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March 05
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Making Elton John Young Again

By IAN FAILES

A young Elton John plays at a concert, courtesy of visual effects by MPC.

Over the years, Christmas advertisements for John Lewis & Partners have a history of doing extra special things. This past holiday season, the department store partnered with ad agency adam&eve/DDB to deliver “The Boy and the Piano,” a commercial that revisits Sir Elton John’s life story back to the point where he was given his first piano.

That aspect of the commercial meant there needed to be shots of a younger Elton, a task that would involve combining multiple techniques – including a digital replica of the performer made by MPC – to bring that story to the small screen.

Watch the final John Lewis & Partners Christmas advertisement.

“It was not only immensely ambitious in the realm of advertising, but the high-profile nature of the campaign meant that less than perfect was simply not an option.”

—Kamen Markov, Visual Effects Supervisor, MPC

The life of Elton

“The 2018 John Lewis Christmas advert was a fantastic and rarely seen challenge,” states MPC Visual Effects Supervisor Kamen Markov, who, along with Philip Whalley, Anthony Bloor and Andy Steele, recently received a VES Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Commercial for the spot. “It was not only immensely ambitious in the realm of advertising, but the high-profile nature of the campaign meant that less than perfect was simply not an option.

“For that reason,” adds Markov, “from the beginning we decided to try and achieve as much as possible in camera before we started enhancing in post-production. Hair, props, make up, anything that could be done for real was the anchor that would help us sell anything we created digitally. In addition, we had to be very pragmatic about our schedule. I am still amazed that from start to finish the post-production took only seven weeks. A huge credit to our team and their technical abilities.”

MPC’s Elton John model.

“The inside of the mouth parts, the nose, cheekbone or forehead, as well as the eyes, belong to the actor, and the rest is CG. This combination created a good blend and makes it difficult or impossible for the viewer to know what is real and what is fully digital.”

—Kamen Markov, Visual Effects Supervisor, MPC

MPC was involved early at the casting stage where, together with director Seb Edwards, and the make-up and prosthetic teams, they advised on which stand-in actors might be a good match for Elton when it came to the post-production. “Initially we were planning to do as much as possible with digital make-up, tweaking proportions in comp and only adding small details in CGI,” notes Markov.

“As the project evolved we realized that while this was a good and proven approach, it was going to be limiting. We wanted to maximize use of existing technology to achieve the absolute best level of post-production. From that moment on, CGI was the star of the show. However, we found some very cool and innovative ways to blend and mix the CGI with what we had in camera to have make up, prosthetics and CGI as one unique and well-executed blend.”

A final frame from the ad showcases a younger version of the singer.

“From the beginning we decided to try and achieve as much as possible in camera before we started enhancing in post-production. Hair, props, make up, anything that could be done for real was the anchor that would help us sell anything we created digitally.”

—Kamen Markov, Visual Effects Supervisor, MPC

MPC, of course, has been pioneering the work of digital humans over the past few years. This includes making a CG Arnold Schwarzenegger for Terminator: Genisys and a synthetic Rachael for Blade Runner 2049.

 

Breaking down the work

With access to significant photo and video reference, MPC built a database of imagery in order to start the process of modeling a young version of Elton John. This followed the studio’s tried and tested methods established on earlier productions, although they still relied on meticulous artist observations of the look and feel of the performer’s face over many years.

MPC breaks down the work for the commercial in this video.

“One of the main challenges in creating a person’s face,” observes MPC Head of 3D Anthony Bloor, “is that we as humans are all experts in analyzing faces and expressions. We can read even subliminal details. This means anything that is even slightly wrong becomes disturbing, and this ‘Uncanny Valley’ effect is especially frustrating as we aren’t always very good at being able to explain what is wrong. The main challenge becomes not technical, but observational. The trick was to repeatedly work on tiny, nearly imperceptible improvements. It was a group effort to then establish each time if it was successful.”

Compositing also played a major part in re-creating the young Elton. Once MPC had what they considered a good CG model that matched the photo and video reference, it was aligned over the stand-in actor’s face, and then warped and animated to match the CG itself.

Along with the digital human work, MPC also generated sets, extensions, crowd shots and transitions for the commercial.

“Initially we were planning to do as much as possible with digital make-up, tweaking proportions in comp and only adding small details in CGI. As the project evolved we realized that while this was a good and proven approach, it was going to be limiting. We wanted to maximize use of existing technology to achieve the absolute best level of post-production. From that moment on, CGI was the star of the show.”

—Kamen Markov, Visual Effects Supervisor, MPC

“This provided us with real-life footage with correct proportions and enabled us to blend or fully take parts of the actor and combine this with the CG render,” describes Markov. “For example, the inside of the mouth parts, the nose, cheekbone or forehead, as well as the eyes, belong to the actor, and the rest is CG. This combination created a good blend and makes it difficult or impossible for the viewer to know what is real and what is fully digital.”

Ultimately, the final commercial made use of this 2D/3D combination for young Elton, and then a host of other visual effects for set extensions, environment builds and unique transitions between scenes to mark the passage of time. “Personally,” concludes Markov, “I believe it was the overall approach and way of finding solutions that made this VFX work a success. It was not so much about using ground-breaking technology, but more to do with the workflow and problem solving in CG, animation and comp that did the trick.”


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