Behind the Scenes – Congressional Campaign Commercial

One of the reasons I was excited to make the switch from Apple’s Final Cut Studio (which I had been using since 1999) to to the production tools in Adobe CS6 was because of the legendary power of After Effects. When the opportunity came up to do a campaign commercial, I decided to edit the whole project in After Effects. My normal style is very clean and classic, and I was eager to stretch out and play with some different types of visual effects.

Here’s the commercial I came up with.

I shot almost all the footage on the Canon 5D Mark II. I did the closing shot (the only one with dialogue) with my Panasonic AF100, partly because it’s easier to record proper audio on that camera, and partly because I was curious to see how closely the AF100 footage would resemble the 5D footage (I had done tests to that effect a couple of years ago, but nothing recent). Then, I pulled the footage and some existing elements provided by the candidate (military ID, etc.) into After Effects, and got to work.

The first thing I did was to build the HUD display for the opening shot. The overall look of this element and the map sequence later on in the spot were inspired by the 2012 movie “Battleship,” which had some very cool motion graphics. In my opinion, it’s not good to copy things, but it is good to look at high-end work for reference and inspiration.

With liberal use of YouTube AfterEffects tutorials, I got the HUD and map graphics looking the way I wanted them. Then, I moved on to the rest of the spot. I found that editing video clips in After Effects is actually quite difficult, because AE has rather limited real-time playback capability (at least on my MacBook Pro), which means that it’s hard to review raw footage, and it’s even harder to tell how long a shot actually lasts. I had to export the whole spot several times just to check timing.

I’ve written before about how much I like Colorista II for color grading. Fortunately, that plugin works in both Premiere Pro and After Effects, so I was able to color grade the clips with a familiar tool. To add a bit of panache, I composited some 2K light leak clips from over the outdoor footage. Compared to the very generous use of grading, the light leak effect is subtle, but I like it.

For the final shot, I was surprised to see how bad the AF100 footage looked, compared to the 5D footage shot at the same time. Look at these ungraded still frames. I was eventually able to grade the AF100 shot to get reasonably close, but it never had the crisp colors and smooth highlights of the 5D clip.

I also found that trying to edit audio in After Effects is absolutely horrible, so I wound up exporting the whole sequence as video-only, and adding all the voice, music and sound effects in Premiere Pro.

Ultimately, I’m quite pleased with how the spot came out. I set out to create something that looked more like a movie trailer than a typical political ad, and I feel that I was successful in that regard. After Effects is a staggeringly deep program, and I’ve only scratched the surface of its capabilities, but it’s a tool I look forward to exploring further.

One note about this commercial: I originally intended the voiceover to be strong and assertive, like this:

But, people universally hated it, so I replaced it with a warmer, more reassuring one.

Everything else about those two spots is the same. Only the voiceover is different. Even though it’s only a few seconds of each spot, it goes to show how the voice selection can really impact viewer response.

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