Mill Creates Cloud Gods for Mercedes Spot

Mercedes' latest commercial, CLOUDS, a follow-up to last year's award-winning MOVEMENT, broke across the U.K. on June 22, 2004. The HD ad (created by CDD's Walter Campbell and directed by MJZ's Nicolai Fugslig) boasts The Mill's most demanding vfx job, resulting in the London-based studio applying new working practices across the 3D department as a result of the project.

Clouds tells an epic story of a slick Mercedes dodging crushing shadows, as cast by an Armageddon sky. The idea centers around two battling "cloud gods" and required intense 2D and 3D input. The Mill began R&D eight months in advance of the airdate, back in November 2003, intricately researching the complex forms and structures of clouds.

Shot on 35mm but posted HD, every shot required considerable post-production, with many shots being composited from more than 100 layers. In reality, the car was shot on an empty desert surrounded by a mainly blue, cloud-less sky. Most clouds and shadows visible in the final edit were created and added in post. Continuity was a particular concern; each cloud was choreographed around the car's movement and then finessed with light rays, lightning and color contrast. "Each shot was like a blank canvas, requiring layer upon layer upon layer," says MD, Pat Joseph. "It's possibly the most demanding project we've ever undertaken."

Not only was the intensity of the required work a challenge, the cloud god brief was a real challenge too: it was hard to strike the right balance between figurative and realistic. Wherever possible, CG elements were tracked onto real clouds so as to maintain a high level of realism. Additional layers of clouds were added in flame to enhance CG elements.

The ad's dramatic reverse pullback shot, diving from sky to car, was created in post by making the start frames "wider." This was achieved by building extra scenery in 3D at the edge of frame. Similarly, dust trails behind the car were extended to give a grander scale.

Given the complexity of the camera moves around the car, the Mercedes was often placed on a static rig. Hence The Mill was involved in considerable clean-up and complex compositing to make these rigged shots look like high-speed driving shots. Not only would the rig have to be painted out, but the illusion of a moving floor would have to be created in flame and inserted under the car.

Unusually, CLOUDS became highly dependant on hi-res digital stills photography. The Mill's visual effects supervisors attended the shoot and took nearly 20,000 digital stills to create timelapse cloud-building sequences using three CANON 300D (Rebel), SLR cameras together with three "digisnap" boxes.

The Mill's CG team relied heavily on fluids in Maya 6, but also developed much proprietary software to achieve the desired look and movement. In total, a team of nine animators worked on the project across several months.

Initially, a sky-plate drawing, using tracing paper, was developed as a means of establishing how the gods should move. The characters were generated to the utmost detail with each body-part being designed as a separate cloud element. All cloud god animation was determined by the speed and behavior of real clouds. It was hard to maintain the essential cloud formation of the gods whilst animating the figures. Creating such dynamic CG cloud movements has been a first for anyone in post-production.

The project has provided a real learning curve in terms of working practices. Since the job was posted HD, The Mill's 3D team investigated ways of speeding-up render times by integrating Maya 6 and mental ray using fluids and dynamics. The CG department also implemented a new method of project management, which was streamlined like a production line. A dedicated cloud Web site, outlining every setting used, was created purely to see the development of each cloud render. This meant that everyone involved could track the development of each 3D cloud.

Based in Soho, London, The Mill (www.mill.co.uk) specializes in high-end visual effects for commercials, music promos and television. For the past 13 years The Mill has built an impressive client-base of some of the world's best commercials directors, and advertising agencies handling accounts such as Levi's, Pepsi, Guinness, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. In May 2002, The Mill opened in Hudson Street, New York.

The Mill credits include:

3DStephen Venning - CG producerRussell Tickner - CG supervisor:Robert Kolbeins - CG cloud teamAndrew Daffy - CG cloud teamPaul Denhard - CG cloud teamJamie Lancaster - CG cloud teamEduardo Schmidek - CG cloud teamRob van den Bragt - CG cloud teamIvor Griffin - CG cloud teamAndrew Proctor - animatorTom Bussell - animatorHitesh Patel - animatorJan Walter - CG R&DDave Levy - CG R&D

FlameAnt Walsham BarnesBill McNamaraJason WattsNeil DaviesPhil CroweRichard RobertsStefan CooryTom Sparks

Flame SupportRichard Betts (lead support)Danny MorrisGavin WellsmanJames CordenMark PayneGiles Cheetham

SmokeMatt "Wispy" Clarke

ProductionDarren O'KellyDerryn Clarke