Pulling Back the Green Screen with Director and VFX Specialist Rob Malpage

If you’ve got a script that needs some VFX heavy lifting then it’s best you see a specialist. Director Rob Malpage from The Rudeboy Collective has a wealth of experience in what it takes to make the unreal look real. We asked the man who is synonymous with trickery and illusion to take us through this magical world by using some of our favourite commercials from his reel to help break it down.

iDidTht: ‘Okay, so before we continue, um what exactly is VFX?’
Rob: ‘You know that scene in Alien where the baby alien monster jumps out of Sigourney Weaver’s stomach and into the camera?’
iDidTht: ‘Only the best scene ever!’
Rob: ‘Totally! Well, that’s VFX. The way they achieved that was by starting with the alien monster close into camera and using a string to pull it back and then they reversed the shot. A very simple and effective visual effect.’
iDidTht: ‘Mind blown!’
Rob explains that VFX is anything that takes it beyond the realm of the ordinary, but that’s not to say it’s all smoke, mirrors and alien babies on strings. Rob is still a Cinematographer at heart, after all, that’s where he started out. Before all else, he searches for the perfect light, the best location and obsesses over the way the light hits an actor’s skin. Once all those pieces come together and look beautiful he’ll then use visual effects only to enhance the imagery. His experience has taught him that if the visual effects and beautiful photography can mesh well together, then you’ve got magic.

iDidTht: ‘What goes into preparing for a VFX or post-heavy job?’
Rob: ‘If you wanna do a visual effects job well you’ve got to be prepared and pre-production is key. You break a shot up into foreground, middle ground, and background.’

Rob: ‘When you know what’s happening in the foreground, then you know how you can cut that out and put in your background plate. It’s something that’s as old as filmmaking itself. Visual effects have been around since filmmaking started and as a Filmmaker you need to know what and how VFX works, otherwise your creativity will be stifled.’

iDidTht: ‘So this stuff really excites you?’
Rob: ‘Ha, yes. It’s like maths, but sometimes it just makes you want to scratch your brain out.’

Rob: ‘Directing VFX is kind of like being a magician. It’s really all about illusion. You want people to think the illusion is real and the real is an illusion. I want to trick you.’
iDiDtht: ‘So come on, how have you tricked us? What are some things we just wouldn’t know was VFX or was real?’
Rob: ‘Models.’
iDidTht: ‘Haha!’
Rob: ‘Okay, let’s go through some of my work…’

Die Antwoord – Enter The Ninja

Rob: ‘The visual effects on ‘Enter the Ninja’ for Die Antwoord basically just came down to the editing. We painted one wall white with black drawings on it and then another wall black with white drawings on it and then we cross-cut and matched the performances. It’s actually very basic and that’s the thing with visual effects, the simpler you make them the more effective they are. If it’s too tricksy the audience’s eye doesn’t buy it. Using visual effects to save a bad idea or image won’t work and it won’t be an image with integrity.’

MTN – Stickies

Rob co-directed the famous MTN ‘Stickies’ ad alongside Craig Wessels from Wicked Pixels back in 2009 – yup, way back when they still shot on ye olde film! 5 Days of filming and 2 months of animation and post – this production was indeed ambitious. Rob was in charge of directing all the live action photography and used some kickass photographic techniques.
Rob: ‘To get those stickies to look real was the big challenge. Think about thousands and thousands of little bits of paper and they’re all blowing in the wind.’

Rob: ‘And remember the light is constantly changing. So you have to make sure that the light moving on each piece of paper looks real, because light reflects…’

iDidTht: ‘So hang on, all of those stickies weren’t real?’
Rob: ‘Something that I really fought for is that we had to build one massive stickies-man, which the guys had to make, that was real. It’s how you trick the audience – you never know what is real or what is computer-generated. It’s also my way of messing with the post-production team because you say ‘Here’s the benchmark guys!’ So only the stickies-man on the silo is real and everything else, which was done in CG, has to look like that now. That’s how you get the audience’s trust.’

Real life stickies-man

Fake ass stickies-man


Rob explains that with visual effects you’re often flying by the seat of your pants, trying to figure out exactly how you’re going to pull off the treatment you gave the client; ‘Easy to write, difficult to do.’ So when Rob was presented with ‘Car drives through wave’, the seat of his pants were stretched to their limits.
Rob: ‘We cut the car out of the plate and built the wave in. So that entire wave was computer generated. Hours and hours of work, but your visual effects will only ever be as good as the people you’re working with.’

Jungle Oats – Fish

When Rob received the brief from the agency saying ‘It’s a story about a guy who takes his goldfish free-diving to meet some clownfish’ he never imagined it would take a month to pull off! After they found a goldfish with ‘a great personality’ the team shot the opening sequence of the fish and his surfer-bestie on the car and on the surfboard…all seemed pretty easy-going up until here bru.
Rob: ‘We arrived at this pool in Simon’s Town to shoot the goldfish in the bowl underwater but the owner simply refused, even though there was Perspex over the bowl, to let the fish anywhere near the water. So we had to improvise…
iDidtht: ‘So the goldfish was never in the bowl when you shot underwater?’
Rob: ‘Nope, just a little green ball. The coral reef was from stills in my archive I took when I shot BMW ‘Free Dive’ with Greg Gray. Because they were stills, we had to paint all the fish out so we could get the coral to move. The sea floor is imagery I had from the Red Sea, as is the coral wall. Then I needed fish to populate this world so we found fish tanks with blue backgrounds and I shot them at night in the tank. The sea anemones in the foreground were also added in and the barracudas were from stock footage. There are about 7 or 8 plates in that one shot.’

Rob: ‘We had a tank at a pet shop set up specifically conditioned for these fish a month beforehand so that they could acclimatize, and we shot the moment of the two fish interacting with split screen. We have 2 hours of footage spent on just trying to get that money shot of the clownfish saying hello to the goldfish.’

We just loved going down VFX-memory lane with Rob, but he is certainly not one to ever rest on his yanny’s, so here’s a peek at three of the latest commercials he’s directed.

Lexus ‘Lexus UX’ – Directors Cut

McDonalds ‘How Do You Big Mac?’

Peugeot ‘4008’

Guys, these ads were literally only a handful we chose from Rob’s bag of tricks. From car commercials, to beer, banks and fast food ads – he’s done them all. Every single one offering him the opportunity to challenge and push himself to do something he’s never done before. And every single one offering him the opportunity to totally mess with our minds. Wingardium Leviosa Rob. Wingardium Leviosa!

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Produced by the iDidTht Content Studio
Credits: Anne Hirsch (Writer) / Julie Maunder

*This content may not be reproduced or used in any part without the prior written consent of iDidTht. Reprints must credit iDidTht (iDidTht.com) as the original publisher of this editorial piece and include a link to this site.

This Editorial is paid for by The Rudeboy Collective. Want our studio to create content that puts your agency/company/kickass ad you made in bright lights for the whole industry to see? View or editorial packages or contact julie@ididtht.com and we’ll make it happen! #Boom