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Sampling Six VFX-Driven Commercial Spots

Karen Raugust explores some recent and noteworthy commercials from Framestore CFC, MPC, Digital Domain, Method Studios, RIOT and Radium in search of the creative process behind them.

Recent commercial spots range from photorealistic to pure fantasy to something in between. While they all have in common the desire to maximize the creative impact while minimizing the budget, each is unique in terms of goals and technique. Here is a sampling of some innovative work from six vfx houses.


Framestore CFCs spot, Sea was set at different locations around the world, but filmed mostly in New Zealand. When a statue bursts out of the water, a New Zealand island had to be made to look Greek. © Smirnoff.


Client: SmirnoffAgency: J Walter ThompsonVFX House: Framestore CFC

In Smirnoff Sea, which recently earned top commercial kudos at the VES Awards, objects ranging from coins to full-size battleships shoot out of the ocean and land on the shoreline until the sea becomes as crystal clear and pure as Smirnoff. With wall-to-wall effects, the challenge was how to reduce costs in some shots so others could receive the full CG treatment they needed. "In a broad sense, we were trying to get the most for the client's dollar," explains VFX Supervisor William Bartlett. "They had a good budget, but it's never as much as you need."

In one scene featuring an oil rig, the team went through all its options: Shooting a real rig was too expensive and would bring permissions problems. Using stock footage was impractical for a sequence of shots. Building a real model and shooting it was costly, while building a CG model was both costly and time-consuming. Since relatively few camera moves were needed, Framestore opted to shoot stills of "bridges, bits of boats and cranes, metal structures and all kinds of stuff around the [Auckland] docks that looked sort of watery," says Bartlett. The collage created from the images had enough parallax change to allow for the necessary camera moves to make the shot seem like a 3D oil rig.

This technique saved money for some of the other shots that required 3D, such as boats and other objects blasting out of the water. "There's really no way to do that with models," Bartlett continues. Shots featuring interactions with water blended live action and CG. The shot at the end showing a big boat against the Dover cliffs started with a helicopter plate of Dover, which was tracked, and included a 3D sea bottom created from footage of beaches with the tide out and crystal-clear CG water over that. "There was lots of to-ing and fro-ing [between 3D and Flame] in that shot," Bartlett offers.

One challenge came up due to weather conditions. The sea around the oil rig was supposed to look cold and forbidding. When filming from the helicopter in the U.K. and New Zealand, the team took some shots of the sea. "But the weather was really nice, Bartlett adds. "You want to dive in there." Luckily, Framestore had recently created a gloomy and forbidding CG sea for Superman Returns. "We were 80% there by virtue of the fact that part of the team had solved the same problem earlier in the year."

The spot was set at different locations around the world, but filming occurred mostly in New Zealand. In one sequence featuring a Greek statue bursting out of the water, a New Zealand island in the background didn't look Greek enough. Luckily, Bartlett had been on vacation in Greece a couple of years earlier and brought in some snapshots he had taken on a "rubbish camera." One ended up being used in the out-of-focus background. "I never told the DP that," Bartlett concludes.


For Sun, MPC used RealFlow to create the liquid look for the inside of the body and Flame to play with the 2D and 3D elements. Courtesy of MPC.


Client: BacardiAgency: RKCR/Y&RVFX House: MPC

MPC faced different challenges on each of its two Bacardi spots, Blend & Assimilate and Sun. "In the first spot, it was more, 'we need a body full of water, what should it look like?'" explains VFX Supervisor Franck Lambertz. "In Sun, we had more of a clear view of what we wanted to achieve."

Pleix, the French directing team, and Blink, the production company, provided a precise previs to show the timing. "That was a great way to start," Lambertz says. People all in black, with water droplets bouncing off and around them, were shot in high-res doing the choreography. After rotoscoping the figures onto 3D bodies, the team spent a lot of time during the first spot figuring out how to achieve the right look and feel of the moving bodies when made of liquid. The goal was to achieve a balance between being able to identify the figures as human and at the same time preserving the artistic feel of the liquid.

MPC used RealFlow to create the liquid look for the inside of the body and Flame to play with the 2D and 3D elements. A particular focus was given to the edges of the bodies, where the objective was to have a more natural look than that which came out of Shake. "We had to decide, 'How much can you see the body and how much the droplets of water?'" explains Lambertz. Two weeks were spent working on the interplay between the bodies and the water to achieve the right balance. "That was the main, main, main issue" in the first spot, Lambertz says.

The interplay between liquid and the bodies was an issue in the second spot as well. But in Sun -- where a woman formed of Bacardi grows in the sun until she explodes into liquid "rays" -- the focus was more on the play of light as the sun shines on and through the liquid. The idea was to offset the bluish cold feeling of the Bacardi and the warmness of the sun. At first, the blue dominated, but the director wanted the end result to be as warm and colorful as possible. "It was about how the water should react with the orange light in the background," Lambertz reports. As in the first spot, a lot of time was spent in Flame, but this time not just to break the edges between the liquid and the body, but also to play with all the sunlight.


Digital Domain's objective with Opera was to show the struggle between the car and the wind, and to tell that story on stage in a theatrical, operatic manner. All Opera images © Daimler AG (Mercedes).


Client: Daimler AG (Mercedes)Agency: Jung Von/Spree VFX House: Digital Domain

The objectives of Opera, according to VFX Supervisor Jay Barton, were to show the struggle between the car and the wind, and to tell that story on stage in a theatrical, operatic manner. Movable props were used to show motion, as in the theater, but taken a step further. The idea was to make a motionless car sitting on stage look as if it were speeding down the road.

The first step, after the set designer built the props, including trees and buildings, was to create an extensive previs focused on figuring out how the props would flow through the scene: Swing in, fly in, hang on wires?

Then, "we took tons of car shots to find that dynamic angle of the car that says, 'I'm moving,'" Barton says. "We went very theatrical with the lighting, not only for the mood but to give the sense of speed and direction." Although the original plan was to show 90% of the car shots as live-action, the team ended up doing CG replacements or CG lighting on half to two-thirds of the shots. For example, a shot intended to be used in a sequence that takes place in a city during the day didn't work once the city changed to nighttime, because its lights weren't on. A shot intended for the forest scene had its lights on, but wasn't quite right for the nighttime urban scene, so extensive changes were made in post.

The sense of speed was conveyed well enough that a couple of shots were rejected for being too fast. In Europe, cars in commercials are not allowed to move faster than 30 miles an hour; in two deleted scenes, one where lit-up buildings in the night move past the car and another where light shines on a narrow spot on the tire to make it look like the wheels were moving, "it was just too much," Barton admits. "They said it was just too fast, even though the car wasnt moving at all." In another shot, a tree is struck by lightning and falls down in front of the car, and several issues came up due to the car seeming to swerve dangerously, even though the sequence actually portrayed a cardboard tree moving in front of a still car.

The development of the wind character presented a number of technical challenges. "It sounded good, but we ran across a lot of questions of 'what's it going to be?'" Barton recalls. For example, how would a CG cloth simulation behave when blown by a fan? Would it fill up like a balloon, fly straight back or flap like a flag? The way the cloth behaves helps illustrate the actions and emotions of the wind character, so these were important questions. Everyone had a different conception of what the wind should look like, and "any time we developed anything cool, it brought up questions," Barton says. When changes were made to how the wind behaved, it impacted how he looked, and vice versa. "I can't even tell you how many iterations we went through."

Tools included Maya, 3ds Max, LightWave, Nuke and Flame.


The Ballad of Tina Pink from Method Studios for Microsofts Zune, used a fantasy world to represent the device. Also see the vfx breakdown for Pink and Academy of Dreams. Courtesy of Method Studios.

The Ballad of Tina Pink

Client: Microsoft ZuneAgency: T.A.G./McCann Worldgroup VFX House: Method Studios

The idea behind this spot -- one of two, along with Academy of Dreams, for Microsoft's Zune media player -- was to create a fantasy world representing all the different attributes of the device, with the character moving seamlessly within it. The :60 spot shows a young womans miniature self inside her Zune, among pink bunnies and mice, kangaroos and jellyfish, as well as photographs, music videos and rock concerts. Almost every frame required effects work.

The first step was to create and shoot the practical set. "Having great practical elements is a great start for making great effects," says Chris Smallfield, 3D artist at Method Studios. The picture room was shot entirely on greenscreen, in a space with a variety of angles and perspectives and window cut-outs with actors behind them, to give a feeling of depth. The rock-and-roll window was a full physical set built into the window frame; adding reflection passes and glossiness made them appear to be photos as Tina passes by. The sunset sequence was all CG, except for the actress, shot on a rig and the clouds, which were shot against black and then lit to mimic sunlight shining on them.

"Once we had received the footage, we started the process of enhancing each set, making the transitions between shots seamless and creating entire worlds using painting, CG and compositing." The team used Flame for compositing, Shake for rotoscoping, Maya for the CG elements, boujou for tracking and Photoshop for some of the matte paintings.

The idea was to use seamless photoreal effects to create a stylish and creative fantasy world. "For a product like Zune, it's important to be in tune with your audience," Smallfield suggests. "We always want the commercial to really hit its mark. In this case, that meant making a very fashionable and relevantly stylish spot: a spot that worked well with the music and really draws a person into its world." He adds that the visual look needed to incorporate both timeless styles of the past and popular influences and current trends. "We play with many looks in the spot, from the childlike dreaminess of the pink dancing bunnies to the epic and dramatic feelings of theater. The mixture of vintage with modern style makes this commercial very appealing to a wide range of people."

To achieve theatricality, color grades and animation were used; water was recreated in several 2D and 3D layers, with fog and particles added to give it depth.


The process of creating the liquid and using it to form the car "was painfully painstaking" for RIOT, which created the vfx for Target Direct's Liquid Chrome Courtesy of RIOT.

Liquid Chrome

Client: Target DirectAgency: In-House VFX House: RIOT

RIOT worked on two spots for Target Direct that focus on the retailer's sponsorship of NASCAR and IRL race cars, along with the co-sponsorship of other brands such as Energizer and Glad. The first spot, Liquid Chrome, currently airs on Target's in-store RED Channel, as well as in limited broadcast distribution, such as on the Speed Channel and during coverage of NASCAR races. (The second, Velocity, will air in similar venues.) Both spots are 98% CG; the only live-action shots are of people.

Liquid Chrome takes place on the vast expanse of the Bonneville Salt Flats. Liquid comes down and forms a car, which then takes off at high speed on a road that forms under it. "It's trying to capture the excitement of racing," says Matthew McManus, exec producer. "It's more about how the liquid forms the car than about the car racing off."

"We did a previs that was quite extensive," McManus adds, reporting that it was a three- to four-week process. The previs showed the car filling in a series of wipes, so the team could see what was happening without having to do liquid simulations.

Once everyone was happy with the previs, the team went to the Salt Flats and took a series of digital stills, capturing a 360-degree view at three different times of day, which were used to build the 3D environment. That technique offered complete control; light studies could show how the world would look at different times of day, and the team was not locked into a particular lensing, framing or light. "It gives us control to play with the light and environment," McManus offers.

The Salt Flats look like a big untextured expanse from far away, but if you are there, you can see salt particles and striations at your feet. "If we didn't have that, you won't feel that you are really there," McManus explains, noting that the camera angle was low enough that the particulates were needed to give a sense of reality. High-res stills were shot of the ground plane from a step ladder, and then micropoly displacement was used to integrate the particles and striations into the spot. "It was an integration process that we're really proud of."

The process of creating the liquid and using it to form the car "was painfully painstaking," McManus says. Not only are liquid simulations difficult to calculate and have to be redone completely if theyre not right, but each part of the car needed to be containered as well as modeled, which meant hundreds of individual pieces. RealFlow was used for liquid simulations; other tools used in the spot included Maya and LightWave.

Toward the end of the process, the in-house agency communicated to RIOT that it wanted to go in a direction that was stylized rather than photoreal. The last-minute change was possible since the spot was mostly 3D; if much footage had been shot on plates it wouldn't have been achievable. "Because it was all in 3D, we had full control over everything and we were able to accommodate their request," McManus concludes.


Jonathan Keeton of Radium wound up serving as puppeteer for Visa's Juggling spot since the extras couldn't juggle toys of different shapes and sizes. Courtesy of Radium.


Client: VisaAgency: Chiat Day/LA VFX House: Radium

This photoreal spot features shoppers in a toy store juggling objects in a complex but smooth-running scenario, until everything falls apart when a customer tries to pay with a check instead of a Visa check card. Effects work focused on matte paintings and CG replacement; the latter grew as an objective due to practical considerations that came up during the shoot. "We ended up vastly augmenting all the practical effects," says Jonathan Keeton, Radiums exec creative director.

The shoot was originally planned for Montreal, home to Cirque du Soleil, but was moved to Buenos Aires for budgetary reasons. "Montreal is rife with jugglers," adds Keeton. "Buenos Aires is not known for its jugglers." The extras in the scene could juggle, but only with balls of equal weight and not with toys of different shapes and sizes. After watching them drop toys repeatedly, the effects team decided to have the actors use regular juggling balls and replace those in post with toys. "I ended up being a puppeteer," Keeton suggests. Toys on rods were shot against a greenscreen and used to replace the balls the jugglers used.

The lead actress couldn't juggle at all. The team had to coach her on how to move her hands as if she were juggling. Footage was shot of her pushing a ball that was thrown to her from off-camera to capture that specific motion. A tin toy robot that her son throws to her was recreated in CG because it was too difficult to maneuver. And in one sequence, the woman is writing a check with one hand while juggling with the other. "This is something even a juggler can't do," Keeton says. In that shot, part of her body is from one take and the rest from another take.

The international distribution of the commercial also meant CG replacement to remove or swap out certain objects for language or branding reasons. One major aspect of this was the fact that checks look different in different countries, not to mention some regions rely on cash rather than checks. "It was a sensitive enough subject that they had to get it right," Keeton explains.

The spot was shot in an old villa, which stands in for a toy store on a Michigan Ave.-type shopping street. The view out the window was of the scenery surrounding an old Buenos Aires villa and looked nothing like a shopping district. Matte paintings were used to recreate the desired exteriors.

The spot, which employed tools such as Inferno, Maya and mental ray, was typical of Radium's work in that it is supposed to look like live action, no matter how much CG is incorporated. "Its not Narnia and it's not Mars and there are no robots running around killing people," Keeton insists. "All of this is dead invisible."

Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).