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Atomic Blasting Onto Global Stage

South African vfx salon has deep talent pool and favorable exchange rate on its side.


Is Atomic poised to make South Africa the new Down Under? All images courtesy of Atomic Visual Effects.

Atomic Visual Effects in Cape Town, South Africa, blazed a path to innovation in commercials, music videos, advertisements and shorts by seamlessly integrating live-action with photorealistic animation, having won an unprecedented 15 Avanti Awards and gold-level kudos at the Stone Awards, both part of the National Television and Video Assn. of South Africa.

But Atomic has blasted far beyond its borders, which company executives have described as both confining and yet fertile ground for opportunity. Roughly 80% of clients last year hailed from abroad, while in 2004 the company finally plans to enter contests and festivals around the globe on the heels of dazzling commercials for popular beverage brands from Coke to Guinness, as well as several local products. The firm also recently completed work on a music video of a DJ duo called Jago for Universal Music in Miami, which earned high honors at the recent Stone Awards.


Atomics distinctive blend of CG and live action can be seen in this ad campaign for Powerhouse, an Austrian energy drink.

Tricks and Tweaks

Ad Hurricane, an Austrian advertising agency, sought out Atomic for a Powerhorse Energy Drink commercial before even setting foot on South African soil a decision based on viewing the companys Space Oddity clip, which, along with Atomics Hellweek short, were shown at the Res Fest competition.

The goal was to achieve the signature CG-live-action blend for which Atomic has left an indelible print. But Mother Nature wasnt cooperating on Day No. 1 of the shoot, drenching a critical horseracing scene. Rescheduling during the tightly budgeted three-week project was out of the question. So a number of clever tricks and tweaks of the trade were employed during post-production to mask the rain-soaked track.

Other challenges included compositing live action into fully virtual sets, while vehicles and 3D cities were created to lend substance to a CG chopper featured in certain shots. Among the technologies used to bring to life the commercials vision: Discreets combustion 2.1 for greenscreen compositing and Newteks LightWave 7.5 to help animators generate CG content from scratch.

Our Powerhorse client developed a brief with us that included several different locations, which they had initially planned on doing in camera, explains Ali Maleka, animation director and a co-founder of the firm who started out as lead animator. But we were able to present them with some nice photo-realistic CG alternatives. They ended up getting a very stylish result, which they were extremely happy with. In fact, they were so happy with it that they allowed us to do a completely CG pack shot as well, which is quite unusual.

Avoiding the use of wire rigs for the green-screened shots helped save on costs thanks to actors scooting around on green painted wheelie chairs and the director crawling under a green blanket. Add a bit of fancy footwork in post, he says, and we ended up with some pretty interesting effects.

Atomic prides itself on photo-realistic 3D work. When clients ask for a horse, they dont want something that sort of looks like a horse in dim light, Maleka says. They want something that will stand up to scrutiny. Our directors come from a film background so our CG and live-action work goes hand in hand.

The Art of Greenscreens

For the Jago music video, the main challenge was to create a CG futuristic city environment complete with flying vehicles. The landscape had to be believable since it was shot from street level, following crafts flying between buildings and as a backdrop outside windows.

One lesson we learned was that you cannot put a price on a well-crafted green screen, Maleka notes. Suffice it to say that whoever did our green screens on set is now persona non grata. Our comp artist spent several muscle-cramping days doing painful keys and lots of rotoscoping. We were pretty happy with the result, though, and even won a gold at the Stone Awards for it.

On two of the recent commercials Atomic has handled, Tomlins says directors have sought to accomplish some pretty crazy things, which they were initially planning to do in camera. One helmer considered pitching wads of fake money off buildings and all over Cape Town. But it didnt take him long to opt for Atomic to convince him of the virtues of a CG approach.


Atomic was chosen for the Powerhouse campaign based on its previous work on Space Oddity (above) and Hellweek.

Hellweek, which was done in downtime as a promo for Atomic, had no budget and was shot on DV. In that case, explains lead comp artist Glen Davidson, we had to downgrade our CG to match the live-action footage. It was also the little details we included that helped sell the shot. For example, when the Apache hovers in shot, we put a flapping CG jacket on our main character and added paper or leaves blowing around him lots of small things that really add up.

Davidson describes Atomics approach as heavily influenced by American movies with a healthy dose of humor thrown into the mix. We generally look at what international companies are doing and use that as our standard, he says, adding that obviously the aim is to better it.

Competitive Pricing In 1999, Simon Hansen and Sharlto Copely founded Atomic, which forms part of their Channel 69 Studios group of companies. It has been described in one published account as probably one of the most under-appreciated effects and animation salons around. Atomic houses what it calls the most extensive animation infrastructure in Southern Africa featuring up to 30 animation workstations and an ever-expanding render farm residing on a flexible network that links a wealth of post production resources on over four terabytes of digital storage.

The company employs a dozen animators, three comp artists, two editors, a film producer, animation producer and account manager. Evan Jacobs, former owner of Vision Crew Ltd., is the firms U.S. representative. His credits include Titanic, Dantes Peak and Armageddon. Jonathan Duff is Atomics U.K.-based rep, while the Embassy vfx House in Vancouver is listed as a strategic partner.

Atomic runs a pipeline system with animators specializing in various disciplines. Most artists are expected to be proficient in at least two or three disciplines such as modeling, lighting and texturing. We need to work faster because our budgets are generally smaller, according to creative director Copely, who describes the companys creative style as filmic.

She notes that South Africas rand exchange rate is nearly R7 to $1, enabling the vfx house to offer extremely competitive pricing. However, we do not compete only on price, he explains.

With India and China emerging as cheap-labor powerhouses, Copely says his native land is similar to Australia or New Zealand in striving to achieve more of a creative and technical edge. North American companies are only starting to learn about something that the European production industry has known for years, he observes. We are English-speaking and very much a first-world industry down here.

In the U.S. and U.K., effects houses can afford to work exclusively on vfx because of high industry standards and legions of well-educated producers or directors who know what to expect. But most South African companies devote only about 20% of what they do to vfx because 3D and other cutting-edge techniques are still relatively new, notes Jason Tomlins, an animation producer/business development. At Atomic, he says, were working to do all our business as vfx basically modeling ourselves on our overseas counterparts.

Atomic produced this ad campaign for dried fruit.

Government Inaction

One explanation for South Africas slow embrace of vfx is that unlike its Asian neighbors, the country hasnt benefited from a government-backed global marketing strategy to promote the region as a viable venue. Tomlins considers the dearth of action a setback that has forced companies such as Atomic to educate international clients and prospects when trying to attract business.

Local competitors include the Refinery and Video Lab, two post houses owned by publicly listed companies that have dominated the industry for the past 15 years by purchasing expensive hardware.

Hansen, the companys managing director/visual effects supervisor, believes these players tend to play it safe with tried-and-tested software brand names and generally resist change. By contrast, he says Atomic prefers to push the creative envelope wherever possible and embraces the precedent-setting spirit of Hollywood that simply doesnt seem to be part of South Africas business climate.

Internationally, he points out, I see us as being part of the global effects market slightly smaller than ILM, Digital Domain and other mammoth effects houses.

It may not take long for the rest of the world to realize the potential of sending work to South Africa. Heres a country that may be classed as third world, but this really is a bit of a misnomer when it comes to how we do business, Tomlins observes. The workforce tends to be highly skilled, with locals having lived, worked or studied abroad where theyve boned up on all the latest creative and technology developments.

Add this to the fact that we have a completely westernized infrastructure and favorable exchange rate and you cant go wrong, he enthuses.

Bruce Shutan, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, has written for several entertainment publications and Web sites, including Daily Variety, Weekly Variety, emmy, the 55th Annual Emmy Awards program, Below the Line News, Film Score Monthly, DRUM! and Shutan also specializes in writing for the human resources and employee benefits trade press.