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July 09
2017

ISSUE

Summer 2017

CREATURES, CARS AND PHOTOREALISM

By DEBRA KAUFMAN

Blur Studios’ “Titanfall 2: Become One” commercial, directed by Blur’s Dave Wilson for EA/Respawn and agency Argonaut.

Visual effects for commercials are still a healthy business, according to many visual effects facilities. Advertisers are tapping visual effects for the latest in photorealism and creatures to make their messages stand out. A number of VFX houses that do commercials are identifying new trends and pushing the envelope to create the imagery.

At Blur Studios, “Titanfall 2: Become One” was a visually complex commercial that earned Blur a nomination for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Commercial at the 15th Annual Visual Effects Society Awards. Blur’s Dave Wilson directed it for EA/Respawn with agency Argonaut San Francisco.

“It’s a very character-driven piece about a man and his ‘steed’, which in this case is an 18-foot robot,” explains Lead Compositor Nitant Karnik, whose team composited live action with the CG robots. “When our hero would be decompressing after a battle, the expression on his face was live action, but we would add flames or stress the background.” The background was a lush, forest-like atmosphere, also CG, adding to the mosaic of live action and CG.

Karnik reports he is seeing a“big push towards photorealism” in videogame commercials and promos, surpassing the level of photorealism in the video games themselves. “The games obviously do not look photoreal when you are playing them, but there are things we can do in comp to make them more believable,” he says. He notes that when people can’t tell if it’s real or computer-generated, they forget to distinguish. This trend of photorealism within the context of marketing video games, says Karnik, is due to the nature of the content.

Photo of Nitant Karnik

“As a gamer, you envision yourself in the real world playing your character. The game can only take you so far, and your imagination takes you the rest of the way. With a commercial, we have the liberty to push it to the realism you can imagine in your head.”

— Nitant Karnik, Lead  Compositor, Blur Studios

“As a gamer, you envision yourself in the real world playing your character,” he says. “The game only takes you so far, and your imagination takes you the rest of the way. With a commercial, we have the liberty to push it to the realism you imagine in your head.” What enables this advanced blend of elements is deep compositing, using a combination of Houdini and Nuke, which gives compositors more control with layers. “If you have smoke in the atmosphere, for example, in the past you would render it without the characters in the room, so when you put the smoke on top of the character, it looks like he is inside the smoke,” explains Karnik. “But if the animation changed, we’d have to re-render the smoke.” Now, he adds, with deep compositing, that smoke can be added “on the fly” and be retained even when the animation changes.

At Method Studios, Senior Creative Director Ben Walsh reports that his facility is seeing an uptick in creature work and photo- realism. Method created hundreds of photoreal cephalopods for GE’s “Raining Octopuses,” and convincing urban destruction for a Halo 5: Guardians ad. He believes that advertisers and brands are trending towards putting more animals and creatures into commercials because technology has improved to the point that a VFX house can turn them around in record time. That is in part because Method, like some other VFX companies, can tap into the resources and R&D from its feature film division. For example, Walsh’s team recently repurposed the musculature of a horse built for an episodic TV show and used it for the basis of a full CG moose, for a Farmer’s Insurance commercial, in a speedy two months.

Blur Studios’ “Titanfall 2: Become One” commercial, directed by Blur’s Dave Wilson for EA/Respawn and agency Argonaut.

For another spot, in which Method recently created a werewolf, Walsh explains that feature film assets are not simply copied from a movie to an ad. “You cannot just grab a werewolf from a film, because it has a distinct design,” he says. “But you can use the R&D and the lessons you learned on how to create it.”

Walsh points out that some trends are often ephemeral, driven by pop culture. “They might see a cool effect in a film and want to mimic it,” he says. “It is a huge part of advertising.” He reports another trend: different clients and different projects than the usual television commercials. “We still do a lot of car work for TV, and the majority of our commercials are traditional,” he says. “But we now do a lot of secret projects in the area of technology and devices. In the last few years, VFX has gotten so good that now tech and information companies have faith in it.”

Commercials are themselves repurposed for different platforms, adds Walsh, who notes the impact of that on the VFX facility. “It makes it a bit more time-consuming for the Flame artist or whoever outputs the final job, knowing they will have to do a portrait phone version of a commercial,” he says. “At the end of the day, we prefer not to have to worry about the look or framing based on an iPhone. The user can rotate the iPhone and see it in proper aspect ratio.” Instagram is a different story. “The Instagram version has to be pan-and-scanned, cropped old school,” he says.

LEFT and RIGHT The Mill’s “Human Race Club” Chevrolet commercial.

At Luma Pictures, General Manager Jay Lichtman agrees with Walsh’s assessment. He reports that, “more than ever, clients and brands understand that the 60-second TV commercial is not the be-all and end-all.” He notes some of the challenges that it raises. Advertisers are allocating money to many platforms, he says, which can “eat away at the marketing dollars.” The result is creating far more savvy marketers, says Lichtman, and the tools have to be more varied.

“About a decade ago, there was a lot of value put in the craft of content creation,” he says. “Now it is more the quantity of content creation, because of the ability of the brand to be present to be everywhere, and there’s a need to populate all those centers.” He believes that eventually there will be a unified platform, which will improve the situation and, he hopes, restore VFX to its rightful place as one of the top line items in a budget.

The Mill’s “Human Race Club” Chevrolet commercial

At Method Studios, Walsh reports that the work his company does to create versions for other platforms does not impact how Method works. But he does not dismiss the importance of online viewing of commercials. “Once you do the work of getting a commercial out there, not everyone sees it on TV,” he says. “People can watch Super Bowl ads online before the game. Online views as opposed to TV are huge for us and everyone else.”

Recently, Method’s New York office designed and built the official Association of Independent Commercial Producers Sponsor Reel Director’s Cut for its awards show. “We motion-captured dancing characters and applied all these different textures and put it to Major Lazer’s song ‘Light It Up,’” he says. When Major Lazer saw it, he put it up as his music video on YouTube, which has so far gotten 131 million views. That led to a call from Facebook. “It just shows how things are changing through the social media world as opposed to traditional TV commercials,” says Walsh.

“It isn’t always easy to implement new technology to work faster and more efficiently. It just takes time, and you need new skill sets and developers to do this integration. VFX is about looking for  solutions.”

—Vince Baertsoen, Group CG Director, The Mill

At The Mill, Group CG Director Vince Baertsoen reports that his New York facility is doing more and more interesting commercial work every year, and not just for TV. “We used to do commercials primarily for broadcast, but now the media are expanding to all sorts of platforms and screens,” he says. “To make all that content exciting, you need to have visual effects.” Speedier tools and a more efficient VFX pipeline have helped this kind of VFX work become a regular feature at The Mill, says Baertsoen, but he notes that it’s a learning curve. “It isn’t always easy to implement new technology to work faster and more efficiently,” he says. “It just takes time, and you need new skill sets and developers to do this integration. VFX is about looking for solutions.”

The Mill London’s VES Award-winning 2016 Christmas trampoline” ad for John Lewis: Buster the Boxer, directed by Dougal Wilson for agency adam&eveDBD, with VFX by MPC

Method Studios created hundreds of photoreal cephalopods for GE’s “Raining Octopuses” commercial. Directed by Christopher Riggert for agency BBDO.

The Mill has found some crucial solutions by creating its own tools, which were used for the first time for “The Human Race,” a Chevrolet Camaro ad, which shows a human racing a 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 against the Chevrolet FNR autonomous concept car, powered by artificial intelligence. To accomplish the task, The Mill used its Blackbird, an adjustable rig that is a skeleton for a CG car to be layered on top of it. Blackbird has won both an Innovation Lion at Cannes and an HPA (Hollywood Professional Association) Judges Award for Creativity and Innovation. The Mill also used its virtual production toolkit, Mill Cyclops, and Epic’s Unreal Engine for real-time rendering. Blackbird, says Baertsoen, took care of the “lack of car availability,” and Cyclops solved issues related to on-set visualization. “It enables directors and creatives to see their digital creations on set, lit,” he says. “It also has the potential to optimize the VFX pipeline in some ways.”

“Once you do the work of getting a commercial out there, not everyone sees it on TV. People can watch Super Bowl ads online before the game. Online views as opposed to TV are huge for us and everyone else.”

—Ben Walsh, Senior Creative  Director, Method Studios

The company has also created a huge number of creatures in the last year. A CG orangutan, created for energy company SSE, won multiple awards at the 14th Annual VES Awards.

“Clients and agencies are inspired to open up the creative and try different things when the technology allows,” Baertsoen says.



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