The Magic Behind Movie Making: A Drexel Professor’s Role in “Silver Linings Playbook”

The final word on the year’s best movies is annually handed down by the Academy of Motion Pictures in the form of little, gold “Oscar” statuettes. And while the stars are still the most recognizable part of these films, nearly everything else that appears on the “silver screen” today has been touched –and retouched- by a talented group of digital artisans called visual effects artists.

One such artisan is Jeremy Fernsler, a recent addition to the faculty of the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design in the digital media program, who has used his background in cinematography and animation to help put the finishing touches on many of today’s popular pictures, including the Oscar-nominated “Silver Linings Playbook,” a movie that was set and filmed in the Philadelphia area.

Fernsler’s skilled hand helped create a scene in the movie where a book is supposed to be thrown through a window and land on the ground in front of the camera.

“Of course, the book wouldn’t cooperate,” Fernsler said. “It went through the window and fell straight down with all the glass, instead of being projected through the breaking window and falling in an arc to the ground.”

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As a freelancer for a local visual effects company at the time, Fernsler was charged with melding shots of the book being thrown through the window, breaking the glass, and falling to the ground – to give it the look the director wanted.

“While it sounds like a straightforward process to take the breaking glass from one shot and add it to another, it’s not quite so easy,” Fernsler said. “Inserting the glass required the removal of the original book, tracking and painting back each shard of shattering glass, removing or matching shadows from each shot, matching color, matching grain and, finally, making sure the two elements move together perfectly.”

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In the above frame, Fernsler removed the glass shards and inserted the book leaving the window at the desired trajectory.
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The highlighted area shows the elements of the shot that Fernsler altered to create the final look.

Fernsler’s retooling took several days behind a computer monitor, using a sophisticated visual effects software, NUKE, that essentially breaks the digital footage into pieces so that he can individually edit each part before recombining them into the finished scene. With the program Autodesk Maya, Fernsler created and animated a digital version of the book and inserted it into the shot, replacing the uncooperative book.

As unlikely as it might seem for a romantic comedy like “Silver Linings Playbook” to incorporate visual effects, this sort of editing is present – to some degree – in nearly every film and television show that’s made today, according to Fernsler. Most of the effects are subtle tweaks that allow directors to produce a shot just the way they want it to look, even if it didn’t come through the lens that way.

Visual effects editing often plays a role in shooting a movie well before the cameras begin rolling. In the recent action movie “Jack Reacher,” Fernsler was one of two effects artists brought in to create a three-dimensional, digital model of downtown Pittsburgh –in a matter of two and a half weeks- in order to simulate a car chase scene.

This entailed taking hundreds of photos of the sites and making careful measurements to accurately create the computer model. From there, the director was able to plan the positioning of cameras along the chase route to achieve the desired angles during the actual shoot.

“While you don’t see any of my actual work in the movie, it definitely contributed to bringing that scene together,” Fernsler said. “That’s what I enjoy about digital effects editing, it’s behind the scenes. It adds to the visual appeal of the movie and if you do a good job the audience doesn’t notice that what they’re watching has been altered.”

Fernsler has worked on 19 feature-length films including “I am Number Four,” “The Last Airbender,” “The Road,” “August Rush,” and “Chernobyl Diaries.” As an assistant teaching professor in the Westphal College, Fernsler teaches advanced animation classes and digital matte painting.

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