A new Johnnie Walker spot from agency Leo Burnett Sydney has a narrator wandering through the vast rooms of a period mansion extolling the virtues of flavour. The period spot, directed by Mark Molloy and filmed in Prague, features significant virtual environments from Alt.vfx. We talk to visual effects supervisor Colin Renshaw about the work, including how he firstly considered a photogrammetry approach before settling on 3D builds for the environments.
In the spot - 'Where Flavour is King' - our narrator passes burning barrels, a library and a room in which fruit trees have blossomed, before discovering a feast and the Johnnie Walker character resting by a fire. The main challenge for Alt.vfx was to re-create the rooms and spaces. Early on in production, the studio had discussed with the director and creative team how best to achieve the spaces, either with real sets or CG. Renshaw says the initial approach considered was photogrammetry. "We ended up making almost instructional videos to the creatives about how we would do it," he says. "The idea was that the environments would be real, but obviously we couldn't plant 100-year-old trees inside a room, so we'd have to create the room digitally then add the trees."
With photogrammetry accepted by the agency, several of the creative team undertook an early reccy to Prague and spent a number of days shooting castles and buildings they intended to use, also partnering with Enwaii from Banzai Pipeline out of the UK who would be assisting with that approach.
However, at the same time, concepts for the spot were continuing to be developed, and became more grand in their scope. "The concepts were getting more and more full on and crazy and out there," says Renshaw. "We realized that the actual stuff we had taken couldn't be used in a traditional photogrammetry sense anymore, because a single storey room suddenly became a double story room, for example. But we had all this amazing photographic texture and reference, so we thought let's build this thing absolutely accurately, but create it modularly to create the spaces how ever we wanted."
With this new '3D build' approach - led by Nick Angus - Alt moved on to fully previs'ing the spot before the shoot occurred. Artists used photographs of bottles and jars taken by Renshaw from castles on the first reccy to begin modeling assets, too. "I think we ended up building 400 individual assets for the job," notes Renshaw. "Rooms, a lot of cabinetry, accessories, every little thing. There's not a single bit of matte painting in the whole spot."
In Prague, the production filmed for one day at a castle there and then another day at a bluescreen stage. On the castle set, detailed measurements were taken and HDRs of the live action environments captured. Occasionally, some spaces were made larger once the crew were in there and the live action shot considered. "A lot changes when you get to a physical space," says Renshaw. "So, 10 meters in virtual space can feel quite small on a certain lens. For example, we had plotted out the size of the tree room, and on the day we marked out 10 meters and thought that it didn't feel big enough, so we moved it 5 more meters and it felt much better."
Armed with the previs and what was essentially a blueprint of every room required to be built, Renshaw helped design only rudimentary sets. "We just wanted enough visual cues so that the actor could act and do his thing, say running his finger along a bannister," says Renshaw. "I'm very much a believer that if you have some CG in a scene, you should have something real in the scene as well. Then when they shot the plates we could literally drop them into our virtual environments, matchmove the camera and away we went."
Smoke and haze were large components of both the live action location and the bluescreen set, in which minimal pieces of real dressing were added. "There were actually two things I did on this shoot that I've never done before," jokes Renshaw. "One was I shot it on bluescreen and the second was I wanted them to pump as much atmosphere into the shots as possible. We were shooting on Alexa and we wanted all the shots to have texture and tons of depth. The smoke machine was really hammering it. Even though everything in my VFX brain was saying, 'This is bad, this is bad,' there was part of me that said this was very cool - the pictures looked amazing.'"
Alt used just about every tool in the toolbox for 'Where Flavour is King' - modelling assets in XSI, previs'ing in Maya, doing concepts and layout in Max and finaling out of XSI to V-Ray. With the barrel shot, for instance, the live action fire informed the level of flickering and light interaction in the scene. "We re-created the room in 3D and we had CG fire in the barrels for light to replicate the flickering and reflection on the walls," explains Renshaw. "Then a lot of the detail that came from the reflection was brought back from the real plate."
The barrels room appears covered in black soot, while the next space - the library - has a red spice over everything. "To do that," says Renshaw, "we developed what we called a soot shader in XSI which allowed us to coat any 3D object. It was a very quick way to get that look without having to model all of it in. We had built that in the R&D stage and that made us commit to XSI."
A slightly different approach was required for the fruit trees room, where it was decided to scan and model the trees. "It had to look like the trees were grown in this room and butted up against the walls and bent around and twisted into shape," notes Renshaw. "People wanted them to look amazing but not necessarily look Alice in Wonderland-like or too much like fantasy."
"So we actually went down to a park in Melbourne across the road from where the director lives," continues Renshaw. "He picked out five trees and we photographed them, scanned them and created a 3D model. Then we re-topped them and used the textures from the photography as a base, and then took that into MARI and sexed it all up. I think that's why they look so good because they're based on something real."
XSI was used for the leaves, and the fruit was created procedurally to control the amount per branch. The root system across the floor was also created procedurally based on a strand system using ICE. Renders for the fruit tree shots were a hefty 8-10 hours per frame. 2D lead Matthew Chance oversaw youporn the compositing work for the entire spot in Nuke. Also, live action plates were given a pre-grade to set the tone, with Method Studios' Andrew Clarkson performing a final grade at the end of the project.
For Renshaw, working on the spot represented an interesting journey in the approach to live action and digital environments, and in planning a TVC shoot. "The end result is almost a perfect replica of the concept art," he says. "And in terms of the approach I'm still very much a believer that if you have some CG in a scene, you should have something real in the scene as well."
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