So, you need to make a 40 second fully-CG cinema spot showing the evolution of flight - from the Wright Brothers to space travel. It has to be delivered at both 4K and 2K stereo, by a team of less than 10, in just a few months. Oh, and 15 million people will see your work each month at the movies.

That was the daunting prospect facing Dashing Collective creative director Rob Moggach for Cineplex's 'Escape From This World', a theatrically-released Spy Films spot designed to play in Canadian cinema locations over the next three years. Take a look at the steps Moggach's team of visual effects artists took to pull it off.

Watch the final spot.

Step 1: Plan it in previs

The spot, directed by Arev Manoukian, celebrates Cineplex's centenary of film, and begins with the Wright Flyer taking off at Kitty Hawk, NC, then cleverly transitions to a bi-plane, then the jet engined T-33, an F-18, the space shuttle and finally a spaceship. Moggach previs'd the animation, working as if the planes had been filmed live-action and also contemplating the final stereo at this stage too.

"We actually overshot the previs," Moggach says. "That is, we created more than we would need, and then it went to the editor to cut. I think that's the reason it flows really well. A lot of times we are limited by budget to just working to, say, exactly 76 frames. But as much as possible, we were trying to mimic reality and the usual filmmaking process - there's no reason to throw that out if we know it works."

Watch a breakdown of the Wright Flyer sequence.

Step 2: Write your own cloud renderer

The different aircraft travel through and past various cloud formations - a design aesthetic that sold movement but also helped with transitions. As a small studio, Dashing could ill-afford to spend precious time rendering large volumetric environments.

So Moggach co-developed a custom cloud renderer that kept render times down to 2-3 minutes per frame. "The trick is that the software was all command line," he says. "To generate the clouds it was all text files that you edit, hit render, see if it's right and try again. I also built some tools to ease the process and edit the parameters and hit preview quickly and make it more interactive."

Dashing used a custom cloud renderer for the spot.

The cloud software defined the look of the clouds, but Dashing also needed something that provided a frame of reference during previs and layout. "The software isn't something that just plugs into Maya," notes Moggach, "so I wrote some tools that imported the volumetric data and created blobby particle shapes in Maya that represented where the clouds were."

Interestingly, while exploring the development of the clouds with the accurate renderings, Moggach realized that real clouds were not white and puffy - something required in the final piece. "To get the look we wanted of puffy clouds the planes were flying through," he says, "we ended up making the planes ten times bigger than what they should have been."

The cloud renderer was also used for the nebula at the end of the spot, referenced from imagery taken by the Hubble telescope. "We noticed this was volumetric in nature so we looked to adapt the volumetric cloud software to create the volumetric nebula," explains Moggach. " We could make the cloud look red or blue or gaseous and then adjust where the light was coming from to make it feel like a nebula."

Step 3: Use existing resources

With only limited time and artists on hand, Dashing relied on stock models for some of the planes. "The Wright Flyer was a purchased model that was re-built by a team of modelers around the world," says Moggach. "And the bi-plane was from an Australian artist who had done it as a labor of love, and it was accurate down to the bolts on the side of the plane. For the spaceship we worked with a designer in LA who helped us on that and then we modeled it in-house."

Breaking down the T-13 shot.

Ground environments and landscapes were based on satellite photography sourced from the U.S. Geological Survey. "It's a huge dataset," says Moggach. "Some of the textures for the ground ended up being 48K in size. Our mountains also used the image and height data, and even infrared data from the satellite photography."

Step 4: Don't try and do everything straight away in comp

A feature of the spot is the degraded look in the more historically-centered imagery. GenArts Sapphire lens flare plugins for Nuke and film looks were relied on heavily here, but Moggach says he also pushed for artists not to make everything look perfect in the comp, at least initially.

See befores and afters of the F-18 and clouds.

"What I do with my CG stuff is, the first thing I focus on is making something look as real as possible," relates Moggach. "Say by following a flat lighting setup. Then let's render it in OpenEXR so we have the latitude in linear float space. Then that gets treated so that now we have this photoreal CG, by say pretending it's an old film stock."

"I really pushed my compositors to not do everything in one step," adds Moggach. "So at first we might see the color of the ground in a black and white shot. We literally start by painting everything as if it is real and even texturing the planes as if they're color. Then we see what it should look like as it's being degraded by say an old shutter, as if we were finding the old footage from somewhere."

Step 5: Remember it's a commercial
The space shuttle takes flight.

Although Moggach drew on real-world reference to achieve much of the look of the planes and environments, he was always conscious of the spot needing to play theatrically. This extended to the stereoscopic 3D, which was delivered at 2K, although the spot was also rendered at 4K using the left eye. And in addition to the sometimes accentuated stereo, 'Escape From This World' evolves from mono to full 7.1 surround sound to match the modernization of the aircraft.

"We really needed to use all of our depth budget for the stereo," says Moggach on how the 3D played a role in the commercial, which his team worked on for just over four months. "We wanted to push everything as far as it can possibly be - every shot needed to have value and be art directed - it's an ad!"

Credits

Client: Cineplex
Prod. Co.: Spy Films
Executive Producer: Carlo Trulli
Director: Arev Manoukian
Producer: Marcus Trulli

VFX: Dashing Collective
Creative Director: Robert Moggach
VFX Producer: Mary Anne Ledesma
CG Supervisor: Sebastian Bilbao
CG Lighting: Aylwin Fernando
CG Animator: Robert Moggach
FX Technical Director: Robert Moggach
Snd Design: BoomBox Sound
Sound Designer: Roger Leavens
Executive Producer: Umber Hamid


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