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Back to Blocking & Tackling for 2005 Super Bowl Spots

Bruce Shutan reports that it was back to basics for the 2005 Super Bowl spots, which continued the trend of seamless vfx.

This years non-grid iron entertainment at Super Bowl XXXIX was relatively staid. Cute stories and seamless vfx were on view in spots for (left) Emerald Nuts (© 2005 Diamond of California) and Visas Check Card (Courtesy of Visa).

There was just no topping Janet Jacksons infamous wardrobe malfunction at Super Bowl XXXIX, which turned out to be a relatively low-key event both on and off the field.

As is usually the case, all eyes were on the commercials, whose price tag was $2.4 million for a mere 30 seconds of airtime. But perhaps wary of the FCC indecency campaign that followed last years provocative halftime show, nearly all 59 of the advertisements that aired during the NFL title game between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots played it safe.

Cute and comic stories with seamless (rather than full-blown) effects seemed to be the order of the day, observes Amy Taylor, a vfx artist whos also exec director and partner of New York-based visual effects house Quiet Man, which worked on five spots.

Indeed, theres no escaping the understated, organic approach by nut producer Emerald of California, whose spot featured oddball imagery that relied on clever observations vs. pratfalls to get across the advertisers message, notes Kevin Prendiville, a vfx supervisor as well as lead compositor and flame artist with The Syndicate in Santa Monica, California, which created the ad. It wasnt ever meant to push the boundary of visual effects, he says, noting how the use of very little character movement was intentional. The biggest concern was that it looked real.

Heroic Portrayal

One of the biggest splashes came courtesy of Visa, a Super Bowl advertiser since 1994. In its lighthearted spot, some of Marvel Enterprises Inc.s most popular comic-book characters rush to the rescue when they hear the cry of a citizen in distress -- only to discover its a false alarm. Various super heroes explain to the woman featured in the ad that her stolen Visa check card offers valuable protection from fraudulent charges.

The overall focus was on the 3D animation of Spider-Man and particle effects work for Thor and Captain America, explains Stephen K. Mann, senior character technical director with New York-based digital design house Charlex, which created the spot. Since a larger-than-life look was sought, lead effects technical director Bill Watral relied on his artistic sense to balance the need for realistic effects with comic-book sensibilities.

New York-based digital design house Charlex produced particle effects work for Captain America of the Visa spot. Since a larger-than-life look was the goal, the need for realistic effects was balanced with comic-book sensibilities. Courtesy of Visa.

One creative challenge for Spider-Man was to tweak the way hed been portrayed in movies and cartoons. We needed to come up with a believable look for him that didnt look like something that was already done, Mann says. We also needed this look to match the live-action footage of the stuntman in costume.

To meet budget and time constraints, the CG team at Charlex painstakingly measured the actor as well as the stunt man so they could start building the character prior to the shoot. A character pipeline system was created in Maya to update the CG Spider-Man model and look without needing to alter the animation. This allowed for the animating to begin before live action.

Bear Necessities

Quiet Man, whose past work includes the Pepsi Twist Osbournes and Pepsi Britney Spears spots, sought to fuse fun and realism for the FedEx spot starring Burt Reynolds and an acrobatic bear, whereas the focus for Budweisers Clydesdale snowball fight was primarily about the latter so that the average viewer might actually think the horses were capable of rolling their own snowballs.

The FedEx premise is about as tongue-in-cheek as it gets, with analysts wryly suggesting the package-delivery company can score a touchdown with fans of Super Bowl ads by featuring animals and celebrities.

Quiet Man paired Burt Reynolds and an acrobatic bear for a FedEx spot. SOFTIMAGE|XSI was used to offer a highly realistic portrayal of hair and animal fur. © BBDO. Courtesy of Quiet Man Inc.

Reynolds was nearly paired with an elephant until it was later determined that the bearded actors head would have wound up in the beasts crotch during the leg-standing maneuver because of its enormous girth. In the end, Taylor says, we decided on a bear, which can stand in a human-like way and at least lend itself to an air of believability.

Since there wasnt enough time to construct an entirely photoreal character in 3D, Quiet Man enhanced the movements of a real-life bear with CG paws, feet and facial expressions such as a wrinkled nose and also used rig removal. You get the animal to perform to the best of its ability and then you start to animate the CG limbs to get the performance youre looking for, she explains. The vfx house even has an entire show reel devoted to the party-crasher trend wherein CG characters literally crash into live-action.

SOFTIMAGE|XSI was used to offer a highly realistic portrayal of hair and animal fur -- two of the most demanding elements for artists to capture. I have people back here writing additional code for the main program to get the hair to do what we want it to do, so its incredibly labor-intensive for us, according to Taylor. Just to render it at the level you want is so complicated. Youre sitting there with a stopwatch to see how long it will take to render just one frame.

Budweisers spot with the Clydesdale snowball fight was a sequel to last years successful ad. The horses looked capable of rolling their own snowballs here. © DDB. Courtesy of Quiet Man Inc.

For the Clydesdale spot, Taylor explains that each scene was computer-generated vs. shot live -- carefully pieced together so that none of it looked remotely close to fake. Those Clydesdales are very well trained, but when you come back and look at the film and wonder why the baby Clydesdale is standing a certain way, next thing you know youre taking it apart for the perfect scene Im not even sure exists in nature, she says.

Snapshot That Grooves

Olympus developed two spots promoting its m:robe 500 that the camera company described as high-energy odysseys of music, photography and dance. To showcase the device, billed as the first digital music player that also snaps photos, the spots feature funky electronica music, cool Poplockin dance techniques and unusual effects.

Ironically, the Let Your Pictures Groove theme proved to be a final snapshot in a body of work done by Creocollective. Director Dave Meyer of @radical media, which approached the now defunct vfx boutique house in Santa Monica, wanted to manipulate the dancing from his choreographer for unreal-looking contortions.

This posed numerous technical challenges for vfx supervisor Jean Marc Demmer and his executive producer, Jennifer Sofio, who were charged with matching the bodies of a half-dozen young and hip street dancers with the heads of an unlikely cast of characters featuring an elderly Asian couple dressed as tourists, little boy playing piñata at his birthday party, two bridesmaids and a couple of football tailgaters.

Creocollectives swan song were spots for the m:robe 500. Vfx artists had to match the bodies of a half-dozen young street dancers with the heads of an unlikely cast of characters. © Olympus Imaging America Inc.

Using the tools of hair, makeup and wardrobe, as well as color correction for skin tones, blending and scaling, helped make the 6-year-old boy look his age considering that a 30-year-old African American male performed all his moves.

We also did some simpler things like set extension and additional color correction because the compositing we did was really complex, Sofio explains. Sometimes we took an arm from one take and added it onto a body in another take. Everyone in the spot is a kind of Frankenstein. The idea was to find the best mix of body parts to produce extraordinary dancing.

In the event of a need for head replacement, 3D scans were taken of all the heads -- though the spot ended up staying with 2D technology. At the end of the day, Sofio believes compositing when used in its simplest form makes for the best visual effects.

For the unicorn, The Syndicate composited footage of the horse shot in the living room set and added animated mouth manipulation, nostril flares, cheek puffs and eye movement. © 2005 Diamond of California.

Nutty Humor

For the Exaggerating Dad spot from Emerald, The Syndicate used Discreets high-performance vfx and compositing software known as flame to address a host of challenges such as creating a talking horse -- a task left to the imagination of vfx artist Michael Killen, who specializes in this area and struck a chord several years ago with Taco Bells beloved (and talkative) Chihuahua.

The ad opens with a father jealously guarding an Emerald Nuts stash from his daughter, threatening that unicorns will disappear forever if he shared the snack. A beautiful white unicorn then enters the living room doorway to scold dear old dad for spreading nasty rumors as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny suddenly appear next to him on the couch with a few criticisms of their own. This colorful cast of characters seeks to make healthy California nuts a compelling snack alternative for couch potatoes.

Although Prendiville says there was nothing groundbreaking about the photoreal approach to the head-replacement and facial-enhancement of his three Easter Bunny shots, the point was to produce an odd spot that made people wonder just how it was accomplished. He augmented the puppets simple vertical mouth-flap motion to match new voice-over dialogue and employed subtle touches on facial features that included eye, mouth and brow movement -- spending considerable time on the rabbit puppets rig removal and stabilization.

We didnt feel we could get a puppet to make it come alive the way we could with a woman wearing a human-sized rabbit head acting against a greenscreen, he says. So we enhanced what was shot and took the greenscreen bunny head and scaled it down onto a puppet body. Another task was to get her head angle to match the bunny on the couch.

For the unicorn, Prendiville composited footage of the horse shot in the living room set -- later adding animated mouth manipulation, nostril flares, cheek puffs and eye movement.

Reflecting upon the less-is-more trend involving the latest crop of Super Bowl spots, Prendiville raises an age-old concern about vfx budgets bulging at the expense of plot: I think business drives the decision not to spend more money on visual effects than a company has to, but I dont think people equate visual effects with a good ad. There are many awful CG movies out there when audiences need some sense that there will be a good story.

Bruce Shutan, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, has written for several entertainment publications and Websites, including Daily Variety, Weekly Variety, emmy, the 55th Annual Emmy Awards program, Below the Line News, Film Score Monthly, DRUM! and OnlineRock.com.

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