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Reflections on VFX in Commercials

A beautiful star’s angel and demon sides, market-savvy talking toddlers, landscapes that grow from a painter’s brushstrokes and a world of people who come together from many parts: VFX make everything possible.

By Christine Bunish

SEMERAD
Johnnie Semerad Casts Uma Thurman in Dual Roles for Givenchy

Uma's two sides meet in a mirror composite.

As if it wasn’t enough to work with Uma Thurman on a commercial for “Ange ou DÈmon Le Secret,” a new fragrance from Givenchy, Johnnie Semerad had the pleasure of partnering with multiple Umas in the effects-intensive spot that depicts a game of mirrors.

Semerad, who heads an eponymous VFX studio in New York City (www.semerad.tv), was tasked with revealing Uma’s angel and demon sides in the commercial from Anton & Partners/NY which airs worldwide, outside the US; a separate version was created for the Middle East market.

“Working with an actress of Uma’s caliber was fantastic,” says Semerad. “Someone from our company is almost always on set during the shoot, and this time I was the lucky guy.”

The commercial opens when Uma, clad in a white evening gown, her hair loose, approaches her dressing table and lavishly sprays herself with the fragrance. She walks to a large standing mirror where she’s startled to see her reflected image dressed all in black, her hair pinned up. This alter ego puts a finger to her lips in a shushing motion as the music track asks, in French, “Am I angel or demon? No one knows. It’s my secret.” Just like the dual Umas, the new fragrance is white-flower fresh and sensual at the same time.

The game of mirrors required Mira Nair, the multi-award winning film director (directing here for Rant Films), to stage a motion-control greenscreen shoot so DP Declan Quinn, who’s also a feature film cinematographer, could capture live-action plates for Semerad.

“In visual effects you really want to make the greenscreen shoot conducive to the actor giving a good performance,” Semerad explains. “A lot of VFX people don’t understand that. So we did Uma’s angel side first, setting up the large mirror with a greenscreen but mounting a small mirror on it to get her correct eyeline as she delivered her performance.

Uma's angel side shot against the greenscreen mirror.
Uma’s angel side shot against the greenscreen mirror.

“Then, for Uma’s demon side, we took out the mirror frame and provided video playback of her angel performance so she could play off herself. That adds a whole level of complexity for an actress. But Uma was spectacular; she just nailed it.”

He’s quick to note that shooting the demon Uma required more than her changing outfits. The furniture was flipped around, a different lighting set up was devised and he deployed practical smoke effects to cloud the devilish world. Later, he combined the real smoke elements with CG smoke to achieve ultimate control over its dispersion. “I like to combine practical and CGI effects to keep viewers guessing about what they’re looking at,” says Semerad. “It’s something of a misdirect.”

For the dressing table sequence where angel Uma is reflected in a triple-pane vanity mirror, the mirror was shot greenscreen and Uma repeated her performance numerous times as the camera was moved to capture her at different angles.

After the shoot wrapped Semerad got D-5 transfers of Quinn’s 35mm footage for compositing and color correction in HD on his Autodesk Flame and Inferno. He tapped Softimage XSI and Autodesk Maya for the smoke effects.

“The big challenge in post was to create the two different angel and demon worlds,” he reports. “There was a lot of fine-tuning, frame by frame; every pixel has to be perfect in a beauty spot. Technically, we had figured everything out beforehand. So what remained was a creative challenge to make two opposite, but attractive worlds. Uma’s demon world had to be as beautiful as her angel world.”

Semerad composited close ups of the angel Uma into the triple vanity mirror and the demon Uma into the large mirror frame so the dual sides of her nature seamlessly interact with each other.

To further cloak Uma’s dark side in mystery Semerad introduced flicker effects to his color correction pass on Inferno turning the gamma up and down to enhance the smoky, otherworldly atmosphere.

“Flame and Inferno were the perfect platforms of this kind of job,” he notes. “It would have been nearly impossible to do without them.”

Carey Gattyan was the executive producer for Semerad, and Carmen Maxcy supported Johnnie Semerad on Flame.

Yvette Pineyro at wild(child) did the creative cut; Company 3 performed the film-to-tape transfer. At Anton & Partners David Anton was creative director, Marty Friedman producer and John Painter art director.

Click 3X
Takes Talkative E*TRADE Babies to New Venues

The first class greenscreen plane set with extras.
The “First Class” greenscreen plane set with extras.

Despite W.C. Fields’s warning about never working with children or animals, John J. Budion, a director, creative director and lead Flame artist with Click 3X in New York City (www.click3x.com) found himself with a boatload of babies for the latest seven-spot E*TRADE package from Grey/NY.

The new E*TRADE campaign continues to take the talkative, investment-savvy lead tyke out of the nursery to venues like a convenience store, where he admonishes a lottery player about the extremely low odds of him striking it rich, and the first class section of an airplane, where he touts E*TRADE’s stop-loss ordering facility that saved him money while he was attending a bachelor party. He mixes with girlfriends and buddies in other storylines.

When Grey decided to change vendors for the spots last year Budion submitted a proof-of-execution that fine tuned production and post. “The copy changes throughout the process to get the best verbiage for the babies to use, so you need to have a pipeline in place that allows you to maneuver and be flexible,” he points out.

The baby alone on the first class greenscreen plane set.

The baby comped into the convenience store set.The baby alone on the “First Class” greenscreen plane set.

A VFX and Flame artist for 11 years, Budion knows “how to shoot things so every detail fits. Any time I can get anything in camera, it helps.”

Following four days of casting he and DP Dylan Macleod spent three days on set shooting each baby on greenscreen in their highchairs, recording various performances and emotions. “A lot of writing evolves after that,” he notes. “Copy is further developed from what the baby gives you.”

For “First Class,” Budion placed the lead baby in an airplane seat on a set with moody lighting to simulate a red-eye flight. “I wanted to limit his distractions so I didn’t want to place him in the full plane set and introduce all of those extra pieces. We had his mother or his favorite show projected on the teleprompter so he’d pay attention to the camera, then the AD cued mom and she’d call the baby for different positioning then eventually get him to gravitate back to the monitor again. I wanted it to look like it was all one take with jump cuts for other people’s performances.”

Budion shot separate plates of an eight to ten-seat plane set peopled with extras and a flight attendant who offers the now-invisible baby a bag of pretzels and a tray of hot towels (in the finished spot he accepts a glass of milk-on-the-rocks).

The baby comped into the convenience store set.
The baby comped into the convenience store set.

While editor Alex Cohan cut together “First Class” at Vision Post, Budion cast five- and six-year olds for the lips shoot. Adults held the kids’ heads steady during the shoot; the children wore facial tracking markers to aid Budion in compositing. “I have to stabilize one variable so I can map and track the lips to a baby who’s moving all over the place,” he explains. “The markers also help show how the cheeks move, so once I have the new lips in place I can warp and distort the cheeks and move the mouth and the rest of the baby’s face in harmony with the lips.”

The process is “very demanding” on the children, he admits. He locked off the camera and placed himself at the various camera angles required to capture profile or full-face lips so the kids would focus on him. “I delivered their lines in the same cadence as (deadpan voiceover artist) Pete Holmes, and they recited them back to me. We played copy cat, do what I do.” When lips were required to sing or howl like a wolf Budion led the kids in the game.

DP Macleod used a Sony F23 CineAlta HD camera throughout for its high-speed, variable frame rate capabilities. “Since you never know what you’re going to get from kids, we shot them at 59.94 and the adults at 23.98,” Budion says. “If I can get three or four seconds of the kids at high speed, I can turn it into six or seven seconds in post and not get a lot of motion blur. Slowed down, it becomes a really nice performance.” The F23 offers 4:4:4 imaging giving Budion “a more dynamic color range” to work with in post; this raw format enabled him to manipulate the black and white levels for a more seamlessly-integrated composition.

Casting was shot with a Panasonic P2-format camcorder. “I knew we would degrade the F23 footage a bit so if there was a performance we loved in casting we could marry the two formats and find a middle ground,” Budion reveals.

An action set up in Autodesk Flame showing mesh warp splines used to manipulate the baby's expressions to reflect the motion of his new composited mouth.
An action set up in Autodesk Flame showing mesh warp splines used to manipulate the baby’s expressions to
reflect the motion of his new composited mouth.

For “First Class,” the Click 3X CG team, led by Anthony Filipakis, used Autodesk Maya to craft a baby-size neck pillow for the talking tyke because kids of that age tend to throw real props. “They tracked and match-moved a take of the baby in the seat and created a 3D baby head in Maya to match his movements. This 3D head was used to mimic photo-real pillow compressions, as well as facilitate the creation of layers representing real shadow and light play,” Budion explains. “Those elements came back to me on Flame for finishing and compositing.

“The foundation of any compositing is tracking,” he emphasizes. “You get the performance tracked in there then you fine tune. So I first comped the lips into the baby greenscreens for a new source clip as if we had filmed them talking. Then we tweaked that, interacting with the client. Once that was finalized we had a talking greenscreen sequence to plug into a live-action scene where we added all of the aesthetic details to really sell the shot.”

Details matter when you’re selling the E*TRADE babies in their various venues. “To drive home the idea that the baby was in the convenience store for the lottery spot, I reflected the backs of the baby and the customer in the security mirror at the top right corner,” notes Budion. “It’s subtle; I’m probably the only one who notices it.”

Director John J. Budion (center) on an E*TRADE set.
Director John J. Budion (center) on an E*TRADE set.

Budion, along with Flame artist Sophia Avgousti, used frame-blending techniques to finesse the lips, removing any teeth showing in the kids’ delivery and reworking the articulation to better match the babies’ motor skills.

He gives kudos to the collaboration between Click 3X and Grey and between Grey and E*TRADE. “It’s all wildly creative minds going crazy with what we want to do,” he reports. “Producer Kim Kietz at Grey and our head of production Jared Yeater managed to stay on top of everything; without them the wheels would have fallen off!”

To see what those wildly-creative minds have put together beyond the commercial campaign, check out the E*TRADE babies’ outtakes on YouTube where they’ve attracted about two million hits or see the 45-second outtakes reel at a cinema near you.

Digital Domain
Has Strokes of Genius for Infiniti

The shodo master paints Infiniti's silhouette.
The shodo master paints Infiniti’s silhouette.

Luxury vehicles seeking an elegant commercial presence couldn’t do better than a pair of Infiniti spots with effects created by Digital Domain of Venice, California (www.digitaldomain.com). Both “G Line” and “Master Driver” open with an artist’s skilful hand painting the car’s profile in broad brushstrokes and continue with innovative ink effects that bleed into the paper and transform into live-action landscapes.

Digital Domain’s involvement began when TBWAChiatDay, Los Angeles was bidding directors and the company teamed with RSA director Carl Erik Rinsch to discuss what the effects would be and test how they’d work. When Rinsch was awarded the job more tests were done to refine the transformative ink effects.

“We did an extensive element shoot on our stage dropping ink into water and onto paper, shooting ink from underneath incline tables and dropping wet paper over ink on glass,” recalls VFX supervisor Jay Barton. “The main idea was to let the principal photography speak to you: What naturally occurred on film was the direction we wanted to go.”

The shodo master's brush paints on the road for the Infiniti G sedan to follow.
The shodo master’s brush paints on the road for the Infiniti G sedan to follow.

A shodo master Japanese brush painter came in to paint the car’s profile and the curving brushstrokes that became black-topped roads. Once this was captured on film Digital Domain could enhance his artwork with 2D and 3D ink effects.

In the Zen-like “G Line” the ink bleeds into the paper to create a landscape where an Infiniti G sedan drives across a picturesque bridge. Quick cuts track the car to a two-lane road where a wide shot shows the shodo master’s brush tip inking a black line that continues the road as it snakes ahead. The landscape resolves along its sides. Another cut reveals a vertical black ink stroke and a splash of red that bloom into a poppy. More scarlet splashes resolve into a live-action field of poppies; the car races past as poppy petals fly off and scatter over the vehicle. Seen from behind the car disappears into a landscape that dissolves in a fog as only red petals remain.

“Master Driver” opens with the brushstroke forming a track in a test course where an Infiniti G coupe is being put through its paces. Although this spot begins with fast cuts of the professional driver at work, the shodo master’s hand is reprised to paint another sweep of ink that forms an open road flanked by a leafy landscape. The driver’s POV shows feathery ink effects creating a tree canopy overhead; when the car emerges from the canopy the landscape starts to blur at the edges and drops away as the road disappears.

The race track's location was made more remote in post.
The actual race track during the Infiniti G coupe shoot.

“We often found ourselves taking the natural things that happened with the ink and building on that,” says Barton of the ink effects. “In some cases we were able to bring in pure 2D techniques in a very graphic way.”

For the poppy, for example, Barton used a brush dipped in water to paint the shape of the flower upside down on paper, then dripped ink from an eyedropper that flowed out and over the shape. “Different passes created different parts of the flower,” he notes. “Color was added in post. We tried shooting the ink in color, but we didn’t have nearly as much control over it as we did when we rendered pieces as mattes and colored them later.”

The real landscape was dressed with hundreds of fake poppies which Digital Domain extended into hillsides and the distant background. A particle simulation in Houdini scattered CG flower petals over the car and road.

Barton worked closely with the spots’ editor, Dayn Williams of Cut + Run, to find the right cuts that would work with the effects to tell the story. “Sometimes we tried things based on a cut then asked the editor if he could cut a different piece in,” he says. The tree canopy sequence “probably required the largest number of iterations,” he reports.

The actual race track during the Infiniti G coupe shoot.
The race track’s location was made more remote in post.

The shot where the car races down a road lined with a half-formed landscape as the tip of the shodo master’s brush inks the road ahead was “our most involved shot,” says Barton. “We used a 3D fluid simulation to do some of the effect, then projected that onto 3D geometry that matched the real landscape in Houdini. We also used our 3D capabilities and what started as our inhouse compositing tool Nuke, which is now developed by The Foundry.” The 3D package was tapped to generate mattes and elements as well as project real ink onto the 3D ground.

The landscapes’ feathery, blurry edges were almost exclusively achieved in Autodesk Flame. “It was a new take on a traditional style of Flame compositing,” he says, “using beziers and warps with live-action elements of ink effects on real paper.”

Digital Domain is accustomed to pushing its hardware and software but nevertheless Barton believes the Infiniti spots marked “one of the largest numbers of individual elements used in Flame compositing compared to our usual work. We also took advantage of 3D tracking in Flame to make everything fit in 3D space.”

Lisa Tomei, Jeff Heusser and Matthew James Bramante comprised the talented trio of Flame artists with Tomei responsible for the main bleeding effects. An accomplished watercolorist, she gave an important perspective to Barton before the main element shoot. “We set up paper, ink and a camera in her Flame suite for arts and crafts day,” he laughs. “We played with different colors and types of ink, how they blended, whether to use the paper and brush wet or dry.”

Digital Domain also performed more conventional effects work on “Master Driver” which was shot at an actual race track whose perimeter was lined with billboards. “The course was supposed to be in the middle of nowhere, so we did extensive matte painting and clean up adding a garage building and a flag blowing where a giant grandstand had been,” says Barton.

In addition, the company created the elegant all-CG end sequence where three silver Infinitis, modeled and animated in Autodesk Maya, spin and drive off in tandem.

Union Editorial and resolution LA
Prepro Planning and Clever Cutting Help Union Editorial and resolution LA Create Pepsi’s “One People”

A screenful of tiles opens One People.
A screenful of tiles opens “One People.”

Launching The Pepsi Refresh Project, a philanthropic initiative that finds the soft drink maker “giving millions for ideas that move the world forward,” the 60-second “One People” spot from TBWAChiatDay, Los Angeles presents a playful mosaic of individuals linked by a common desire to make the world a better place. Its complex visuals were created by editor Einar of Union Editorial (www.unioneditorial.com) and senior VFX supervisor Todd Iorio of finishing boutique resolution LA (www.resolutionla.com).

“What was a lot of fun for me was that this wasn’t a big ‘hey, let’s push the toolset,’ commercial,” says Iorio. “It was working cleverly with existing tools and director Francois Vogel’s palette of work to build something cool.”

Many individuals metaphorically make “One People” in the spot which populates the screen with more than 80 tiles, each a discrete moving image of a person, or as few as four large tiles. The commercial opens with 35 tiles in different shades of blue that move to reveal people holding blue paper cards as will.i.am and the Black Eyed Peas croon the lyrics from their upbeat “One Tribe” track.

The tiles reduce and increase in number dynamically altering the scale of the images in the shots that follow. People in four tiles appear to pass cards to each other bearing the separate words “I Care About People,” “I Care About Trees,” “I Care About The Planet” and “I Care About The Community.” A screenful of individuals displays various examples of foliage then their tiles spin and tilt to form a planet against a blue sky, two tall palm trees protruding from the earth’s contours. A woman pours a Pepsi through three tiles from can to glass, and four people high five each other across their tiles.

A woman pours a Pepsi through three tiles as onlookers observe.
A woman pours a Pepsi through three tiles as onlookers observe.

Close up shots show individuals emerging from windows and doors with fun shapes as the camera pulls back to reveal 13 tiles forming a colorful collage of a house. People in eight tiles toss their Pepsi cans to a ninth center tile where a young man holds a recycling tub. “What do you care about?” asks the voiceover who introduces The Pepsi Refresh Project.

Einar and Iorio were involved early in prepro to help craft the shoot that provided the spot’s editorial puzzle pieces. “The shooting boards were gridded out, numbered and lettered so we could cross off the individual elements we needed,” Iorio explains. “Francois was shooting some 50 shots a day for about a week so it was pretty intense. We all had to keep track of our progress.”

Vogel, who directs through Paranoid US/Los Angeles, shot the commercial in Cape Town, South Africa where DP Michael Cleary manned a Canon EOS 7D DSLR camera that Einar, Iorio and Vogel selected based on the unique aspects of the shoot and workflow. “The footage is compressed in camera, and we never see it full resolution,” Iorio points out. “We could take the files directly from the camera into After Effects so we could do quick comps and make sure everything was lining up.”

Tiles featuring quirky windows and doors form a one-of-a-kind house.
Tiles featuring quirky windows and doors form a one-of-a-kind house.

Einar had two portable Avid Media Composers and three Adobe After Effects laptop workstations in his hotel suite while Iorio worked with Vogel on location. Once the editor received the camera files he began cutting and “getting the timing down to see if the story was playing out accurately,” Iorio says.

All of the action, from the blue cards and beverage pours to the puzzle-piece house and foliage that seems to grow out of the tiles, was shot practically. “Everything was shot with a pretty wide lens, but we tried to keep warping, stretching and modifying in post to a minimum,” he notes. “Everyone involved wanted to maintain a grass-roots feel.”

Even the tiles that spin and tilt to form the planet were “90 percent practical camera moves,” he reports. “Francois knew what we had to do with the horizon at the end of the shot, so we used the camera handheld or on a dolly to capture the horizon we were looking for.”

Careful planning and “very dynamic interaction between the producer, director, editor and VFX supervisor all the way through” eased the complex process and still left room for improvisation. “The way the house was boarded and shot was different from the house you see in the commercial,” Iorio reveals. “In the beginning it called for a lot of windows, and you didn’t get a real sense of the people, so I worked with the creatives to design larger tiles with more connections to the people. The boards were necessary to make sure we captured the pieces, but the puzzle ended up being very dynamic.”

Tiles spin and tilt to form a whimsical planet.
Tiles spin and tilt to form a whimsical planet.

Einar continued to cut in Cape Town for a week after principal photography wrapped. “We started doing compositing in After Effects on the laptops and had the planet shot almost completed and approved before we left,” says Iorio. He established a pipeline from South Africa to LA, so editors and VFX artists back home could take the work into After Effects or Autodesk Flame without rebuilding everything. Additional spots were cut simultaneously from the footage in Union’s LA and NY offices by Jay Friedkin, Nicholas Wayman Harris, Marco Perez and Pablo Piriz.

Post effects tended to be limited to repositioning, retiming and color timing in Flame, a platform that afforded more interaction with the client. There was “no CG, no 3D, no shots where we wondered, ‘how are we going to work this?’” notes Iorio. But keeping all the pieces “together and moving” was no mean feat, especially when “every time you adjusted the timing of one single tile, it affected all the others.”

At resolution LA Seth Silberfein and Amir Qureshi were VFX artists and Evan Guidera, Jason Jensen, John Nierras and Mannix Richenbacher compositors. Brand New School crafted the CG Pepsi cans end tag.


December 17, 2012