J. Paul Peszko explores compelling transitions in commercials and music videos as a result of some of the latest advances in 3D software. Includes QuickTime clips!
If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from each film by simply clicking the image.
Transitions. All of us have to make them. From childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood. From high school to college and from college to the work force. How effective we are at making transitions determines the quality of our lives. The same can be said of storytelling, especially in a short 30-second commercial. The better the transition, the better the story and our understanding of how it relates to us.
In cinematic terms, the transition for decades has meant a cut, a fade or a dissolve. However, with recent technological innovations, cutting edge CG artists have done much to enhance the standard transition but not without an increased emphasis on planning and a lot of trial and error. Every CG director interviewed stressed the importance of preparation and especially, now that the technology is available, using various forms of previs.
We can decide where we should put the camera and where the director has to shoot to make all the transitions seamless so, thats the first step, states Method Studios CG creative director Laurent Ledru. What Ledru looks for in a transition is something thats more fluid and something thats more interesting to the eyes also.
In a spot Ledru did for Saturn titled Inspiration, an auto designer seated at a restaurant counter has drawn a sketch on a napkin. As he gets up to greet a friend, the napkin blows out into the street. Carried by the wind, it flies into traffic, blows under a truck and transitions into a blueprint, then flies under a freeway overpass and turns into a clay model of the new design and then finally into a new Saturn.
You have to keep a beat, set a proper rhythm, Ledru states. In the past to change from paper to a blueprint we would have used something like a fade in or a morph or a dissolve. Here we use the paper flying under a truck like a new kind of wipe. Ledru used Maya and Photoshop and constructed the clay model of the car with Particles.
Unlike Ledrus Inspiration, the motion in Garson Yus spots for Orange, a European telecommunications firm, is anything but fluid. It takes on a very robotic stop-action appearance that is unusual for Yu, who is known for his confluent style as evidenced by his main titles for such films as Brokeback Mountain and Memoirs of a Geisha.
So what caused Yu to diverge from his norm? It was actually his Monty Pythonesque opening titles on Desperate Housewives, a series that is also extremely popular throughout Europe, which prompted the French agency that handles the Orange account to call upon yU + co.
In the spot there are two distinctive worlds side-by-side. One is the real world, the other is the fantasy world that represents the different features that Orange can provide (its customers): music, sports, video and news, Yu explains. We came up with the idea of this guy daydreaming and all these pop-up figures and objects come out at him then at the very end its back to the real world. To accomplish the effect, Yu shot all the pop-up talent from soccer players to police cars and news crew over green screen. Then we selected single frames and took out the inbetween frames and then we put it back together so that they looked kind of animatronic, kind of robotic in a stop-motion sequence. We projected that onto a 3D geometry of the figures that we actually animate. They come up and go down, and we also distort the figures so that they have a kind of puppet motion. Yu accomplished this pop-up effect using Maya for 3D animation and After Effects for their 2D work and Avids Shake for compositing.
In all, Yu did three pop-up spots for the Orange campaign. For the third one, featuring Madonna, they used the same background as the other two and then in post-production created a Times Square look with moving billboards onto which they projected the Madonna video, Hung Up. After it was all put together, Madonna requested that they only use the night sequence from her video. This presented a problem because at the end of the spot Madonna must walk out from the billboard into a live-action world. But there wasnt enough night footage to create this peeling-off effect, Yu states. So, what did he do? Well, like any expert animator, he cheated. First we did a roto of Madonna in the shot. Then we used this roto to create a clean pass and removed her from the scene. The cut out (rotod) Madonna element was then given to the 3D artist who painted out some poses of her and then created an animation using those poses, and just moved and distorted her in 3D space.
You can find all three Orange spots on yU+cos site. Click on the News link and scroll down with the red dot.
From Ledrus fluid rhythm and Yus staccato motion, we now go to Spy Posts horizontal and vertical transition devices. I viewed three of the six spots that the San Francisco effects house has just completed for Saturn. In each there is a device within the scene used to make the transition. Darren Orr, the creative director, commenting on the spots, explains, In the Vue, its almost as if youre going up through an apartment complex. Theres a floor divider that acts as a transition device. Sometimes (the floor divider) is a cement wall or the back seat of a car. In the Ion and Relay spots its a pan across each scene, transitioning through various devices as the camera moves left to right. Orr details one such device from the Ion spot. The scene is at a birthday party, and little kids are hitting at a piñata, and a woman walks in front of the camera. As she walks, she wipes the screen (of the previous scene) to the next scene (the birthday party).
Chris Do of BL:ND says, The general challenge with transitions is keeping them fresh so that the audience doesnt feel like they cant participate and designing them so the audience cant anticipate the next point and having it feel very seamless obviously and not forced. Do used high-contrast transitions for a Mini Cooper spot where they did an intense amount of rough animation and blocking transitions out beforehand.
The overall look was designed to be very graphic with the exception of the car itself. Because of this, we were able to find opportunities to transition within the positive and negative space. After carefully laying out the major shots and identifying the edit points, we modeled and lit the scenes using 3dMax for a high-contrast look. We then proceeded to stitch and blend the scenes together in After Effects. A variety of masking techniques were employed to pull the shapes across to connect the scenes to one another. Another critical aspect to achieving the illusion was to match the 2D camera to 3D camera.
Visit BL:NDs site and click on Chris Do to see Mini Cooper 5 Day Dream. Also take a look at his animated short Ugly Green Shirt.
Charles Khoury, Imaginary Forces creative director, is a designer and animator with many thoughts on transitions and how to make them work both innovatively and organically. For example: have you ever been excited by a car ad, where the car doesnt move at all? Conceptually, for the web spots, I thought it was interesting to have the web match the light reflections on the car. By web Khoury means the strands of a larger-than-life spider web that gracefully play with the sleek lines of a Pontiac G6 Coupe. And that would be the guiding lines of the spot those very thin lines. What? No ripping through gears? No tearing up the asphalt? No cliff hugging curves?
I would take the camera I used to animate the car and transport it to the web and do a takeover and then composite both and render later on in After Effects. Although Khoury makes it sound simple, the effect is quite striking, especially since viewers do not realize they are looking at the car through a spider web until the very end.
On Imaginary Forces website, you can also check out the DC Comics logo that Khoury has designed along with art director Ahmet Ahmet and animator Hai Ho for the opening titles of Superman (look under Projects click on Identity). You may also want to view the main titles that he did for Spider-Man a couple of years ago. (Under Projects click on Main Film Titles.) Khoury considers the Spider- Man transition from the animated titles to live action to be one of his most challenging. We tried a lot of methods, whether it was tracking or live-action shots with tracking marks. It took Khoury and his team 18 versions to make it work.
If it seems like the hot trends in transitioning are centered on a preponderance of car ads, its with good reason. The ad agencies have very specific demands, as R!OT Santa Monicas Andy MacDonald points out. Usually in car commercials, they dont want to have a cut. They want to see something. They want to see the dash. They want to see the folding seats. They want to get inside the car, outside the car. They want to get everywhere and see everything, but they dont want to cut. So you find theres resistance to using transitions that allow you to edit together different takes. They like to get the camera to the point, where in one move, it can do all the different things. MacDonald believes this runs counter to the right in your face CG transitions, which are like metamorphosing robots. You see a car and it changes into something else. He believes these transformer-based polymorphs are the stuff of music videos and comic book features. He says the spots that he has done lately have been more serious. They (the agencies) want to see the GPS and want to see the car mirror.
So, MacDonald has gone back to school the old school, that is. In the transitions Ive been doing, Ive been going back to the old school ones but using some current technology to help get there easier.
An excellent example is a spot MacDonald animated for the Chevy Tahoe. We did motion control, but we did previs to help determine the flight path of the camera as if it could really do it in one go. We used a CG model and the previous data of the motion control rig to specifically work out the logistics of how we were going to shoot this and get the transitions so we didnt have awkward hook-ups (cuts) or really obvious wipe transitions. We literally did dissolves and wipes, but they were really well hid because in the previs we were able to plan the correct overlaps and get all the geometry of the camera and the landscape right. So when you watch it, it actually looks like one hand-held camera move, where we went through the back of one car, and we handed it (the camera) off and moved around. We saw the window. We saw the GPS. We saw the folding seats, and it looked like it was just staged with a steadicam moving around.
MacDonald points out that if you go backwards and look at it slowly, you will see there are no distortions in the cuts between the various plates. You will even notice the landscape changing outside the windows and the fact that you are watching the same actors several times getting in and out of the Tahoe at different locations. Only then do you realize it couldnt have been done in one take.
We modeled in Maya, and we did all the animation in LightWave for the previs. Then we shot in motion control on a Milo and composited in Inferno. It was a relatively easy job on the post side because it was just compositing and photography. But because of the ability to use CG to plot out all the camera moves, everything we did had real scale and real lenses and we could measure all of the points. In other words, they were able to translate the real world environment into a digital world.
When it comes to car spots, if youre a speed freak, then the ultimate ad in terms of performance has to be KromAs CLIO-winning NASCAR promo for Fox, which can be viewed on KromAs website.
The spot presented the challenge of transitioning back and forth from cars on the track racing at break-neck speeds to a driver in the cockpit behind the wheel calmly negotiating around one collision after another while talking about what a rough sport football is. The key was texturing each transition so that both live-action and 3D matched up and the cuts appeared seamless. KromAs creative director and exec producer, Bert Yukich detailed the process. We had CG models of the cars and built out the entire race track. Then we had to take that (live-action) film footage and texture it onto all of our models, which were animated to match the film footage. Of course, we wouldnt have all the textures once the CG camera started moving as CG normally looks different from live-action footage. To solve the problem they used SOFTIMAGE|XSI to texture everything so that it matched the film footage. Yukich and his team at KromA employed the same process to move inside the cockpit of the racecar but in reverse. Actually once youre inside the car that is all CG except for the driver which we shot steering against a greenscreen.
Possibly outdoing themselves, KromA has once again been nominated for this years Visual Effects Society award with a Rob Thomas music video Lonely No More. The live-action crew shot Thomas against a greenscreen and put the floor in. They put a couple of props in, maybe a chair here or there, Yukich explains. We basically built up all the walls in CG, and a lot of the props in the room are CG. He (Thomas) would push on a piece of furniture, and it would flip around and become a different piece of furniture. Or, he would push on the wall, and the whole room would become a different room. It was kind of like this almost interactive environment he was in. To accomplish this effect, KromA again utilized SOFTIMAGE|XSI and Avid DS for compositing.
Andy MacDonalds counter part at R!OT Manhattan, Randy Swanberg, would agree with MacDonald that traditional transitions can benefit from new technology. In a Thalia fashion spot for K-Mart, Swanberg took a standard transition, the dissolve, and created a new process by coloring it. First off, the director shot plates of several fashion models in a photography studio and then shot similar poses of the models outside the studio in leisure scenes. Then Swanberg went to work. In Inferno, I morphed the scenes together. Then I took the resulting morph and printed each frame of it and sent it off to a sketch artist who then animated over the morph, which we then recaptured back into the computer. Then I meticulously intermixed elements from the hand sketch with various painting plug-ins that come with Inferno. The whole process was done pretty much by hand. And quite an effect it is, going from the model in the studio dissolving into a hand-colored sketch of her and further dissolving into a live-action leisure scene of her in the same pose but at a different location.
The elaborate 3D titles for the HBO series Carnivale are probably more memorable than the series itself, evidenced by the fact that the main title sequence garnered an Emmy while the series itself was ignored. The sequence starts with a deck of Tarot cards falling to the sand. The camera moves into a CG shot of the The World card illustrated with famous artwork and continues the move through the virtual painting eventually coming upon live-action footage from the Depression era, then moves back out of a different card, the Ace of Swords. Repeating this approach in using Tarot themes of good vs. evil juxtaposed with renowned artwork, famous and infamous moments of the mid-1930s are presented in old black-and-white footage, establishing both the theme and setting of the series.
One of the key members of the A52 team that created the sequence, Inferno artist Patrick Murphy, explains the process. We started basically by doing a cut of old footage from the Dust Bowl era and then we went back and found art that would depict the best imagery to go with the whole piece but also go with the footage. So to each tarot card, we would position the footage in back of the piece, thereby splitting all the layers so that we could make it into a virtual painting. We were able to blend the live action footage back there to make it feel like it was part of the picture. So you never really saw it until you went right up next to it. Then we brought it back to life. The way it came back to life was very simple. It just real slowly started to move then ramps up to normal speed and keeps the color of the actual painted picture. Then it all dissipates and evolves from that point (into the live action).
Unlike most artists who want their work to be noticed, Murphy hopes his isnt recognized at all. Its always kind of nice for people to question if we have actually done any work on it (a project) because you cant really tell if we have. To me thats the best case scenario. If somebody can recognize that youve worked on something or made a transition better, then you have almost kind of failed.
J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isnt writing, he teaches communications courses.