stills. He came in from L.A., and he and the director camped out in my room for a week. We graded the whole film in one go.
It's a modern look, low contrast. A bit of blues and blacks, depending on the sequence. More stylized than straight-up real. It was a case of experimentation with the DP who had sent a bunch of frames over, and we used that as our jumping off point.
Flexing with Flame
Flame has all the tools that we need to do the job on one setup. We have a fairly established Flame pipeline and we leveraged our existing experience with short-form work into long-form work, and easily pass shots around to other artists. We experimented and took it as a chance to figure out OpenClip, which was cool for us. We don't tend to use it that often because the overheads on short-form stuff aren't worth what we get out of it. But as this was a long-form, larger project, we thought it would be a good opportunity try it. It was quite powerful to have two other Flare artists working on shots, and have everything populate in the timeline automatically on our end. It saved a lot of effort.
Lustre is a feature-film level grading program. It’s got a proven track record, and we've done very well with it in commercials grading. It seemed like a natural, easy decision to make for use on long-form. The performance, the tool-set, all that stuff is there.
This project took several months; there wasn't a hard deadline on it. They were entering it into festivals, who'll take a rough cut for entry purposes. There was a big push at the end though, to get the color done and the whole thing mastered.
When you're working in longer form, everything takes longer to do. So we finished the color and sent that out to all the decision-makers. A couple of changes come back and, as it's a 90-minute film or so, it takes an hour or two to make an MP4 or a ProRes version. It all adds up to the timeline.
Hitting the big screen
I think it might have been a little too dark for mom.
I'm proud of the work that my team did. We did a fantastic job. The blood-work is amazing and the grade came out really well. On top of that, Middle Man is something that people want to watch, which, when you work in commercials, is not always the case.
The film has a limited theatrical run so I was happy to tell my parents that they could go to the cinema to see my work. I had to warn them, of course, that it’s a very dark comedy and that it gets pretty graphic.
They liked it. But I think it might have been a little too dark for mom.
After a wildly unsuccessful attempt in college at studying music, Brian Higgins discovered that he could "use the computer to blow things up" and his fate was sealed. At Flavor, he's composited and color graded national commercials for some of the world’s largest brands, including Allstate, Budweiser, Disney, Chase, Dell, McDonald's, Maytag, Nintendo, Kellogg's, Samsung, Nike, and MillerCoors. Additionally, he’s leveraged his 18 years of experience as a Flame artist into teaching, having taught masterclasses for Autodesk throughout the US, Asia and Australia, and online for fxphd.com.