Keeping It Real
Live-action VFX in major commercial campaigns
By Christine Bunish
With visual effects part of just about every commercial on television theses days it’s refreshing to discover that live-action VFX solutions play a major role in new spots for Geico, Olay and Toyota, and a promo for Showtime’s hit series House of Lies.
Click 3X Helps Maxwell the Pig Go Mobile For Geico
Move over gecko, Maxwell the pig is your new rival for airtime. The “whee-whee-whee” crying porker appears in two hilarious commercials, “Zipline” and “Luge,” from The Martin Agency/Richmond promoting Geico’s new mobile app with digital VFX by New York City’s Click 3X (www.click3x.com).
Maxwell is about as mobile as they get propelling on a zipline in the snowy mountains alongside a surprised sportsman and speeding on his back in a street luge against an astonished competitor. His signature spinning blue pinwheels always accompany Maxwell on his adventures.
Maxwell the pig speeds in his street luge, signature blue pinwheels spinning, in the latest Geico spot from Click 3X.
Legacy Effects in San Fernando, Calif., created an animatronic Maxwell for the commercials, which Click 3X composites into live-action environments and enhances with smirks, ear movements and other gestures. “Maxwell is never fully CG,” notes Click 3X creative director and senior VFX artist Mark Szumski. “They try their best to get him in camera; our job is to remove the rigs, rods and puppeteers and make it all appear seamless.”
Geico decided to bring Maxwell to life as an animatronic since the famed gecko is so obviously a 3D-animated character. “A lot of people felt animatronic was the way to go without making Maxwell look like a cartoon animal,” Szumski explained.
Click 3X Executive Producer Chris Kiser points out that it’s the little tweaks to Legacy Effects’ brilliant animatronic that “go a long way to bringing Maxwell to life. Once Mark gets on Flame and adds nuances and enhancements and small color corrections – like more pink to the ears and nose – that takes it to the next level.”
Click 3X did extensive pre-vis in Autodesk Maya for the spots as a blueprint for the production. “The day we shot the zipline park, we did an edit session immediately with Director Brian Lee Hughes [of Skunk] and DP Paul Cameron cutting all the backplates pretty precisely to what became the final edit and providing important guidelines for the greenscreen shoot the next day,” said Kiser. “Pre-vis is essential for lining up angles and lighting.”
[Left] Click 3X did a pre-vis showing Maxwell the pig in his street luge.
[Right] Geico’sMaxwell the pig in a pre-visby Click 3X before “Luge” was shot.
Szumski concurs. “Our pre-vis was pretty accurate to the finals in both cases. We were almost 1:1 for every single scene. The pre-vis helped everyone move faster on shoot day and gave the puppeteers less guesswork for Maxwell. We love doing pre-vis. It makes our jobs a lot easier.”
The live action for “Zipline” was shot at a zipline park in California where an ARRI ALEXA was mounted on a remotely operated rig that traveled along one of the ziplines. For the opening whip pan, Cameron was back at base camp at the helm of a device which controlled the camera’s tilt and rotation to create a carefully-timed spin, release and stop that was inspired by the camera movement mapped out in the pre-vis animation.
All of Maxwell’s scenes were shot greenscreen with the puppeteer manipulating the pig’s rods to create his gleeful performance. The actor also was shot greenscreen for his ride.
Live-action plates for “Luge” were made on location. Puppeteers rode in a motorcycle sidecar to get down low and work Maxwell’s rods as his little street luge was towed at speed down the road. The luge-riding actor was shot on the street and crashing into bales of hay – the latter in just one take. The final shot where Maxwell hits a bump and flies into the air on his luge was photographed in the greenscreen studio. “It would have been tricky to shoot and make it work in post,” Kiser said. “But in Flame we could make it feel he was really ramping off something.”
Legacy Effects has two different animatronic Maxwells: a “low-fi” version and a more detailed version. “One works well for distant shots and is remote-control operated; you don’t get the same level of detail or motion with it,” says Szumski. “For close ups, there’s another body operated by the puppeteers, and there’s a different set of animatronics for the face.” Thus, Maxwell’s mouth can be preprogrammed to read his lines.
[Left] Maxwell the pig hits a bump on his street luge and flies through the air on the greenscreen stage for the latest Geico spot from Click 3X.
[Right] “Zipline” pre-vis for Geico’s Maxwell the pig by Click 3X.
Szumski is tasked with “quite a bit of retouching” on the pig’s skin and hairs. “I do beauty work on his belly,” he reported. Kiser notes that the very flexible animatronic got “odd creases and folds in his skin” when suspended in his mini harness on the zipline, so it was up to Szumski to remove any traces of that slackness across the pig’s usually taut belly.
Szumski and fellow Click 3X VFX artist Liz Berndt also were asked to help on a POV shot in “Luge” where viewers take Maxwell’s perspective and look down on his rounded belly and little trotters moving with the action of the luge. “The puppeteers found that they spent a lot of time on the set re-rigging Maxwell’s legs to make them look natural, but it wasn’t quite there,” Kiser recalled. “The agency asked what we could do in post. We had moving plates and no clean backgrounds, but Mark and Liz went in and reanimated the legs – a pretty big task.”
Maxwell’s signature pinwheels are always shot as props, but often required reshooting and compositing by Click 3X to make them pop. For “Zipline,” Click 3X shot the pinwheels separately against blackscreen in their studio to match the angles of the live-action photography. Szumski then composited the new pinwheels back in so their motion blur wouldn’t get lost at certain angles. In “Luge,” he rotoscoped each pinwheel to make sure they were readable during Maxwell’s speedy run.
Szumski says he uses everything in his Autodesk Flame “to make the spots work really well. I’ve done a lot of talking animals, and there’s always a great amount of retouching to be done to make them not look manipulated or cartoony. Flame has plenty of tools to manipulate textures and make expressions completely believable.”
Click 3X producer Rob Meyers noted that from his perspective the Maxwell spots have been incredibly seamless projects. “The Martin Agency has a solid-core team available to us, and they’re very dialed in to Geico’s needs so we’re able to put together an effective workflow,” he said. “They even pushed up the airdate for ‘Luge.’ They were so excited about it that they wanted to make it a Super Bowl spot.”
Cosmo Street’s Tom Scherma edited the spots; Company 3’s Tim Masick was the colorist.
Streaks of light encircle the cap of a real Olay Regenerist bottle in a new spot featuring VFX by Ntropic.
Ntropic Gives Olay Regenerist a Beauty Treatment
With visual effects part of just about every commercial on television these days, it’s refreshing to discover that live-action VFX solutions play a major role in new spots for Geico, Olay and Toyota, and a promo for Showtime’s hit series House of Lies.
Commercials for beauty products inevitably use beauty to sell their concoctions. A pair of elegant spots for Olay Regenerist from Saatchi and Saatchi/NY, “Unprecedented Demand” and “Think Again,” were turnkeyed by the New York City office of Ntropic (www.ntropic.com).
|Ntropic’s Steve Zourntos (left) and Nate Robinson on set for the live-action shoot for Olay Regenerist.|
Although creative director and Flame artist Steve Zourntos only recently joined Ntropic, he’s been working on the Olay account for three years. But these commercials marked the first time he’s been able to combine his own postproduction experience on Olay spots with the production expertise of Ntropic’s Nate Robinson to provide a full-service approach with “one overarching creative vision.” He and Robinson co-directed the package.
Olay Regenerist already had a defined look and a color palette of red and black from its previous broadcast campaigns. “The idea was to freshen things up a bit,” said Zourntos. “They run five or six spots a year; they want the brand to be recognizable, but also want to take it to the next level.”
For these commercials Ntropic decided on a live-action solution that captured the product and the model spokesperson. Zourntos worked closely with Tabletop Director Mario Godlewski to ensure that what he needed to craft complex images of products, people and bold graphical elements – light flares, swirling streaks, refractions and reflections – was captured in camera. In multiple passes on Flame, Zourntos wrapped streaks around a bottle cap, showcased the model against light flares, floated the Regenerist bottle on the crest of another streak and used more motion graphics to underscore supers highlighting the product’s attributes.
“It was the first time I worked that way,” he recalls, “but it’s similar to combining different passes in CG. Nothing you see was shot in one take. It’s all motion passes – high and low lights, flares – combined into a finished element.”
Zourntos notes that the agency strove for a “natural look” for the spots, “not something that looked like 3D. So we decided to shoot everything live – and take advantage of some of the happy accidents you get on set – and manipulate elements in post.”
Ntropic’s Tico Jones and Tali Oliver did pre-vis in Adobe After Effects, combining “beautiful style frames” with motion tests that proved “instrumental” in the company being awarded the job, says Zourntos.
For the tabletop shoot, Godlewski was armed with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II HDSLR to capture interesting refractions and reflections created when he shone an “unbelievably strong laser beam” through different materials, including a glass cylinder, which scattered the light, Zourntos says. The laser also generated color rays, some of which were used in their natural state and some color corrected to better fit the brand’s red and black palette.
Godlewski also used the Canon 5D to shoot single exposures of the product. “He gave me 5K material. It was very new to me working at that unbelievable resolution,” Zourntos said. “The shots were so large that I could blow them up, tilt down on them and they looked like whole new shots.”
|Ntropic composited real bottles of Olay Regenerist with light streaks and flares used as
motion graphics elements.
The model was photographed on a different set with similar lighting to connect her world and the product/motion graphics world. “By lighting the set to match with our motion graphics elements we were able to rotoscope things and keep the model in the same world,” Zourntos explained. For “Unprecedented Demand,” a wallpaper-style background showing the names and cities of actual customers was created in 2 1/2D with Autodesk Flame. During the shoot, Robinson did a dolly move on the camera so Zourntos could track the wall of names into Flame’s 3D camera as if the type treatment had been a set piece.
“Think Again” followed the same process, but features the model speaking lines of dialogue as she explains how it’s possible to reduce the look of wrinkles after just one use. Stills illustrating the product demo section of the spot were supplied.
Zourntos also created the new end logo for the spots. In Flame he combined multiple arcs of light to produce the curves of the letter ‘O,’ then enhanced the motion of the bold graphic circles.
Bernardo Revilla edited at Ntropic; Marshall Plante from Ntropic’s L.A. office was the colorist.
Toyota’s Prius family of vehicles fits perfectly in an ecoparadise created by Zoic Studios.
Zoic Takes Z.E.U.S. to Automotive Paradise
Although Zoic Studios’ Z.E.U.S. technology has been used for lots of episodic television work, it made its commercial debut recently with “Kingdom,” a national spot for Toyota Prius from InterTrend Communications/Long Beach, Calif., targeted to the Asian-American market.
Z.E.U.S. is a pre-vis process that combines the benefits of realtime compositing with an integrated editorial and CG pipeline. Revolutionizing the approach to visual effects, Z.E.U.S. provides realtime camera tracking and rendering of virtual environments on set, offering unprecedented creative flexibility for the cast and crew working on the greenscreen stage. The technology is used on the TV series Once Upon a Time and Pan Am.
|top] An actual Prius V was shot on the Universal Virtual Stage and composited into
a CG landscape created by Zoic Studios.
[bottom] The real Prius V is viewed from behind driving through Zoic’s CG ecoparadise.
In “Kingdom,” the voiceover explains how, in nature, every species must evolve to survive – and sometimes a species comes along that does more than survive: It creates a legacy. A family hiking through a field of wildflowers – mountains and a waterfall in the distance – spots a fleet of Prius vehicles as the cars make a rare stop at a refueling pump. As the family moves closer to investigate, the commercial highlights the features of the spacious Prius V wagon before it drives away with its fellow Prius models.
Toyota already had a print campaign showing the vehicles in this “otherworldly ecoparadise,” says Andrew Orloff, one of the founders of Culver City, Calif.’s Zoic (www.zoicstudios.com), who acts as creative director for episodics as well as all Z.E.U.S. projects. “They wanted to turn the print illustration into a 3D environment. We discussed various ways to accomplish that, including using a practical environment and real elements, but for the amount of work that needed to be done we decided that a virtual environment would give us the most freedom for the right kind of camera moves and sweeping crane shots.”
Concept drawings expanded the print art to a 360∫ world with trees, flowers, mountain ranges, a waterfall, and a refueling station. Then 3D models and textures were built as assets for the virtual shoot.
Zoic needed to modify Z.E.U.S. to realize the vision of the agency and Director Rob Feng of Rival Pictures/LFP. The system’s witness camera typically mounts above the ARRI ALEXA camera and requires direct line-of-sight to a tracking array in the ceiling for data capture. But car beauty lighting involves large reflective silks above the set and would obscure Z.E.U.S.’s ceiling markers.
So Zoic incorporated an encoded Telescopic LLC Techno Jib on the greenscreen stage prior to the shoot day. This proved invaluable for capturing accurate, realtime tracking data, while also helping the crew to move efficiently through multiple set ups of the four Prius vehicles and talent.
“In all our virtual production experience for TV, we noticed that one of the missing components was the virtual equivalent of a tech scout to prepare for the shoot,” Orloff said. So Zoic developed a realtime Apple iPad app that “allows a magic window into the virtual set so you can do the work or a tech scout and walk through the virtual set in realtime and change camera angles. You can spin things, move through them, change lenses and take measurements then save the images for storyboarding. It’s a great tool for advertising because it’s so interactive – the agency and client can see what they’re going to get without having to take you on faith.”
The Prius vehicles and talent were shot on the Universal Virtual Stage (UVS-1) at Universal Studios, a facility that Zoic helped develop, with Z.E.U.S. generating live composites for each camera take using the Lightcraft system, an integral component of the pipeline. “It’s a game changer for cars driving and people moving in an environment,” Orloff reports. “Without seeing the final composite, it would be very hard to direct the talent. But with Z.E.U.S. you know every tree and bush and can plan your camera moves and shoot as if you were on location.”
|Shun Imaizumi, model and texture artist at Zoic Studios, working on an environment asset for “Kingdom.”|
“Kingdom” required very fluid, sweeping camera moves, he notes, which would have meant placing lots of tracking markers on location and recreating the camera moves after the fact. “Z.E.U.S. took the ARRI ALEXA’s data stream that told us where it was in space at any given moment and translated it into a 3D background, stored it and brought it back to post where we could sync it to picture and add the 3D assets,” Orloff said. The process “maximizes their creative time and minimizes the routine so you get many more bites of the apple in the same limited turnaround time.”
Production complete, Zoic imported the pre-composited footage and Senior Editor Dmitri Gueer cut the spot with the director. Special attention was paid to finessing the speed and scale of each Prius vehicle and choreographing the four models, which were sometimes driven in separate takes because of the size of the stage. Once the EDL was generated, Zoic reconciled tracking data with the greenscreen footage through time code. This gave CG artists the ability to reestablish the camera’s position in the final version of the virtual environment.
Every aspect of the ecoparadise terrain was modeled in Autodesk Maya and rendered using Chaos Group’s V-Ray. Zoic did a lot of R&D to produce the right kind of grass for the extensive field shown in the spot. It repurposed 3D software previously used to render fur or hair to create the virtual grass.
Director Rob Feng watching realtime rendered playback with Zoic’s Z.E.U.S. system on set for Toyota’s “Kingdom.”
The Prius vehicles are never fully CG in the spot. “We were always working with new Prius models” on the greenscreen stage, said Orloff, “but we had 3D models so we could create realistic reflections of the environment [on the sheet metal]. Combined with beauty lighting, that helped to integrate the cars into the virtual environment.”
The Foundry’s Nuke proved a particularly flexible tool for rendering out passes, notes Orloff. “Special scripts in Nuke allow you to combine passes into a beauty pass and dial in changes in the composite,” he said. “Consistency is the key: to make everything look as if it was shot at the same time on the same day in the same environment.” Kronos, The Foundry’s retiming software, helped match editorial pacing. Doug Ludwig led the visual effects team with Steve Meyer overseeing Autodesk Flame compositing and 3D supervision by Andy Wilkoff and Mike Kirylo. Chris Jones was co-creative director.
Orloff expects Z.E.U.S. to find its way onto more commercial projects. “The beauty of Z.E.U.S. is that every time we use it we integrate a new piece of equipment, so we’re able to carry it forward to make the next project better.”
House of Lies star Don Cheadle tosses playing cards to camera in a VFX shot from a promo created by Hello Robot.
Hello Robot Stops Time for House of Lies
Just as live action played a primary or significant role in the Geico, Olay and Toyota spots, the stunning promo for Showtime’s hit series House of Lies relies largely on an in-camera solution for its VFX.
Global player Hello Robot (www.hellorobot.tv), a visual design and storytelling company headquartered in Mumbai, India with satellite production offices in New Delhi and Dallas via L.A.-based film and commercial production company Three (One) O, stopped time in the House of Lies promo capturing the show’s five stars in frozen moment vignettes. The piece literally stopped traffic in New York City’s Times Square, too, where it ran on a giant screen, turning heads of drivers and pedestrians alike.
Showtime approached Hello Robot co-founder Amit Gupta to help conceive the promo, direct the L.A. shoot and guide it through an international VFX and post process in about a two-month timeframe. House of Lies explores the lives of a group of management consultants who will stop at nothing to make deals; it stars Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Dawn Olivieri, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson.
The promo catches the cast in frozen moments, the camera encircling each of them in 360∫ space as paper money flies through the air, pills spill out of a bottle, phone messages flutter to the ground and tossed playing cards hover in space. Sound bites of dialogue accompany the characters’ vignettes as the music track rises to a crescendo. The end tag, featuring all five stars in an ensemble shot, describes the new show as “Big Fish. Big Pond. Big Business.”
“The promo’s VFX were a huge challenge,” says Gupta. “Flat VFX are one thing, but VFX in a 360∫ world where they are blended with the live environment is something else.”
Gupta shot the show’s stars individually in their set pieces – to accommodate their busy schedules – in an L.A. studio. DP Ray Peshke and camera operator Chris Bottoms manned RED Digital Cinema’s RED EPIC camera shooting at 50 fps to ensure that the movements of the dolly, traveling around the actors against the studio’s black background, were smooth and the transitions easy. “This also helped with frame blending and gave us more information to work with if problems occurred,” said Gupta.
Since the dolly was set up so Peshke could encircle the actors, all lights and props had to be rigged carefully so the overlap was minimal in the 360∫ world.
Some of the VFX were props rigged on set by Hollywood’s West FX. “Anything that had human interaction had to be held or rigged,” Gupta explained. “Some of the props closest to camera had to be rigged as well, since the illusion would be given away if it was all built in 3D.” Even one pill was rigged spilling out of its bottle and suspended in space. “Yes, that was tiny!” he recalls.
Gupta ended up shooting an array of textures to map onto the flurry of cards, papers and pills that fly to camera and were replicated in CGI. “We shot the props suspended against blue – both sides of them, from multiple perspectives,” he said.
A spilling coffee mug is suspended in space and time in the Showtime promo for House of Lies created by Hello Robot.
Hello Robot’s Mumbai office handled the 3D animation using Autodesk Maya. “It was especially challenging to create photoreal props that would match the ones shot in real 3D space on the set,” said Gupta. “The textures were pulled into Maya and used in the compositing process.” The Dallas office performed the complex composites with Adobe After Effects and eyeon’s Fusion. “There was a ton of wire and rig removal and painting clothing back on,” he noted. “The cleanups took three weeks.”
The final full-cast sequence also was composited from individual shots of the stars, which were rehearsed with stand-ins as placeholders for their colleagues. No motion control was required.
Hello Robot’s high-profile debut in the U.S. market with the House of Lies promo extended to a cross-platform interactive campaign on the web and iPad. Although Gupta is a firm believer in what he calls “the power of post,” he likes to follow the mantra of “shoot as much as you can: every element, every texture. Once you have all the plates and the layers, what you can do from there is amazing. But if you start with nothing, you end up with nothing.”
Gupta added, “Maybe many of us are automatically thinking ‘digital and 3D’ these days when live-action, in-camera effects can still be a very good solution!”