June 14, 2012 · 11 min read

POrtal: Viral Velocity

…for immediate release…

St. Paul, MN – June 11th, 2012 was a typical Monday at the office of Ghost Productions.  But once business hours ended, and employees trickled out the door, something phenomenal occurred.  After more than a year in development—involving countless hours of tinkering with software, recording and editing scenes, and testing the limits of individual imagination—a concept was realized, a vision was unveiled, and several portals were opened.  On this otherwise quiet evening, our Lead Compositor Jason Craft posted a three-and-a-half minute video to the hosting service Vimeo…

POrtal: Terminal Velocity by Jason Craft

[vimeo 43800150 w=500 h=281]

Within hours, the video went viral, racking up thousands of views and mentions on websites such as Twitter, Reddit, G4, Kotaku, Gizmodo, Engadget, Geek, even Forbes and MSNBC.  Less than 24 hours after posting it, the video had been viewed roughly half a million times on Vimeo alone.  Even now, the number of plays and embeds continue to rise.

Many people, even some employees here at Ghost, are wondering: how did this video come about?  From initial inspiration to ultimate upload, POrtal: Terminal Velocity was independently conceived and executed by Jason Craft.  Luckily, he apparently likes us enough to give Ghost Productions exclusive insights into the details of the project.  I sat down with him to discuss its origins and motivations.

Logo for the critically acclaimed Valve video game. Click on the image to learn more about the game.

The project began in May 2010, several months before the April 2011 release of the sequel to the critically acclaimed Valve video game “Portal.”  Like so many others who had played the original game, Jason was excited by the momentum that began growing in advance of this followup title.  He began watching fan-made videos that referenced the game, noting that these videos generally employed similar filming techniques and lacked visual augmentation that could be produced using commercial modeling and editing software.  At that moment, a challenge presented itself, provoking the idea that would eventually be known as POrtal: Terminal Velocity.

When the idea of making his own video occurred to him, Jason was already working for Ghost Productions—he had both academic and industry experience with visual effects.  Best yet, he had time and access to the tools he would need to realize his vision.  Wasting no time, Jason began constructing that vision using the most advanced commercial software available to him.  He wanted the final video to focus on the “Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device” that is so prominent in the Portal games, so he started the Terminal Velocity project by modeling this “portal gun” using the Autodesk 3D design application Maya.  Once he was satisfied with the dimensions and contours of the device, Jason textured the portal gun using the Pixologic 3D design application ZBrush.  Inspired by the teaser images emerging to promote Portal 2, Jason used ZBrush to mimic the scratches and scuffs that the gun had acquired from the repeated use suggested in the game narrative.

Image courtesy of Jason Craft. Click on this image to view Jason’s full design portfolio.

While jumping through the hoops of 3D design was not nearly as easy as jumping through portals in the game, the greatest challenges in the Terminal Velocity project arose during and after filming the video.  Transferring the 3D model of the portal gun into the live-action video was achieved by having the actors hold a homemade contraption—resembling the size and shape of the portal gun—that featured “tracking” points on which to overlay the 3D model.  Once he had established the location of the gun throughout the video, Jason used HDR photos of the house interior to simulate reflections on the glossy plastic surface of the portal device.

Most of the visual energy effects involving the portals cast by that device were created using the Adobe video editing application After Effects.  This application was also used to projection map much of the static imagery visible through the portals.  But whenever the camera’s perspective shifted while observing imagery through a given portal, that relative movement triggered a need to recreate the visual phenomenon known as parallax, the simulation of which was accomplished using Maya.

Image courtesy of Jason Craft. Click on this image to view Jason’s full design portfolio.

Because of the often confusing and highly theoretical optical and kinematic physics of the portal technology, Jason faced a trifecta of problems regarding visualizing those physics, explaining them to his costars, and simulating those physics using filming and editing techniques.  In addition, he had to battle consistency errors that are native to all cinematic productions: mismatches in color, lighting, props, positions, perspectives, etc.  These consistency errors often proved doubly troublesome due to the previously mentioned portal physics.  Some scenes required filming numerous takes before all of the visual details and acting were convincing enough to maintain the continuity of the video as a whole.  Thankfully, Jason had the free and patient cooperation of the other actors in the film—his brother Mike Craft and childhood friend Adam Rogers.  Together, these guys put on quite an entertaining show and we will be anxiously watching for any future projects involving them.  Meanwhile, we encourage you to explore Jason Craft’s other visual effects projects on his Vimeo profile and his design portfolio.

Our only remaining question is likely on the minds of many who viewed Jason’s Terminal Velocity video: does he have any plans to create another Portal-related video?  Jason was evasive on this issue but, as he has already proven, this is one situation where leaving a man alone with a gun for an extended period of time can lead to positive mind-blowing results.

Media Contact
Matthew Perrin
Resident Ghost Writer