It was the most watched Super Bowl ever – with 111.5 million viewers – and the 2014 event’s ads received not only high exposure during the game but also online. We break down three of the most popular commercials for Kia, AAA and Audi, and the visual effects teams from Digital Domain, MPC and The Mill who were behind them.
Kia – The Truth
Carl Erik Rinsch directed this Matrix-inspired spot called ‘The Truth’ for Kia’s new K900 luxury sedan. In it, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) takes a couple on a wild – and musical – ride through the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Digital Domain handled the visual effects work which ranged from in-car comps, dramatic swirling vehicles that rip up buildings, and even Morpheus’ trademark glasses.
Effects scope: “Setting up the fun ride was all about getting you to that place where the cars are launched in the air,” notes Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Eric Barba, “but there was also a lot of work up front that was invisible. We basically touched nearly every single shot in the spot to some degree.”
Shooting: Director Rinsch felt that filming the car scenes on a process trailer would be too cumbersome, so the interiors were captured on a sound stage against bluescreen. Exterior backgrounds were then filmed in downtown LA.
Reflective: Morpheus’ glasses proved to be a tricky component of the spot, since they were effectively 100 per cent reflective and acted like wide-angled lenses. “When we shot him,” recounts Barba, “he got to wear the actual glasses from the film. Immediately of course it reflects the camera and crew and craft services in the corner! So we had to create a 3D version of those glasses which get tracked perfectly on his head. Then we put a camera in position where his head was on the bluescreen for the interior reflections, and then we have a camera at the same height on a pursuit arm driving through downtown LA. That gives us a background and a foreground and you do a pre-comp and essentially create the reflection pieces that go through those glasses.”
Ramping up: The initial wave of elevated cars is introduced only subtly until Morpheus’ surprise singing achieves its crescendo – then Digital Domain’s 2D and 3D work also had to step up. “As soon as we got the first plates back we did tracks to establish the foreground camera position inside the car,” says Barba, “then did rough lineups with the exteriors, and then literally started dropping CG cars on the plates to get a rough idea of what it’s going to look like.”
DD also cleaned up some street views and, in addition to the CG cars, added CG building parts, light posts and shadows. The top-down ripple effect shot as the cars zoom through was a mostly all-CG effort. “I wanted to start with a real plate,” says Barba, “but because of the logistics and the time we had, we just couldn’t shoot a real plate from a real building. The guys built everything in 3D using some parts from previous commercials and we also generated some shockwave elements to help bring it together.”
Flying cars: One interesting – and important – component became the actual make and model of the background cars. “Early on,” recalls Barba, “we talked about using these other luxury brands, and this new K900 is essentially a competitor to the traditional luxury brands. On the Super Bowl and other spots you can’t really disparage other brands, so the conversation became we need generic luxury cars – but we had to work out what that meant. In the end we took another Kia car and we genericized it for the shots.”
Sparks will fly: As the cars are thrown down the street, they collide with buildings and light posts that cause numerous spark outs, with the majority generated by DD. “We did shoot one real explosion of a light post that was rigged by the special effects team on location,” explains Barba. “That became the guide for what the other sparks should look like so everything matched. That was a testament to our effects artists but also lighting and compositing team. The sparks are not only reflected in the car paint and the windshield but they’re also putting out light so it feels like they’re lighting up the vehicle.”
Final voice: One shot in the commercial is a close-up of Morpheus’ mouth as he hits a major note. Asked if his artists helped enhance Fishburne’s voice, Barba notes that that shot was “all in-camera. They filmed that with an air-canon at high speed and it looks fantastic. Probably not very comfortable though!”
AAA – Emma
AAA’s Super Bowl spot is a collection of frozen moment vignettes that tells the story of a father-daughter relationship, traversing through life moments such as a wedding, hiking trip and even some catastrophes. Directed by Michael Spiccia of Arts & Sciences and The Richards Group, ‘Emma’ features visual effects from MPC LA.
The concept: MPC played a key role in previs’ing the frozen moments so that the production would be well-informed of the spot’s final look. “I was given pretty much free reign to knock something up,” says MPC LA visual effects supervisor Mike Wynd, who shared duties with Jake Montgomery. “And then (the director) Michael come back in at the end of the day and give a few comments.
The shoot: Filmed in LA over four days, the creative team followed the previs closely. At one point, Wynd loaded up the Maya scene to help with measurements too, but the animatics were mostly used to help with timings.
Most of the frozen moments were captured with either a 20 foot to 40 foot Technocrane. The wedding scene was filmed on a dolly. In order to realize a moment ‘in-camera’ an initial take was carried out, and then certain actions were helped with subtle, or sometimes substantial rigging. “We’d do a take and then throw in a c-stand or other stand or rig them from above,” explains Wynd. “We kept the support poles as thin as possible to help with paint-outs, and we did do some clean plates but it wasn’t a motion control shoot, so it was still a lot of work in clean-up.”
CG elements: Certain elements were computer-generated, including water, dust, smoke and even confetti. For the stream of water from the fireman’s hose, MPC created a fluid sim in Houdini, then brought the mesh in Maya for rendering in Arnold. The ballet includes added fog effects from Maya Fluids. “As the camera comes around you get that winking of the light as it passes by her dress,” describes Wynd. “That was all light passing through 3D volumetrics and it worked beautifully.”
Comp: In addition to clean-up work, a few shots required greenscreen compositing such as the hiking moment. There was also challenging work due to the moving camera. “In the scene where the girl runs away with the hose,” says Wynd, “the move around her was almost nodal, and it was so close to being so that the guys had enormous trouble patching out the grass at her feet and getting rid of the c-stand underneath her.”
End-game: Wynd notes that the spot is full of small details that “helped the dimensionality of each shot and help the fact that it was a frozen moment. But because it is a frozen moment, every frame gets scrutinized, so we had to put in more detail than perhaps we would do on a more moving action commercial. We also get time to focus on building all that detail into it.”
Audi – Doberhuahua
Suggesting that when people compromise that things can take a whole new turn, the Audi A3 ‘Doberhuahua’ spot features a Chihuahua crossed with a Doberman Pinscher. Director Noam Murro from Biscuit Filmworks called on The Mill to bring the dis-proportioned canine to life as it wreaks minor havoc around the neighborhood.
Planning and previs: The Mill came on early to rough out concept and a 3D previs – necessary so that the dog’s large-headed proportions could properly be imagined in the shots. After shooting, the studio also contributed postvis, again to place their CG character in the shots to help with editing.
Shooting: Although real dogs were clearly used for reference of the final character, on set the production had a scale replica of The Mill’s 3D Doberhuahua model for framing and a roll of fur for light interaction reference. “We felt that it would too cumbersome or prohibitive to have a dog on set and try and get it into every scene,” says The Mill’s 2D lead artist James Allen. “It wouldn’t really be an exact representation. So we had the roll of fur dropped into every scene along with a chrome ball that showed us the fall of light which helped us enormously in CG and compositing.”
The Mill’s VFX team developed a slick routine for each setup. “We would put our maquette dog in there to frame up and roll a little bit of film,” explains 3D Lead Artist Gawain Liddiard. “They’d shoot that scene and just before wrapping we’d then shoot a chrome ball, our matte gray 18% ball and then our fur reference. And we also shot a HDRI from the reference point of where the dog was meant to be in the scene.”
One of the trickiest scenes to shoot involved the Doberhuahua grabbing onto Sarah McLaughlan’s guitar on the couch. “To puppeteer the guitar,” says Liddiard, “we had a string attached and then a weight attached to the string to get the weight right of the dog so she had something to fight against. It still required a lot of clean-up and it was also a challenge to fit the dog spatially in that confined space on the couch.”
Dog-building: The Doberhuahua was crafted in Mudbox and Zbrush, before passing to modelling and rigging in Maya. “We built the dog from the inside out with a dog skeleton,” describes animation lead Jacob Bergman, “starting out conforming it to the unique proportions of the Doberhuahua but then keeping the anatomy correct with the right joint shapes for example. Then we built an entire muscle that mirrored a real muscle system but re-proportioned for this dog’s crazy big head. Then we ran some skin and muscle sim over the top of the animations to give it a little bit of extra life and jiggle.”
“Then,” adds Liddiard, “we also took that back to modeling phase and used the muscle layout to help define where the muscles protruded through the skin the model. So we re-sculpted all the bumps and so on on the shoulders where that was required.”
Faking fur: Although the Doberhuahua had only short fur, The Mill created a fur sim workflow that gave them a fair degree of flexibility. “We would do the animation and simulate the muscles on the animation rig which would give a certain level of definition to the skin,” says Liddiard. “We would pass that animated skin over to our simulation team who would run an nCloth sim in Maya of the skin for secondary motion. That would sometimes create strange little anomalies that we didn’t want so we did some bespoke shot sculpting.”
“Then we passed that from Maya to Houdini where we applied guide curves for a fur layer,” continues Lilliard. “For really close-up shots we could actually simulate the fur. But it was so short we didn’t always need to simulate the fur. Sometimes reducing the number of hairs created a slicker, nicer look to the dog. The fur sims were brought back into Maya and then rendering done in Arnold using an in-house shader that gave us interesting controls over the color contribution that fur picks up as it’s hit by light. We found that a lot of the white patches of fur became muddy and dirty, but we could adjust this.”
Animation: Reference for the Doberhuahua’s movements came from a day of shooting with dog trainers in which three cameras captured a set of actions. The team then roto-mated much of this for their first pass before adjusting the performance to match the oversized proportions. “Trying to get his gait correct and his balance was pretty tricky given his big giant head,” notes Bergman. “We would start with an actual dog’s roto and then would add a little bit of extra correction in the walk and balance, and would have the feet in front plant a little harder than a normal dog’s would.”
“The tongue itself had about 100 controls just to get that unique shape of the dog tongue,” adds Bergman. “Looking at reference on high speed film we were just blown away by the amount of movement that happens in the tongue when dogs lick and shake.”