New York-based Quiet Man recently created a vibrant young CG elephant that hooves up the classic Gene Kelly SINGIN IN THE RAIN routine from the 1952 film. Quiet Man's CG elephant recreates the footwork from Kelly's famous routine for a General Electric corporate image TV commercial. Headed by ad agency BBDO New York, this light-hearted spot promotes G.E.'s involvement with ecological research and development. The spot began airing April 28, 2005.
Shot on a set dressed to look like a jungle, the spot opens with raindrops splashing and the intro to a mellow, wind-themed update of the classic tune from the film as real-life monkeys, lizards, snakes and birds react to the music.
The CG elephant is a photorealistic version of a young African elephant that would weigh about one ton in real life.
"The biggest challenge was to make the elephant look real," said Johnnie Semerad, co-founder of Quiet Man. "And that means meeting a lot of creative hurdles that are transparent to the viewer but very difficult for the animator, such as the fat of the animal, which is very awkward as it shifts during movement, the wrinkles, hair and surface texture of his skin, the lighting, animating his movements and integrating all of those elements into the live-action photography."
The boards called for about 11 CG shots to be turned around in six weeks. The Quiet Man team began by studying live-action photographs of young elephants shot on a game preserve in South Africa. The decision was made to create a young elephant, about one-year-old and five feet tall at the shoulders, to make the animal cuter and more malleable.
Two professional dancers donned an elephant costume and played out the choreography on the live-action set so that the Quiet Man team could begin animating against rough footage. The modeling animators studied reference video of baby elephants running and playing.
Kris Rivel, the CG supervisor at Quiet Man, began the 3D modeling by creating rigging for the elephant's skeletal structure, muscles, layers of fat and skin. All of the modeling and rigging was created in Softimage 4.2, but Rivel did write some custom tools to help build the model.
"I built all the primary component of the elephant's body in the rig all of the rough details, like the jiggling belly, floppy ears so the animators could start working right away," Rivel said. As the details of the model grew more complex, the model the animators were using was updated.
"The rigging needed to have a lot of separate controls," Rivel added, "to allow us to change all of the awkward parts of the model the jiggling belly, the moving, wrinkly skin, the flexing muscles underneath the fat."
The single toughest element was creating and lighting the wrinkles on the elephant's skin. Rivel and his team imported some of the photographs of the South African elephants into Adobe Photoshop and then created brushes in Pixologic ZBrush software to paint wrinkle textures onto the model.
"ZBrush allowed us to paint on very complex wrinkles and wrinkle patterns," Rivel explained. ZBrush output a displacement map that painted a depth value for each individual wrinkle. The very complex details of the skin were then hand-stitched across the entire surface of the elephant's skin.
The second toughest element was the elephant's face. "An elephant doesn't have much facial expression," Rivel continued. "We actually created a kind of hyper real elephant by exaggerating some of his facial features, the most obvious of which is the kind of sly smile we created to help express the joy he feels while dancing. A real elephant doesn't smile, of course." The elephant's eyes were also slightly larger and more dilated than in real life to create a more emotional model. A separate pass was made to create a light coating of the fine white hair that dots an elephant's skin.
The next step was matching the animation of the element to the photography. Two dancers in an elephant suit don't behave exactly like an elephant, so the animation had to be tweaked for performance values. Next, the animation had to be integrated with the live-action elements, such as splashing, puddles and footprints in the mud.
The next phase was lighting, which was also done in SOFTIMAGE|XSI using one source of bright sunlight. Passes were created for shadows cast by the trees and leaves in the jungle against the elephant and then the elephant's shadows on the jungle floor. Live-action rain effects on the set had to be blended in with 3D rain effects on the surface of the elephant.
Rivel created diffusion passes to retouch the elephant's skin color, reflective passes to reflect light and water elements and specular passes to highlight the play of light and shadow across the elephant's skin.
He also created volumetric lighting passes to compensate for the lighting environment above the jungle that alternated between cloudy and bright sunlight.
Once all of the 3-D elements were finished, they were each rendered separately in mental ray in XSI and then integrated into the final animation. Quiet Man uses a render farm of 30 workstations, running Royal Render.
The final animation was then composited with the live-action plates in Discreet Inferno and Flame.
Quiet Man credits include:Animation Director/Effects Supervisor Johnnie SemeradLead Animators Boris Ustaev, Anderson KoAnimators Sandor Toledo, Sam Cuttriss, Chip Lotierzo, Michael Lasker, Steve ParishCGI Supervisor/Technical Director Kris RivelAssistant Set Supervisor Dave BernkopfInferno Effect Artists Steve Koenig, Kim Harvey, Karen Heston, Charles Quinn, Chris Coleman, Peter Sidoriak, Lauren HansonExec Producer Steve Holiner
Quiet Man (www.quietman.com) specializes in creating seamless visual effects, and has played a key role in creating some of advertising's most familiar visual techniques, metaphors and clichés. Their award-winning work on HBO's CHIMPS spot ushered in a rash of talking animal commercials.