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In the Eye of CGI Commercial Production

Sarah Baisley rounds up facts, thoughts and examples of issues and trends driving producers of CGI commercials today.


Check out Framestores inspiration on this Daewoo spot. Clip courtesy of Framestore.

It may just be a digital illusion, but theres a lot of professional and physical pain, heightened and abated by technical wizardry, that goes into advertising spots. Still considered the R&D hotbed of the industry, techniques and tricks are born here and migrate to motion pictures and TV series. Yet many clients and ad agencies see something that wows them in a movie, and expect the same sort of work will help them sell their product, not realizing the costs and timeframe arent always so applicable to the commercial world. AWN rounded up facts, thoughts and examples of issues and trends driving producers of CGI commercials today.

Our survey includes viewpoints from: Denis Gauthier, CGI supervisor/3D artist and Westley Sarokin, digital effects artist, A52 Howard Sly, animator, Framestore

Saam Gabbay, creative director, Humunculus David Gioiella, editor/co-founder, Northern Lights Post Aladino Debert, head of CG, Radium John Myers, exec producer, Ring of Fire

Jonathan Privett, head of 3D, Rushes Post Production Craig Tozzi, creative director, Twothousandstrong Michael Capton, head of CG/commercials, Zoic Studios

1. Who raises the bar for you?

DG/A52: We constantly raise the bar for ourselves. We try to do something new, something a little bit better, on every single job. We nitpick and criticize each others work in an effort to make it better, long before any client sees it.

WS/A52: Observing everyday reality almost always raises the bar for me. In merely keeping ones eyes open for interesting details and moments that the bar is raised. However, more than anything, I try and constantly raise the bar for myself.

Framestore: We in the commercials department raise the bar from demands put upon us by directors, our competition, our reputation and our dedication and commitment to a high quality product and service.

Humunculus: People at our company are constantly trading spots and commercials with each other. It prompted us to devote space on our server just for inspiring design and commercial spots and trailers. It forces us to raise the bar internally, as a group. As far as who raises the bar externally, that depends on the day. Sometimes it's a peer company like Psyop, sometimes its a musician/group like Telefon Telaviv, sometimes a reel from overseas like The Mill, etc.

Radium: Clients and other companies work, but mostly, myself.

Ring of Fire: Anyone who collaborates openly and has a clear vision. This could be a director, a creative director at an ad agency, an effects supervisor, a producer or someone within your team. The person or process that raises the bar can come from anywhere, anyone, anytime. Thats one of the great things about doing what we do. Inspiration strikes without warning from the oddest places.

Rushes: Generally, work done on features with big budget effects has a knock-on effect in raising the stakes of quality and creativity in commercials. Having said that, we always strive to push what is possible in terms of CG on all our work, to offer our clients something a bit special. Many independent/art house filmmakers also produce work of incredible quality and ingenuity.

Twothousandstrong: Its a given that as soon as a piece of groundbreaking animation hits the airwaves, a lot of people want to recreate it for half the cost, in half the time and with just as high expectations. I feel the CG industry is overselling itself in a lot of cases promising more that sometimes is possible to deliver, at budget points that dont seem sustainable (this seems to be happening more at the smaller shops level). Good work takes man-hours and time. The Radiohead video took 14-15 animators and eight flame artists to complete!

Michael Capton, head of CG/commercials, Zoic Studios. Photo courtesy of Zoic Studios.

Zoic: Really talented and hard working people raise the bar for me. A lot of these people work in the industry and that is great. Many just do stuff for themselves at home, and, once in a while, they post their work on the Web, you see it and it is amazing.

It is hard to say, you watch a movie like Lord of the Rings, and there are so many people that work on each scene or each character or each effect. This industry is so much of a collective that one person is almost never responsible for an entire shot.

2. Who/what are sources of inspiration?

DG/A52: The entire natural world, as created by God; everything that isnt computer graphics is an endless source of inspiration.

WS/A52: More than anything, taking a good look at the world around us provides for an endless source of creative inspiration. In particular, music inspires me; the way that sound can become imagery, color and emotion when it enters the mind. I am constantly fascinated with the infinite microcosms that are generated everywhere we look. Close examination of a small, seemingly unnoticeable moment in the corner of the room, is a point where time, space, matter and energy come together to create an exquisitely unique conjunction, which is unlike anything else. Every moment is special if it is looked at from the right angle or with the right eyes.

Framestore: Inspiration and motivation are derived from all over. Not only from our competition and our surroundings, but from our ambitious and talented staff. Forward thinking individuals within the company, focused talented directors and team leaders all play their part.

Humunculus: Currently, MUSIC. Most people in our studio are quick to see images once they put on their favorite track. So I would have to say music is the biggest source of inspiration. In fact, some of our designers pick a piece of music they think fits a project before they start on the boards.

Saam Gabbay, creative director, Humunculus.

Other than that, again it goes to our peers. Because of the steady and revolving pool of freelancers and the constant access to images we get from the Web, we are pretty well stimulated. Freelancers act as cross-pollinators in a way, helping push design forward as they travel from company to company.

We are, finally, inspired by each other. Our studio is built around group exchange and lunchtime banter. When someone brings in a new MP3, magazine or Web page it can transform the entire mood and attitude of the day.

Radium: I think that my main source of inspiration professionally is talented people and their work. Im an avid reader and movie buff, and I get constant ideas from seeing other peoples work. It doesnt matter how much experience you may have, therere always people out there who are more talented and have more experience than you, so being able to have access to their work is very important to me. The Internet has made that access infinitely easier. When I started in this industry, you had to wait for the yearly CLIO reels and other international festivals to see new work. Now you can log-in into a variety of sites and see that same work, often months earlier than any of those festivals ever happen.

Ring of Fire: Unlimited. Could be the person who delivers lunch that day or it could be Pixars latest and greatest you saw over the weekend...

Rushes: Trends in fashion, modern art, photography and print design often inspire new approaches to CGI, mixing ideas from different media can lead to completely new looks and ideas. The world around is always providing CGI artists with inspiration.

Zoic helps this driver slip right into his Nissan Altima. Photo courtesy of Zoic Studios.

Zoic: Science and biology are huge inspirations. The world we live in is so unique and amazing. Scientists are constantly discovering new species of living things that have adapted to the world in incredible ways. Truly, real life is much more interesting than anything we could imagine. Most of the inspiration is taken from nature to begin with and expanded on from there.

3. Do clients know when and how to use CGI?

DG/A52: Absolutely. The clients we have been working with are very well versed in the medium. Its been this way for the last eight years or so. We find that clients come to A52 because they know our photo-real CGI will integrate seamlessly with the live action picture.

WS/A52: That depends, some clients who have had experience using CGI are very aware of its capabilities, how it can be used most effectively and where it comes into play in the creative and technical process. Other clients often have no idea how CGI comes into play in an effects-driven spot, and it is part of our job to educate them and facilitate understanding of the CGI process. Lastly, and worst, there are clients we come across who have had terrible past experiences using CGI at other facilities, and are totally against using it again. With these clients. we do our very best to show that CGI, done properly, is a wonderful tool and medium for effects work. As with any tool, it takes a skilled artist with a trained eye and good creative instincts along with communication skills to wield CGI effectively and with a good result.

Humunculus really dived into the Pocari Sweat spot. Photo courtesy of Humunculus.

Framestore: I think some clients have a clear vision of what they want and how to get there based on their experience. Other clients perhaps will rely on our judgment, based on our knowledge of the industry. It really depends on the clients and the job.

Humunculus: Yes and no. We are up for a theatrical commercial that requires shooting a television screen. The client does not know what they want, so we suggested modeling the TV instead of doing a tabletop shot. We explained to the client that since they dont know what they want, and dont have the budget to shoot twice, using a CG TV would allow them infinite control and be a cost savings at the same time.

David Gioiella, editor and co-founder of Northern Lights Post. Photo courtesy of Northern Lights Post.

There have also been instances where shooting was a better idea than going CGI-like doing an underwater shot we had to prepare. So it depends on the project.

Other clients are very clear and ask for it from the start of the project.

Northern Lights Post: More needs to be done in terms of educating clients about when and how to use CGI. Even though it has been around for a while, the majority do not have that much knowledge about the process and costs involved. Thus they opt to shoot many elements that can in fact be created in CGI if they felt comfortable working in that medium.

Radium: Not always, but that is part of my and Radiums job to help a client define their artistic goals and help them utilize the best possible tools for the job at hand. Sometimes that means not using CGI. As a vfx supervisor, my job is to devise the best approach for a shot, not to sell a particular method.

Ring of Fire: The majority of the time they dont. Having said that, there are some really experienced clients who have it dialed. The ones that do, have been there, done that, on several occasions. Its all about experience.

Jonathan Privett, head of 3D, Rushes Post Production. Photo courtesy of Rushes Post Production.

Rushes: On the whole, yes. The understanding of CGI has grown rapidly, and most clients are conversant with which particular approaches will best suit their project.

Zoic: Some do and some do not. There seems to be a trend right now where people are spending less time in pre-production and thinking we can fix it in post. This is unfortunate because with a little forethought, they could save a lot of time and money.

4. Would some live elements be better in CGI or visa versa?

DG/A52: It is completely dependent on the circumstances of each individual shot. We suggest to directors that if they can shoot it, then shoot it. But, if they cant shoot it, dont worry, because our CGI will intercut seamlessly with what they shoot.

WS/A52: This depends on the shot. Before the footage is captured, we consult with the director as to what a given shot is trying to achieve and then advise whether it would be more effective to try and capture it in camera or use CGI. When it is decided that CGI is to be used, we capture all the necessary elements we can in camera, and then seamlessly integrate the CGI in to the live action, thus achieving the visual appearance that it was all shot in camera.

Framestore: Its job specific. We need to bear in mind production costs, timeframes and the overall look of the project. It may be more cost effective to produce CGI rather than a live-action shot. With CGI, you also have a flexible element, which can be modified and utilized all through the production process.

Humunculus: Of course, it depends on the project.

Aladino Debert, head of CG, Radium. Photo courtesy of Radium.

Radium: Yeah, but again, it always depends on the job at hand. Humans for instancewell, live-action humans just look better. Cars would be the other end of the spectrum. Weve gotten to the point that we can make CG cars look absolutely real, and that makes shooting car commercials a lot easier, and gives the director much more creative freedom.

Ring of Fire: Absolutely. This is always the case and the never-ending debate. The real question is what are you trying to accomplish and what are the technical and logistical limitations. Find the balance, make the right decisions and execute. Many constantly changing dynamics affect this question.

Rushes: Personally I would advise to use live action wherever possible. There is no substitute for reality. CGI should be confined to use in situations where budget or concept necessitate its use.

Zoic: Yes in both instances. Each case should be assessed on an individual basis. The best approach should be decided upon that will deliver the best creative in the most timesaving and cost effective manner. Dont get me wrong, the lack of preplanning and the inability to approach something in the proper way has kept a lot of us employed for a long time. You see some of the work come in and ponder, what in Gods name were they thinking?

5. What is the impact of lower cost of tools?

This high-flying spot was done on spec. Impressive. Photo courtesy of A52.

DG/A52: No impact whatsoever from an artistic perspective, though, downward movements of prices are always appreciated from a business perspective.

WS/A52: From a creative standpoint, there is really no impact. People can be creative with anything; it just takes a good idea, solid execution and understanding of the tools. Lower cost computers and software does mean that more people can become involved in CGI and digital effects, because it no longer costs $150,000 for a high-end CGI workstation as it did 10 years ago.

Framestore: Costs are an issue, however, the right tools are required for a quality product. Its not a question of lower cost tools its what tools we need to do the job. Even when software was £20,000 a license, it was still necessary to have it.

Humunculus: More competition. Lower budgets. Higher expectations.

Radium: Wow, its tremendous. When I came out of school in the early 90s, to get a workstation running production-ready software, you had to spend at least $75K, which of course kept all of us poor students out of the high-end loop. Now you can get a number of excellent packages and machines for under $10K (sometimes a lot less).

What this means in terms of the industry, is that you now have an exponential number of artists that are acquiring the necessary skills to work in production, sometimes with no actual work experience at all. Schools can afford many more workstations, and software companies have student versions of their high-end software. In the company side of things, it means you can expand the CG departments very quickly and with modest investments to accommodate for big projects.

Ring of Fire has done a lot of high-profile work like this Bug Light spot. Photos courtesy of Ring of Fire.

Ring of Fire: It opens the talent pool up immensely. Gives people who have interest in what we do access to the tools of the trade. This is a great benefit. Also, it allows companies, big or small, to expand or set up shop, ultimately raising the level of competition.

Rushes: The state of the industry in general is driving costs down, and lower cost tools are allowing companies to meet the demand for cheaper visual effects work. It also means some very small operations have started up successfully to do work that is on a shoestring budget. These houses do not compete with larger post companies since a serious infrastructure is still required to handle larger projects and commercials.

Zoic: The impact of the lower cost of tools is the lower cost of production. There is a greater availability of those tools to more people. Therefore, there is a greater pool of talent to choose from and a hell of a lot more competition.

6. Which tools are you beginning to make more use of? Have any particularly saved you in a crunch?

DG/A52: We just installed a Linux renderfarm to support our SGI workstations. No tools have saved us in a crunch, because we try to manage our projects so that they dont need saving.

WS/A52: It is rare that a particular tool will save you in a crunch. More often than not, it is good preplanning, accurate assessment of the task and effectively allocating resources that make a project work out. However, there are often times where simply having more computing power has enabled us to get things done faster or see the results of a shot rendered more quickly. We recently bought a Linux renderfarm to use on our last job, which we delivered in HD. The Linux renderfarm enabled us to turn around shots twice as fast as our old renderfarm.

Framestore: This again depends on the job. We have a dedicated R&D team who develop specific tools as and when they are required. In a very recent commercial a lava lamp effect was needed. After several failed attempts to achieve the required look a last minute result was achieved with our own version of metaclay.

Radium sets the bar high for themselves on this Volkswagen spot. Photos courtesy of Radium.

Humunculus: Nothing has been as valuable as the local renderfarm. We use Render Core in Hollywood. They are a professional company and we consider them an extension of our own. They even get a line item in our budgets. There is just no way to meet advertising deadlines and ambitious designs without them.

Otherwise, we use Maya and Cinema 4DXL for our CG work and composite in After Effects.

Radium: We are definitely using more HDR (High Dynamic Range) image-processing software. Using Global Illumination techniques such as HDRI Maps, Final Gathering and Ambient Occlusion allow us to generate incredibly realistic images, as well as CG elements that integrate much better on a live-action environment. But the two things that always save us on a crunch are talent and more rendering power!

Ring of Fire: Any compositing software on Mac or a NT workstation. CGI renderfarm. Firewire drives. FTP posting and e-mailing MPEGS. Oh, and our genius systems engineer who makes all of the above work. The renderfarm is all about saving time. Film rez i-o has been streamlined in a big way with use of the firewire drives. FTP and e-mail are pretty close to instant off-site work in progress evaluation followed by conversations, etc. all of the technological advances available have increased efficiency and saves time in the process.

Rushes: We are starting to use some of the more advanced rendering techniques such as HDRI and global illumination, which give a beautiful result. Also boujou tracking software is fabulous and always saving the day. Virtual cameras are derived here on a daily basis using boujou... and no, Im not on commission.

Twothousandstrong: There is an increasing number of very high-end animation tools that are beginning to wind their way down from proprietary usage and/or usage only on high budget motion pictures into the commercial and music video arenas. Software like Massive and Behavior both crowd creation tools where you can populate a city block with CG characters that walk around each other, each character animating individually and automatically. Massive is being used on the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (the big battle scene at Helms Deep in Two Towers was constructed using it) but was also recently used for a Radiohead video recently completed by The Mill. Behavior is Softimages crowd creation tool, now available as a standalone. Also, advances in rendering, particularly out of Mental Images GMBH, are allowing near photo-real scenes to be built virtually. Very processor intensive, but getting to the point where its being used at the commercial level.

Effects work can be very subtle. Photo courtesy of Zoic Studios.

Zoic: My primary tool is Maya, but as I stated above, whatever gets the job done is the best. Recently, my tool set has been expanding more rapidly.

2D3s boujou tracking software is amazing. Its used to do 3D tracking on shots that require 3D elements to be placed into them. It saves us a lot of time. Tracking a shot by hand is rather labor intensive and time consuming. This software allows us to do 90% of the tracking using boujou and then tweaking the last 10% ourselves by hand.

7. How/where to you find talent? Are you outsourcing at all?

Framestore: We have a dedicated team in the commercials department. We also have the option and ability to source from a large pool of talent in our long form and film departments and freelancers. On occasion we have work experience individuals, often a great source of emerging talent. We advertise internally and our Website has a positions vacant section.

Humunculus: Humunculus uses a well-established group of freelancers if we have to outsource, but we prefer the work to be done in-house even if by a freelancer. This allows the cross-pollination I mentioned above to occur, and it cuts down on miscommunication. If we really run short, then we use the Web, design sites and friends of friends to track down talent. Recently we started looking at people fresh out of school since their techniques have become quite developed in the past year

Other times it can be eye-catching. Photo courtesy of Rushes.

Radium: Finding talent is always difficult. We receive tons of reels a month, and if you find two or three that are good you consider yourself lucky. The most important thing is to keep a big enough pool of good freelancers, so at any given time there are at least a few you can call.

Ring of Fire: Mostly word of mouth and by recommendation. Things move very quickly, you need to be able to plug and play and fly like the wind. Performance is key. We have had our best luck working with people that have come by way of recommendation. Once in a while, we will be contacted by an experienced artist with a great reel. If we arent up against some crazy deadline, we will be more likely to try that person out to see how they do. We are on a constant search for talent. We still find that the people and the talent they process are what sets you apart. Now, more than ever, anyone can have the tools, its what you do with them that will make or break you.

Rushes: London is a small market so we generally find talent through people we know within the industry who recommend them. At present we are not outsourcing.

Zoic: We find talent anywhere we can. Weve recruited in schools, SIGGRAPH, web postings, etc. Sadly, it is usually through friends in the business because it is always nice to have someone you trust vouch for the persons work. I say sadly, because if you dont know someone in the industry, it can be hard to get in. Whenever we get very busy, we outsource the less creative, mundane and time-consuming work.

8. Whats next, what tricks do you think there will be more of a call for?

DG/A52: Wed like to further enhance our realism with more extensive use of global illumination. Computers are finally fast enough that we can consider that now.

WS/A52: More than anything, increased computing power is allowing the use of rendering techniques, which can more accurately simulate natural phenomenon. Subsurface scattering, a technique used to create a realistic look for human skin, and global illumination lighting techniques, which are employed to simulate the way ambient light bounces off multiple surfaces, are extremely expensive computationally. Having more processing power means that techniques, such as the ones Ive mentioned, can be employed more frequently and push forward the level of computer-generated realism.

Framestore: As far a tricks and techniques we use any available means to achieve a cost effective and efficient production. One thing we will not compromise is the quality. Every project is different and requires different techniques one thing, which is common is the process. We are always trying to streamline and improve efficiency on every project.

Humunculus: 3D. There is such a shortage of just plain old 3D animator/designers right now. Weve been noticing a huge focus on organic materials and mimicking silk thread, membranes, underwater particles, etc. If there are any good Maya artists out there...

Radium: Ah, futurists tend to look silly in retrospect, but Global Illumination is getting used more and more every day. Computers are getting fast enough that it is now cost effective to use it in commercial production. I think though, that the real tricks and techniques come from artists when presented with a problem they havent faced before.

John Myers, exec producer, Ring of Fire.

Ring of Fire: Thats a good one. I wish I knew the answer. There is always the soup of the day trick flying around town... multi-planning through 2D objects in a 3D environment seems to be the trick this week. The best results we find are combining techniques and mediums that may not have ever been combined before. We have the bag of tricks and ideas, just not unlimited time to try them out on spec work. We are always looking for people who are open to collaborate and try new things. This is offset with the request we often get, we want to see something that has never been done before, but we arent seeing it on your reel, can you do a test? R&D and previz is a great tool for this, if you have the time and a budget to support it.

Rushes: I think that CGI will be used to create more and more content, and that it will be used in more obtuse ways and not simply to replace an existing reality. Advances in CG lighting will also feed down to more areas giving a more natural feel to CG.

9. How is the greater use of HDTV impacting your methods, costs?

DG/A52: Creating for HDTV doesnt impact our methods at all; other than the obvious increase in rendertime, and the need for higher resolution input elements. As resolution goes up, both manhours and machine-hours increase, and so, all else being equal, HDTV is more expensive to produce than NTSC.

WS/A52: We really havent had to deal with HD all that much. Our last job was one of the first that weve delivered in HD. It simply takes longer to render an HD frame than it does an NTSC frame because of greater image resolution. Other than that, our methodology, technique, and creative integrity are identical for any image we create at any resolution. Were solid like that.

Framestore: As of yet HDTV has not had a significant negative or positive on us in the commercials department. Heavy rendering times and image transfer issues spring to mind. We have a large dedicated renderfarm and, in the long run, HDTV looks better so its worth it. What ever it takes.

Humunculus: Not by much so far only about 20% of what we do goes out to HD. Were already used to doing film resolution work for the trailers and titles we do, so HD is really nothing unexpected to our company.

Radium: We do a lot of HD work, but mostly in our 2D Department (Radium has six inferno bays). In the CG side of things, well, it is not any more complex than doing film work in 2K, but of course, in film your schedules are considerably longer. So it affects CG in the sense that you cant hide behind the its only vid-res motto anymore. But then again, improving our tools and techniques so we can do our work faster, better and cheaper is what the industry ultimately is all about.

Ring of Fire: Time. An online or simple assembly is one thing, but when you are working with multiple layer composites, it takes more time to do the work itself, even on the fastest tools available. The client doesnt allow for the time or the budget to support the time it takes. The other fact would be that since HDTV has multiple standards, it makes it difficult to have all the hardware necessary to do the work, mostly in the i-o category. Do you purchase a D5 deck or an HD cam deck? Depends on the volume of work you have to support that decision. This can also equate to equipment rentals. Again, from a budgetary standpoint, machine rentals are difficult to pass on to your client. The end result and look of picture are fantastic, the bottom line is that it costs us more to produce and the budgets arent really supporting it.

Rushes: HDTV is fantastic and Rushes is fully HD capable so we do a fair bit of work in HD. It has some impact on production in that rendertimes are pushed up and compositing is more exacting, but the end product is worth it and provides a master that can save costs in the long run, especially with delivery to multiple formats. Obviously these costs have to be passed on to the client.

Zoic: It is making us work a hell of a lot harder, but at the same time, it brings the quality of effects in television closer to that of movies. Which is in effect making the turnaround time for effects in movies much faster. Stop this crazy world I need to get off!

Sarah Baisley is the editor of Animation World Network.

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