Creature features: VFX in TVCs

No longer just the domain of films or television shows, photorealistic and fantastical creatures are now main-stays in commercials. In this TVC round-up, we look at the creation of several creatures and characters in recent ads – from dinosaurs to dragons, Easter bunnies and even…avalanches.

Method makes a mountain monster

At first thought it might not seem like a creature, but the avalanche created for this Coors Light spot by Method Studios is certainly one of the spot’s main characters. We talk to Method Studios creative director Gil Baron about the CG simulations required, and you can also check out a breakdown of the work below.

Watch the final spot.

Utilizing Method’s worldwide locations, ‘Avalanche’ spanned work across 4 time zones, with matte painting in London and LA, effects and effects compositing in New York and Chicago (which was designated ‘home base’), practical compositing in Los Angeles and Chicago, tracking and integration in Detroit and elsewhere.

Live action plates were captured across several mountain ranges and glaciers in Alaska, where Method also collected survey data. “The Knik glacier, the Valdez glacier and glacial lake, and the Chugash mountain ranges were some of the amazing locations we shot in,” says Gil Baron. “Most of the surveys, such as they were, took place via helicopter, as every chance I had to either sit in the primary camera helicopter, or chase behind in one of the follow choppers. Sometimes when principal photography was shooting practicals in close up, production would free up one of the choppers for me to take another photo excursion and survey the immediate surroundings or go back somewhere we’d been previously, and since we were hopping sometimes to 2 or more locations per day I spent a lot of time seeing Alaska from the air.”

For the avalanches, Baron looked initially to a science museum exhibit on the subject. “Ultimately we tracked down the dvd and got to learn about the physics and mechanics of avalanches,” Baron says. “Similarly we studied hours of backcountry snowboarding videos like the Further series featuring Jeremy Jones, each dvd of which had at least one unplanned avalanche filmed from a helicopter. Once we had begun to piece together the edit we were able to point to specific pieces of these references and our practical photography and pick out specific nuances and say ‘like this’. Of course our spot being cinematic and concise we had to take some liberties in service to exciting storytelling.”

Watch Method’s breakdown for the spot.

At Method, FX TD Gonçalo Cabaça began R&D into snow avalanches using Houdini well before shooting took place. “Production was gracious and shot the helicopter avalanche day on our first day of filming (not a bad way to start) which gave us a running lead on finding the look to match,” says Baron. “The director Dave Meyers and I combed through the footage on location and made selects that we thought were the most compelling and I relayed this pre edit back to Gonzo to start dialing in our elements to match.”

“He and I went back and forth with different pieces and placements throughout edit and beyond,” adds Baron, “trying to place sims into shots as early in the process as possible and ultimately settled on several sims combined to let us tell the bigger and smaller stories of each shot. Really it became a process of back and forth, dialing the look of each element of each sim as we went. Getting bits of debris, tendrils of trailing avalanche in addition to the liquified masses were just some of the nuances that we honed in on during our process.”

Compositing was lead by supervisor Ryan Urban. “Each day of shooting presented wildly different light and terrain situations so establishing a visual cohesion across all the shots, and finding ways to connect jumps in time without feeling chopping or disconnected were probably the biggest show challenges,” notes Baron. “Bruno Fukumothi, our lead flame, worked on gluing the whole world together and additionally making sure that the ‘practical’ shots at the end of the spot which also had a fair bit of visual effects didn’t let down the avalanche that came before. Some of the exterior shots were only possible on GoPro cameras so this of course created rolling shutter and colorspace challenges.”

Added details included reflections in the rider’s goggles and some ‘pushing and pulling’ of ground and sky planes. “For example,” explains Baron, “on the profile panning jump shot of the snowboarders we tried to position the back avalanche so it could have hot sun pings on the sunny side but carry across to the more flatly lit near ground with some shadows on the contact edge, so that when you watch it it’s connected to its world across the whole frame. We also looked for geography in our shots where we could add the sort of secondary avalanche splashes that not only make things more exciting, but also literally ground the effects back into the plate. Ryan and Bruno added some extra flaring, and some snow splashes on the lens in some of the closer shots to add an extra layer of ‘being there’ believability which helps connect the viewer into the space and to help sell the effect at large.”


Creative Director: Gil Baron
Executive Producer: Krystina Wilson/Stuart Robinson
Production Coordinator: James Babiarz/Carlos Herrera
FX TD: Goncalo Cabaca/Andreu Lucio
CG Supervisor: Doug Luka/Linas Jodwalis
Lead Flame Artist: Bruno Fukumothi
Compositing Supervisor: Ryan Urban
Nuke Compositor: Nick Dauphinais/Daniel Pernikoff
CG Generalist: Yuri Serizawa
Flame Assist: Ryan Wood
Roto: David Marte

There be (Pixomondo) dragons

For a Time Warner Cable spot aimed at highlighting access to shows on any device, TWC and agency Ogilvy and Mather launched a campaign in which a small dragon searches for its Queen in a large impersonal city – referencing the incredibly popular HBO Game of Thrones series (which has just started its third season). The dragon shots were realized by visual effects supervisor Leslie Ekker who oversaw work by Pixomondo. One of that studio’s key visual effects for the show are the dragons created out of the Frankfurt facility. Pixo’s Burbank facility worked on the TWC spot since it was geographically closer to the agency.

A live action shoot took place in Johannesburg, South Africa directed by Ne-O, out of the London based production house (of) Skunk. “The live action team had a puppet created which was an accurate stand-in for the digital character,” says Ekker. “This puppet was used to frame each shot, puppeteered for action scenes. This ensured accurate timings and compositions for the character, and gave the camera team, the agency, editor and client something visible to evaluate each setup.”

“When a satisfying take was shot (on film with an Arri 435, through a set 5 of newly designed Zeiss lenses, 21mm through 100mm, all F1.2, all exactly the same physical size! Incredible, right?),” Ekker adds, “a matching clean pass was captured as the VFX plate. Camera data was written on the back of every slate, and was filmed with each slated take, ensuring perfect correlation of tracking data with the footage.”


Ekker shot sets of HDR stills for every set-up, capturing lighting and environment for the render team. He also drew diagrams with extensive measurements, shot surface textures, and reference stills for the best possible integration at home. “It’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it!,” he says.

A late request (from HBO) to include Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) from the show was fulfilled by shooting a plate in Johannesburg, with ultra-solid documentation, and then later shooting Clarke in London on greenscreen to match. “Pixo then combined and integrated the performance select into the location plate and created a hybrid plate with some clean-up, for the closing shot of the spot,” explains Ekker.


Back in Los Angeles, Ekker then prepared HDRs, stills and integration data sheets. Once the cut was perused, some further live action elements were filmed to be comp’d into the spot, including three different dripping water setups to match specific shots, and a falling leaf to be added to a landing shot, for better integration between CG animation and live action.

The Burbank team, using the Frankfurt offices intricately built dragon model, relied on Maya for animation and rendering in V-Ray. A strongly photo-real look was required since the dragon character had never before been seen so close to camera. “This presented some challenges, to be surmounted with careful depth-of-field and lens artifacting added,” notes Ekker. “The HDRs were saturated to match the color correction look given to the plates, so the renders needed very little color correction in the comps. This reduced noise and made for better realism, while speeding the comp phase of the show.”


got4Agency: Ogilvy & Mather New York
Client: Time Warner Cable
Executive Creative Director: Tommy Henvey
Group Creative Director: Dustin Duke
Group Creative Director: Jon Wagner
Executive Producer: Patti McConnell
Producer: Meg McCarthy
Post Producer: Dana Thompson
Director: Ne-o
Executive Producer: Matt Factor
Executive Producer: Shelly Townsend
Producer: Juliet Naylor
Director of Photography: Franz Lustig
Editor: Tim Thornton Allan
Editorial: Marshall Street
Producer: Sara Mills

got1VFX Supervisor: Leslie Ekker
VFX Executive Producer: John Denis
VFX Producer: Eddie Bonin
VFX Coordinator: Kim Rampaul
CG Supervisor: Eric Hance
Animation Director: Colin Brady
Lead Animator: Eric Armstrong
CG Lead: Mark Shimer
Animator: Nicole Herr
Modeler: Dan Katcher
Rigging/Anim/Pipeline Character TD: Bradley Mullennix
Lead Compositor: Ben Campanero
Compositor: Brooke Grossmann
Compositor: Shawn Ewashko
Matchmove Lead: Zachary Miller
Matchmove Artist: Joshua Graham
Render Pipeline TD: Jennifer Hachigian
Systems Support: Lap Luu
I/O Render Wrangler: Whan Je
Render Wrangler: Andrea Jamiel
VFX Production Assistant: Jonny Valdivia

Pixomondo Frankfurt
Consulting VFX Producer: Oliver Arnold
Consulting CG Artist – Frankfurt: Philip Meyer
Consulting Character TD – Frankfurt: Florian Friedmann

Tippett Studio does dinosaurs

The Buick Encore is designed as luxury small car and to help promote its convenient size but extra features, agency Leo Burnett and production company Tool turned to Tippett Studio for creature VFX of the dino-variety. And the studio was certainly well-placed to provide them, having been one of the crucial collaborators on the dinos for Jurassic Park. We talk to visual effects supervisor Eric Leven about the ‘Dinosauria’ spot.

In the commercial, the dinosaurs are there to simulate the giant SUVs on the road. The agency had Tippett Studio do a test with a triceratops. “They were just going to be lumbering dinosaurs,” outlines Eric Leven, “and the other thing they wanted to make sure there were no meat eating dinos so that they weren’t threatening – which was funny for us because we would have loved to have done a tyrannosaurus rex.”

The studio carried out some general previs based on rough storyboards, and, it turned out, visual effects art director Mark Dubeau also happens to be one of the “preeminent dinosaur experts in the visual effects field,” according to Leven. This meant Tippett Studio was able to offer several views on the final look and movement of the creatures.


The spot was lensed by DOP Robert Richardson (JFK, The Aviator, Hugo). Of course, no real or even large enough stand-ins could serve on set for the dinosaurs. Leven did bring with him monster sticks, but the most useful tool became three toy dinosaurs. “We would throw them in front of the lens like a little forced perspective thing – so everyone could agree, yep, that’s where the dinosaurs had to be.”

The plates were filmed with choreographed car and pedestrian action, with Tippett Studio acquiring HDRs and photo reference. Buick provided a CAD model of their vehicles that would later be used for reflection passes. For shots such as the stegosaurus hitting the fire hydrant, the water was filmed as a separate pass. “But we didn’t have greenscreen that was tall enough,” says Leven, “so our poor compositing supervisor had to extract that water from one plate and put it back into another plate.”


The dinosaurs were modeled in ZBrush and Mudbox and animated in Maya. “We passed the vector displacement data through shaders that we’d written to RenderMan so that we could take a low resolution model and displace it so we didn’t have to deal with these crazy heavy models in the rig,” explains Leven. Tippett Studio also took advantage of muscle and skin work completed for Ted and the upcoming After Earth.

This was also the studio’s first foray into using Katana. “It’s a great tool for getting stuff from an animation package to the renderer,” says Leven. “That’s the one piece of the puzzle which hasn’t really been addressed by commercial software very well.

In terms of animation, the ‘movie dinosaur’ look was followed, although certain pieces of movement had to be delivered to sell the idea of some ‘lumbering’ SUVs. “I really like we could take that Apatosaurus in the middle of the road,” says Leven, “and try to make that look like it had to do a u-turn and couldn’t so instead had to do a three-point turn.”



Agency – Leo Burnett
Production Company – Tool
Director – Erich Joiner
EPs – Dustin Callif, Brian Latt, Oliver Fuselier
Visual effects – Tippett Studio
VFX Supe – Eric Leven
VFX Producer – Ken Kokka
Art Director – Mark Dubeau
CG Supervisor – Charles Rose
Animation Supervisor – Tom Gibbons
FX Animation Supervisor – Joseph Hamdorf
VFX Editor- Mike Cavanaugh
Modelers – Jack Kim & Will Kalkanis-Ellis
Painters – Alison Farmer & Kristen Borges
Character Riggers – Eric Jeffrey, Jeff Woo, Alex Wells
Matchmovers – Eric Marko, Kirk Larkins, Chris Paizis, Jessica Hee
Animators – Tracie Horie, Chuck Duke, Mark Powers
Technical Directors – Brad Fox, Dave Gutman, Raymond Ribaric
Compositiors – Jordan Schilling, Youjin Choung
Roto/Paint – Dave Sullivan

Fin’s Easter delivery

Just in time for Easter, this Cadbury spot with a CG bunny ran in Australia with visual effects from Fin Design + Effects. The ad was directed by Michael Spiccia of GoodOil Films in collaboration with the creative team of Wassim, Jon & Matt at Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney. Watch the ad below and the making of.

Watch the final spot.

CG supervisor and Lead Stuart White, together with visual effects supervisor and composite lead, Nick Ponzoni, embarked on a comprehensive R&D phase which had to appear as though it was practically captured in camera. The spot was previs’d and during filming a prop bike was pushed through each shot to establish composition, timing and focus marks. A real rabbit pelt draped over a gray ball was also filmed on set to aid in lighting.

Fin used Yeti, by Peregrine Labs, to create the fur texture, combined with V-Ray for rendering. Yeti relies on a procedural graph editor integrated within Maya’s interface, with modifiers such as Comb, Scraggle, Texture and Instance able to ‘groom’ hair. The final bunny and bike elements were comp’d on Flame with grading in Lustre and Flame.

Watch Fin’s breakdown.


Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney
Director: Michael Spiccia via Goodoil Films
DOP: Crighton Bone
Executive producer: Juliet Bishop
Editor: Peter Schiberras
Art director: Annie Beauchamp

Visual effects: Fin Design + Effects
Executive Producer: Billy Becket
Modeler: Tim Streets
Rigger: Gerard Ommen Kloeke
Animator: Duncan MacLaren
Fur Specialist / Groomer: Tom Corbett
Pipeline TD: Mark White
CG Supervisor / Lead: Stuart White
Compositing/color grading: Nick Ponzoni and Michael Smith

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