Take a dog. Put him in the passenger seat of a car. Now get him to sing a full-on version of the Spencer Davis Group's I'M A MAN and you've got one of the cutest, funniest animal-based commercials to be seen in recent years.
Created by DDB London and directed by Noam Murro, VW Polo DOG is a 30-second spot that started airing recently in the UK.
Post production was by Framestore CFC.
We open on our hero -- a white Jack Russell -- sitting in the front of his mistresses' car and belting out the song's opening lines: "Well my pad is very messy and there's whiskers on my chinâ¦"
Abruptly, we cut to "Jack" accompanying his mistress as she waits in line in a bank. He appears distinctly subdued and is muttering the song (a capella -- the backing band has disappeared) under his breath.
The spot continues in this vein, switching back and forth between the dogs' contrasting demeanors: breezily confident in the car, timorous outside it.
At the end the tag -- "Polo confidence" -- is superimposed over a final shot of the car speeding along, and we cut to a final logo shot.
VFX Supervisor Stephane Allender attended the four-day shoot in LA. "It was a pretty straightforward process," he said, "Not least because the dog was so beautifully trained. All of the interior shots of him trembling and cowering -- those were all reactions he could do on command. Not only were no animals harmed during the making of this film -- they weren't even disconcerted!"
The three and a half weeks of post that followed were largely concerned with the animating, texturing, matching and fine-tuning of the 3D elements.
Allender painted out the whole of the dog's muzzle. This was tricky in some shots where the dog is seen through the car's reflective windows -- made necessary because open windows would have been too windy for the dog.
Meanwhile, CG Lead, Diarmid Harrison-Murray started by getting good camera track and then object track of the dog so that the 3D dog head could be properly aligned with the real one.
Again, this was made harder by the reflections in some of the shots.
"We made a whole 3D dog's head, even though we knew that it would probably just be the muzzle that was used," said Harrison-Murray, "Because this gave Stephane plenty of leeway to play with when compositing. It also gave us a bit more to work with when lighting the material."
The dog was built and animated using Maya and rendered with Mental Ray.
After initially hoping to use just textures for the dog's skin, the team found that they had to use fur for a couple of the close-ups, which they implemented using Maya's own fur tool.
Leading the animators was Senior Animator Dale Newton. "We had to make a dog rig that could move convincingly," he said, "Whose lips were flexible enough to do things that a real dog's would, but that would also go that tiny bit further. Dog lips are potentially far more flexible than human lips; they can flap around in a much more mobile way than ours can. And dogs make many sounds that are quite human. So things that involve a pucker -- a 'w' sound, say -- are not too difficult to sell as near-natural. Plosives and bilabials, on the other hand -- 'b' or 'p' or 'm' -- are not part of a dog's 'vocabulary'. It's all a question of finding the sweet spot between the natural and the fantastical."
Newton points out that the "animation" of the dog while mumbling was not a 3D job -- Allender created it all with a mixture of in-camera footage and a little Flame magic.
A final touch was the Telecine, created by Senior Colorist Steffan Perry, who said, "The aim was to keep the spot looking warm and upbeat. The final 'hero' shot of the dog in the car has a slight but distinct golden glow to it."
DOG's charm and humor, combined with a classic song, made it an instant YouTube hit and a spot that gets passed around via email.
That you never doubt that you're seeing a dog belting out his favorite song is down to the canine craftiness of the Framestore CFC team.