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Cut Lines: Creating the Miniature Effect
Posted Sep 13, 2010 Print Version     Page 1of 1

This month I’ll show you how to do the Miniature Effect, which has recently enjoyed a surge of popularity in the production world. This effect makes your footage look animated and like it was shot with miniature models, sort of like the opening sequence to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, when the camera dollied through the tiny model town during the opening credits. You could create the same effect in Final Cut Pro (which we’ll touch on briefly at the end of the tutorial, as well as a how-to on creating miniatures with a still image in Aperture), but Motion has a nicer defocus filter and better quality retiming, and it’s easier to mask in. It’s very simple to do in Motion. It can be done quickly, and it’s fun too; with all the variables you can tweak to get the effect just right.

With the basic steps described here, you should be able to adapt this workflow to Photoshop or Aperture for working with stills as well. Just bear in mind that you are creating an optical illusion, tricking the eye to perceive something in a very different way than it normally would a regular video clip. There are no 3D sets and no complicated technical hoops to jump through. After completing this tutorial, you should be able to apply it quickly at any time.

To begin with, you’ll need appropriate footage. This effect won’t work on just any video clip. Here are some guidelines: Make sure you’re above the scene, shooting down on it, such as from a balcony or rooftop. Naturally, this means you’ll be applying this effect mostly to outdoor scenes. You want it to look as if you’ve shot downward on to a miniature set. Be sure it’s a wide and deep shot, evenly focused throughout, as you’ll be faking depth of field, and you’ll need good foreground, focal point, and background to work with. Having total control over the depth of field illusion is very important.

You will also need to shoot on a tripod to keep the shot steady. I’ve experimented with shaky footage. It works, just not as well as stable clips. Shoot for a long time, or do a lengthy time-lapse. Movement is important, and faster-than-normal movement is very important to really pull the effect off to its fullest.

Make sure the area is lit well and evenly as you’ll be boosting contrast a good bit, and you also want control over that aspect of the image. Finally, colorful scenes are best; dull scenes will yield a more subtle result—often too dull to convey the effect you’re trying to create.

Working in the Motion Timeline
When you have your clip, launch Motion. Drag and drop from a Finder window into Motion’s Layers window, or use Motion’s File Browser to find your clip, highlight it, and click the Import button to add this clip into your project. For the example shown in this tutorial, I’ll use a clip that I took from a rooftop in downtown New Orleans over the Mississippi River of its crescent by the French Quarter (that’s why it’s always been called The Crescent City, eons before that awful movie saddled us with “The Big Easy”). I’ve got tugs and ships, both banks of the river, lots of color, and lots of area to work with. But I didn’t shoot it as a time-lapse, so I have to speed it up to make it work for this effect. This was a very long take though, shot as stock footage, so I have plenty of duration to work with. For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll assume you’re in the same boat—right kind of shot, but not necessarily time-lapse footage. With your clip selected, you’ll begin the process.

First, you need to drag my In and Out points into the Motion Timeline to set the duration of your final project. If the Timeline is not long enough initially, go to the bottom right of the screen, locate the Out Point value field, and type a duration just a tiny bit longer than you need. It’s also important to make sure your playhead is always at the beginning of the timeline, as that’s where elements you add to the project will begin. Next, you’ll start Phase 1 of building your project.

Building the Project
The first thing you have to do if your footage has the same nontime-lapse limitation as mine is to speed up the clip to get your exaggerated speed, which helps with the overall effect. Use F5 to open the Layers Window. Click the disclosure triangle if necessary to open the Group your clip imported into, and highlight the clip. Next, click on the Add Behavior icon in the toolbar. From that menu, go down to Retiming, and from that group, select Set Speed (Figure 1).

Apple Motion
Figure 1. Selecting Set Speed from the Retiming group of Motion's Add Behavior menu

Then, highlight this behavior in the Layers window, and go to the Behaviors tab in the Inspector window. In the Speed field, speed up your clip by increasing the value to a number greater than 100, whatever works for you. You may need to set all your “Ease...” fields to 0. My specific clip was very long, so I sped it up to 1,200. Depending on the clip you’re using, you may need to go up to only 200 or 400 or so. If it’s time-lapsed, you may not need to change the speed at all.

Exaggerating the Color
You’ve now applied the speed adjustment, the first of four necessary effects you need to add to this clip (if it’s not time-lapse footage). The second effect you’ll add is exaggerating the color. Click the Add Filters icon in the toolbar, go to Color Correction, and choose Saturation. Highlight the Saturation filter in the Layers window, go to the Filters tab in the Inspector window (Figure 2), and increase the saturation value.

Apple Motion
Figure 2. Increasing saturation in the Filters tab of the Inspector window

To achieve this effect, we need to supersaturate the image. Remember that miniatures may be close to natural colors, but they’re not natural. Exaggerating the saturation to boost our overall coloring is very important. Whether sky, water, buildings, or some other element, all should be boosted, in terms of saturation, beyond what is natural. How much will depend on your shot.

Once you’ve applied the entire effect, it will be easy to tweak things and find the sweet spot—not just on this filter, but on all the filters we’ll use.

Applying the Defocus Filter
Next, you need to exaggerate the contrast. To do this, go back to the Add Filters icon in the toolbar, select Color Correction again, and choose Levels. This gives more control than the Contrast filter, even though it’s the contrast in the image that you’re going to change.

Once again, highlight the Levels filter in the Layers window, and access it in the Filters tab of the Inspector window. Take a look at the Histogram, grab the whites marker on the right, and drag it slowly to the left to boost your whites a bit. Then, grab the blacks maker on the left of the histogram, and drag it to the right to darken up the blacks and shadows a bit. The tweaks you need to make to your footage will differ, but the idea is to use these controls to dramatically increase the contrast in the image to a level that’s extreme and unnatural. This is vital, as the human eye uses contrast in determining depth, and taking the contrast to extremes gives the image a plausible 3D illusion—a very important part of building the miniature effect. Again, you can always come back and tweak it after you’re finished.

Duplicating the Clip
The final filter you’ll add to this first phase of your project is Defocus to help fake depth of field. From the Add Filters icon, go to Blur, and choose Defocus. In the Inspector window, boost the Defocus amount to make the whole image look like what the foreground and background should look like once your depth of field is finally set. You’ll clear up the midsection in just a bit.

Defocus is a much better blur filter to use than Gaussian Blur because it actually mimics the blurring effect of a lens defocusing. As before, you can return to this feature to tweak it later on.

Working in the Motion Timeline
Here’s where you’ll put the icing on the cake. In the toolbar, there are two buttons called Mask. The left one gives you access to image masks (Figure 3). Click this button to access the rectangular mask, or use the Opt+R keyboard shortcut.

Apple Motion
Figure 3. Accessing the Rectangle image masks via the Motion toolbar

Next, click on the left edge of your image in the Canvas window, and drag to the right and down to draw a matte shape across the middle section of the image (Figure 4). You should see immediately that you’re creating fake depth of field.

Apple Motion
Figure 4. Drawing a mask across the image in the Canvas window

The overall miniature effect should also be very obvious by now. With the mask highlighted in the Layers window, go to the Mask tab in the Inspector window, and pull the Roundness slider to the right to smooth out the hard corners (cameras don’t defocus in perfect squares). Then, pull the Feather slider left (to expand the feathering outside the mask) or to the right (to contract the feathering toward the center of the mask) to get a nice smooth effect.

Presto, we’re about done! At this point, you can grab the center of the mask in the Canvas window to move it around, or grab its edges to adjust its height and width. And as mentioned earlier, you can also go back, highlight each filter, and tweak its values. You’ll want to play around a bit to get the overall effect you’re looking for. It’s not very hard, and you should be able to create this effect pretty quickly once you’ve walked through the process (Figure 5).

Apple Motion
Figure 5. The miniatures effect coming into view

A Little Lagniappe
Now, just for a little lagniappe (our word for “something extra” in New Orleans), I’m going to throw in one last trick. If you want more of a stop animation effect to really push the envelope, highlight the upper copy of your video clip, locate the Add Behavior icon in the toolbar, go to Retiming, and select Stutter. You’ll want to select the check box next to the lower copy of your video clip for now.

In the Inspector window, Behaviors tab, Stutter settings, start off by setting the amount to about 33 and the Duration Range to 2 or 3. Play around with the Duration Range (to determine how many frames it stutters). Finally, hold the Option key while dragging this Stutter Behavior from the upper copy of your video clip onto the lower copy of our video clip. This will “copy” the behavior rather than simply move it. Now, both clips will stutter the same amount. Remember to select the check box next to the lower copy of your clip to turn it back on and make it visible (Figure 6). Don’t be afraid to experiment. This step isn’t necessary, but it could add a little touch of authenticity to some clips.

Apple Motion
Figure 6. Selecting the checbox next to the lower copy of the clip to make it visible

I’ll recap so we can put this in perspective, and understand that creating the miniatures look in Motion really is a supereasy and superfast effect to achieve. Essentially, we’re using simple exaggeration of specific parameters to create an optical illusion. First, adjust the speed if needed. Then, oversaturate the colors and exaggerate the contrast. Next, defocus and duplicate the image’s layer. In the duplicate, remove defocus and matte. That’s about it.

Creating the Effect in Final Cut Pro
I know a lot of users are more comfortable working in Final Cut Pro than in Motion, and the good news is that to create this effect in FCP you’d do pretty much the same thing. The main difference is that you’d use the Color Corrector 3-Way to adjust the Saturation and Contrast. It’s not as powerful as in Motion, but you can still get the effect. Because the Levels filter in FCP is not the same as it is in Motion, it won’t do the trick in FCP. In FCP, you set contrast with the luminance sliders beneath each color wheel. To do this most effectively, use only the blacks (pull the slider to the left) and whites (pull to the right); try not to use the mids slider unless it’s absolutely necessary (some images may need the mids boosted up a tad). Then pull the contrast slider all the way to the right to exaggerate the overall color (Figure 7). To create depth of field, use Effects > Video Filters > Blur > Defocus, just like you did in Motion.

Apple Final Cut Pro
Figure 7. Adjusting the sliders beneath the color wheels in FCP

Use Opt+Shift when dragging the original clip up to the V2 layer to make a duplicate. Then remove the Defocus filter, and go to Effects > Video Filters > Matte and use the Mask Shape then the Mask Feather filter to get the same effect you would do with the matte tool in Motion. With the Shape filter, use the Rounded Rectangle shape. As a starting point, set Horizontal Scale to about 80, and Vertical Scale to about 40. With the Feather filter, try starting at about 50, and then try going higher.

Creating the Effect in Aperture
If want to do the miniature effect with a still image in Aperture, it’s super-fast and ultra-easy, and you have a ton of control. First, double-click the photo you want to work with to make it fill the preview window. Then go to the Adjustments tab (Figure 8), open the Enhance brick, and pull the Saturation up to about 2.0 or 3.0, depending on the image.

Apple Aperture
Figure 8. Adjusting Saturation in the Enhance brick

Next, open the Levels brick. Pull the blacks tab to the right and the whites tab to the left, exactly as you would in Motion. Finally, go to Photos > Add Adjustment > Quick Brushes > Blur. In the Blur HUD (Heads-Up Display), make the brush size really big (300 or so), and set Softness to about 0.5 and Strength to 1 or a tad less. In the Blur brick, set Amount to about 10.0.

Then brush in where you want the blur. Remember that you can use the feather icon in the Blur HUD to soften the boundary between the clear and blurred portions. You can also use the eraser icon to brush away the blur effect if you get too carried away. If the Blur HUD is closed, click the brush icon in the Blur brick inside the Adjustments tab to get it back.

I hope you have fun with this simple little trick. There are variations you can get into, such as using two oval mattes rather than just one, to offset top and bottom defocusing. Keyframe an image to pan from left to right (make the image about 110%–120% larger to give you the wiggle room you need). Play around, and see how far you can push the envelope of this effect. Enjoy this tutorial, and until next time, rock those edits! Ben Balser (benb at bbalser.com) is an Apple Certified Master Trainer and Support Professional based in Louisiana. He produces media, consults for studios, and teaches media production nationally.

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