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Updating Crockett and Tubbs: A New 'Vice'

Martin Charles helps director Michael Mann re-create a TV favorite.



With director Michael Mann taking the reins on the recently released big-screen remake of the 1980s TV action drama Miami Vice, those involved in the project knew that nothing short of perfection was going to be accepted. Mann had also been executive producer on the original TV series, and his quest for perfection on the new film would envelop everything on the set, including the graphics designed and produced for set backgrounds as well as key props.

Graphic designer Martin T. Charles of Saga Boy Productions in Los Angeles was brought on as a part of the set production crew by the film's production designer, Victor Kempster. No stranger to making movie magic, Charles has been designing and producing graphics for films for 16 years. He has helped design graphics for more than 50 films, working with numerous directors and crews, and on films such as Minority Report, Envy, That Thing You Do!, and Bandits.

Charles began design on the film logo in his Los Angeles studio while scenes were being shot in town. Then, when shooting moved on-location to venues including Miami, Dominican Republic, and South America, Charles went along to produce the graphics on-site.

Bring on the boats
One of the first jobs Charles was given was to design and produce graphics for a boat-race scene that would open the movie.

For the “Mojo,” the boat driven by the movie's lead characters Sonny Crockett and Richard Tubbs, he had to come up with round after round of designs-around 200 in all-until Mann decided on the final version: a white boat with a yellow name and a black outline around it. Charles utilized his own Roland Soljet Pro II SC-545EX printer/cutter, which he brought from Los Angeles, for printing the Mojo graphics. Using the printer in conjunction with Roland Eco-Sol inks, he output onto Roland Premium Cast Vinyl.

A month before Mann and his film crew were set to shoot their own boat race in Miami, however, they learned of a real boat race about to take place there. Mann decided he wanted to capture footage of this actual race and integrate it into the film-cutting scenes from this race into the on-set close-ups they would film later. Mann spotted a boat that looked similar to the one they were creating, and simply asked the boat's owner to switch out his boat's graphics with the Mojo graphics that Charles had created.

As it turned out, Charles had to design graphics for a second boat as well: A week following the filming of the real boat race, the movie crew got word that a boat they had intended to borrow called “Lightening Jack's”-which had been racing alongside the Mojo boat in the actual race footage-had been in a wreck and was damaged.

Although the hull of the boat was repaired by its owner, it was up to Charles to recreate the boat's graphics. Unfortunately, he had only six to eight low-resolution digital images of the original boat taken from different angles to work with.

“First I asked for the original files, which would make it much easier. All I would have to do is bring the files into the computer and re-cut the graphics,” says Charles. “But they didn't exist.”

So he began with the low-res JPEGs he received via e-mail. Using Adobe Photoshop (and its freeform and skew tools), he straightened out the curve of the boat's hull, allowing him to retrace and reproduce the graphics. Once they were completed, he again used his Soljet Pro II SC-545EX with Roland Eco-Sol inks, outputting onto Roland Premium Cast Vinyl.

“Of course, after the boat race you had to have a winner's circle,” says Charles. The winner's circle demanded a graphic backdrop of “race sponsors” that Charles created using four 3-ft wide x 9-ft high banners along with 5 x 100-ft checkered banners. He also produced five 12 x 30-ft floor graphics for this part of the project, printing all on Roland Flame Retardant Scrim Banner using the SC-545EX. The “sponsors” for the graphics were Roland DGA, Veurve Cliquot, Card Player, Bacardi Rum, and IWC Schaffhausen.

Not all “magic” made for a movie always ends up in the film, however, and such was the case here: Despite all of Charles' hard work, the boat-race scene was later cut during the editing process-although it will most likely be added back in for the film's DVD release, says Charles.

Signature graphics
For the Miami Vice scenes scripted to take part in Cuba, Charles and the rest of the production design team created the graphics on set in the Dominican Republic.

“The most difficult part of doing this movie was having to redo a set that was modeled on a bar in Cuba,” says Charles. “This is a very famous bar that still exists, and it supposedly has the best Mojito in the world. Lots of famous actors and writers have visited that bar. One of the most important things about it: Before leaving, you'd sign your name on the bar's signature wall. So every wall, on every single level, is covered in signatures-from famous people to random people. I had to redesign that wall.”

As with the second boat, once again the provided images of the real Cuban bar were low-resolution. So Charles started from scratch in re-creating the wall-scanning in signatures from famous writers, poets, and actors from books using an 11 x 17-in. Microtek scanner with SilverFast Ai scanning software, as well as using digital photos.

“I designed the main wall behind the actors, which measured 30 x 11 ft, and duplicated the rest of the wall being careful not to repeat sections,” says Charles. He again turned to the SC-545EX for his output here, printing 108 sq ft of banner graphics and 500 sq ft of fence graphics using Roland's Wet Strength Banner Paper.

On the finished set, signatures overlapped and items such as photographs hung over the signatures on the wall. But after Charles had finished his painstaking work, director Mann said that as real as the wall looked, the signatures were overpowering through the camera lens. So Charles had to go back and “mute it down”-requiring the complete reproduction of the set graphics. Total production time, including the redo-3 weeks to a month, estimates Charles.

Another graphic element that Charles had to produce for the Cuban bar scene: beer labels. “This was a real Cuban beer, but we couldn't get any from Cuba. It was okay, however, to use it as a background on the shelves,” says Charles.

He printed 100 4.5 x 3.5-in. labels on Roland Premium Reflective Vinyl using the Soljet Pro II SC-545EX printer/cutter. The final labels-green on a silver background-included palm trees and Spanish typography.

Amplifying the magic

Charles purchased his first large-format printer (a 44-in. Epson Stylus Pro 9000) in 2002, while working on the movie, Simone. “My first large-format printer brought the digital experience to a whole new level. The designed graphics now had a direct output with me having complete control,” he says. “I no longer had to wait for proofs in hopes for the best. I was now able to stop the printer on a dime for correction, if necessary.”

Today, his studio, Saga Boy Productions, includes the Epson 9000 as well as Epson Stylus Pro 1800 and 5000 desktop printers, a Hewlett-Packard Designjet 5000ps, and, of course, the aforementioned Roland Soljet Pro II SC-545EX.

“Certain things just get me excited about what I can achieve in movies,” says Charles. “Does working on movies take the magic out of them? No. I think it makes it much more intriguing. For me, the magic isn't taken out, it's just amplified.”

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