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Pushing Boundaries

New approaches to traditional animation techniques

[Top Left] Shiny factory contraptions and a busy conveyor belt were animated by The Mission for the “Air Delight” Hershey Kiss commercial. [Top Right] Frame from Poetica’s Trek spec spot featuring phantasmagorical cranes made up of bicycle parts and glowing fiber optic sprigs.  [Bottom Left] The stop-motion rat family, created by Bent Image Lab for Portlandia, observes a discarded flip phone.  [Bottom Right] Elastic created CG in the style of stop-motion animation for a Safeway spot in which a paper woman is overwhelmed by paper lists and coupons as she goes grocery shopping in a monochromatic paper world.
[Top Left] Shiny factory contraptions and a busy conveyor belt were animated by The Mission for the “Air Delight” Hershey Kiss commercial.
[Top Right] The stop-motion rat family, created by Bent Image Lab for Portlandia, observes a discarded flip phone.
[Bottom Right] Elastic created CG in the style of stop-motion animation for a Safeway spot in which a paper woman is overwhelmed by paper lists and coupons as she goes grocery shopping in a monochromatic paper world.
[Bottom Left] Frame from Poetica’s Trek spec spot featuring phantasmagorical cranes made up of bicycle parts and glowing fiber optic sprigs.

Most of us see animation every day, but it’s often rather conventional CG or photoreal imagery. Other techniques are thriving, however, including traditional stop-motion animation, CG in the style of stop-motion and CG that pushes boundaries with its beauty and artistry.

The Mission Finds the Sweet Spot for Hershey’s Kisses

Expressive paper plumes convey emotion in “Kind Kisses” animated by The Mission.
Expressive paper plumes convey emotion in “Kind Kisses” animated by The Mission.

Who could have imagined the very active, interesting lives Hershey’s Kisses lead before they satisfy your sweet tooth? Venice, California-based VFX studio The Mission (www.themissionstudio.com) partnered with Arnold/NY on a campaign of seven whimsical spots featuring the Rube Goldberg-like factory responsible for creating each delectable Kiss. The Mission handled all of the animation for the :15 and :30 commercials, which depict Kisses exploring how Cookies ‘n Cream get inside their iconic shape, exhibiting teamwork to fill vats of caramel, flirting for Valentine’s Day, doing the bunny hop for Easter and presenting a bouquet of plumes (those little papers wrapped with each candy) to a loved one.

“We’ve been working with Arnold for the last six years,” says Piotr Karwas, who has been animation director for the spots since the first Kisses factory commercial. “It started with our initial concept for the factory then the storyline began to show different sections of the factory, different characters and ingredients for the flavors. Each spot is a separate story that tells how that Hershey’s Kiss was made.”

A curious Hershey’s Kiss escapes the assembly line to discover what goes into making the Cookies ‘n Cream flavor treat in a spot animated by The Mission.
A curious Hershey’s Kiss escapes the assembly line to discover what goes into making the Cookies ‘n Cream flavor treat in a spot animated by The Mission.

Although The Mission has kept the fun factory consistent across the campaign, “there’s been a certain evolutionary process in terms of how it looks and how detailed the assets are,” Karwas said. “The last two years have seen a huge leap with much more detail and realism. One of the goals is to reproduce the feeling of a stop-motion miniature set – the factory has that kind of physical appeal to viewers.”

He gives kudos to Arnold for giving The Mission creative latitude once the concept is devised. “They’ve allowed us to take things further, creating different moves and contraptions that make the spots so unique and fun. Once we get the storyboards we figure out what would be cool to do.”

Chad Fehmie crafts the mechanisms and machinery that permit the Kisses to perform in their factory. Animation lead Samir Lyons designs the quirky motion of the Kisses using stop-motion-style CG that lends realism to the movement of the uniquely shaped chocolates. “Kisses are very challenging to animate,” Karwas notes. “They’re an inanimate object with no face, no arms, no legs. To make them emote and clearly show their intentions and actions is very difficult, but also a lot of fun.”

CG factory machinery, crafted by The Mission, prepares to wrap a Hershey’s Kiss in the spot, “Like Me.”
CG factory machinery, crafted by The Mission, prepares to wrap a Hershey’s Kiss in the spot, “Like Me.”

Lyons says, “Once you nail the animation, it’s such fun to create the actions you get the Kisses to perform. You’d never expect them to be wielding mallets and banging on cookies on an assembly line in ‘Curious Kiss.’ In ‘Kind Kisses’ we have more close-up shots because the Kisses need to emote and show more personality – their sweet and kind side – as they help each other.”

While the animators have to stay true to the iconic shape of the Kiss, “we do introduce some squash and stretch, but in an imperceptible way,” said Karwas. “It’s tricky to introduce some flexibility so the Kisses don’t look too rigid and stiff, but we don’t want to deform them either or they won’t look real.”

The animators even get to dress up the Kisses from time to time. In “Teamwork,” in which the Kisses collaborate to transport blocks of caramel to a melting vat, the chocolate workers wear yellow hard hats and goggles.

Hard-hat wearing Hershey’s Kiss factory workers deliver a block of caramel to a giant vat demonstrating their “Teamwork” in a spot animated by The Mission.
Hard-hat wearing Hershey’s Kiss factory workers deliver a block of caramel to a giant vat demonstrating their “Teamwork” in a spot animated by The Mission.

“There were some stages in the design of those hard hats,” Karwas said. “Do we fit the plume under it? Wedge it inside? Have it go through the hat? How does the hat fit on the tip of the Kiss? Everyone had to accept Kisses wearing hard hats as believable.”

Those famous plumes can actually be “quite helpful” to the animators, Karwas points out. “They can act as a tool to express more explicitly what a Kiss’s intentions are. Or they can serve as a head, tilting, waving and nodding. Or as a limb, like hands when they jump onto a catapult” or entwine in a romantic moment.

Autodesk Maya is The Mission’s principal tool for animating and modeling the Kisses and their factory. Autodesk MudBox is used to detail some models, such as the cookies; RealFlow handles fluid simulations and The Foundry’s MARI and Adobe Photoshop create textures. Chaos Group’s V-Ray does lighting and rendering chores. Pre-comps are done in Adobe After Effects and editing in Adobe Premiere. Color grading and finishing is performed in Autodesk Flame.

In each of the spots, The Mission’s animation segues to a live-action clip of people enjoying that particular flavor of Kisses. Sometimes there’s a unique transition from the CG to live action; sometimes a prop candy used in the shoot is replaced with an animated Kiss. The product replacements are “a testament to how closely we can match Kisses’ shape and textures,” Lyons said.

Poetica Takes a Surreal 3D Bicycle Journey

Wireframe showing rigged and animated rider in Softimage from Poetica’s spec spot for Trek. Blue lines are GUI representations of ICE strands coming from the rider.
Wireframe showing rigged and animated rider in Softimage from Poetica’s spec spot for Trek. Blue lines are GUI representations of ICE strands coming from the rider.

In a beautiful, monochromatic, :48 spec piece for Trek Bicycles, Poetica (www.poetica.tv) crafted an expressive 3D ode to the rider’s unique connection to the Trek brand.

Initial style frame from Poetica depicting the creative vision of the Trek rider.
Initial style frame from Poetica depicting the creative vision of the Trek rider.

It all started when Poetica Creative Director Steve Tozzi, who owns a couple of Trek bikes himself, wanted to work with the Poetica team on something that was especially creatively and technically challenging. “I decided to develop a full-up CG animation using some software that’s a little different from what we normally work with,” he explained. “I wanted to push some boundaries.”

Tozzi designed the boards, which depict a cyclist traveling through hyper-stylized landscapes populated with phantasmagorical cranes, flowers and more – made up of bicycle parts and emitting their own light. “The flower heads are bicycle gears, the butterfly is gears and chains, the fish in the crane’s mouth is links from the chain,” he said.

Quad view depicting rigged cranes, ICE generator strands for the crane fiber optics and the camera from Poetica’s spec spot for Trek.
Quad view depicting rigged cranes, ICE generator strands for the crane fiber optics and the camera from Poetica’s spec spot for Trek.

He opted for a monochromatic world with some tonality, and since the elements emanate light – often from sprigs of what Tozzi calls “fiber optics” – he didn’t feel he needed lush colors to engage the eye. “I wanted a limited environment. I wanted to keep the focus on the object at hand – but that meant that everything had to be impeccable because we weren’t relying on anything else to make it look better. This was always supposed to be a ‘designed’ piece instead of a VFX piece. So I put myself in a visual box in terms of what I could show.”

Tozzi wanted the cyclist to have that ‘designed’ feel, but his motion to be real. So he felt the team should go with motion capture as the basis for the CG character. “Even though we don’t see the cyclist’s whole body, the slide of his shoulders had to feel right on,” he said. The cyclist’s fluid, moving body trails energy and is illuminated by pinpricks of fiber optics so he blends in and “doesn’t feel foreign to the landscape.”

Poetica’s split screen image in Softimage before and after rendering with rigged cranes and fiber optics particle ICE strands as they appear in the GUI at left and in a render region showing how they look in preview render at right.
Poetica’s split screen image in Softimage before and after rendering with rigged cranes and fiber optics particle ICE strands as they appear in the GUI at left and in a render region showing how they look in preview render at right.

The Poetica team primarily used Autodesk Softimage for modeling and animation and its ICE tool to create the fiber optics. Exocortex’s Slipstream fluid simulator made the smoke that defines the shape of bodies. Layers of elements were composited in The Foundry’s Nuke with final compositing in Autodesk Flame. Tozzi chose Solid Angle’s Arnold, a powerful 3D rendering program, for its ability to handle “pretty heavy-duty rendering” – more than 200 passes of CG were required – with a high level of detail and a quick turnaround.

“So much of our work is photoreal so we did a lot of practical learning” with the spec piece, Tozzi said. For example, “smoke had to define the shape of the cranes, but it couldn’t look like they were on fire. It couldn’t look like we were cooking chickens! Seeing the software work was a wonderful education for me – the range of detail we got, how impressive the final renders looked. I knew creatively we could do this, but the piece contained techniques that were new to us.”

Particle and crane shot from Poetica depicting Exocortex’s Slipstream plug-in, a particle/smoke generator for Softimage.
Particle and crane shot from Poetica depicting Exocortex’s Slipstream plug-in, a particle/smoke generator for Softimage.

Enhancing the cyclist’s surreal journey is a rather whimsical music track that proved to be a serendipitous choice. “It was supposed to be more of a moody electronica piece,” Tozzi said. “I went away for a long weekend, and the team that was still working here took a track from a friend’s band, ‘Social Race’ by Colors in the Air. It wasn’t what I expected, but I thought it might be better than my original idea: It lightens the severity of the mood. So we sat with it for a week while we were finishing, and I felt we didn’t have to change it. When you put the right music track to a piece it can really elevate it in a positive way.”

At Poetica’s New York studio (it also has an office in Los Angeles), John Clausing was the CG director and lead animator, Young Park and Kirt Critoph were the animators, Rosalie Garlow the compositor, Aaron Vasquez the senior Flame artist and Matt Semel ICE generator/animator.

Bent Image Lab Expands True Stop-Motion for Portlandia

Checking out a trashcan in the first season of rat skits, created by Bent Image Lab, for Portlandia.
Checking out a trashcan in the first season of rat skits, created by Bent Image Lab, for Portlandia.

Portland, Oregon’s Bent Image Lab (www.bentimagelab.com) started largely as a stop-motion animation studio then grew into CG and VFX, but true stop-motion remains at the heart of the company. Its hilarious segments for IFC’s hit comedy series, Portlandia, which depict Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein as their anthropomorphic rat personas, demonstrate Bent’s stop-motion expertise. In fact, the latest season of Portlandia features expanded rat storylines and new characters, plus a stand-alone stop-motion skit starring a dolphin and other sea creatures.

   Adding details to a rat puppet crafted by Bent Image Lab for Portlandia. Fine-tuning one of the rat puppets for stop-motion animation by Bent Image Lab for Portlandia. A Portlandia rat puppet posed for a greenscreen shot at Bent Image Lab.
  [Top to Bottom] Adding details to a rat puppet crafted by Bent Image Lab
for Portlandia.

Fine-tuning one of the rat puppets for stop-motion animation by
Bent Image Lab for Portlandia.

Portlandia rat puppet posed for a greenscreen shot at Bent Image Lab.

The stop-motion technique has changed since Bent’s early days. “Everything has gotten a lot smaller with the evolution of DSLR cameras that shoot images comparable with film,” said Rob Shaw who directed the Portlandia segments. “And the images go straight into the computer for manipulation. I can’t say it’s a lot faster now since we always find more ways to tweak and nitpick, but the technique has gotten more precise and refined.” Bent uses mostly Canon 60D cameras to shoot the segments and Dragonframe stop-motion animation software.

Unlike the audio for other animations the company has done, the recorded dialogue for the rat skits was “almost 100 percent improvised,” Shaw said. “Our 15 minutes of animation had several hours of audio – everyone riffing, going back and forth. Portlandia’s brilliant director and editorial team cut the audio to bite-size bits, and we did storyboards and animatics on top of the audio.”

For the single segment that introduced the rats last season, Bent built sets and puppets representing rat family members Fred, Carrie and John. The rats’ expanded presence this season saw the addition of more young rodent characters, stoner ants, a hipster owl, a scruffy old wharf rat, plus new sets.

“The puppets are about a foot high. Most of their armatures are ball and socket – metal joints we can tighten or loosen,” Shaw explained. “They’re handmade, which is labor intensive. Some of the side characters have aluminum wire joints.”

The new owl was sculpted out of foam, feathers and wire, and sports big red glasses, a bow tie and hipster haircut. “We did a lot of hand feathering to get him looking good and added a little wig from the wig shop down the street,” Shaw said.

The animators act out the skits in front of a video camera to get reference footage for animating the puppets. “It helps us find little cues that make their performance seem natural,” he said. “But what’s nice about stop motion is that [performances] happen live under the camera, although slowly.”

While the performance the camera captures is the foundation for the animation that follows, Shaw believes the difference between good and great stop-motion animation is not being restricted to the captured footage. “We were keeping the focus of the animation smooth and natural looking, not rough and choppy. But we saw a frame with a bit of pop to a character’s head so it made a bit of a stutter,” he recalled. “And we realized that the stutter went along with the voice. If we played that up in the next couple of frames we’d get the puppet reacting, not just smooth puppet action. Finding those little things makes the characters seem alive.”

Bent built its own technical pipeline for stop-motion animation, but Shaw notes that data management for the technique is actually simpler than for CG because stop-motion is usually close to 1:1. “Dragonframe grabs the image and creates a preview so we can watch in real time what we’ve shot, then it takes the full-size frame and stores it on the computer,” he explained. “If there are different lighting or matte passes, the software can control the lights automatically in the program.”

When all the frames are captured, the animators take them into The Foundry’s Nuke or Adobe After Effects for color, rig removal and bluescreen or greenscreen compositing. Editorial is done in-house in one of five Apple Final Cut suites.

The hard hat-wearing crab puppet for the “Dolphin” skit in Portlandia posed on a down-shooter at Bent Image Lab.
The hard hat-wearing crab puppet for the “Dolphin” skit in Portlandia posed on a down-shooter at Bent Image Lab.

Bent Image Lab’s stop-motion animation for Portlandia’s “Dolphin” skit has a very different look from the rat segments.
Bent Image Lab’s stop-motion animation for Portlandia’s “Dolphin” skit has a very different look from the rat segments.

The “Dolphin” skit, whose puppets have a plush aesthetic, followed a slightly different process. “All the puppets were shot as individual elements and put back together, so there was more post work,” said Shaw. “It was almost like doing a VFX job. All the elements were shot on a down-shooter with the camera pointing down on a glass table lit from below. The puppets were on rigs so a lot of rig removal was required. With the dolphin and his underwater friends we were going for more of a cartoon look to the motion instead of the humanistic motion of the rats.”

Shaw enjoyed delving deeper into the rats as characters this season. “Last season, so much was about the joke of animated rats. This year the rats really felt like actors – we got to explore their characters more with longer segments and more complex stories,” he said.

Among the Bent team members on the rats skits were animators Jerold Howard, Jen Prokopowicz, Javan Ivey, Becky Steele, Marty Easterday and Suzanne Twining; DP Bryce Fortner; compositors Adam C. Sager and Barna Howard; and editor Liam Gillies with lighting and staging by Jim Birkett. Jen Prokopowicz and Becky Steele were the animators on “Dolphin,” which reunited the rest of the team from the rats segments.

Portlandia’s rat puppets, crafted by Bent Image Lab, are incredibly detailed and measure about a foot tall.
Portlandia’s rat puppets, crafted by Bent Image Lab, are incredibly detailed and measure about a foot tall.

Elastic Creates Snappy CG in the Style of Stop-Motion

A paper sheepdog chases a paper woman’s lengthy grocery list into the park in a spot for Safeway created by Elastic using CG in the style of stop-motion animation.   
A paper sheepdog chases a paper woman’s lengthy grocery list into the park in a spot for
Safeway created by Elastic using CG in the style of stop-motion animation.

 

Bicoastal Elastic (www.elastic.tv), a sister company of Rock Paper Scissors and a52 VFX, created a whimsical :30 Safeway spot from DDB/Chicago promoting the supermarket’s Just for U app, which eliminates the need for clipping paper coupons and making endless grocery lists.

“Paper” has the look of stop-motion animation although it’s actually CG. It tells the story of a monochromatic paper world in which a paper woman’s coupons fly away in the wind and a paper sheepdog chases her long, unfurled shopping list into a park. It segues to live-action footage of a woman in a park who’s using Safeway’s Just for U app on her smartphone to redeem coupons and add items to her cart in preparation for shopping.

The commercial was directed by Andy Hall, an Annecy International Film Festival winner who is known for his CG approach to stop-motion animation. “The initial boards had the brief of a paper world and an every-woman character who’s overwhelmed by coupons and lists, but finds relief in the new app. The treatment was wide open,” said CG Supervisor Max Ulichney.

Stop-motion animation with actual paper characters moving through a paper city was very impractical, so Hall sought help from CG. “Andy strove for that tactile, physical quality that you normally see with stop-motion done in-camera,” Ulichney said. Hall and his team tapped Autodesk Maya and Elastic’s proprietary asset management system named Hicks, the latter to ensure “we wouldn’t get lost in assets just as the woman in the spot is overwhelmed by paper,” Ulichney pointed out.

Before crafting the paper world and its inhabitants in Maya, Hall and the artists first designed them in paper “to get into the head space of what it took to put that world together,” Ulichney said. “We explored what was possible and deviated where we had to, but most of what we did in CG was physically possible to do with paper, just impractical.” They designed the paper world so every angle was a bit skewed and felt a bit off kilter and unsteady, unlike a stone and brick environment.

Especially challenging was a paper sheepdog that resembled “floating paper fringe,” said Ulichney. “When you take away its ‘fur,’ you could see it had legs in the rig, invisible bones to help propel and animate it properly. The dog’s anatomy we created was nothing to be proud of – its proportions were a disaster – but it worked well” as yapping paper dreds skimming the sidewalk in pursuit of the grocery list.

A paper woman’s grocery list unfurls in the wind in a Safeway spot featuring CG in the style of stop-motion animation by Elastic.
A paper woman’s grocery list unfurls in the wind in a Safeway spot featuring CG in the style of stop-motion animation by Elastic.

The paper woman’s facial expressions were done in an unorthodox way. “Usually you create the expressions and model them into the 3D face,” Ulichney explained. “But we drew hers on so we could fine tune the expression. I painted different eye, mouth and brow shapes, and we picked on the slider the expressions we wanted to deliver a performance. It was the fastest face rig we ever made; it took us a day-and-a-half. If we needed to try a new expression, we were done in an hour.”

The peeling paper bark on the trees and the lacy cut-out park gate added artful details. “We had a lot of back and forth about what would have been physically possible to do with paper and what wasn’t distracting,” said Ulichney. “We had wrought iron-like twisted paper for the gate in the beginning, but it looked too intense and creepy – it took too much attention away from the heroine. So we decided on cut–out paper, very 2D, fragile and thin.”

Elements were rendered in layers in Chaos Group’s V-Ray and composited in The Foundry’s Nuke. Early renders gave cool blue and purple tones to the paper world and bright bounce light. But that produced an environment that looked too romantic and stylized, Ulichney recalled. “So we toned it back. When you suck the color out, the world seems less happy. It’s still pretty, but it suits the concept better.” Atmospheric haze that was added in Nuke also helped “take the edge off a bit” and separate the foreground and background layers.

A paper woman’s grocery list unfurls in the wind in a Safeway spot featuring CG in the style of stop-motion animation by Elastic.
A paper woman’s grocery list unfurls in the wind in a Safeway spot featuring CG in the style of stop-motion animation by Elastic.

Animation was deliberately snappy instead of smooth to more closely simulate stop motion. Artists devised a CG whirlwind of paper to transition from the paper park to the real park where Hall directed the live-action segment. “We had a lot of talks about that,” Ulichney said. “The whirlwind acts as a catharsis: The woman is overwhelmed by the paper world, but the Just for U app is the solution.” Just as CG in the style of stop-motion proved to be “a perfect solution for a difficult problem.”

At Elastic, Shahana Khan was the Nuke compositor and colorist; Ian Ruhfass, Joe Paniagua, Frantz Vidal, Adam Carter, Lindsey Butterworth and Martin Furness the 3D artists and Maciek Sokalski the roto artist.