Within the context of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, this brilliantly crafted promo for Gregory Porter's 'Revival' follows the story of a boy who finds his inner strength and confidence through dance. Stink director Douglas Bernardt utilises scale and optical illusions as a symbolic vessel, crafting a narrative centred around a tiny boy who slowly grows larger and larger as the film progresses, both physically, and internally. The optical illusions were seamlessly put together by the VFX team at Brazlian studio Nash.
The film marks a new style of filmmaking for Douglas, whose short film for Baco Exu do Blues' album Bluesman was awarded the Cannes Lions Grand Prix for Entertainment for Music in 2019. Revival was his first ever VFX-forward film - he sees it as a film that thematically resembles his previous work but is completely different in its execution and the techniques involved.
LBB's Addison Capper chatted with him to find out how he pulled it off.
LBB> What was the inspiration behind this concept? What were the starting points? And why was it something you were keen to make?
Douglas> The song ‘Revival’ is about finding your inner strength, the resurrection of your self-confidence. When you hear the song’s words, they are pretty straightforward in conveying a sense of narrative. So for the video, we wanted to create a concept that was strong but, at the same time, accessible. So that everyone in the world would understand the message, through the lyrics, dance and effects.
This led me to this image of a tiny boy who grows and becomes a giant. It's very simple. The key was finding the right point of being literal but not cheesy. Making the scenes and the lyrics stronger when attached to each other.
LBB> Why did you link it to the LA riots?
Douglas> Having an interracial subject was a request from Gregory. Once we had our shooting located in Los Angeles, we thought the LA riots made sense as a trigger for the narrative. The LA Riots and the Rodney King case are known worldwide as an important space of time for reflection over oppression and the fight against racism. And would also work in our principle of making the film connect with any audience.
LBB> What can you tell me about the big / small element? What are the connotations of that? What's the narrative?
Douglas> This aspect is totally related to the character's feelings. The scales tricks are a metaphor for the boy's journey into finding back his confidence. All the moments and his growth were planned in advance in every shot. It was always an equation. story + scale + dance/acting intention.
LBB> From a practical perspective, how did you pull off those transitions from big to small? They're so seamless! What techniques are at play?
Douglas> From a VFX perspective, it was a basic workflow. We shot empty plates of every scene where the boy would change the size after roto and composition. What made the transitions seamless was the boy’s acting matched with the effect. When he shrinks on the couch we thought about a movement that would work as a motif for that - the boy sliding down the armchair. Same when he grows in the jazz club, his body expression of moving the shoulders was what made it look so smooth :)
LBB> What was the post process like?
Douglas> I guess there was nothing very special in the process itself but definitely in the professionals who made the film. I was very happy to get a good crew together with much more experience in VFX than me. Revival is actually my first 100% VFX film. The editor Danilo Abraham did the first rough compositions in the editing, it was very helpful to understand what worked from the shoot and what did not. The VFX studio Nash commanded by Cirilo Bonazzi did the polish in the comps and all the finishings. Pretty much every single sky and clouds are also composed. A lot of cleaning and textures were added as well. They did an amazing job.
Also, Christopher Ripley the cinematographer did a great job on lighting the chroma key setups. We shot the plates in the locations on the first day, and in the studio on the second.
That was helpful because we had in hand all the light references to emulate artificially in the studio.
LBB> Some of the dancing is excellent. Who is the protagonist and what kind of conversations were you having with him?
Douglas> The protagonist is Jemoni Powe and the choreographer was Amy Gardner.
I was very lucky to work together with this duo. I have done some dance films before but they were all super freestyle. In Revival, we rehearsed and did specific breakdowns over the locations. Every section of the dance was planned ahead of time and ingeniously created by Amy.
Directing wise we always worked with this principle of the film as a journey of empowerment. The dance was thought to have a crescendo and it conducts the narrative line with the movements.
The tiny boy in the house dances more shyly, he is afraid and oppressed by the world around him. As he starts to move he gets more confident. The turning point is when he meets Gregory. After that is all about him feeling himself as a giant.
The shots in the Ames Room (built by PD Tyler Evans) were important to summarise the whole idea in one single setup. The illusional effect was perfect for our narrative.
LBB> From an aesthetic point of view, what were your main aims and ambitions?
Douglas> I have a very clear intention of always bringing a feeling of hopefulness and a spirit of redemption to my work. I believe a lot in the power of a film and how much it can empower and represent people. Since I first listened to Revival I knew that I could bring this vibe to it. So it is a film that thematically resembles my previous works, but is completely different in terms of execution and technique.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Douglas> Honestly, everything was tricky. But I loved it. I studied a lot about optics and how to play with scales, so the trickiness of it was also the fun of it.
As I said before it was my very first VFX film, so I learned a lot. Previously, I’ve always gravitated to a more freestyle and organic way of shooting, but I wanted Revival to be different. It was 99% planned and super organised in the prep.
The biggest lesson I learned from making Revival was to listen to more experienced people. I had the pleasure of collaborating with amazing professionals who made this film come out so well.