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Quenching Viewers’ Thirst for Animation and VFX in Spots

Studios serve up dazzling animations, playful characters, photoreal stars and transformative visual effects

By Michael Fickes

The ice people celebrate their triumph with Coca-Cola
The ice people celebrate their triumph with Coca-Cola.

Fire and Ice Fantasy for Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola’s 2011 Super Bowl entry, “Siege,” is a fully animated spot that mimics the lavish illustration style of fantasy fiction.

Wieden + Kennedy of Portland and New York City created the epic story of a peaceful ice people defending their mountain village from a marauding army of fire warriors and a fire-breathing dragon.

“The assignment was to bring fantasy art to life,” says Diarmid Harrison-Murray, VFX supervisor with the London offices of Framestore (www.framestore-cfc.com). “Through many iterations, the look evolved into a stylized environment. We tried to avoid being filmic and to rely on atmospheric effects — soft elements and hazes that recede into the background — instead of filmic depth of field.”

The ice people celebrate their triumph with Coca-Cola
The enemy dragon belches fire and smoke on his icy counterpart.

Executing the look posed technical challenges that always concern organic effects. For instance, the ice people of the village, while human in shape, have furry bodies, that required a proprietary Framestore software application to pull off naturally.

Then came fire. At the beginning of the spot, the leader of the villagers watches through a telescope as giant forest fires burn in the wake of the advancing fire warrior army. Later, the dragon with the fire army belches out plumes of fire and smoke.

Unlike tangible objects, fire and smoke don’t have solid surfaces; they are volumetric and more difficult to illustrate, explains Harrison-Murray. The goal was to animate fire so it would act like real fire but match the spot’s stylized look.

The Framestore team working on the fire and smoke sequences employed Side Effects’ customizable Houdini, a tool that uses fluid dynamics equations to build, frame-by-frame, a complex volumetric visual effect of flowing clouds of fire and smoke.

The fire-breathing dragon quaffs a Coke and douses his fiery thirst
The fire-breathing dragon quaffs a Coke and douses his fiery thirst.

The spot’s climactic scene brings a host of tremendous effects challenges together. In the sequence, the ice people wheel out an ice dragon — sort of the Trojan Horse in reverse. The fire-breathing dragon, surrounded by thousands of fire warriors, melts the ice, revealing a bottle of Coca-Cola embedded within. A fire warrior grabs the bottle, sneers and tosses it into the air. The dragon catches it and drinks. Miraculously, the Coke douses the dragon’s fire. All it can do is spout celebratory fireworks. Defeated, the sprawling crowd of fire warriors retreats.

Diarmid Harrison-Murray was Framestore London's VFX supervisor for Coca-Cola's
Diarmid Harrison-Murray was Framestore London’s VFX
supervisor for Coca-Cola’s “Siege.”

Creating the army crowds required a two-day motion capture shoot of a costumed man performing the actions of individual fire warriors. “Then we used [Autodesk] Maya particles and our own scripts to automate the process of building the crowds and negotiating movements — making sure that individuals didn’t walk through each other,” Harrison-Murray says.


Mental Ray rendered the crowd images in high dynamic range EXR, an image format developed by ILM. Mantra, the Houdini renderer, built the fire and smoke layers.

The final step was to composite the massively detailed scenes together: The climactic scene alone contains about 20 layers. “We used [The Foundry’s] Nuke, which can handle high dynamic range files,” Harrison-Murray says.

Directing duo Fx and Mat of London-based Nexus Productions directed with Isobel Conroy producing.

Moving Picture Company
How to Hug a Polar Bear

Documentary footage, cleaned up by MPC, captured a polar bear on its shrinking habitat
Documentary footage, cleaned up by MPC, captured a polar bear on its shrinking habitat.

In Nissan’s recent “Polar Bear” spot for the all-electric Leaf vehicle via TBWA/Chiat/Day, Los Angeles, a polar bear swims south from a melting icecap and ambles ashore into a forest. Later, it waits out a rain shower beneath a highway overpass and relaxes by swatting at a butterfly.

Walking along a road, the bear roars as a tractor-trailer passes. Entering a city, the bear crosses a bridge and moves through city streets. Come morning, the bear strides through a suburban neighborhood and turns into a driveway where a man prepares to slide behind the wheel of his Nissan Leaf.

Documentary footage, cleaned up by MPC, captured a polar bear on its shrinking habitat
Aggie, a real polar bear, walks through the woods.

Suddenly, the bear stands and extends its front legs offering the man a hug for helping protect the planet. The two embrace.

Is it a polar bear or very skillful photorealistic animation?

Actually, it’s both. Director Daniel Kleinman of Epoch Films brought the project to Moving Picture Company (MPC), which has offices in Los Angeles, London and Vancouver (www.moving-picture.com). “He had a [real] bear but thought that most of the scenes would be animated,” says Michael Stanish, head of 3D production/commercials, who produced for MPC.

Aggie takes shelter in an underpass.
Aggie takes shelter in an underpass.

Turns out, the bear, named Aggie, was a more capable — and, in the end, gentler — actor than anyone expected. Still, MPC had plenty to do.

The early scenes were taken from a documentary film about polar bears, and MPC had to clean them up. While the bear laid peacefully on the icecap as the commercial shows, in the documentary the animal was covered with the blood of recently consumed prey. “We took out the blood,” Stanish says. “We also replaced some of the water, which looked dirty. We used Autodesk’s Flame.”

In many of Aggie’s scenes, her trainer appeared maneuvering the bear with a leash. Flame was used to paint out the trainer and leash.

Separate plates were shot of Aggie on the road and the truck passing by to protect her from traffic
Separate plates were shot of Aggie on the road and the truck passing by to protect her from traffic.

When it came time for Aggie to cross a bridge at night, the bear had gone off the clock. “That was the only shot they weren’t able to get, so we animated the bear with [Autodesk] Maya,” Stanish says. “Then we composited the animation onto the bridge with [The Foundry’s] Nuke.”

MPC also tapped Maya to create the butterfly, with Nuke compositing the insect into the playful swatting scene with Aggie.

Several scenes required compositing practical plates. For the road scene with the roaring bear and tractor-trailer, the director shot both separately, and MPC composited them together. “It would have been too dangerous to put the bear and truck in the same scene,” Stanish says.

Aggie takes in the night cityscape; MPC disguised the Vancouver location
Aggie takes in the night cityscape; MPC disguised the Vancouver location.

The real challenge was the hug. Aggie would hug her trainer gently. But no one, including the actor, wanted to risk injuring the actor. So the trainer and the bear hugged on camera for the plate. Then the actor hugged the air, matching the trainer’s actions.

“This was a complex scene,” Stanish says. “We replaced the trainer’s head and hands with the actor’s. Then we matched the trainer’s head and hands interacting with the bear’s fur.” Again Flame and Nuke did the honors.

Ahmed Gharraph served as lead 3D animator on the project, with Andrea Falcone providing support, Yourick Van Impe working on Flame and Ryan Hadfield, Jason Hayes and Owen Williams compositing. A Flame artist at MPC changed the traffic lights in Aggie's favor as she crossed the street.
A Flame artist at MPC changed the traffic lights in Aggie’s favor as she crossed the street.

Transforming Newsday for iPad and iPhone

A folded-newspaper drum kit transforms into a snappy sports car in
A folded-newspaper drum kit transforms into a snappy sports car in “Transformer” with effects animation
from QuietMan.

Every newspaper publisher is doing it: promoting new iPad and iPhone aps for their readers.

In the case of Newsday’s iPad and iPhone aps, ad agency The Brooklyn Brothers and New York City-based production company QuietMan (www.quietman.com) made sure the Newsday pitch was different from what other papers were doing. They created “Transformer,” an eye-popping animated spot in which a Newsday paper, lying on a flat surface, folds itself into a stadium with animated football players. Up above, a blimp floats by.

It’s a wonderfully surprising scene. And there’s more. The football stadium unfolds and transforms into a drum kit, which, in turn, becomes a sports car. The car transforms into a suburban house, which finally becomes an iPad.

A virtual camera shoots the spot without cutting. It pans around the 3D models. Sometimes the models spin. Sometimes, the camera darts up for a crane shot or pushes in for a close-up before pulling back and panning.

The 3D models represent sections of the Long Island paper: sports, entertainment, classified and real estate, with the iPad appearing as a new way to read the paper.

How did QuietMan fold the newspaper into the stadium? “We didn’t,” says Johnnie Semerad, founder and creative director. “We built the stadium and worked backwards, unfolding the stadium into the newspaper.

 copy of Newsday folds itself into the shape of a stadium
A copy of Newsday folds itself into the shape of a stadium.

“We started by using [Autodesk Softimage] XSI to create geometric planes that would fit together to form the stadium,” he says. “Then we gave the planes a newspaper texture with [Adobe] Photoshop.”

Semerad says the unfolding began with a section of seats in the stadium that folded down into a flat plane, with other sections following along, frame by frame.

Next, they went in the other direction and folded the stadium, frame by frame, into the drums, the drums into the car, the car into the house and the house into the iPad.

“The biggest challenge was finessing the transitions that would make the piece smooth and seamless, from newspaper to iPad,” Semerad says. “That was the strategy — to show this seamless transition from one way of reading the paper to another.”

QuietMan's Johnnie Semerad at work.
QuietMan’s Johnnie Semerad at work.

Using XSI, QuietMan made the stadium literally explode into a group of shapes that come back together as the drum kit. Then the drums re-arrange themselves to become wheels, with the rest of the virtual drum kit forming the body of the car. Next, the wheels and tires of the sports car fold under the car as its body panels grow into the walls and roof of the house.

At the completion of each transformation, the new image contains more smooth black material. The house, for instance, features a peaked, smooth black roof, which becomes the face of the iPad in the final transformation. Newspaper pieces from the house become smooth gray or black surfaces that form part of the un-newspaper-like iPad that contains the digital version of Newsday.

After the transformations were created in XSI and rendered out in layers, Semerad took the layers into Autodesk Inferno for compositing. “I turned the shadows up or down and made the reflections stronger, then I hit render again for the final image,” he explains. “I’m told this is a unique way to work, but it makes sense to me.”

He also composited QuietMan-made action footage, featuring CG football players whose movements were motion captured, into the stadium.

QuietMan’s designer/animators were Chris Covelli, Zach Rubins, Sue Jang and Sandor Toledo.

The Mill
Selling VW Beetle Without a Car in Sight

Downey Studios crafted the realistic set for
Downey Studios crafted the realistic set for “Black Beetle” from three tons of actual forest materials.

Back in February, Super Bowl fans cheered an animated Volkswagen Beetle commercial from Deutsch/LA.

“Black Beetle” parodies classic film and television car chases as a realistic, though stylized, animated beetle (the insect kind — get it?) zooms along an overgrown, rock-strewn, cross-forest highway crowded with animated bug traffic.

London’s The Mill (www.themill.com) animated the spot on a heart-pounding six-week schedule, an amazingly tight turnaround for an ambitious piece of animation.

Tom Bussell and Juan Brockhaus, The Mill’s lead 3D artists, made the compressed schedule work by sprinting from start to finish.

In the spot, the beetle outruns predators, weaves through congested insect traffic, dodges a caterpillar, shocks two praying mantises, rounds a corner in slow motion, leaps off a log and lands atop a flat rock where it morphs into the iconic silhouette of a Beetle — the car kind.

The black beetle rounds a corner of the forest highway in slow motion.
The black beetle rounds a corner of the forest highway in slow motion.

The forest where all this happens was a 10×10-foot physical set. The production team shipped three tons of actual forest materials — trees, logs, underbrush, dirt and other objects — to Downey Studios in Downey, California in order to build a real habitat for the animated beetle. “We wanted the real setting for authenticity,” Bussell says. “But we had to do it in a studio to control the lighting and the weather throughout the shoot, which lasted 20 hours.”

Dante Ariola of MJZ in Los Angeles directed the motion-control shoot that created the camera angles and choreographed the movements of the animated beetle and other insects through the forest. Pebbles and chunks of dirt served as tracking markers.

A Spheron-CGI camera from Spheron-VR was employed to capture real- world data and make it available to the visualization process. In the VFX arena the camera aids in seamlessly merging virtual objects with real-world scenes. “Even though we didn’t render the set [in CG], we needed a digital version, to get the shadows, lighting, interactions and close calls between the insects right,” explains Bussell.

After the shoot and fighting an impending deadline, a number of teams from The Mill were tasked with the project. No fewer than 15 people were at work at any given time. “Sometimes it seemed like we were all working on it,” Bussell chuckles.

Two photoreal praying mantises are surprised when a speeding black beetle heads their way
Two photoreal praying mantises are surprised when a speeding black beetle heads their way.

Teams were assigned to modeling, rigging, texturing and shading, lighting, animating and compositing.

“We’ve written a proprietary geometry-caching software application to help us work faster,” says Bussell. “It’s an organizational tool that enables different teams to work independently on the same shot at the same time, while keeping everyone apprised of changes.”

Teams used Pixologic’s ZBrush to model the beetle and other insects, relying on research from London’s Natural History Museum for realism.

Tom Bussell, one of The Mill's lead 3D artists, helped the
Tom Bussell, one of The Mill’s lead 3D artists, helped the
“Black Beetle” sprint through the forest.

Riggers tapped Autodesk Softimage XSI to add the inner mechanics to animate the insects. Then a texturing and shading team added details.

An animation team used Autodesk Maya and XSI to block out the edit. Compositors relied on The Foundry’s Nuke and Autodesk Flame to layer the pieces together.

The Mill’s Gemma Smith produced on the VFX end. MJZ’s Natalie Hill served as executive producer. Jim Haygood of LA’s Union edited with an assist from Dylan Firshein. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion recorded the pounding rendition of “Black Betty” that accompanies the beetle on his amazing ride.

Kirby’s Yarns are Epic Nintendo Tales

Under threat, Kirby swells into a yarn-toting tank to defend himself.
Under threat, Kirby swells into a yarn-toting tank to defend himself.

“Kirby’s Epic Explosion,” a wildly inventive animated spot from Leo Burnett/Chicago promotes Nintendo’s latest entry in the long-running series, Kirby’s Epic Yarn.

Kirby, the small, pink, spherical Nintendo game hero, who is now made of yarn, possesses strange, changeable powers. At one time, he could swallow enemies, transform them into dangerous projectiles and spit them out.

Today’s Kirby can’t swallow enemies. He can, however, transform himself into a tank and fire bolts of yarn at enemies.

This new power goes on display in “Kirby’s Epic Explosion,” created by Superfad (www.superfad.com), an animation production company with offices in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle.

Under threat, Kirby swells into a yarn-toting tank to defend himself.
Kirby blasts a Bronto Burt with a yarn missile while others look on.

The spot opens as Kirby, in his first appearance as a character fashioned from yarn, arrives on Main Street in Anywhere USA — actually a real LA location.

“Finding a cute LA street was no easy task,” chuckles Nando Costa, who co-directed the piece with colleague Richard Hickey. “But we did find one and shot plates with a 35mm ARRI.”

Because of what happens in the spot, Superfad creatives needed a precise virtual camera. “For every practical shot of the main street, our technical director, John Ngyuen, used a laser device to measure the distances between the buildings and the camera,” Costa says. “He also factored in data that would enable the virtual camera to switch between 24mm and 35mm virtual lenses.”

The Bronto Burts, Kirby's deadly enemies, arrive in town and prepare to attack.
The Bronto Burts, Kirby’s deadly enemies, arrive in town and prepare to attack.

Superfad needed to match the practical and virtual lenses because the animated spot sometimes required knitting practical scenes together in one shot. When the pieces of scenes overlapped, Superfad had to mask one of the overlapping objects to prevent distortion. The right virtual lenses made that possible.

“We also shot a lot of photos to use as source for the textures of the buildings, street and streetlights,” says Costa.

The photos, laser dimensions and matched virtual lenses helped Superfad Autodesk Flame artist Matthew Lydecker adjust the practical shots to fit the spot. He added trees, raised some buildings, lowered others and added sky and clouds where necessary.

When Kirby arrives on Main Street, unfriendly Bronto Burts attack him. Kirby fights back by transforming himself into a tank made of yarn and firing bolts of yarn that destroy the Burts and transform Main Street’s buildings, trees, streetlights and cars into brilliantly-colored objects. The yarn materializes in the form of colored shades that unfurl down the sides of buildings and textured fabrics that wrap the facades.

“We did this with two teams,” Costa says. “One team animated the 3D characters in Autodesk Maya, created the fabric textures and made the unfurling yarn shades. The second team, made up of Lydecker on [Autodesk] Flame and Donald Strubler using [The Foundry’s] Nuke, composited finished characters over finished live-action scenes.

Main Street in Anywhere USA was based on a live-action plate of an LA block
In the aftermath of Kirby’s mighty yarn shot, a Bronto Burt explodes and plasters a building with yarn and fabric.

“It was challenging toward the end as each team worked out details requiring refinements by the other team.”

Superfad's Nando Costa co-directed the spot with Richard Hickey.
Superfad’s Nando Costa co-directed the spot with Richard Hickey.

Superfad produced the first 18 seconds of the commercial, the battle between Kirby and the Burts. Nintendo supplied the last 12 seconds of game animation showcasing more of the new Kirby’s capabilities.

Superfad’s Kevin Batten executive produced with Will Hyde the executive creative director. Rommel Calderon, John Cherniack, Christina Lee, Grace Lee and Catherine Yoo provided the 3D animation. Beau Leon of Santa Monica-based New Hat manned the telecine.

November 30, 2012