Chances are you played this game, or a variation of it, when you were a child: you pretend the floor is covered with something dangerous, be it lava or monsters, and jump from one piece of furniture to another to avoid falling in. If you touch the ground, you’re out.
This familiarity probably explains why the seven-minute short film “The Floor is Lava” has been such an internet hit, garnering over 50 million views between Facebook and YouTube in a few months. “The idea was relatable. It’s a game we all played as kids,” says director Clinton Jones. “The idea was relatable. It’s a game we all played as kids,” says director Clinton Jones.
Let’s climb the house
The idea for the film came to Clinton and his roommates as they were practicing in a rock-climbing gym. The gym became too boring; they wanted more. So one of the friends suggested they try to climb the two-story house they all shared in Pasadena, California. “We thought, how could we get from the first story [ground floor for Europeans] to the second floor without touching the ground?” explains Clinton. They decided to turn this idea into a fun video that would also touch upon some of the typical conflicts between roommates in a light-hearted way. Everyone helped write the script, and they star in the film, too, which was shot in their home over three days. A fourth roommate, who appears briefly at the end of the video, wrote the music.
To implement this project, Clinton Jones had the opportunity to test the ZEISS Compact Prime CP.3 XD lenses. These lenses, first introduced in April 2017, were specially designed to increase efficiency and flexibility in modern filmmaking. The lenses contain advanced technology that provides a wide range of real-time information about each lens.
Telling the story with the lenses
The crew received five CP.3 XP lenses with focal lengths ranging from 15 to 135 mm. “For awkward moments, you want a wide angle of 15. For cinematic close-ups or hero moments, you do 35 or 50. For a close-up focusing on a specific piece of the action, we would use 85,” explains Clinton. “The lenses help tell the story.”
In the opening scene, Clinton awakens roommate Carl in the middle of the night to warn him about the lava. Here a wide-angle lens was used. “We needed to show as much as possible so that the audience could see me in the background and Carl in the foreground. We also wanted to keep down the light of the lava down until Carl puts his foot in it.” By accident, of course.
In the next scene, Clinton and Carl enter the living room, where their roommate Brett is on the couch toasting marshmallows in the lava. A wide-angle lens is also used here to show that the entire apartment is inundated with lava. Then the director varies between 35 mm, 50 mm or 85 mm to give the audience a better idea of where the different characters are positioned in that space.
Choking on marshmallows
When Brett starts choking on his marshmallow sandwich, Carl saves him by climbing along the ceiling to reach the couch, gripping the molding that separates both rooms with his feet and hands. There are no special visual effects here — Carl is doing the real thing. “I wanted the audience to be in Carl’s shoes in this moment. That meant holding the shot longer and letting the scene play out and don’t cut. Lava was then added using a tracking program that tracks the camera movement.”
Shortly thereafter, Brett tries to jump to safety – and misses, sinking into the lava. To create this special visual effect, Brett dove into a mattress. “We got as high as we could with the camera, rotoscoped his body out, and added the lava in post-production. I also added some extra flame and fire effects on top of him and around this body for more realism.”
Surfing across the lava
Clinton’s favorite scene is the one in which he ‘surfs’ across the living room on Brett’s ‘dead’ body in order reach the attic and escape the rising lava. This special visual effect was made by making Brett lie on boards that had been placed on a dolly. A 15-mm lens was used because “the longer the shot, the more impressive. It immerses the audience in the scene,” says Clinton.
The entire film is infused with a yellow-orange glow that reflects from the walls, windows and the actors’ faces. It is meant to replicate the light emitted by lava. This special visual effect is difficult to create in post-production, explains Clinton, because of the interaction between light and shadow. Therefore, it was done in a practical way on the set by placing sky panels outside the house, which filled the windows with light. Also, a dozen Kino Flos were put on the ground inside the house with the light shooting up. “That, combined with the visual effects, gives a really realistic look.”
A perfect, realistic match
The metadata provided by the ZEISS CP.3 XD lenses were vital to achieving the realistic-looking visual effects. The metadata included real-data information about the lenses’ distortion and shading characteristics as well as precise lens characteristics like focal length, exposure and shutter speed.
“That’s really helpful in post when you have to replicate a virtual camera and have it look like a real camera,” explains Clinton. “Plugging the metadata into your tracking program gives the program more information, meaning you can track your shot more accurately – in this case tracking your asset, the lava, to the footage. Metadata make it possible to match it perfectly. There’s no guessing. You can be more realistic.”
The metadata also boost efficiency. Without this technology, someone would have had to write down all the lens information on a piece of paper while filming, and then profile the lenses by shooting charts.
“You really save time and money with these lenses, which enables you to make a small-budget film like this.”
Clinton Jones, Director
No fiddling with the key settings
Another benefit is greater flexibility in post-production. “You can toggle on and off the vignetting and distortion effects in post-production so that you can do video effects on the correct image, and then add attributes such as vignetting and distortion back in,” explains Clint. “That way, you can bring your shot from 95% to 100%.”
“Being able to remove the vignetting and lens distortion allows you to key the green screen a lot better and put in a more successful key. That makes it easier to add attributes, and it speeds up the process in post instead of having to fiddle around with key settings.”
Clinton Jones, Director
New challenges await
Clinton, who recently went freelance as a writer and film director, is now pitching some longer-format features with various networks. He plans to use the ZEISS CP.3 XD lenses for future projects. “The lenses are fast, light-weight and very effective. And they have a great look to them.” That said, he emphasizes that lenses and special visual effects should never be an end in themselves, but rather tools to help tell your story. “I am still learning and growing in this field and I want to keep challenging myself. Challenge yourself, too, and share what you learn.”
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