The Roller Derby Lives On

October 8, 2006 10:04 pm

Mark Woollen's documentary "Jam" captures the fading world of the Roller Derby. Greg Brotherton, Art Director for the film, talks about the process of designing the movie poster, and about the visual effects his team created for the film.

Mark Woollen & Associates is a motion graphics and trailer house owned by Mark Woollen, whose recent trailers include "Crash" and "March of the Penguins." Greg Brotherton and Ralf Leeb are responsible for the company's trailer graphics, so when Woollen needed a graphics team for his eight-year labor of love, Jam, they were the logical choice. "Even though it was a documentary, there was a lot of boom removal and that type of thing," Brotherton says, "where we had cameramen reflected in windows and we had to retrack the shots and take them out. We did all that with a combination of MAXON CINEMA 4D and Boujou Camera Track."

In addition to removal work, the film features an animated sequence that was done entirely in CINEMA 4D. Brotherton's team created a stylized version of a cardboard roller derby game from the 1970's. "We raced the characters around and illustrated how the game is played, with arrows over some of the characters' heads, and little plastic bases sliding around." It was rendered in High Definition for theatrical presentation. "It turned out really well and was a fun little project," Brotherton says.


How to Play the Game


When it came time to do the movie poster, the team tried a number of approaches before settling on the iconic image of a single battered skate. "There were a lot of versions that didn't use 3D, where we cobbled together more of a photographic illustration, but none of those worked ," Brotherton explains. "I probably could have realistically illustrated the skate, but it is difficult without good reference." Brotherton estimates that in addition to photographic versions of the skate image, there were about fifteen other concepts that were explored. In most film marketing, the director has very little input on the poster, because the marketing company wants to sell the movie a certain way, and it's out of the director's hands by that time. In the case of Jam, Brotherton was working with the director, "so it was really important that this feel perfect for his movie."


The Finished Poster


Brotherton talks about the evolution of the image for the poster: "Originally there was a grainy blurry shot from a series of photos taken while working on the movie. They wanted something similar for the poster; a really degraded, trashed skate. We couldn't find one we liked, so I went into Adobe Photoshop and started building out textures, and was able to get them realistic enough to actually work for the poster."

The majority of the skate was modeled in CINEMA 4D, starting with a cube, then "cutting it up using the knife tool inside of a HyperNurbs object, until I got it fairly realistic." The laces were made using splines. "Tying them through the eyelets and making sure that the splines didn't intersect any part of the eyelet was a challenge," Brotherton says. "It was a single spline and I dragged the points to the eyelets and kind of looked at it from a billion angles until it was right."

Brotherton then took the model into Pixologic ZBrush "to brush a little bit more form into it, because it's easy in ZBrush to do quick organic shaping." Talking about the transition between CINEMA 4D and ZBrush, Brotherton says, "it was okay. I do most of my texturing in CINEMA 4D and Body Paint 3D, so I didn't mess around with exporting UV coordinates from ZBrush. I just did a basic object, and subdivided it in Zbrush, but I prefer the versatility of having a CINEMA 4D HyperNurbs object so it's not so huge on the polygon count."


The Boot in Wireframe View


To break the wheel, Brotherton used a boole object and then used a displacement map "to give it more of an organic break."


Broken Wheel Detail


Textures were done almost entirely in Photoshop. Brotherton elaborates: "I do use Body Paint 3D but I generally use it to mark my UV's. I use the UV editor in Body Paint 3D to generate a clean unfolded mesh before I take it into Photoshop so I don't have to mess around with the placement.. I do the majority of my texturing in Photoshop just because I've done so much Photoshop illustration that it's more comfortable than anything else."

Brotherton used two separate lighting setups to create the final image. The lighting on the wheels and base used Global Illumination. "This was version CINEMA 4D R9. I don't think it had Ambient Occlusion yet, so I believe I used the Dirt function." Brotherton did a more standard "studio lighting setup" for the skate body itself. "One reason I rendered the wheels separately from the skate leather is that we were going back and forth a lot on the leather coloring and look." Also, the render was very large, as it was going to be used for a 40-inch-tall poster. "I had to use CINEMA 4D's nine tile camera preset to chop up the image into sections, so I could use Net Render to render those sections separately. That was the first time I had used that feature and it worked great. We have fifteen machines in our Net Render farm that we use for rendering animation, but this was the first time I rendered a still with it."

Brotherton switched his focus from Maya to CINEMA 4D when he started working in the trailer business. "A couple of years ago, I was at an advertising agency, and I had been using Maya on and off for a while. Then I left and started working on trailers. Most of the trailer houses that I was freelancing at had CINEMA 4D. I was a Mac guy, and it was very easy for the Mac. What turned me on about it was the quick turnaround. It had some issues with workflow for really complex projects; Maya has a lot of things in place for pipeline, things that CINEMA 4D doesn't really have. But the speed of use for doing quick stuff, which is what they want to see in trailers, makes it really attractive for trailer houses.

Brotherton's advice for those who want to work in motion graphics is to go back to the basics of design. "We're getting a lot of portfolios from people who know software, but can't necessarily illustrate. A lot of the basics of designing graphics and designing with type are old-school crafts that seem to be getting lost. It's not as important to have someone that knows the software really well as to have someone that's a good artist. If you bring the composition and illustration skills and animation skills to the table, you can learn the software."

Brotherton's pursuit of classic design values has led him to the unusual sideline of sculpting giant robots and sci-fi weapons, which can be seen at Brotherton's website, "I re-craft retro appliances. Sculpting has always been my side gig --I never really wanted to do small stuff, so I have one robot, 'Mercury,' that's 9 feet tall and weighs about 400 pounds. He's in our living room right now and I don't want to ever have to move him!" Brotherton has a complete machine shop "with a C& C router and about every tool you can imagine for metal and wood, so it's a big shop. I'll occasionally build main titles out of real materials and shoot them so I kind of have an effects shop in the back of the house." So far, Brotherton has been too busy to get his sculpture into the public eye in a big way, but a mention on author Cory Doctorow's BoingBoing website ( got the ball rolling. "I went from getting seven thousand hits a day to getting 250 thousand, so I had to upgrade my service pretty quick! My raygun commercial movie was getting an insane amount of downloads, they were pulling off something like ten gigs a day."


Stand Mixer Ray Gun


The sculpture sideline has turned out to be a great way to get work. "People see that stuff and go, 'we've gotta use this guy, he's got a screw loose!'"

You can read more about Jam and view the "How to Play" clip at

Mary Dell is a freelance writer living in Chicago. She can be reached via her website,

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October 9, 2006

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