Super Bowl Ads 2009: 3-D and Technical Wizardry

Tara Bennett sacks the Super Bowl spots again, speaking with Nexus, Brickyard VFX and DreamWorks Animation about their work.

It's that time of year again when VFXWorld likes to honor the Super Bowl. No, not the game, but the other VIPs of the day, namely the commercials. Game day is arguably the one day a year that audiences look forward to the ads breaking up the gridiron action and that's because Super Bowl spots are now universally recognized as the creative cream of the crop. If done right, those thirty second ads can launch products, ignite a firestorm of precious buzz or boggle audience minds with their technical wizardry.

We take a closer look at some of the spots that attracted a lot of attention and maybe even some comments of "How'd they do that?" This year we talked to artists at visual effects house Brickyard VFX, Nexus and DreamWorks Animation.

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Nexus produced this Coca-Cola Avatar ad in-house with final compositing from Framestore and direction by the Oscar-nominated team of Smith & Foulkes. Courtesy of Nexus.

Coca-Cola Avatar

Coca-Cola created the Avatar spot to appeal to a new generation of Coke drinkers that balance their pixilated quality time with their real-world quality time. Nexus of London produced the spot in-house with final compositing done by Framestore.

"The spot was directed by Smith & Foulkes of Nexus and they wrote a treatment visualizing how this whole world could look," explains Ben Cowell, Nexus head of 3-D on the project. "It was quite abstract and quite difficult to express in words how it would all fit together. So for the pitch, we created a short movie showing how we would treat the avatar characters compared to the humans. We tried a lot of different things to give the characters a slightly otherworldly feel. A lot of the design work went into that initial pitch we created. Then we settled on the idea that the characters were slightly transparent and quite digital with lots of artifacts. Overall, with the characters, it's not supposed to be that all [avatars] are from one system or console. We tried to create the idea that everyone is in their individual worlds so there are a lot of styles. We had a character designer and the directors' work together looking at totally varying avatars in games and chat rooms. Overall, it was difficult because in the spot you are talking to two different audiences. One is really OK with the world and one for which it's an abstract concept."

In order to achieve the transformation effect needed, Cowell says they spent some of that pre-production time developing proprietary software that would help them down the line. "We were really lucky that it was a perfect time and one of our key people had some free time so we could throw quite a few smart people at it at the same time. We managed to develop a piece of software in time for the pitch where it created the 3-D effect when they transform and we were lucky to lock that down before we won the project."

Known for their integration of visual effects with live-action, Cowell says the spot actually was a twist on their normal approach. "We've done quite a few projects that involve a lot of live action elements. But this one is a live action project that happens to have 3-D characters in it. It was interesting to work within normal, conventional filmmaking.

"Our thought process was to treat the whole spot as a documentary rather than a splashy effects number," Cowell continues. "The idea is that if you were out with your camera filming this, what would the natural number [of avatars] be? Everything was planned as a documentary so when we were filming we often had stand-ins to look at the framing and people sat there to get the natural balance of the shots."

Breaking down the effects they created, Cowell explains, "We created something like 60 or 70 avatars which is a lot of modeling. It would have been a lot easier if they all came from the same style or world, but each one was like reinventing the job. We had about eight modelers and some had worked in games and features so we knew their strengths so everyone was given groups that they were comfortable in."

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Brickyard did work on three spots this year, adding color correction and beauty work to Denny's Thugs getting whipped-cream pancakes. Courtesy of Brickyard.

Denny's Thugs

Quickly becoming a standout visual effects vendor for Super Bowl ad work, Brickyard VFX of Santa Monica, CA, and Boston, Mass. did work on three ads for the big game. Diner chain Denny's created their first-ever Super Bowl ad entitled Thugs, in which three gangsters discuss taking out some snitches as a waitress noisily sprays a whipped cream smile on their candied pancakes. For the spot, Brickyard VFX completed "finishing, beauty work and color correction."

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Brickyard added bling to this spot for Cash4Gold with Ed McMahon and MC Hammer One Up-ing each other.. 

Cash4Gold One Up

For Cash4Gold's Super Bowl spot One Up, starring Ed McMahon and MC Hammer, Brickyard VFX "performed color correction and online editing for the spot, along with adding "bling" on the gold elements throughout."

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A Summer of Sphere of light and warmth was the focus of Brickyard's work for this spot for Bud Light Lime. 

Bud Light Lime Sphere of Summer

Lastly, Brickyard VFX also created all of the visual effects for the visually-arresting spot where Bud Light Lime chases away the doldrums of winter and makes a guy's life like a fun summer party. Robert Sethi, one of the lead Brickyard artists, worked on the spot and he explains the spot was particularly challenging due to its constantly evolving nature.

"The agency had a rough idea of what they wanted and I had a conversation with the director and we talked it through about how it would look best," he details. "We had seen spots where they try to mix day and night in the same place and it usually looks like a composite of two different worlds, which is boring and obvious. We bounced around ideas and I came up with a concept image for him, which illustrated that if you keep the same lighting direction and ambient light as a base for both of them, it looks like the same world. It became the basic lighting we built everything around -- the same lighting with one having the sun's directional light.

"There were a couple of issues with this spot," he continues. "One was that we needed to show that Bug Light Lime is summery and fun and winter can be boring. The idea was to emphasis that winter is boring by making it grayish, dull and hazy. The snow that is falling that we add in seems harsh and fast and violent. We also used boring colors, many of which we added in post to make two different worlds. Basically, we shot a summer plate and a winter plate. We tried to dress up the winter plate as much as we could but there were limitations. We shot it at the Warner back lot in L.A. so it was pretty warm outside. We had practical snow but it was melting.

"And as we went into shooting, we decided to use motion-controller repeat heads," he says. "We'd shoot one summer plate with the hero actor. His movement would dictate how we would set up the mo-co repeat head and then we'd shoot other plates. It was a little bit of extra work because you have people in both plates. Even if the camera repeats themselves, it's not sure the actor can so you have to pay attention to that. And then another big thing was that the shoot went from a planned four days to a two-day shoot. It created a lot of extra work for us in post. It was awarded on a Monday and we shot less than a week after so there wasn't much time to plan it out especially with a shoot with so much mo-co or repeat head camera moves. We had to figure it out as we went."

After the plates were shot, Sethi says the hard work began. "In post, the idea was to take one shot and do that one shot and make the effect. But it was such a fast turnaround we hadn't decided exactly how the effect was looking. We had reference images but how the snow would work wasn't decided. So we decided to do one shot, make it look good and incorporate that look into all the other shots. Unfortunately, the agency need it completed in a couple of days from when we got the plates because they needed to test the ad. It was a bit of a different work flow but we found a solution. When it was done and everyone liked it, we went back and did the spot again with a more refined look. And even then the look was constantly evolving. After the testing, the first shot we did was the last shot with the dome over him. The agency wanted the dome effect around the guy and we had thought it would be more like that snow would get pushed around. So we had to incorporate the dome into the other shots. We had to adapt and change because we wanted to accommodate the client.

"As for the different effects that were created for the spot," Sethi explains, "We have falling snow, flowers and trees growing on the background, frost on the walls that disappears. Almost all the snow on the ground is matte painted and there is CG snow melting. The background is comped in too. There are a lot of small details that were added in. Like the woman in the back turns into a snowman. All of it was added to make it more interesting. Software-wise, we used Maya and RenderMan, and boujou for tracking. Flame was for the final compositing. It was all about making clever shots that were easy to reproduce. In the end we did about 19 shots in the commercial, with every shot having a visual effect."

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DreamWorks Animation and Digital Domain worked with several entities to get an uber 3-D trailer for Monsters vs. Aliens and SoBe Lifewater on the air. ™ & © 2009 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All rights reserved. 

DreamWorks Animation Monsters vs. Aliens 3-D Trailer

One of the biggest ad promotions of this year's Super Bowl was the debut of the DreamWorks' Monster vs. Aliens trailer in 3-D. Weeks before the game, DreamWorks started heavily promoting the fact that audiences would need to grab 3-D glasses at retailers. Of course, the conundrum with having a 3-D movie trailer debut on the small screen is that TV 3-D glasses only reproduce a mere fraction of the 3-D experience found in the new Digital 3-D capable theaters. Phil McNally, DreamWorks Animation's global stereoscopic supervisor, says that fact was not lost on the film's production team. "Monster vs. Aliens is obviously designed to work in 3-D in the cinema. When you have that giant screen, whether it's a regular cinema or all the way up to IMAX, the way that the depth scales up, it turns the 3-D space into a huge space in the cinema. The smaller the screen gets, it does tend to shrink it down where it's more of a miniature world version. We had to work pretty hard to get it to work for the TV. It's always hard when you are trying to represent one media in another media.

"But the number one reason for any trailer is to get the point of the story and the excitement out there so that should always lead the way," McNally continues. "We were aware that this was a gamble. But where the Super Bowl has been completely successful is getting out the association of DreamWorks, Monsters vs. Aliens, it's in 3-D. That's the whole point. Otherwise, it's the same problem as a regular movie. If you are trying to explain the cinematic experience you'll get on a 2-D movie, how do you represent that on TV? We trust the public that they will understand that the cinema will be different. It is more difficult with 3-D because a lot of people have not experienced 3-D in digital cinema yet. Our main aim is to make sure that everyone sees it in the theater and this ad was just to pique curiosity."

Talking about the process they underwent to get the film footage prepared for the 3-D trailer, McNally explains, "Having seen a rough cut of the trailer, we go and look at it in our main theater and that's our chance to see if it's cutting too fast and it's too difficult to see in 3-D so we lengthen shots and replace shots that work better. We have a whole host of tools here, some we developed in-house, to be able to blend between shots and we literally call it stereo-blending. In the regular movie, as we are working on production, editorial hasn't finished editing yet, so we make each individual shot look the best as we can. We look at them individually until they look great but ultimately it's not until editorial has finished their version of the shots that we can make the final stereo version. With the blending, we take the stereo so that a close up will start far back and then blends forward so that your eye doesn't go through that painful jump. We did it with this trailer too because obviously a trailer selects shots from all parts of the movie so we might have shots that are fighting each other so we blend to realign the shots in its new sequence.

"The production team is pulled off to help focus on the trailer," he continues. "But 90% of the work for the trailer is also the work for the main production so it's not extra work. It just means deadlines might be shuffled around. I am working on the main production for stereo so I work on the trailer to make those stereo settings. It's the same with the color timing and editorial decisions. If we take the people who were on production and how many of those were pulled into trailer-specific tasks, it was about five of us and then another five in the tech side of delivering frames. But if you include the people working on the shots that ended up in the trailer then you are talking about 200-400 people working on this trailer, when you think of everything. It's really a sub-selection of the main movie."

As to the turnaround for the spot, McNally laughs and says, "Of course, we were always working up to the last minute, but that's because we were extracting shots from the movie, which is still in production. We always wanted to get the latest and greatest that is done into the trailer. We have to be flexible right up to the last minute."

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Lizard Lake for SoBe Lifewater, featuring dancing athletes, lizards and characters from Monsters Vs. Aliens. Courtesy of Digital Domain. 

SoBe Lifewater Lizard Lake

Piggybacking on DreamWorks' plan to debut their trailer in 3-D, SoBe Lifewater worked in conjunction with DreamWorks Animation to create their own 3-D spot that included dancing athletes, the SoBe lizards and even some characters from Monster vs. Aliens.

McNally explains that they worked in tandem with the agency on the SoBe spot to share resources for efficiency and cross-branding. "It was a collaboration of a few companies, including Peter Arnell's company, who developed the commercial and 3ality, who are most famous for doing the U2 3-D concert, they shot the live action, Digital Domain are the artists that have worked on the SoBe lizards in the past and then our own artists that animated our own characters.

"It's funny," he laughs. "In the beginning, we were all around a table at one point trying to work out the script we would all work together. It was hard enough to composite live action with CG characters when it's 2-D. We had to figure out how to get it to work in 3-D where it's so critical to get the depth correct. But we did. Once it had been shot, Digital Domain did a great job of putting it all together. We provided characters to them. I also went over to them and helped with stereo settings on some of the final compositions. And we were able to run dailies were we'd be on the phone with Digital Domain and we'd be watching it in 3-D in our theater, and they were watching it in 3-D in their theater and we could talk about a foot not hitting right or pushing back things. We were able to do that across site. It really was very collaborative amongst several companies."

Tara 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.

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