Well, the big game has been played and New Yorkers can smile victoriously through the winter while New Englanders will most likely weep sadly into their cold beers. As always with the Super Bowl, there is a loser and most definitely some big winners. Yeah, the Giants get the big bragging rights as Super Bowl champs, but there are plenty of other winners especially in the hotly contested advertising arena.
The Super Bowl represents another epic confrontation of the far less bone-crunching kind as television commercials also go to battle in their attempts to wow audiences during the game breaks with big laughs, impressive visual effects sequences or just plain clever pitches. Year after year, the stakes get higher and technology, in the form of visual effects, takes more of a role in bringing the most mind-boggling ad campaigns to life. VFXWorld.com takes our annual deeper look at some of the more impressive spots that premiered at Super Bowl 2008 and talks to the vfx houses that brought them to life, including: Filmworkers Club, Framestore NY, The Mill, ka-chew! and Method.
CareerBuilder: Queen of Hearts and Firefly
Online job portal Careerbuilder.com launched their new Start Building campaign with two spots that appeal to unhappy workers urging them to start following their dreams by leaving their soul killing jobs behind. Two vfx houses worked on the two spots: The Mill on Queen of Hearts and ka-chew! on Firefly. TWC Films director Suthon Petchsuwan shot both spots and then with agency W&K, Portlands sanction, he selected the post houses that he wanted to bring across his vision.
Heart is a rather literal and graphic representation of a womans heart jumping out of her body to rather brazenly march into the slovenly boss office to state I Quit! The Mill was hired to work on the spot and Senior VFX Producer Victoria Kendal tells VFXWorld that the initial brief to us was that [the heart] needed to look photoreal. Originally, they thought about going for a puppeteer approach with the heart but I think the timeline prevented that. They were concerned the heart not be gross and revolting but comical and endearing. For us it was a lot of fun to work on the project to give characterization to something that normally wouldnt have those behaviors.
Kendal says they got their overall reference look from Suthon but adds, We refined the more human characteristics like the fact that it sort of had arms. It also has these little legs that have to appear and grow out of it. While it was based in reality, we had to take some license in terms of how the model was built, the proportions and that it walked. We went through two or three passes on where the valves were and how thick or thin the legs were or if it would have shoes before we ended up with the look. We also had a fair bit of back and forth in terms of the texture, the coloring, how fleshy and wet it looked, even down to the fat deposits.
The Mills work took two-and-a-half months to complete with four CG artists and an overall team of 12 to get the spot done. It went smoothly, Kendal admits. The one shot we spent a lot of time working on is when the little heart pulls out because they wanted him to have attitude and be very defiant. They wanted him to have a hero stance. She also adds with a laugh that Suthon would have liked it to be much gorier, so there is a directors version where there is blood seen on the actors face and there are bloody footprints. Were really happy with the technical execution but we feel like the character really came to life. He has the charm and the surprise factor that we all wanted.
Meanwhile, Firefly takes a darkly humorous twist by showing a 2D- animated firefly musically encouraging an unhappy worker by serenade to dream bigger, only to find the happy little bug getting eaten by a 3D spider. EP Creative Director John Andrews explains that Suthon chose us because he knew we had both the 2D and 3D skills in house. He also saw some spots by our 2D Animation Director Elliot Bour, who had a background in traditional full character animation.
When they started production on the design for the firefly character, Andrews says the goal was to have him look as bug-like as possible but also be as sweet and endearing as possible as a fairy god-like figure.
ka-chew! details that they had a month to finish the spot. VFX Supervisor Lochlon Johnston explains, It was all storyboarded out and revolved around the plates shot on set. Our job was simple in placing 2D and 3D characters into the scenes shot. It was broken down into the 2D firefly and the 3D spider. The 2D side was locked down pretty early because of the process in creating it. On the 3D side, we went through a lot of rounds of different animations. We redid most of the animation a day or two before we delivered. Sr. Producer Michaela Zerbib continues, Ultimately they came back at the last minute with a new creative idea. 24-hours prior to delivery we were given a creative direction that we ended up using in the spot. Andrews further expounds that the nice thing about CG is that once you have created your Maya model, then its all built and you can do something different with the model. The way we accomplished the combination of 2D and 3D was that the 3D spider when he captures the 2D firefly, that firefly is actually a CG character that these guys modeled and toon shaded so it would look like the same character in 2D. The reason for that is that the interaction between the two has to be so perfect that we would never have been able to make those changes otherwise.
In the end, Johnston says, We were surprised at how much attention it got. I think with the combination of 2D and 3D, theres not a lot of places that do that and we are really happy to do that work so hopefully this will generate more interest in combining these mediums.
Budweiser: Team, Ability to Fly and Breathe Fire
Budweiser has long been players in the Super Bowl ad game usually going with both humorous and heart-string campaigns to appeal to a range of beer drinkers. They stayed to the model splitting their themes into the two camps. Midwest post facility Filmworkers Club landed the job to create the vfx on all the spots and they explain their approaches to each campaign.
For Clydesdale Team, which features a Dalmatian training a Clydesdale to pull the famed Budweiser wagon while the Rocky theme blares, artist Rob Churchill explains that they created the environments that Hank the horse runs through. We created entire environments, he details in Filmworkers Club production notes. To get just the right look in one of the winter scenes, I painted the falling snow and animated some of it by hand. It was important that the viewer see the passing seasons during the training montage of Hank, the Clydesdale. The film was all shot in California within the span of one week. It was visually all summertime. So, I simply started with matte paintings to show just how far certain shots could be altered. By the time we were satisfied, we had replaced the entire surroundings of nine scenes, foreground and background. Only Hank remained. The end results are simply gorgeous!
Meanwhile, the comedy campaign spots Ability to Fly and Breathe Fire focused on the wacky outcomes of new powers that come to Bud Light drinkers. Fly shows a thrilled Bud Light drinker soaring through the air before he is sucked into the engine of a jet plane. Again, Churchill and the Filmworks team created the shot with a mix of greenscreen compositing, 3D modeling for the plane and the addition of clouds and reflections. For Fire, the spot showed a man accidentally setting his dates cat on fire with his heated breath. Churchill describes in the production notes, We had a lot of special effects work and we came through -- Breathe Fire alone took a week, due to the fire and smoke elements put into the spot.
FedEx: Carrier Pigeons
What would happen if the world chose to hire Godzilla sized carrier pigeons for its shipping needs? Thats the visual joke explored in FedExs Carrier Pigeons spot, which features over-sized, helmeted birds wreaking havoc on a city and its citizens. Framestore NY was given the task to make the concept fly. In a release Framestores VFX Supervisor/Head of 3D, David Hulin, explains that they chose not to shoot actual birds against greenscreen but actually 3D model and animate their own birds. It was a daring move, but we knew we could bring a lot to the animation and really make these look and feel like 15-foot, half-ton, genetically engineered creatures. As any 3D artist will tell you, feathers can be very challenging and this job was certainly no exception. We created the heavily feathered Hippogriff in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but that involved 100 people working for a year. For this spot, we had to take all that CG knowledge and technology and apply it to an eight-week schedule. The spot is also in HD, which leaves no room for error. Managing 30,000 feathers on each bird was difficult to create and coordinate. And if it doesn't work, it looks awful!"
Murray Butler,vfx supervisor/head of 2D at Framestore NY, adds, On the compositing side, we had to work around the clock for the last couple of weeks just to make sure that everything we wanted was in there, and that we could add some fine touches. The true achievement of this spot was the collaborative effort that went into blending animation together with the research and development work that was required for all those feathers. From a 2D point of view, there are tiny details in every corner of every frame, and we worked hard to make sure they were perfect."
Lastly, Hulin says Framestore NY also had to add the real elements of the shipping boxes and times raining down on the city. "It was an epic shoot. We were dropping crates from 150 feet, lifting cars with cranes and throwing them through windows. On a lot of commercials, there would have been pressure to push all of that into post-production, but everybody knew it wouldn't look right on this spot. It was such a wonderfully collaborative project that everybody was on the same page and ready to do whatever it took to make a memorable spot."
Bridgestone Tires: Scream
Last but not least, Bridgestone Tires launched their hilarious spot featuring a squirrel chasing a nut into the middle of a road. Along comes a car and what ensues is the visual montage of panicked screaming from the squirrel, the wife in the car and all the observing woodland animals anticipating the oncoming squashing of the critter. Method was asked to handle the visual effects animation and modeling of the critters and their gaping mouths of terror. Andy Boyd, lead 3D vfx artist, says, The original boards are pretty how the ad looks finished. We knew already working with animals is that they never open their mouths to eat or bite you. Yet for the squirrel performance, you could see on the board that you could get some shots you could get with a real squirrel but then were some you could never get. Our choice was to film the animals live action and for the small screaming animals we would replace faces on them and then for the squirrel we would prep for a 3D squirrel. Shooting went well and of six squirrels we could use three of them in camera.
Moving into post, Boyd says the real challenge was cutting from a real squirrel to a 3D squirrel. The real squirrel was named Chester and everyone fell in love with his character, which made it extra hard because we had to visually match him but encapsulate his personality too. It was really tough. We have done 3D animals before but its always been the full animal in frame, but this was a zoom into the little guys face. Also his jaw dropping hugely didnt help either, he chuckles. The director had the real squirrel next to the 3D one and was spotting differences so it was tough, but it worked out really well.
Detailing their software, Boyd says they used Maya for the modeling and animation, while they used Houdini for the fur. Boyd adds, I have my own system that I created to render so I can match the real one well. And even though the work demanded difficult elements like fur, he says it didnt affect the budget. I use my fur system, which made me confident we could do it and we quoted accordingly. Now people in a film environment will surely be horrified at how quickly we did it, from start finish it was about six weeks. I spent the first three weeks on the fur system doing R&D so future jobs will be all set to go so it was all that in eight weeks.
Thats an even more stunning turnaround when you consider there was a whole stable of other animals, from crickets to deer, included in the creation process. Boyd says, That was the really fun part because each person in the 3D department each picked an animal they were drawn to and they all had an animal they wanted to do. They each took one and put their personality into them and I can see their humor coming through. It brought the job a lot of energy because each artist did one animal so they were fresh and put a lot of effort into it. I think thats why even though the technique has been done so many times, there is something about it that feels humorous and fresh and like it was given some love.
Tara DiLullo Bennett is an East coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1-6.