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VFX Upturn for U.K. Commercials and Music Videos

Mark Ramshaw reports back regarding the impressive work being done in commercials and music video in the U.K.

Rushes has recently turned its focus to ad and promo work. Here the company created photorealistic smoke in an anti-smoking spot (left) and classic rock god imagery in a video for The Darkness. Courtesy of Rushes.

While the U.K. has become ever more prominent in the global movie vfx market, things have been a little less sure-footed at the broadcast level over the last few years. That smaller teams and smaller budgets should leave it lagging slightly behind is only natural. But broadcast is also more susceptible to vagaries of the global economy. A downturn led to smaller ad spends, which in turn meant agencies turned less frequently to visual effects. Now, with more money being thrown around once again, the studios have the opportunity to apply the technique and technology advances that have been so effective in movie vfx to music promos and ad spots.

We and our main rivals have all kept consistently busy, but work does gravitate to the top, and so people are getting squeezed further down the chain, says Robin Shenfield. As ceo of The Mill, the largest studio in the U.K. to concentrate purely on the broadcast market, hes ideally placed to comment on the state of play.

The company also works closely with many U.S.-based clients, via its offices in New York. Shenfield reckons the U.K. to be some six months behind the U.S. on the current market upswing, but says theres already a real sense of confidence throughout the industry.

Its showing in the way people are booking a lot further forward than this time last year. Were already taking on work for the summer. And I also get the feeling time and budget pressures on agencies has eased off a little, which obviously percolates through to us, and makes the industry more buoyant generally.

The Mills departure from the movie business may have been dramatic, but the move has clearly paid off. Remaining focused, while building on the talent and cutting edge techniques developed during its time as a movie post-production facility, its been able to craft an enviable portfolio of video and commercials jobs.

Since The Mill added video and commercials to its feature film portfolio, Robin Shenfield (left) has seen an upswing in bookings. The Mill used Massive in the music video for Go To Sleep by Radiohead. Courtesy of The Mill.

Following showstopping all-CG promos for Goldfrapps Twist and Radioheads Go To Sleep (which utilized Massive to generate stylized polygonal crowds in ever-shifting urban environments), The Mill has been working with director Michel Gondry on the debut video for new band Steriogram. Generally, however, the workload has swung back in favor of ads, with several rolling out over the next couple of months.

We have a good niche in the music promo market, but were not totally immersed in it, whereas were always positively swimming in commercials work, points out Shenfield. Thats now probably the shining part of our business. Its completely re-energised.

First out of the blocks in the U.K. is an ad for Ford, in which a Fiesta appears to battle against the odds inside a pinball table. Reflections and shadows abound, with CG versions of both the pintable and vehicle created to sell the illusion of a car shrunk to an 86th its real size. New spots for high profile U.K. brands Walkers and Lynx are also about to air, while at the global level The Mill also has a number of spots in the works with several big hitting brands and directors. In particular, watch out for its work in spots for Gatorade, Adidas and a Bryan Singer-directed spot for Pepsi.

Rushes is another studio to have undergone some changes in the last year or so, having rebuilt its 3D department in order to win more pitches. More recently it has completed a healthy batch of ad and promo jobs. The latter includes a video for fast-rising spandex rock band The Darkness. A suitably outlandish parody of classic rock videos, it features CG butterflies and numerous Fire-based lighting effects. Also recently completed is work on the video for Beta Bands Assessment. As the narrative tracks the ascent and war of man from the Stone Age to modern day, 3D elements such as CG helicopters come to the fore, until one side inevitably resorts to nukes and the whole screen whites out.

A third music video project, Offsprings single Hit That, is a Passion Pictures collaboration, with the latter studio handling 3D duties. A stylized tale of one boy and his dog created using a blend of live action, masks and CG it comes as no surprise to discover that Angry Kid creator Darren Walsh helped out with the snarling 3D masks for the actor and dog.

Recent ad clients include the Website Travelocity, for which Rushes worked on a series of spots starring travel show legend Alan Whicker, European cellphone operator Oskar and Health Scotland, which required digital effects for an anti-smoking spot. Rushes created cigarette smoke that appears photoreal yet moves in the manner of a snake. The result is surprisingly subtle, yet all the more powerful for it.

Moving Picture Company produces classic 3D animation in its spots for Schwartz the French chef. Courtesy of Moving Picture Company.

Although currently engaged in a number of major movie jobs, not least Troy and Harry Potter and The Prisoner Of Azkaban, Moving Picture Co. remains committed to broadcast, most recently having completed ad spots for Orange and Schwartz. The Schwartz job involved some classic 3D animated character work, with MPC using motion capture to drive the animation of a stylized but perfectly composited French chef. Lighting and shadow work of a depth comparable with the studios movie work was made possible through the use of a custom in-house occlusion plug-in.

Framestore CFC has been producing impressive idents and ads. Above is a spot for the Post Office. Courtesy of Framestore CFC/Publicis/Love.

For the Orange cellphone campaign, six spots were shot by three renowned directors: Traktor at Partizan, Stacy Wall at Epoch Films and Dante Areola at MJZ. MPC handled post-production, contributing additional vfx to three. The campaign started last November, with two still to air.

Conspicuous by its absence in recent output from most of the studios is ident work, though its likely this is indicative of a temporary dip in demand, rather than any shift away from digital branding. One of the few of note is Framestore CFCs work on the end devices for an Eclipse Mint and Gum campaign in the U.S. There are four ads in all, each parodying a different film genre and so carrying individual logos that cheekily reference classic film logos.

The studio is another concurrently turning out a number of impressive ads alongside film work for the aforementioned Troy and Harry Potter (along with Thunderbirds). Following last years acclaimed work on spots such as Audi Fish, John Walker Fish (no relation), and Audi Bull, the recent run includes spots for car manufacturers Renault, Daewoo and Land Rover, drinks brands John Smiths, Carlsberg and Tropicana, plus Goodyear, Halifax and the Post Office. Particularly impressive are the lava lamp-like effects in the Daewoo spot, the seamless integration of digital car models in the snowbound live action ad for Goodyear and the hyperactive family of CG ants in the Post Office campaign. Two ant-filled ads have been broadcast so far. A third is still in post-production.

Rushes shows the evolution of war in a music video for Beta Band (left). On the right is a spot Rushes produced for European cellphone operator Oskar. Courtesy of Rushes.

The facilitys approach to the Post Office project reflects the way U.K. studios are now utilizing the same or similar pipelines and technologies as for movie jobs, and so delivering broadcast work with far higher production values. In this campaigns case that includes the use of high dynamic range image-based lighting and custom cloth solutions. We also used our Framestore CFC subdiv plug-in to take the models from both Maya and XSI, and then render from there, adds 3D supervisor Dave Hulin. Tellingly, Hulin came to job after working on a number of the studios high profile longform broadcast and movie projects.

The Mill turns the Fiesta vehicle into a pinball wizard in this impressive ad for Ford. Courtesy of the Mill.

So where next? Undoubtedly there are some worries about the fallout from the current crisis in the music industry. As labels shave rosters and budgets, were certainly likely to see few videos combine live action and large amounts of CG. But fully digital promos look set to stay, particularly for higher profile acts. This is especially heartening as the all-CG video invariably provides a more freeform arena, one where UK artists and animators always excel. And countering any shrinkage in this sector is that upswing in commercials. All the studios with fresh output mentioned, along with other regulars such as Passion Pictures, Lola Post and Glassworks, are well placed to capitalize on this.

Ironically, a report commissioned by U.K. Film Council serves to reinforce the positive message. That it reveals postproduction now averages a quarter of overall project budget (up from 13% just two years ago) is interesting. But the real surprise is that the commercials sector is placed ahead of the U.K. movie vfx industry, with a 36.4% market share against 29.3%. As one anonymous source quoted in the report puts it: There's kudos in films, money and creativity in commercials, and bulk and reliability in TV.

Mark Ramshaw is a freelance writer. He has worked as a computer game programmer, producer and magazine editor, but now avoids grown-up office work by writing about the vfx, videogame and music industries. He is also contributing editor for 3D World.