STEELE Helps Petco Magically Bond With Pet Pampering Customers

Pet retailer, Petco Inc. tapped STEELE to bring out the Pet in PETCOs employees in a series of four spots airing nationally. Looking for a creative way to bond employees with its pet loving customers, PETCO and its agency, The Phelps Group, relied on STEELE to create the illusion of employees interacting with life-sized pet products to prove their hands-on knowledge and passion for pets and those who love them.

All four :30 spots, titled CAT CONDO, AQUARIUM, KONG and HAMSTER BALL play to the viewers sense of humor ranging from extremely funny to how-did-they-do-that wonderment. The spots were composited in HD on the Quantel eQ.

The agencys creative approach called for PETCOs staff to virtually become the customers pet and demonstrate the use of a chosen product in realtime. In CAT CONDO, the customer witnesses an acrobatically fit employee scale a life-sized cat condo/scratching post.

During pre-production, the apparent simplicity of the boards masked the complex post-production techniques STEELE would use to tackle the job.

"These commercials encompass all that we do here, from creative development, set supervision, 3D and 2D animation, digital effects and compositing demonstrating the creative concept-to-completion services that STEELE offers, said Brian Adler, exec producer for STEELE. The most challenging of the three spots by far was AQUARIUM, which involved a dedicated PETCO employee swimming with giant fish in a life-size aquarium.

For the spot to work, the team decided to create the massive fish tank in 3D instead for physically creating it.

Wide shots of the stores interior were filmed traditionally and combined with meticulously crafted photoreal CG fish and digital aquarium architecture, said Jerry Steele, president/supervising visual effects artist. The CG elements were then composited with the live-action footage and seamlessly integrated. Easier said than done.

Adler, who also served as STEELEs visual effects supervisor, first cleared and shot a large space inside a PETCO store where the virtual aquarium would eventually reside. He then shot hi-res stills of different sections of the store, which were carefully selected at angles that would serve as backgrounds to the diver, who was filmed at a later date.

The production later moved to an aquatic center where the diver was shot in front of an underwater green screen. Every detail was taken into account, from the diver interacting with 3D imaginary fish to the pools production design, including scaled live-action props such as the white pebbled tank floor, streaming kelp and a giant gold treasure chest.

Detailed measurements taken by Adler earlier inside the store were extrapolated in the pool to take into account the divers movements, the imaginary tanks parameters and camera positioning. Buoys and rope were used to indicate where the diver could swim and turn. All of the geometric calculations were critical for matching the live action elements with STEELEs photorealistic CG aquarium.

Supervising CG artist, Wayne England, created the photoreal fish in LightWave, referencing real fish in an aquarium next to his workstation as live subjects. The result was so original and impressive that the agencys senior art director swore it was impossible to tell that the fish were actually spawned in a computer.

This spot hinged on STEELE creating these fish, said Michael Cunningham, vp and senior art director for The Phelps Group. They delivered in every way, exceeding our expectations with their magnificent artistry and attention to detail. The fins, gills, scales and eye movements of the fish were all hyper-real.

Once the fish were animated, lit and textured, Steele composited more than 30 layers for most shots, creating a seamless blend of live action and digital imagery. Using Quantels eQ and Henry, he added bubbles shadows, and complex lighting effects, manipulating the images to appear as if the fish swam behind the diver and other live action aquarium objects.

STEELE is a Santa Monica, California-based digital studio.

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Rick DeMott
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