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Super Bowl of Ads 2006

Tara DiLullo tackles the vfx commercials, which wowed viewers during Super Bowl XL, to see how the top artists scored such magic.

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Commercials are more interesting than the Super Bowl game itself. See how Brickyard VFX helped create the amazingly complex ESPN Mobile spot. © Mobile ESPN.

Another Super Bowl has come and gone, but as intended by many advertisers people are still talking about some of the amazing commercial spots launched during the breaks throughout the game. Commercials have arguably become more interesting than the game itself and the Super Bowl is the preeminent event to show off the evolution, trends and cutting-edge visual effects technology that are shaping the industry overall. Super Bowl 2006 s offered more than 50 new TV spots that ranged from straight-out funny, to visual eye-poppers that left viewers asking, How did they do that? With embargoes now dropped and the vfx companies eager to share how they created their spots, VFXWorld talked to many of them about how the concepts came together and the challenges of making 30-second epics designed to knock viewers socks off.

A52 Honda Ridgeline

Andrew Hall, CG supervisor for A52, was responsible for the clever Honda spot where a buxom mud flap gal walks off her perch and over to a new Ridgeline truck, where she then drives off with a Yosemite Sam Back Off flap. The idea was presented as initial storyboards for the concept, at that time being just one long tracking shot around the car, with the cutaway to Yosemite Sam and the end card, Hall explains.

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A52 was responsible for the clever Honda spot where a buxom mud flap gal walks off her perch and over to a new Ridgeline truck. Before shooting the Honda Ridgeline spot, A52s Andrew Hall and his team spent a week prevising the action to get the timings and the setups locked down. All Honda Ridgeline images courtesy of A52.

As the director, Hall says, I had a great deal of input, which allowed me to basically build an animatic of the spot and take it in a direction that would still communicate what the agency had represented in their initial boards. I wanted to have a variety of shots that would express a little more of her interaction with the car while still remaining true to the agencys concept. So we spent about a week before shooting, prevising the action out to get the timings and the setups locked down. I worked closely with artist Casey Schatz building the previs that we presented to Honda before we shot the car footage. Also, for the purposes of animation, while shooting the car we also had a stand-in actor who performed the actions I wanted to capture. This then gave the editor something to cut to and a starting point for the animation of the mud flap girl. Animation is always a great challenge in itself, and, in this case, the action of the girl had to communicate her thoughts and reactions to the car. Having no detail in the face to emote feelings really then relied upon the gestures be convincing. Also, the timeframe was a challenge as after we finished shooting the live-action plates of the car we had two-and-a-half weeks to edit and complete post-production to deliver it in time for the Super Bowl.

All the animation was done using Maya and rendered with Mental Ray. These elements where then combined in Flame with additional work of adding extra light interaction and building the movement and look of the mud flap in Flame also. Pat Murphy handled all of this, and he really added another level of detail to the spot that brought everything together so successfully.

Brickyard VFX Mobile ESPN

Kirsten Andersen is the exec producer at Brickyard VFX, which helped create the amazingly complex ESPN Mobile spot, featuring an average sports fan walking through a city that is jam-packed with every sport known to man actually being performed around him while he uses his mobile phone. The clients biggest theme was that this wasnt about spotting a celebrity. It was that every single sport is accounted for as it would be on ESPN, and that means there is something for everyone. The idea was that anybody could watch this commercial, no matter what they liked, and find something. Then, have it be that you are interested after you watched it and saw who you did know so you go back and see who else was there. When they were bidding directors and us, there were some director treatments that were coming is saying you will have to do this on greenscreen and this will never work, but EPSN basically guaranteed the athletes and that they would have them all available at the same time. There were no boards for the spot and it evolved from a script over the four-day shoot.

Detailing just a few of the elements in the spot, the football was really coming out of the garage and there is a sequence where motocross riders fly through and most of them are there. But we added the finish line above, we had to make that and did a lot of research on what dirt bike finish lines look like and we built that. There is one motocross rider that is way too close, so we added that guy in. They added elements as small as mailbox facades all the way up to a full street Indy car race in the end of the spot.

Anderson says, There was a lot of debate about if this was too much to be doing, but we decided if the theme of the spot is that its everywhere, how do you say whats too much? If it was a lot for your eye, it seemed like that was OK. It wasnt supposed to be a fantasy. They never wanted it to go to silly and it had to have a strange foot in reality even when it was impossible.

We had to be ready to make anything from people to blimps to cars and motorcycles and the phone at the end, we created. We started a little Photoshop still frame previs in November and we delivered the finished spots the week before the game in HD. We used a combination of Flame and 2D work. Certain shots you could do in Flame, other ones there were just too much perspective change and action shots. It was 120 days of CG and 1,000 hours of Flame. So, for a spot where you are not really seeing whats going on, for as much time as we put in, we are glad you cant see what we did. Brickyard is hopefully becoming more known for these seamless composites.

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Gillette worked with Launch to launch the Fusion razor. The firm used previs to help its client flesh out the entire spot quickly. Launchs Joseph Weil recalls how the firm got the job on a Friday and had to finish by that Wednesday. So his team grabbed a camera and took pictures of themselves in lab coats for the test spot. ©BBDO/Gillette.

Launch Gillette Fusion

To launch its new revolutionary Fusion razor, Gillette worked with Launch and then Charlex in New York to illustrate the high-tech branding of its new product. Joseph Weil, Launchs exec creative director, helped the company flesh out the entire spot with previs. This was one of four boards they came to us with and we had a very short amount of time to put together the first round of test spots. We got it on a Friday and had to have it done by that Wednesday. So we combined the spirit of inventiveness by grabbing a camera and taking pictures of us in lab coats. All the people in the test spot were us. So, on one hand it was really low tech, and, on the other hand, it was high tech, building a 3D environment and lighting it to look a certain way and animating the photographs in a way that felt realistic. All the 2D effects of the particles moving came together with a lot of speed. All of us had to come together quickly to get something of this quality.

Tom Mattheu, editor for the test, explains, The spot used our trademark use of 2D effects mixed with 3D. We used Particle System and composited in After Effects. Chris Chisholm, the 3D supervisor, adds, We created the 3D in Maya. It was basically simple geometry in the 3D world with our huge texture library, which allowed us to create the sci-fi environments really quick. From that we were able to make all these camera angles and move the camera. What you are seeing in the cut is just a very small amount of what we produced during the job.

Method Studios Monsters, Red Tide, and Budweisers Wave/Pour

Method Studios had quite a few spots with their stamp on it this year. Rich Rama, vfx producer at Method, guided Hummers Monsters spot, featuring a Godzilla-esque battle in Japan between a monster and a robot that turns into romance and an unexpected offspring. The project was brought to us by director Noam Murro from Biscuit Filmworks, Rama details. Everybody that was involved in this project was extremely collaborative Noam, dp Toby Irwin, editor Avi Oron, production designer John Reinhart as well as our team at Method collectively put our heads together through the storyboard, previs and shooting stages. Our team had a lot of input because we were talking about 125-foot monsters walking through the streets of Tokyo. Everybody leaned on us to let them know what shots would and would not work. If we didnt feel that a certain shot wasnt quite right, we made sure that the rest of the crew knew and it was back to the drawing board to figure out the next shot. This project wouldnt have come out as great as it did if we didnt work as one big unit.

There were two great challenges that we faced, he continues. The first big challenge was making sure that the background plates we shot in Japan lined up with the plate in which we shot both Jennifer (the monster) and the robot in a bluescreen environment. This meant that every little bit of measurement we took in Tokyo (environment layout, camera distance, lens, camera tilt) was precise. The bluescreen environment on stage was a 1/24th scale of Tokyo and included miniatures, which were used for when the monster interacted with the environment. We also shot with a repeatable head and that always throws an extra monkey wrench into scheme of things. Time was definitely a factor so we had to make sure that everything that we did in Tokyo was recalculated before we got to set in order to be productive for each shoot day.

The other challenge was the actors in the suits. The suits got extremely hot for the actors and they could only be in it for so long. As I had said earlier, we had to make sure that we did the best we could in the time allowed and finding out that the actors could only be in the suit for so long didnt help the cause. Making sure that they were in good health and didnt collapse of exhaustion was definitely a focus as well on set. Rama explains they used Discreet Flame and Inferno for 2D, Alias|Wavefront Maya for CGI, 2d3 Boujou for tracking and Softimage XSI for previs.

For Toyotas Red Tide spot, Method held to a mandate of realism. The difficulty in execution laid in the impossibility of the concept in which waves batter a Tacoma truck. © 2005 Saatchi & Saatchi.

For Toyotas Red Tide spot where a Tacoma truck gets completely battered by waves, Gil Baron, 3D technical supervisor at Method, explains they used Inferno to bring the concept to life. The idea of the tide spot was pretty well mapped out from the agency storyboards, what was shot was very close to the original concept. The difficulty in execution was the impossibility of the concept. As a result, we explored myriad avenues, each one spurred from ideas and conversations we had about how to achieve the concept and physical limitations of each approach. Many people thought that a mostly CG approach would have been easier, but we kept our mandate for realism and they stuck with us through that process. Our fundamental belief was that keeping as much real as possible was the only path to success, and even though that was trying both on us and production by keeping that focus the spot ultimately succeeded.

As for the requisite headaches in making the spot happen, Baron offers, Getting a real truck to move around in the ocean. Getting them to let us rig and destroy several trucks in the process. Mother nature. Avoiding the CG path of least resistance. These were the biggest. Andrew Eksner, the 2D vfx artist, adds, It was shot on several separate occasions and the camera was never locked off it was a helicopter, etc. So it was not only shaky, but framed differently from shot to shot. What saved us was a decision to transfer and do the job in HD it gave us much more resolution for framing and stabilizing the entire spot. I had to perform several levels of stabilization on single rocks, etc. and rebuild the background, plus color correct and add the unifying sky. Another challenge was to achieve the webcam look the way the client would be happy with it.

Method had less than three weeks to fill the stands with 97,000 people flipping cards in Budweisers Wave/Pour spot. © 2005 DDB Chicago.

Lastly, Laurent Ledru, 3D creative director at Method, worked on Budweisers Wave/Pour spot, where a football stadium gets creative with the wave. Detailing the development, Ledrus says, The agency came to us early on in the project at the recommendation of HSI Prods. and Paul Middleditch. I was involved completely in the pre-production phase of the project. We suggested doing a previz prior to shooting and I worked very closely with Pixel Liberation Front. The greatest challenge was that the spot relied heavily on CG. Our philosophy at Method is to shoot as much in camera as possible for photorealism is always a big concern for us.

Being that production had access to only 300 extras, we had to take care of the rest. It was pretty daunting, staring at the 10 empty helicopter plates, knowing that we had to populate the stands with 97,000 people flipping cards in under three weeks. The team worked endlessly to achieve the final result, which looks amazingly real. For the crowd creation and people on the field, we used Massive. For the animation of the car clip we used proprietary software developed by our in-house guru Andrew Bell and Maya. Using both these softwares, we were able to seamlessly blend techniques. We used Photoshop for illustration and the Inferno to composite all the elements.

Overall, The Mills work on the Cadillac spot was one of the most glamorous produced for the Super Bowl. Photoreal liquid is a challenging vfx and the firm did lots of R&D and devised some techniques. Courtesy of The Mill.

The Mill Cadillac Runway

Westley Sarokin was the Flame artist for The Mills Cadillac spot that had a sleek runway model emerge from liquid at the end of the catwalk, then repeated by the new Cadillac Escalade. The initial concept came from the agency of this woman and the Cadillac coming up out of this pool and using the chrome as a storytelling device to drive all the effects. The look of the chrome itself is something that we showed them in a test very early in the process and it really appealed to them quite a bit. It evolved over the course of the spot and we made sure we had the tools and means to do so.

Sarokin admits the liquid look of the spot was tough to achieve. There was a good amount of R&D on the backend as well. We devised some techniques that we thought would really lend itself well to what we were trying to do. We shot some live-action water and liquid elements that we repurposed and did quite a bit to turn it into chrome that we were able to map onto the woman and the car. We also did stuff entirely synthetically using a Fluid Dynamics simulation software that was able to give us some very good results on how water would behave in a pool. We used it less, but we were able to sculpt the results that we needed to get the look we were going for. On the CG end, we used XSI, Mental Ray, Real Flow and on the compositing end, we used Flame.

Overall, the spot was one of the most glamorous produced for the Super Bowl, and The Mill is happy with that distinction. I think aesthetically, it is a beautiful spot. Right out of the gate, the photography was so beautiful. It gave us so much to build upon. It was just taking all of that and taking it to the next level, as far as what we were doing. I think its one of the best things The Mill New York has done. Technically, I think there were a lot of challenges. Photoreal liquid is one of the more challenging things in all of visual effects. We definitely got a good pipeline for what we were trying to achieve. It was a big technical challenge, but I think everyone was happy.

Tara DiLullo is an east coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI-FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the websites atnzone.com and ritzfilmbill.com.

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