Today’s inventive commercials are incorporating film-level visual effects, created on tight budgets and even tighter deadlines. Delivered by veteran artists working at well-known facilities, the projects are of such high caliber that they could easily be mistaken for feature-film work. Here we look at three commercials that push the envelope with amazing digital work to tell a story and to entertain audiences. And, to make a product pitch more exciting.
Made for Adventure
Friends are made for memorable adventures. And in a commercial for Heineken, “The Trailblazers,” a group of friends take an adventure of a lifetime during an ultimate boy’s night out.
In the epic spot, from agency Publicis Italy and Director Matthijs van Heijningen at MJZ, four guys start out their evening in New York, but soon find themselves transported to some of the world’s most extreme locations – from the summit of Mount Everest to outer space, complete with explosions, flying debris, and more.
Similarly, MPC’s group of VFX artists were challenged as they embarked on an epic journey of their own, creating the locations and myriad effects to make the story possible.
“This is a huge piece of work. We’re talking about six films in one, crafted by over 70 artists in 90 days,” says Carsten Keller, VFX supervisor and MPC’s head of 3D. “The VFX scale speaks for itself, and that sort of creative achievement isn’t possible without true collaboration, but the story remains about the journey these guys go on together. We hope that people watching truly believe that they’re there, in those worlds.”
Teams from across MPC’s London, Amsterdam, and Bangalore studios worked together, creating the diverse locales. Some of the tasks included building two entirely CG ships, which required extensive previs before the shoot itself; creating a spacecraft, which van Heijningen wanted to film up close; re-creating a Himalayan backdrop; and crafting a Roman army 10,000 strong. All told, the commercial contains 71 highly complex shots.
“The spot is a feature-film scale project, with the level of craft it required,” says Dirk Riesenfeld, who led the VFX team in MPC’s Amsterdam studio, where the compositing team for the spot was based. “While immersing our audience into the extreme worlds, we had to keep reality at the front of people’s minds.”
“The Trailblazers” starts out as the four friends decide to frequent a new establishment, and en route are enveloped in a thick haze, emerging clad in ancient Roman garb, as MPC turned 100 extras into 10,000 Roman soldiers bearing torches and on the march. As they charge amid falling ash, the scene quickly cuts to a wind-swept rain pounding the deck of an old sailing vessel as enormous ocean waves crash over and flood the wooden deck. The ocean tosses the ship violently, forcing the men to cling to the rope rigging for dear life. Then, suddenly, a pirate ship emerges from the water.
For a few shots during which the actors interact with the boat, a full-size physical ship with rigging was used. “The practical boat was really impressive,” says Christian Bohm, VFX artist. “Of course, the better the plate, the more rewarding and creatively successful the CG work is.”
Conversely, the wide shot with the stormy, churning water is all-CG. The artists also extended missing pieces of the practical model.
“The sea was the only sequence we created almost fully in [Side Effects’] Houdini,” says Bohm, who got his feet wet, so to speak, with the software on this project. “With Houdini, you will always find different approaches to the same problem, depending on who is using the software. Houdini is less of a set of tools and more of a sandbox to create your own, unique approach.”
In addition, MPC constructed two full-CG sail ships – a replica of the sailing vessel and the old, weathered pirate ship.
Bohm notes that the ship was based on the HMS Surprise, built at MPC’s Bangalore studio. While the construction was fairly straightforward, simulating the ropes in the rigging proved to be challenging and time-consuming.
The other CG ship, the Flying Dutchman, was far more complicated. This ship comprises more than 7,500 individual parts and approximately 80 million polys. And, the artists had to simulate everything from a single rope to an entire ocean in the scenes. Moreover, the MPC crew had to create an aging effect on the boat, which was done procedurally, and then have the vessel interact with the water. “There were a lot of elements and effects to create for a single asset,” says Bohm.
To bring a sense of reality to the scene, the artists opted against a model that was too fantastical, and instead based the look on an actual rotted ship. The team spent weeks creating the various elements to the ship, a lot of which is not even visible in the final film.
“We wanted to give it this really specific look of an old, rotting ship, so we needed to craft all kinds of detail. Alongside all the elements that accumulate on the surface over time, like rust, barnacles, seaweed, and dirt, every plank needed to be procedurally modified as well, to look like the water has eaten into the wood,” explains Bohm.
In addition, the CG water had to react to the ship’s movement. “It was crucial that when the ship emerges from the water, it looks believable,” says Bohm.
In terms of the ocean, the VFX artists created multiple water effects for the final look of the scene, including a big, stormy base with breaking waves, splashes, foam floating on the top, and the main splash hitting the boat. In fact, it took weeks to achieve the desired results and to manage the resulting simulations.
“We had a huge amount of water flowing out of the hollow body [of the boat], but there were a lot of other creative elements needed in order to sell the effects. For example, we had water dripping from the ropes and sails, and flowing off the wood,” says Bohm. “Even the sails themselves had to be simulated.”
As the spot progresses, the ocean waves turn into snow and ice, as the friends make their trek across the Himalayas, when suddenly one spots some Heineken bottles on the ground. He takes a desperate drink only to find that the liquid has frozen.
“Everything you see here is a mix of practical effects and 2D elements, except for the wide opening shot,” VFX artist Alessandro Granella points out. The scene was at an old mine outside Prague in June. To “winterize” the scene, artists created computer--generated snow in that first shot, using Autodesk’s Maya and Houdini: Maya for the modeling, look development, and lighting/rendering, and Houdini for the effects, such as the falling and blowing snow.
Granella explains the process: “We tracked the shot and then created a new, wider camera from the first one. Then, after modeling, texturing, and shading the ridge, we re-projected the actors onto moving cards and used those cards to re-render the actors through the new camera to get shadows and holdout for the FX passes.” At the same time, Houdini artists created simulations for the snowstorm and the falling ridge, exported them into Maya, and then rendered them. Comp’ing was done in Foundry’s Nuke.
In the next sequence, the four men are seen wearing futuristic pilot suits, as they direct their small craft into battle akin to a scene out of Star Wars. “We knew we were going to see the model [of the main spaceship] really close to camera, so we knew we needed a huge amount of detail in the geometry and textures,” says Granella, noting that fine-detail variations like rust and small imperfections helped add to the model’s realism. In the end, the spaceship model comprised 4,600 objects and was more than 20 million polygons in size.
To avoid having the model look static, the artists added movement – the model has multiple rotation points on the wings, legs, and engine. Once the animation was completed, the group integrated it with the effects, creating interactions with debris, volumes, and dust systems. “We wanted to create the feeling of an ‘alive’ and dangerous environment, so we added as many details as we could, including animated parts inside the holes of the stations, debris, and reaction to the explosions,” explains Granella. “All of those parts were also reacting to each other, as were the lights.”
In addition, the artists added intensity variation to the lights, introducing details such as light alarms, making sure everything was reacting with the action and working visually.
The friends subsequently land on the mothership and exit their spacecraft, and as they walk across the hangar, steam engulfs them, and they emerge in a modern-day club.
According to Granella, the team modeled rough shapes to use for previs, to define cameras and shots in the scene. Then they began detailing the space station until it looked believable in terms of scale and plausibility, using a modular approach that enabled them to add details and changes quickly. The entire model contains 93,000 parts and is built with 150 lights. Because of its size – 137 million polygons – the group divided it into parts, using Autodesk’s
Arnold for look-dev, lighting, and rendering.
The space backdrop, meanwhile, is a matte painting, crafted in Adobe’s Photoshop and Nuke. The crew built the various-sized asteroids using three different types of simulations and two different sets of geometry within Houdini, and then blended them together
and rendered them in Maya.
“Balancing all the elements [for the scene] was especially tricky, and in this sequence we have a lot of them,” says Granella. “For example, there is the spaceship and space station, plus the debris, explosions, smoke, and asteroids. We had to make sure we were not overdoing it, either by making the shot too busy looking or too clean. Even in the station itself, we had to balance the volume and scale of detail in each shot; too much detail would make it feel too busy, but on the other hand, not having enough would remove the realism.”
The commercial ends as the men toast one another with Heineken from
a balcony overlooking a CG cityscape. One asks, “So what do we do next?” Then they see a steampunk zeppelin appear (containing 2,500 CG moving mechanical parts), and find themselves dressed for another epic adventure.
“This is without a doubt some of the best work I’ve done in my career. I have worked on movies before, but with much bigger teams, so the shots I worked on in this film feel like a much bigger achievement,” says Bohm. – Karen Moltenbrey
Tower of Success
MPC recently worked closely with ad agency RPA and directors Smith & Foulkes from production company Nexus to create a unique, 60-second spot for Honda, “Tower of Success,” that promotes the automaker’s 10th-generation Accord. The studio was called on to create an entire city of CG trophies, along with the trophy characters springing to life.
The spot opens with a plaque that reads, “Better Is a Never-Ending Quest,” and continues to pan across a series of common bronze trophies, including a figure of a bowler sitting on top of a trophy. He then breaks free from his still pose. After he announces, “There’s a danger to success,” the camera continues to focus on other figures, moving from a soccer player to a fisherman, and an angel to archers and more, who all break free from their stiffened poses and preach about the dangers of being at the top.
According to MPC Visual Effects Supervisor Ryan McDougal, who is based in the studio’s LA location and who headed up its CG efforts on the spot, the directors were really focused on the flow of the dialogue and the performance. “The camera just kept moving up, and as it was steadily rising, the message is conveyed that you can always get better,” he explains. “Ultimately, we land on this beautiful shot of the Honda Accord, which is really the apex of the whole spot.”
Directors Smith & Foulkes called on MPC because, as McDougal puts it, “They trust the fact that we can make things look photoreal and tactile, and build a whole world. That’s really what they were after. They’ve done more stylized pieces in the past, and they knew we could bring that kind of life to this project.”
According to McDougal, the directors are attuned to good performance in animation and quality camera work. Since “Tower of Success” featured fully CG characters, everything in the spot was previs’d.
The directors started out with storyboards and some 3D previs before MPC took over, spending about four months to complete the project. “We collaborated with them over an intense period – for about two to three weeks – to sharpen the camera moves and figure out the performances and then block everything,” he explains.
One of the things the directors wanted to convey was that the characters were made of metal, so MPC needed to communicate that each character was “struggling to break free of their own selves,” says McDougal. He explains that they would move in a “kind of staccato fashion, which is close to stop-motion. Again, the message is that they are trying to be better than they are. Normally, they are these stagnant things that sit in these beautiful poses, and they are actually trying to do more. So, we animated all characters in a naturalistic way to get the timing and the performance down so it would look just like a normal, photoreal character moving around. Then we went in and started taking frames out – maybe it was only on the arm or the whole body –- to create more of a stepped look, as if it’s struggling to move.”
To complete the characters, MPC relied primarily on Autodesk’s Maya for rendering and production, Side Effects’ Houdini for the city population, and Foundry’s Nuke for compositing. The team rendered in Autodesk’s Arnold, textured using Allegorithmic’s Substance Painter, and then created their own tool – a city population tool – that they made “from the ground up out of Nuke.”
As with most projects, the team faced a few challenges in completing the spot. The characters were each hand modeled. “The tough part is that they want these to feel like metal, and feel like real sensibilities of how you would handcraft these things,” says McDougal. “They wanted them all to be a little bit different, so it felt like different artisans were touching on these because most trophies are designed in an individualistic way. None of them match, but the general idea is that each trophy matches.”
As McDougal notes, it’s not so much that each of the individual pieces are particularly difficult to make, because they are known materials and things that we’ve all seen and know what they should look like. Rather, it was the sheer scale that was probably the toughest part and figuring out smart ways to populate this huge trophy city and make it actually through about 60-odd individually animated characters. “Not only building them,” he adds, “but animating them and figuring out what that animation was supposed to look like – those were the real challenges.”
According to McDougal, the studio is typically creating creatures and other elements that are integrated into live-action plates. “Once in a while, though, we get fully CG things and get to do very heavy character work. When that happens, we can do it very well, like I think our team did here. It opens up other possibilities for different work,” he says. “In this spot, our directors, the agency, and even the client weren’t making huge demands on us. They were saying, ‘You have the framework, we’ll just keep editing as we go along, but you guys are doing a really nice job. Just keep pushing it further.’ ” – Linda Romanello
“Dilly Dilly” became the battle cry of sorts in a comical Super Bowl commercial for Bud Light that employs digital effects.
Part of Bud Light’s “Dilly Dilly” campaign, the commercial, titled “The Bud Knight,” harkens back to medieval times, as a dispassionate king watches from afar as his subjects engage in hand-to-hand combat against a much stronger and better-equipped opponent armed with broadswords, bows, and shields on a smoke-filled field of battle.
With defeat on the horizon, clouds part and the Bud Knight appears, giving hope to the losing townspeople. Crowds part as the knight passes by on horseback … and then enters a convenience store “cabin” on the top of the hill. As the knight departs, with a case of Bud Light under his arm, a soldier asks if he is going to fight with them, to which he replies: “Oh, ah, a buddy of mine is having this 30th birthday thing. If you survive, come by.” The soldier responds, “Yeah, that is probably not going to happen.” Feeling sorry for the group, the knight dismounts and raises his sword in the air, releasing a shock wave across the battlefield.
The commercial was filmed in PioPio, New Zealand, and almost every shot was digitally touched by the team from The Mill in New York, which did crowd replications, cloud replacements, and even some full-CG shots. Amazingly, the group had just seven days to complete the project from start to finish.
The spot has a Game of Thrones/Lord of the Rings feel to it, with a gray aesthetic. The terrain was natural, though some simple matte paintings added extra mountains to the background. The spot was filmed during New Zealand’s summer, requiring the addition of more dramatic clouds, as well, for the overcast look.
The biggest digitally enhanced scene is the one at the start, which gives a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield. On the ground are CG crowds of soldiers; above CG dragons circle the field. The artists augmented the shot plate of that scene with approximately 2,000 fighting and running soldiers, which were based on 25 or so motion-capture clips and simulated in Side Effects’ Houdini. “A few days before delivery, the client wanted to have a dragon holding a solider and then throwing him into the fight,” says Christian Nielsen, VFX supervisor at The Mill. Smoke and fire were added from stock elements and Houdini elements. The group also removed modern roads and added a dramatic matte-painted mountainscape.
Likewise, the scene at the end of the spot with the shock wave is heavily augmented, consisting of many layers rendered in Houdini and combined in Foundry’s Nuke. “The blast only had to affect the opposing army and leave the king’s army unaffected,” Nielsen points out. Filling out the scene are CG catapults and flags, which were simulated in Autodesk’s nCloth.
The shots comprise 20 different effects elements rendered out from Houdini to create the burst and shock wave – everything from lightning, smoke, particles, and volumetric shock wave – which were then composited together in 2D.
Elsewhere in the commercial, the artists at The Mill had to paint out fences, roads, trees, signs, and other modern objects appearing in the background. The cabin, however, was a set piece.
Faced with the fast turnaround, Nielsen sent stills from the shoot back to the modeler, so he could have the soldiers built, ready, and look-dev’d by the time he returned from the shoot. Those included 12 unique soldiers: six for the dilly dilly (king’s army) and six for the opposing army.
A team of eight CG digital artists created most of the work in Autodesk’s Maya. Textures were generated in Allegorithmic’s Substance Painter. For the crowds, especially the one at the start of the spot, they employed Houdini and Golaem’s software (crowd simulations were shared with the LA office and also used to fill in voids left by the extras). Seven artists composited the spot using Nuke; one Auto-desk Flame was used for finishing. Lastly, the imagery was rendered out using Autodesk’s Arnold and Side Effects’ Mantra.
Although the effects work is fairly standard in the spot, what challenged the artists the most was the project’s extremely short turnaround. That and a few full-CG shots that were unplanned. “Also, there is a guy with arrows in his body; the idea for that came up four days before delivery, and we had to track his upper body in those nine shots and place the arrows,” Nielsen notes.
As a matter of fact, the artists tracked the majority of shots in the spot so they would be prepared for whatever came their way. (Tracking was done with Science.D.Vision’s 3DEqualizer and The Pixel Farm’s PFTrack.)
“It was more about the scope of the work and how important it is to plan ahead as best you can with timelines like this one. And Super Bowl jobs often have unexpected things; you need to be prepared for anything,” Nielsen adds.
Dilly dilly! – Karen Moltenbrey