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Where Imagination Thrives

From the mystical to the informative and practical, four VFX companies take creative approaches to their clients’ work.

By Christine Bunish

BigStar composited footage of a real raven, shot against greenscreen, onto a projection-mapped city in the promo for the new season of Game of Thrones.
BigStar composited footage of a real raven, shot against greenscreen, onto a projection-mapped city in the promo for the new season of Game of Thrones.

Spots and promos are fertile venues for innovative VFX and CG work. Whether they play on broadcast networks, cable, the web, or at trade shows, these short- and long-form advertising messages offer high-quality executions of compelling, heart-warming, elegant and fun creative.

BigStar

BigStar goes mystical for Game of Thrones

BigStar projection mapped real environments onto 3D geometry to craft the global locations in HBO’s Game of Thrones season three promo.
BigStar projection mapped real environments onto 3D geometry to craft the global locations in HBO’s Game of Thrones
season three promo.

Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones who have eagerly awaited the return of the series in March were treated to a very evocative promo teaser with the theme, “Their World Returns to Ours.” Crafted by BigStar, New York (www.bgstr.com) the promo depicts the show’s iconic raven of Westeros soaring through contemporary global environments – past a Venetian palazzo and Notre Dame cathedral, over skyscrapers and a suspension bridge – to land on a water tower, turn to the camera and reveal his omniscient third eye, a portal into the spirit realm.

“The raven is like a metaphysical carrier pigeon imbued with mystical power,” said BigStar creative director Josh Norton. “HBO had the idea to revisit the raven as a character, a vehicle to unite fans around the world.”

BigStar’s teaser for the first season of Game of Thrones featured a raven against a dramatic, cloudy sky. At that time, there was a lot of conversation about whether to use a live raven or build a CG bird. “In the end, we all felt we had to have the soul and nature of the real bird,” Norton said.

A live-action raven soars over projection-mapped skyscrapers in the season three promo for HBO’s hit Game of Thrones with VFX by BigStar.
A live-action raven soars over projection-mapped skyscrapers in the season
three promo for HBO’s hit Game of Thrones with VFX by BigStar
.
BigStar composited footage of a real raven, shot against greenscreen, onto a projection-mapped city in the promo for the new season of Game of Thrones.
BigStar composited footage of a real raven, shot against greenscreen,
onto a projection-mapped city in the promo for the new season
of Game of Thrones.

Having had the experience of working with a live raven, BigStar came to the new live-action shoot with realistic expectations. “When you do a shoot with animals, especially birds, you have all these plans: how the camera will coordinate with the flight of the bird, the angles you can get. But that all goes away once you get to the set. It’s hard to get the bird to fly 20 feet in the proper direction despite great trainers and an amazing crew.”

At the studio shoot, against a 60-foot greenscreen in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a Phantom high-speed camera shooting 750 to 1,000 fps captured “gorgeous footage” of two ravens, one flying and one posing for beauty shots. “Shot at that frame rate, well lit and with great camera angles, the ravens’ grace was breathtaking. They were the heart and soul of the promo,” Norton declared.

In constructing the global environments for the bird, BigStar also had several options. “There were a few directions we could go with the technique to create the backgrounds. We could shoot live plates, but it didn’t make sense to go out with crews around the world to match the storyline. So we sourced really great photography and created camera movements within it using [MAXON] CINEMA 4D to build the geometry of the environments and its Projector Man plug-in to projection map the real places onto the geometry.”

BigStar also crafted a shot of the raven reflected in a puddle on cobblestones. Using a still image with no puddle, they fabricated the pool of water and composited footage of the flying bird within it, finding just the “right mix of reflection, shadow and tonality to be as optically accurate as possible,” Norton explained.

With the live raven elements and the projection mapped environments in hand, BigStar composited the bird into the scenes. But something was still missing.

“Once we found the locations, we put together an animatic, but we felt it had no continuity,” Norton recalled. “We were popping all over the world, nothing held together. The lighting and time of day was different from shot to shot. We needed a consistent mood, and that’s where weather and lighting effects came into play.”

BigStar combined real smoke and sky plates with effects plates created in CINEMA 4D to unify the atmospherics. Color grading was done in After Effects with the goal of achieving “a stylized middle ground” where a mysterious silver and blue palette was warmed by blasts of sunlight. “One shot was inspired by the Manhattan sunset, that magical hour on the West Side when thousands of windows capture the sunlight,” Norton said. “The environments feel plausible. These scenes live in our world and not the world of fantasy.”

Animation and VFX were created by Brandon Sugiyama and Luke Infinger; Erik van der Wilden was the promo’s editor.

BigStar composited footage of a real raven, shot against greenscreen, onto a projection-mapped city in the promo for the new season of Game of Thrones.
BigStar composited footage of a real raven, shot against greenscreen, onto a projection-mapped city in the promo for the new season of Game of Thrones.

The final cohesive element proved to be the promo’s score, “Rains Over Castamere,” a poetic a cappella track selected from a library of Game of Thrones music from previous seasons supplied by HBO. “Once we heard the track’s pacing, deep resonance and the specific sentiment [of the lyrics], we didn’t need to listen to anything else,” Norton said. “It became the narrative anchor that gave context and made the promo specific to Game of Thrones.” Mike Vitacco of Plush/NY handled the sound design.

Norton gives kudos to HBO senior writer/producer Jacqui Bussey, “our creative and logistical point person,” whose close collaboration and trust were instrumental in creating a promo as globally engaging as the series itself. At BigStar, Katie Tricot was the executive producer and M. Shane Dolly producer.

In addition to HBO, BigStar delivers creative solutions for ABC, KBS+P, Saatchi & Saatchi, Droga5, Walter Isaacson and TBWA Chiat Day.

a52 VFX

a52 VFX smells the roses for Nescafe

A young husband and father stops to smell the roses – and other flowers – in Nescafe’s “Reminders” with VFX by a52 VFX.
A young husband and father stops to smell the roses – and other flowers – in Nescafe’s “Reminders” with VFX by a52 VFX.

A new :60 Nescafe spot for Latin America from twofifteenmccann shows the importance of stopping to smell the roses – and taking advantage of every opportunity you’ve ever missed. “Reminders” features digital effects by a52 VFX, Santa Monica (www.a52.com), which tapped a host of techniques to create a surreal world inhabited by a young husband and father who comes to a heartwarming decision about what matters in life.

Director Leigh Marling of MJZ shot the spot in Mexico City where a52’s VFX supervisor and Flame artist Jesse Monsour was on set during production. DP Alejandro Martinez opted for ARRI’s ALEXA camera to capture footage of Luis as he crosses the city to start another busy day.

VFX supervisor and Flame artist Jesse Monsour of a52 VFX used an array of solutions for Nescafe’s “Reminders” spot for Latin American audiences.
VFX supervisor and Flame artist Jesse Monsour of a52 VFX used an array of
solutions for Nescafe’s “Reminders” spot for Latin American audiences.

Along the way, he encounters banks of flowers outside his door and down the street, multiple sunrises in a single sky, his young son playing soccer by himself, multiples of Luis walking arm-in-arm with his wife, and his father filling every table in a café. Luis approaches one table in the back occupied by his real dad, sits down and “finally [decides] to wake up” and embrace all the moments he’s been missing in life.

Monsour said that he and many of the VFX artists he knows prefer to “get as much as we can in camera. I like to approach things in the simplest way. CG is great for certain spots, but if you can get something in camera, go for it. Shooting things practically was the best choice for this spot.”

To capture the initial sequence of Luis engulfed by flowers, a real street was dressed with hundreds of blooms. “Most of them were practical, even in the wide shot,” said Monsour. “We added plants breaking out of the concrete, and the sky at the end was matte painting I did in Flame.”

The spooky multiple sunrises was another Flame matte painting based on time-lapse reference photography. Monsour composited real shots of birds and used Flame’s lens flare effect to create sun flares.

The soccer-playing son who filled the screen was achieved by capturing the boy doing different moves on different plates then timing them out and fading the layers on and off to make him appear and disappear. “The timing and placement was worked out in editorial” by editor Damion Clayton at sibling Rock Paper Scissors, “then I built precise mattes in Flame for comping the scene together,” Monsour explained. The same technique was used to craft multiples of Luis and his wife for their romantic scene.

The concluding café sequence was shot on location with a portable motion-control rig. “We placed the actor playing the father in different seats and where you didn’t see his face as much, we used doubles,” Monsour said. “I talked to Leigh to determine the best way to do the shot. A lot of directors are very in-camera types of guys – it gives such an organic feel to things. Using motion control and the real actor worked brilliantly. We were able to capture everything the actor put into the scene and create the effect seamlessly.”

Throughout production and post, a52 worked closely with Clayton as he cut the spot in a suite down the hall. “Leigh did a pretty meticulous storyboard, and we cut together some animatics so we had a good idea what the commercial would look like,” said Monsour. “Using Final Cut Pro, Damion roughed out scenes and picked the best takes of the boy and the couples, which we shot in a lot of positions – we let the camera roll. Damion worked out placement and timing with Leigh, and I finished the comp in Flame.” Bruno Parenti and Steve Wolf teamed with Monsour on the 2D VFX.

Surreal multiple sunrises created by a52 VFX represent all the dawns missed by the hero of Nescafe’s “Reminders.”
Surreal multiple sunrises created by a52 VFX represent all the dawns missed by the hero of Nescafe’s “Reminders.”

Monsour likes Flame for its speed and capabilities that extend far beyond VFX. “It handles files really well and renders very fast, and there are great color correction tools in it. I did some rough color treatment, then our colorist Paul Yacono did a session to warm up the highlights, cool the shadows and add more contrast.”

While the premise of the spot’s effects, with banks of flowers and multiple sunrises, sons, wives and fathers can be rather startling, the effect of a man witnessing everything he’s missed in his life is very poignant. “I really liked that VFX help drive the story,” Monsour said. “There’s nothing gratuitous about it. The spot tells a story that people can relate to.”

Megan Meloth and Jenn Sofio Hall were the executive producers for a52 VFX and Daughn Godd Ward the producer.

Ntropic

Ntropic takes Lincoln MKZ on an elegant ride

Ntopic used a stand-in practical vehicle to capture dynamic driving action then replaced the place-holder car with its CG Lincoln MKZ.
Ntopic used a stand-in practical vehicle to capture dynamic driving action then replaced the place-holder car with its CG Lincoln MKZ.

The stylish two-minute “Drive,” with CG and VFX by Ntropic, showcases the Lincoln MKZ at Valencia, Spain’s unique City of Arts and Sciences.

It wasn’t so long ago that agency creatives doubted that CG cars would replace live-action running footage and the glow of studio lights on sheet metal. Now, CG automobiles are so exquisitely modeled and rendered that they’re undetectable from any real cars still used in automotive spots.

Case in point, the web and trade show campaign for the 2013 Lincoln MKZ luxury sedan from Team Detroit crafted by Ntropic’s Los Angeles office (www.ntropic.com). Ntropic not only handled the CG and VFX for the web videos, but also shot the live-action footage at Valencia, Spain’s spectacular City of Arts and Sciences.

“In the past, CG cars were used for ease of shooting, but they wanted real cars in the beauty shots,” said Ntropic creative director Andrew Sinagra, who directed the campaign. “As CG got better and with physical-based rendering, CG cars made it into mainstream broadcast spots. And now we can get a jump-start on all media materials before a car is even off the assembly line. Automakers can go to a trade show with a full running package done before the car is off the [plant] floor.”

A CG Lincoln MKZ, created by Ntropic, cruises through Valencia, Spain’s City of Arts and Sciences where Ntropic shot live-action plates.
A CG Lincoln MKZ, created by Ntropic, cruises through Valencia, Spain’s City of Arts and Sciences where Ntropic shot live-action plates.

Just as he did with an earlier Ford Escape campaign with Team Detroit, Sinagra opted to shoot the live-action plates “like a real car commercial, with a stand-in vehicle, so when you get into editorial you know what you’ve got. The benefit of shooting a practical car is capturing the dynamics of a real car. We got the performance of the vehicle; we shot car-to-car with a Russian arm. The client was there to see exactly what we were doing and knew what it would look like. It made the whole process easier.”

Sinagra spent three days in the unique City of Arts and Sciences, a stylized environment of white, post-Modern buildings, which serves Valencia as museums, an opera house and IMAX theater. “The complex is completely open – you can see from end to end – and all the buildings are lined by water,” he recalled. “It was very surreal.”

Ntropic captures dynamic driving footage on location with the stand-in vehicle for Lincoln MKZ’s “Drive.”Ntropic’s Andrew Sinagra (second from right) on location in Valencia, Spain’s City of Arts and Sciences for Lincoln MKZ’s “Drive.”
Ntropic captures dynamic driving footage on location with the stand-in vehicle for Lincoln MKZ’s “Drive.”Ntropic’s Andrew Sinagra (second from right) on location in Valencia, Spain’s City of Arts and Sciences for Lincoln MKZ’s “Drive.”
Ntropic captures dynamic driving footage on location with the stand-in
vehicle for Lincoln MKZ’s “Drive.”Ntropic’s Andrew Sinagra
(second from right) on location in Valencia, Spain’s
City of Arts and Sciences for Lincoln MKZ’s “Drive.”

Taking his lead from the concept art and initial style frames of the print art, Sinagra developed a color palette of white architecture, black car and blue and night skies for the two-minute “Drive.” The new Lincoln MKZ journeys through the unique location as its world-class features and design elements are graphically highlighted.

Ntropic shot the stand-in car with an ARRI ALEXA Plus camera utilizing an innovative technology developed with ARRI for the Ford Escape project. “We capture all the lens info frame by frame, and it’s stored with the Pro Res QuickTime footage. Then we can extract all the data so we have exact lens info on a frame-by-frame basis,” explained Sinagra. “That represents a huge leap forward for tracking. We put the information into our [Vicon] Boujou and [Pixel Farm] PFTrack tracking software as key frames, which lets us do the kind of dynamic car-to-car shots that people have stayed away from in post.”

Lincoln supplied a CAD-based model for the new MKZ so Ntropic could create a CG version of the vehicle in Maya. “We asked for front and back surfaces; there was a lot of detail in the models,” Sinagra said. “Team Detroit worked with Ford to figure out a new way to deliver assets to vendors, and this [data] was right on the money.”

CG artist and lead designer James McCarthy led the graphics portion of the project, deploying MAXON CINEMA 4D and Adobe After Effects to create elegant graphics highlighting the car’s features and functions, including its lane-keeping system and blind-spot alert. “These were complicated systems, and we needed really clean, simple ways to explain them that wouldn’t distract from the footage,” Sinagra said.

The MKZ was rendered in Chaos Group’s V-Ray, some live-action plates were cleaned up in Flame, the vehicle was composited into the plates with Nuke and final material output through The Foundry’s Hiero, which proved to be a “great desktop conforming tool,” he said. “It was great for getting iterations to clients: I could update 45 shots with three button clicks and get a new QuickTime for posting.”

Ntropic also created the 90-second “Interior,” which focuses on the luxury and comfort of the passenger experience. The camera lovingly skims over the seating, steering wheel, touch controls and THX2-certified audio system in a fully-CG video caressed by ambient lighting.

“We got the interior info from CAD data converted to a DCC-ready model for Maya,” Sinagra recalled. “CG is great for places where you could never really put a camera and capture the kind of detail you want to see – there are limits to what is possible practically. But with CG you have the flexibility to get inside the car and show all the details without worrying about how to squeeze in a camera body and lights.”

Ntropic captures dynamic driving footage on location with the stand-in vehicle for Lincoln MKZ’s “Drive.”Ntropic’s Andrew Sinagra (second from right) on location in Valencia, Spain’s City of Arts and Sciences for Lincoln MKZ’s “Drive.”

At Ntropic Mark Wurts was the lead VFX artist and Dustin Zachary, James McCarthy, Jeremy Lei Ontiveros, Val Sinlao and Johnny Diaz comprised the VFX team. MB Emigh was the Flame artist, Mike Hackett the editor and Marshall Plante the colorist. Jim Riche was executive producer, Mark Reusch and Lindsay Fields the live-action producers, and Fawn Fletcher VFX/CG producer.

MPC LA

MPC scores for the NBA

MPC LA helped Clippers point guard Chris Paul disappear from the basketball court in a cloud of smoke in a spot for the NBA.
MPC LA helped Clippers point guard Chris Paul disappear from the basketball court in a cloud of smoke in a spot for the NBA.

MPC LA (www.moving-picture.com) helped Clippers point guard Chris Paul do a “Disappearing Act” in a spot from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners promoting the NBA with the tag line, “Unbelievable is big.” The VFX studio made Paul disappear and reappear in a cloud of smoke several times on the basketball court, confounding his opponents; he finally vanishes and reappears in a restaurant booth where Magic Johnson and Lakers guard Steve Nash are watching the game.

The spot marked the first collaboration between MPC New York and spot director Spike Lee, who helmed the restaurant shoot in LA through Pony Show Entertainment. The action on the court was crafted from stock footage with a masterful integration of 2D and 3D effects.

“We showed Spike the first few [VFX] tests and satisfied any concerns he had; he was happy with the direction we took so he let us run with it,” said MPC VFX Supervisor Jake Montgomery, who was also lead compositor.

To create the vanishing effect, MPC artists painted Paul out of the stock game footage and restored the background. “The court was quite generic so it was easy to clean up,” Montgomery said. “At the end, where Paul disappears from the restaurant and reappears on the court there were players behind him so we had to rebuild their limbs in [Autodesk] Flame and [The Foundry’s] Nuke.”

To give a dynamic feel to the smoke effect, MPC artists match-moved the dust to Paul’s on-court actions. “Using his real action gave us less of a genie effect,” he explained. “We wanted to see swirls and vortexing, which make it all more interesting. We matched 12 frames on either side of Paul’s disappearance and appearance so the dynamic smoke would simulate off of that.”

When Paul appears in the restaurant booth, “we had to cheat a bit more,” he admitted. “We had him drop down into position on the seat, but there was no movement forward and backward, so we tried to push the simulation further to get more out of it. Still, his motion in the booth wasn’t as interesting as his moves on the court.”

Clippers point guard Chris Paul appears and disappears in a restaurant booth with Magic Johnson and Steve Nash in an NBA spot with VFX by MPC LA.
Clippers point guard Chris Paul appears and disappears in a restaurant booth with Magic Johnson and Steve Nash in an NBA spot with VFX by MPC LA.

MPC tapped Maya Fluids and Maya’s nParticles module to devise the smoke effects. “The smoke is built with particles and fluids. The fluids have proper advections so they move physically correct; the particles add texture,” explained 3D lead John Cherniack.

The most fun part, he said, was choosing the frames for Paul’s disappearances and appearances on the court since the point guard’s movements would “completely change the look of the smoke” each time the effect was done. “We chose good frames of Paul on the court so his movements would be inherited by the smoke.”

Rendering was done in Mental Ray and compositing and some color grading in Flame and Nuke. “We darkened the court’s floors a bit to help the light-color smoke pop. Since the lighting on the crowds was strong, we also vignetted them off a bit,” explained Montgomery.

At MPC, David Hernandez and Lisa Ryan joined Montgomery on the 2D team and William Schilthuis, Nikki Mull and Ian Wilson partnered with Cherniack on the 3D tasks. Mark Gethin was the colorist, Asher Edwards executive producer and Juliet Tierney producer. Stephen Berger of Final Cut edited “Disappearing Act.”


January 17, 2013