Every so often a commercial comes along that not only connects with the audience in the message it is trying to communicate, but also in the way the message is delivered. A recent stunning example is Thomson’s ‘Simon the Ogre’, a Fredrik Bond-directed piece from production company Sonny London for agency BMB that explores the benefits of taking a trip away from the daily grind. In it, the central character transforms from monster to man while on holiday with his family. That story was told using a unique and collaborative combination of prosthetic effects and digital work by Realise Studio. We find out - step-by-step - from Realise’s creative director Jordi Bares how it was done.

Step 1: Methodology: real character or CG?

A clear challenge for the production was realizing the ogre character on screen and allowing the performance to hit all the right emotional moments. The answer lay in a hybrid approach, where a suited up actor would perform scenes in an incredible prosthetic suit, with Realise carrying out facial enhancements. Having the actor in the shot and in make-up ultimately brought to the commercial what Bares describes as “magic moments we would have not ever dreamt of nor could could we have animated it out of nothing.”

See work in progress clips for one of the shots.

Step 2: CG design first

Concepts for Simon the Ogre were created in ZBrush and then Photoshop by sculptor and anatomist Scott Eaton before any real prosthetics were made or shooting had occurred. The idea was that then everyone would be on the same page. “This was not a random drawing,” notes Bares, “but a carefully carved, anatomically correct, depiction of the process of ‘ogrification’ that would make this a magical gentle creature in a credible way that was also very close to the actor and therefore would retain his movement signatures. In other words, we designed the ogre from the inside of the actor out.”

Scott continued to give notes later on sculpts of Simon.
Eaton continued to give notes later on sculpts of Simon.

Step 3: Molding the character

In London, a mold of the actor, James Rose, was 3D scanned and then sent to Los Angeles where the prosthetics crew headed by Vincent Van Dyke began their work. Eaton’s design was also refined in parallel to include details such as skin, pores and wrinkles acquired from the 3D scan.

A collection of images showing the molding process.
A collection of images showing the molding process.

The team from Realise met with Van Dyke to continue the design process for what would be the head, hands and skin suit, especially for the small details. “For this, Scott prepared videos explaining the thinking behind these requests and we did a 3D print of our CGI model for their reference,” says Bares. “The prosthetics team advanced rapidly toward the final version, which was great because time was critical and the shoot was fast approaching. We had a cut-off point where we could not change things or we would miss the shoot.”

A comparison between mold and CG sculpt.
A comparison between the real and CG sculpt.

Step 4: In the frame

Filming took place in London and then Crete. On set, several kinds of prosthetics were used for filming. Some days a full make-up appliance was employed with a prosthetic mask and some shots relied on an opening in the face to capture the performance.

To help enable the later CG animation and augmentation, the crew, collected per-shot technical information, lighting reference and photographic surveys. Bares says: “Managing this was crucial and it took quite a bit of time after every day providing a full report of what was happening with photos, maps etc.”

A shot showing the actor wearing a partial facial appliance.
A shot showing the actor wearing a partial facial appliance.

The conditions for the actor were very trying - 2 hours of application and then another 12 on set where it could be between 30 to 35 degrees Celsius. Production had a cooling tent on location with medical supervision teams on standby. “I think he was relieved to make the final run into the ocean rendering the suit unusable afterwards,” mentions Bares. “In the end we were all pleased that a successful, but long and hard week in Crete was complete.”

Step 5: Replicating Simon

Several elements had to come together in post in order to bring Simon the Ogre to life. First were refinements to the the CG head based on the 3D prosthetic scan, along with concurrent work on the skin shader. A photographic shoot carried out by Aviv Yaron in London also took place to acquire textures to work with in MARI.

The textured Simon and size comparisons.
The textured Simon and size comparisons.

Animation-wise, Realise pre-rigged the face in Maya, but Bares notes the studio’s initial review of the rig led to more work being necessary. “We went back to the drawing board to get the most out of the amazing sculpts from Scott,” he says. “The approach was simple, lots of shapes and clever blending all based on FACS. The rig allowed for extra finesses, specially on the lips.”

Animators looked of course to the plates shot in London and Crete for reference, as well as additional facial mocap reference captured later that would serve for scenes of the ogre in a full mask.

Watch the facial mocap reference.

A key area that had to be solved was the neck connection between the CG renders and the prosthetic. “For this, FX TD Louis Dunlevy devised a method for both pinning the CG neck to the body but also to use the very latest FEM tools in Houdini 13 to have very realistic skin simulation. With this in our arsenal and the first tests delivered we were already making huge progress", explains Bares.

A Houdini screenshot.
A Houdini screenshot.

Step 6: Expressions

In a move that reflected the high confidence Realise and the production had in their CG ogre, shots requiring clear expressions on the creature were done as complete CG faces (i.e. not just re-projections). “This lead to shots like the towel shot being promoted to full 3D mask, the arrival to the hotel, in the office on the keyboard, etc,” says Bares. “The extra amount of work was carefully considered and we saw it was safe to take it on given the cut had less shots than we had originally anticipated, so the overall net result was that we did much more but not double the work.”

See some work in progress shots for the towel scene.

Step 7: Extra details

In addition to Simon, Realise also created a new facade for the hotel and resort. “We camera mapped the wall and made a minor design change to make sure we could see more whilst fundamentally keeping the resort and hotel intact,” describes Bares. Other visual effects duties include enhancing the environment through matte paintings, prosthetic clean-up work, plus scaling the filmed Ogre around 20 per cent up, making Simon a much larger presence across all shots. Final compositing was carried out in NUKE and Flame.

Watch a scale up test.

“The root of the idea was to help the story by allowing the character to perform in front of the camera as opposed to putting him there in post,” says Bares, reflecting on the journey that was Simon the Ogre. “We also aspired to make sure the actor felt this was his own skin by having the best prosthetic suit we could get and enable the Cinematographer and the Director to extract a true performance, to explore situations, discover the character coming to life, influence the other actors and make sure his presence was truly felt.

Credits

This outline drawing shows where the real actor would fit into the prosthetics.
This outline drawing shows where the real actor would fit into the prosthetics.

Agency:
Creative Directors: Sir Trevor Beattie (ECD), Gavin McGrath (CD)
Creatives: Christopher Keatinge and Dan Bennett
Producers: Gemma Fergie, James Bolton

Production Company:
Director: Fredrik Bond
Producer: Sara Cummins
DOP: Ben Smithard
Production Manager: Natalie Isaac
First AD: Chris Kelly
Prosthetics: Vincent Van Dyke

Edit:
Editor: Tim Thornton Allan
Assist: Alex Williams
Assist: Phil Hignett

Sound:
750 Mph
Mixer: Andy Humphreys

Realise Credits
Creative Director: Jordi Bares
CGI Lead: Amir Bazazi
2D Lead: Ally Burnett
Producer: Paul Schleicher, Gavin Gregory

Ogre head geo.
Ogre head geo.

3D
Ben Blundell - 3D Lighting
Louis Dunlevy - FX TD
Michele Fabbro - 3D Lighting
Rob Van Den Bragt - Animator
Janek Lender - Animator
Henry South - Texturing
Simon Payne - Rigger
Greg Malkin - Tracking and Matchmoving
Christina Mandia - Tracking and Matchmoving
Denis Baudin - Modelling
Rainer Stolle - Matte Painter

2D
Paul Downes - Flame Assist
Rafael Vormittag - Nuke Lead
Stefan Susemihl - Nuke Artist
Alex Snookes - Nuke Artist
Robert "Jacko" Jackson - Nuke Artist
Ross Macpherson - Smoke
Tom Brown - Media Coordinator
Markus Lundqvist - Shoot Supervisor
Carlos Nieto Lopez - Concept Artist
Henrik Holmberg - Concept Artist
Aviv Yaron - Texture Photographer
Mike Tinney - Retoucher


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