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Bowling Them Over with Invisible CGI: An Overview of the 2004 Super Bowl Spots

Henry Turner investigates the other spectacle that is part of the Super Bowl tradition -- the commercials.

Finding the Effects

Its tough to decide what the most impressive visual effect in Super Bowl XXXVIII was perhaps the halftime show with the notorious performances by Janet Jackson and Kid Rock, who respectively flaunted anatomy and the flag, to the ire of federal authorities. Or on a game-oriented note, there was the final field goal by the Patriots, sadly crushing any overtime hopes for Panthers fans.

The big question about the Super Bowl spots is, where was the CGI? My attention was initially drawn to the FedEx spot, in which an alien monster sits in an office. But a call to Stan Winston Studios informed me that this was all done with animatronics.

But CGI was everywhere, and in subtle ways that are transforming the entire process of filmmaking.


Hi-Wires Tony Mills wants his digital enhancements to go unnoticed. That means they worked. Courtesy of Hi-Wire.

Understanding Misunderstood

The premise of this Subway spot was the idea that people who diet by eating at Subway have the right to every once in a while stray from their regimen and eat other snacks but the dieters misunderstand this, and think that eating at Subway gives them the right to play practical jokes and cause general mayhem -- spraying people with perfume, pouring coffee on their laps and attacking bicycle riders and automobile drivers with kites and toll booth barriers.

Tony Mills of Hi-Wire is pleased that his effects work in the spot is unnoticeable the action plays like a choreographed slapstick comedy shot in realtime. The drill was basically to create invisible effects, fixes and things they werent able to get in the shoot.

Visual enhancement was one of Mills main goals. For the perfume spray scene I added CGI spray elements. Its very subtle. Its one of those things where you almost have to see it before and after to know how much it enhanced the scene.

A sequence involving a bike rider hit by a kite used CGI mainly for safety reasons. They shot a couple of plates, one with the stunt man riding the bike, and another with the stunt man on the bike with a kite strapped to his back, acting like he had just been hit with it. I had to marry those two scenes at the right timing point, and then cut out the kite, and replace it with a CG kite. Theyd shot some practical kites falling to the ground, but they didnt like the action of it, so we rotoed out one frame of it and flew it ourselves, to get exactly the motion they wanted.

Mills emphasizes how digital effects allow him to create a perfect shot by using elements from numerous shots. For the scene at the end, where the crossbar hits the guy driving the car that was a case where we combined all sorts of different takes. The tollbooth attendant was from one scene where they shot him just by himself. The car driving off with the stunt man reacting as if hes been hit was from another take. I blended those two together, and then I cut out that crossbar from a scene where they had a plate of just the crossbar in its down position. I created a pass that made the bar jiggle because they wanted it to have vibrations, after the guy hit his head. So I created some passes that got the jiggle into it, and then I made it drop down and bonk him on the head.

Such new methods of staging slapstick shows how far things have come from the days of Buster Keaton.


John Myers of Ring of Fire did a lot of subtle digital work for the Bud Donkey ads. Courtesy of Ring of Fire.

CGI as Safeguard

John Myers of Ring of Fire created effects for the charming Budweiser spot in which a little donkey auditions to march with famous Budweiser Clydesdales.

My first impression was that the little donkeys bray an almost ear-splitting honk, must have been an effect, or somehow enhanced and extended by CGI. But Myers corrected me. No! The unique thing about the donkey is that it actually does that hee-haw bray. The producers had found this little donkey and they had written the spot around him. As always in film production, working with animals presented special difficulties. The main concern was safety for the donkey. Were he to fall down and be trampled it would have been a very bad situation, so we designed shots with that in mind.

Special preparation was needed to choreograph the animals movements. We did quite a bit of rig removal. They had a lot of guide wires and lines on the donkey to help lead him where he needed to go. In the scene where the Clydesdales are lined up inside the stable and the donkey comes in for his interviewthats a split-screen composite, combining scenes of the animals shot at different times. And in the later shot when donkey leads the pack of Clydesdales, we shot the little donkey walking by himself he had wires and cables and reins and all kinds of crazy stuff sticking off of him and then we shot the Clydesdale team, without a Clydesdale in that position. Then we integrated it, married it and took out the rigs.

Various enhancements helped give the animals a heightened sense of personality. The close up of the Clydesdales, where their ears all perk up at the same time, each one of those ears is a split-screen composite, so they all do what they need to do at the exact same time.

Shot at Ulysses S. Grants farm in Atlanta, the spot has a warm, old-time look. We did digital clean-up and made everything look idyllic, creating a beautiful shimmering atmosphere. Pretty much in every scene there was some little thing we did whether it was an isolation matte or a hold-out matte, integrated alternate color correction of the back barn wall, or correcting the black tones in the opening scene to warm it up. We did lighting passes to add atmosphere, enhancing the light rays coming through the barn, to make it look like youd want to be there.

Myers points out that with such subtle work, it is often difficult to show clients exactly what was done to improve a shot. The majority of work that Ring of Fire does is invisible. We show our demo reel and people say, where are the effects? Its a great compliment, but its hard to describe what we actually did. Thats where the before and after comparisons come in so people can see how subtle enhancements change the whole feel of a scene.


Ronen Sharabani of Rhino FX choreographed the nine vehicles during post production for these GM spots. Courtesy of Rhino FX.

Dances with XUVs

Probably the most extreme example of invisible effects in any Super Bowl spot was the GMC Synchronization spot (aired during the pre-game show), in which the various features of nine XUVs are demonstrated by drivers who open and shut doors, hatches and sliding panels. Performed in an almost dance-like robotic style, such choreography in the pre-CGI era would have necessitated hundreds of takes. But Ronen Sharabani, lead Inferno artist at Rhino FX, was able to create the precisely timed sequences entirely in post.

During the shoot we didnt have nine cars and we didnt have nine drivers we had only three cars and drivers. And few of the shots used all three cars in one layer we often used just one. You can see it the last shot, when nine cars come out of the parking lot, but we used only one car and one driver and we shot nine different layers.

For the choreographed sequence when the drivers demonstrate the XUVs features, Sharabani shifted the timing of many shots. We played with shots of people opening and closing the doors. In the original takes, the drivers made their moves at the same time. We changed their timing. In certain places I had to create slow motion on a driver, or actually change the movement to work with the music. We measured the timing of everyone, so at an exact frame all the doors are closed, or at an exact frame only the first row are opening and then the second row pauses a few frames and then they open. We tried to work with the music.

Numerous touches were added to increase the atmosphere. The director and the agency wanted to have an atmospheric feel to it, so we shot separate layers of smoke just as an element and then we applied it onto the final composition. Its very subtle its not like you see smoke running and moving, but just a misty fog giving an mysterious feel to the whole thing.


Brian Drewes of Brickyard FX made sure that the shards of glass looked real in these spoofy anti-smoking ads. Courtesy of Brickyard FX.

Sharp Images

For the Shards of Glass anti-smoking spot, a Popsicle factory is shown creating Popsicles full of crushed glass, while factory representatives tell a tour group that despite the dangers, consumers have a choice in using their product. The spot cleverly spoofs the fulsome anti-smoking spots produced by tobacco companies.

Brian Drewes from Brickyard FX points out that the visual effects were done mainly for safety. We shot in a actual Popsicle factory, and one of the complications was that they dont want glass anywhere near their molds or equipment, so in any place where you are seeing glass, those are all set pieces we created. We did a lot of enhancements of the glass shards that are set in the Popsicles there are lighting flares to make them gleam and look sharper. And we added a lot of larger chunks of glass, using CG modeling of broken bottles.

Henry Turner is a writer and award-winning filmmaker, whose Lovecraft-inspired horror feature, Wilbur Whateley, won top awards at the Chicago International Film Festival. His writing on film has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lecran Fantastique, Variety and many other publications. A longtime film festival executive, he has programmed for the Slamdance Film Festival, and currently heads FilmTraffick L.A.