Using Visual Effects in Commercials: A Guide for Success

by the Ring of Fire Advanced Media Team

Download a Quicktime movie from Gnome, a Silver Clio awarded commercial directed by Tim Burton for Hollywood Gum. Advertising Agency: Euro RSCG, Paris; Animation Company: Ring of Fire Advanced Media, West Hollywood; Production Company: A Band Apart, Los Angeles; Hamster Publicite, Paris.

In "Mice," two CGI mice spy on Miss Lonely Hearts. All images courtesy of Ring of Fire Advanced Media.

At Ring of Fire in West Hollywood, California, we have a particular creative approach and philosophy that we apply to every project that comes our way. After years of working in the ever-evolving effects world, we have come to understand that the earlier you get your visual effects/design team involved with your project -- the better for everyone. Collaboration is key when visual effects are involved, and the more creative minds you have working together on the project, the more likely you are to achieve the best results.

Getting To and Through Pre-Production
Typically, visual effects companies' clients come from three key sources: the advertising agency, which creates the concept for the commercial; the director and the production company; and the editor and the editorial company. But no matter where our client's role lies in the creative process, we ask to be brought into the project as soon as possible. Through collaboration and early preparation, everyone involved in a project has the opportunity to hear and understand each person's point of view and creative ideas. They will know what the original concept is for the project, and will have heard all of the changes along the way. Through collaboration, you will have experts with you every step of the way. This will make the overall creative process run smoother, and save valuable time in a deadline-intensive world.

Our ideal project comes to us before pre-production begins. We're happy to say this accounts for a large portion of our projects. We usually receive a call, and then storyboards are sent to us for our input. Creative conversations begin immediately in order to get input from everyone involved. Simultaneous to the creative conversations is the bidding process. Numbers and creative ideas are constantly being exchanged and adjusted in order to meet the budget.

Once all of the players are chosen for the project (director and production company, editor and editorial company, and us -- the visual effects/design company), pre-production begins. By participating in the pre-production meetings, we're able to hear all of the aspects of the particular job's details so that we can make suggestions on how to shoot a particular shot, where to use visual effects and/or CGI, and what to be careful of during production. We believe that collaboration between our internal staff and our client -- the ad agency, the director, and the editor -- is the key to success. The more creative brains you have concentrating on a particular challenge, the more likely you are to end up with the right answer.

Because Ring of Fire is a visual effects/design studio, we differ greatly in our bidding process from a traditional post facility. We do not bid out machines by the hour. Instead, we have all of our tools at the ready to be used depending upon what the best solution is for that particular shot or project. Our collection of tools includes the Quantel Henry Infinity, the Discreet Logic Inferno, and CGI software such as Alias/Wavefront's Maya, Puffin Design's Commotion, Avid's Elastic Reality, Adobe After Effects, Illustrator and Photoshop, as well as several Sparks packages including 5D. Whatever the challenge, with this arsenal of technology we can find the right solution.

Jerry Spivack of the Ring of Fire team was on-set during the shooting of Ricky Martin's new music video, "Livin' La Vida Loca," advising director Wayne Isham on key visual effects shots and sequences.

Production Time
Once production begins, the visual effects supervisor is on set to collaborate with the director, and to support production and their shooting techniques. One of the advantages of being involved early on is so that the visual effects team and production team can discuss the elements necessary to achieve each particular shot for the project. Everyone will have heard our ideas and concerns during the pre-production meetings, so we hope to sit back in the wings and wait to be called upon. However, during production, things don't always go as planned. That is when the vfx supervisor is called upon to come up with creative solutions on the fly in order to eliminate the need for re-shoots and the "fix it in post" syndrome -- one of the most costly parts of creating a commercial or music video. The vfx supervisor should be as transparent as possible on set.

Key contacts on set for the vfx supervisor are the director, director of photography, assistant director, producer and script supervisor. A script supervisor keeps track of each shot taken, and can serve as our net to make sure we have all the elements we need in the post stage. Because DPs shoot the elements, they may have ideas on how better to shoot particular shots, or they may have important questions for the vfx supervisor. Once production is wrapped, the film goes to the offline editorial company for a rough cut edit. If the project is effects-heavy, we may sit in on editorial sessions briefly. Once the edit and film-to-tape transfer is complete, we receive an EDL/rough cut and begin creating the visual effects. By this stage, we have already mapped out the plan for how to execute a particular shot or project. Of course, changes occur all the time, but fortunately, we don't draw the lines on which talent or technology will become involved with a project. With most of our projects, each person on the Ring of Fire team has made some important contribution.

On a commercial, the day-to-day supervision of our compositing is different from project to project. Sometimes, we work unsupervised and deliver the composited elements for approval. At other times, a director and/or ad agency creative sits with us while we work. Directors collaborate with us frequently during post production, but this depends upon the extent of their involvement with the project. The approval process can range from the ad agency taking the final spot with composites to their client for approval, to having their client come to Ring of Fire for presentation. For a music video project, the approval is usually handled by the production company. It is rare to see a music artist get involved with the post process, however, their final approval is necessary.

The "Mice" roll away the bottle of Kraft Shredded Parmesan Cheese at the end of the spot.

The Process in Action
A good example of our process is illustrated more clearly by highlighting a new spot called "Mice" for ad agency Foote Cone & Belding/Chicago and client Kraft. Featuring two CGI mice, the humorous commercial follows them as they spy on Miss Lonely Hearts who attempts to seduce her newest gentleman caller with Kraft's new Shredded Parmesan Cheese. The 30-second spot ends with the two mice successful in their mission, as viewers see them struggle to roll away the bottle of Kraft Shredded Parmesan Cheese.

We received an early call from director Graham Henman of HKM in Los Angeles, and immediately began creative conversations. His first question was whether he should shoot real mice or create them in CGI. We recommended he take the CGI route. It would provide more flexibility, since the clients wanted the mice to have personality and specific action. Our Executive Producer John Myers and CGI Artist Robin Scher completed on-set supervision for "Mice." Once the live-action elements were shot, Ring of Fire CGI Artist Gonzalo Caulonga created photo-realistic mice characters using Alias/Wavefront's Maya software. In order to ensure realistic animation qualities of the mice, we adopted two pet mice for the studio for reference on how mice move.

Once the CGI elements were created by Gonzalo, Robin and CGI Assistant Artist Jason Lee, the elements were composited in our Quantel Henry suite by Creative Director/Henry Artist Jerry Spivack. Senior Henry Artist Kevin Prendiville and Senior Inferno Artist Simon Scott also completed extensive color correction and clean-up of elements for the Kraft spot. Visual Effects Assistant Gary Mortensen completed rotoscoping using Puffin Design's Commotion software.

It is important to point out that the Kraft project took a drastic change half way through. The clients wanted the mice to have greater presence in the spot, so they added six more shots of the mice to the commercial. Luckily, we just needed some additional time to create the total of nine shots. If they had not taken our advice to go with CGI, they would have had to re-shoot live-action mice to match the additional shots. This is a great example of how early planning saved tremendous amounts of time and added a great deal of flexibility.

Ricky Martin's new music video, "Livin' La Vida Loca."

Music Videos
For the new Jennifer Lopez music video, Ring of Fire also became involved very early on. Creative Director/Henry Artist Jerry Spivack and Executive Producer John Myers went to director Paul Hunter's house for a brainstorming meeting before the project was even awarded. That session gave Jerry and John an opportunity to find out what the director's ideas were and see if, in a very preliminary way, they were on the same page creatively.

This early meeting helped throughout the creative process. Understanding what the director's vision was from the beginning saved time in the design and compositing phase. It enabled the Ring of Fire team to stay on track and to present ideas that were already in line with the director's overall vision.

A similar creative process happened on Ricky Martin's new music video, "Livin' La Vida Loca," for A Band Apart director Wayne Isham. Creative Director/Henry Artist Jerry Spivack completed on-set supervision. The Ring of Fire team collaborated on the clip with Isham taking our advice on key visual effects shots and sequences.

For your next project our best advice is simple. The earlier you get your visual effects/design team involved in your project, the better for everyone. Once you have the storyboard and the treatment down, or maybe even before -- call the experts. Using the latest technology, visual effects artists are pushing creative boundaries every day. These advances enable creative ideas to be pushed that much further. Who knows what you can accomplish with your next project? We can't wait to hear the details and see it.

The Ring of Fire Advanced Media Team includes:

A creative digital effects and design studio, Ring of Fire was launched in 1996 to specialize in visual effects supervision, 2D compositing, CGI and design for commercial, television and feature film projects. Catering to high-end ad agencies, production companies and editorial houses, the Ring of Fire team is made up of veteran visual effects supervisors, and innovative Inferno, Henry and 3D artists.

Ring of Fire has hosted some of the industry's most well-known talents including directors Matthew Rolston, Nico Beyer, Charles Wittenmeier, Leslie Dektor, Buddy Cone and Craig Henderson. Feature film director Tim Burton completed his signature Hollywood Gum spot at Ring of Fire last fall. Frequent visitors to Ring of Fire's studio include ad agencies: TBWA/Chiat Day, McCann Erickson, Leo Burnett/Chicago, and DDB Needham/Chicago.

High-end commercial credits for Ring of Fire include spots for Acura, Apple, Bosch, Budweiser, Canon, Direct TV, Gap, Kraft, Pepsi, Pontiac and Sprint. On the television front, Ring of Fire just completed the titles and open sequence for CBS's new series Turks. Music videos recently completed at Ring of Fire include projects for such musical artists as Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Puff Daddy and Sheryl Crowe.

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