It is undeniable that the line between feature films and commercials is blurring, particularly in post-production. The computer-generated images that audiences see in movies one day, are in ads the next (and vice versa).
First there was morphing, then frozen moments, and, more recently, invisible effects and 3-D, photoreal characters. The latter two can be found in “Dinosaur,” “Gladiator,” “Red Planet” and “The Mummy Returns,” and in some of the most noted visual effects-driven commercials of the past few months.
One of the more visually arresting spots of the past few months is the new Mountain Dew commercial “Spaceship,” which tells the story of four college-age Dew guys who are abducted by aliens only to take the apprehending vessel for an extreme-sports-style joyride. Alex Frisch of Santa Monica’s Method was at the helm of the spot’s visual f/x gymnastics.
“We decided the best way to make a spaceship do tricks was in CG, because miniatures couldn’t give us enough flexibility,” says Frisch, “and because we wanted it to look as real as possible, we chose to shoot background plates just as if the spaceship was in the frame.”
Frisch and director Kinka Usher used to flesh out how the spaceship would “sketch” across promontories and precipices like a halfpipe course, and filmed the action from a helicopter-mounted SpaceCam.
After designing a vessel with the long bottom associated with extreme sports boards, Frisch created it in Maya. The most difficult part was animating the ship, balancing its size and speed.
“We wanted it to look big, but move quickly … in a fun and visually correct way,” explains the visual effects supervisor. “If you move an object too quickly, it looks light, too slowly, it looks heavy.”
Commercial filmmakers use 3-D not only to fabricate things unreal but also to re-create the ordinary. Unbeknownst to most viewers, some of the cars sold on TV today are CG. Sometimes agencies use digital cars to update earlier campaigns. In a new AutoTrader.com spot, however, the only way to realize the concept — according to Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Ray Giarratana — was with f/x.
“Buddies” takes place in a virtual showroom. When a shopper announces that he wants to buy a new vehicle, thousands of options are launched through the floor. Choices pop up in response to the young man’s requests and finally his dream truck appears.
Giarratana explains his mandate, “(Director) Buddy Cone and (ad agency) BBDO wanted us to create a vast assortment of real-looking vehicles without singling out specific brands, yet they couldn’t look like generic cars either.”
After digital templates were made by Viewpoint Digital Giarratana and his team “took the raw data and went through it piece by piece in Photoshop and LightWave to give the cars surface and reflective qualities down to the smallest bumps and textures.”
The cars not only had to look convincing, they also had to respond realistically when they landed on the floor.
“We applied a physics model to the car animations using Real Motion in conjunction with proprietary software to give them weight, suspension qualities, launch speed, etc. Then we took artistic license to make the action less perfect in order to appear real.”
That his 3-D creations looked and moved with authenticity was also a priority for Alan Barnett, visual effects supervisor (along with Adrian Hurley) on the new Computer Associates spot “Wake-up.” Directed by Phil Joanou, the commercial called for Sight Effects Inc. to repopulate Manhattan with a new kind of commuter roosters, who crow en masse and release a shockwave felt around the world.
According to Barnett, the spot’s brief production window necessitated a three-pronged approach: shooting backgrounds in Manhattan and live roosters against a greenscreen, and creating additional birds in CG.
“We studied how they moved so we could create a skeleton with the joints in the right places,” Barnett explains of how his team designed the CG roosters. “We had built feathers in Maya for a previous spot out of thousands of hairs and we adapted them with new lighting, coloring and layering.”
The rooster prototype served as the model for thousands of birds that were animated (also in Maya) to walk in certain ways, flap their wings and mill about. The program also was used to open the beaks of the obstreperous live-action birds (Inferno was used to stretch their necks) who refused to crow when the director said action.
“The trick to believability when it came to the moves,” points out Barnett, “was in making sure that the rosters walked at the same speed as the camera tracked (during the plate shoot). … But, we still had to speed some things up and slow others down when we composited the scenes in Inferno so that the birds didn’t look like they were sliding on the road.”
Do commercials play a large part in the advancement of visual effects technology, in its stylistic execution or both? That depends on whom you ask and whether they see effects development as an evolutionary process or a quantum leap. It also depends on the work they’re awarded and their knowledge of often arcane films and spots.
Nevertheless, one thing is abundantly clear, the cross-pollination between motion picture and commercial effects is here to stay.