A stand-out commercial airing during this year’s Super Bowl was Coca-Cola’s ‘Seige’, featuring a group of evil fire-warriors invading the village of a band of furry, friendly creatures. The Wieden + Kennedy spot was directed by Nexus’ Fx&Mat, with CGI and animation work by Framestore. We talk to Framestore’s visual effects supervisor Diarmid Harrison-Murray.
fxg: This definitely feels like a Super Bowl spot – can you talk about your brief for ‘Seige’?
Harrison-Murray: Our brief really was to create a ludicrously epic film. They wanted it to be filled with lots of detail and little nuances of environment modeling and animation. It had to feel epic in terms of content, but then in terms of style they wanted it to have a nice mix of Lord of the Rings style epic-ness, but also with lighthearted humour. We had to strike a balance between those two.
fxg: What kind of concept designs were you working off?
Harrison-Murray: In terms of the visual brief, the directors and client wanted it to have a painterly feel. They wanted to feel like concept or fantasy art, and to avoid it looking too crisp or CG. In terms of concepts and characters, Fx&Mat had guys working out of Nexus who supplied us with really excellent 2D character designs for most of the main characters.
fxg: How was it storyboarded or previs’d?
Harrison-Murray: When we first took on the job, there was just a treatment and some mood boards with some artwork we liked the look of. They produced some storyboards, but we got straight into previs’ing it with Fx&Mat working at Framestore. We previs’d it over two weeks, but nothing had actually been built yet, so we were grabbing generic characters out of our library and proxying up set geometry as quickly as we could. It wasn’t ideal, but when you look at the final previs and what we finally made in the end, it was pretty close.
fxg: Can you talk about the pipeline you used at Framestore in terms of the animation?
Harrison-Murray: Well, we started in November of last year and finished at the end of January. In some ways we had to break it down kind of like they would on a film project into hero characters, crowd effects and environments. Our hero characters were hand-animated. We made sure we got the hero animation done before Christmas to a stage where it was approved, so coming back in January we could hit the ground running in terms of rendering and comp’ing. Most of the hero stuff was all coming through Maya and rendered in mental ray.
fxg: What were some of the challenges in terms of animating the hero characters?
Harrison-Murray: I think the hardest characters in terms of getting from concept art through to an approved turntable were the furry guys. They were obviously really important to the client because they were ultimately the guys who represented Coca-Cola. They were pretty hard to nail because they were furry, which you don’t see until the final work is done – without their fur they can look a bit like a shaved cow! We also had to strike a balance between making them look like a big cat and not too monkey-like and also trying to convey their sense of being good, honest hard-working people.
The dragon was also a big challenge – in terms of screen time he’s pretty ‘hero’ and he gets shot from pretty much every angle. We gave that to one artist who did all the ZBrush and texturing work – a bit of labor of love for him. In terms of the dragon’s deformations and skin, we went for simple art-directable solutions rather than procedural muscle systems. I think we used an in-house plugin for skin slide, but by and large all his nice deformation was achieved through artist-friendly pose-driven corrective blend shapes. That was also true of just about all the facial animation. Fx&Mat loved to see a pose and work out what he should be at maximum shock or maximum frightened, so it was easy to get feedback from them that way.
For the orcs, it was a matter of making sure they fit the concept art and had all the detail. We probably made eight or nine hero, generic orcs. The General was the main character. They were handed off to the crowd guys for them to add variations from the generic ones.
The ice dragon was a tricky one in terms of look dev. We had lots of different kinds of ice, some was clear glassy refractive ice and we did some where we had a volume inside it to give it an opaque look, with lots of little air bubbles inside it. We gave it a refractive surface and filled it with a volume inside and ray traced through that which gave it a nice effect. Then we gave the compers a lot of layers to play around with.
fxg: How did you approach the crowds in the spot?
Harrison-Murray: All the animation for the crowds was motion captured in a little mocap studio here at Framestore. And then we set up a Maya particles system and rendered everything in mental ray. The particles had basic avoidance, but the thing that worked well was seeding – making sure we were seeding enough variation into the textures and geometry. So even though there is duplicated animation and geometry, you never really see the same guy too close together. We built it so that all the information was stored in a spreadsheet that the scripts could be looked up in, and from that we baked out all the necessary cycles and spawned them out into the scene. Each guy in the crowd also had a torch that responded to the animation, which was a soft body solution.
fxg: Can you talk about the effects work and the tools you were using for things like fire and smoke?
Harrison-Murray: All the fireworks, confetti, smoke, fire, dry ice effects coming off the dragon, walls of smoke were done in Houdini. The majority of the torches in the crowd were done in Maya. For close-ups of the torches, we had a more hi-res sim. The footfalls for the crowds were done in Maya. Even the far environments for mountains and trees were done in a random generation tool in Houdini. We outsourced the matte painting work, which included skies, mountains and the buildings to the Painting Practice.
Because Houdini is a volumetric renderer, you don’t have such an ability to fiddle with it in comp, so we had to get the look in the render. We had to massage the settings a little to still get the realistic movement but also get a slightly softer and more painterly feel to the fluid simulations once they were rendered. The fireworks was perfect for Houdini, because it’s very customizable. The burning forest was a true volume rendering but we weren’t using fluid sims for the big banks of smoke. They were particle-based systems instancing onto the particles like 3D volumes, kind of like a sprite system but using proper three-dimensional volumes. We weren’t simulating those so we could shape them in a more art-directable way. Also, when the dragon puts his foot down, there are snow chunks interacting with his feet, which no one probably sees, but they’re in there!
fxg: You mentioned the painterly look the directors were going for – how was that achieved?
Harrison-Murray: Quite early on, we decided to avoid things that you would normally associate with a camera, such as depth of field, motion blur, chromatic aberrations – all those things that are quite lensey and not painterly. We do use them, but we tried to always use them judiciously and not make them an obvious effect. Without depth of field, our main control over getting depth to the shots was adding atmosphere like haze or volumetric rays. That’s how we separated characters from the background or mid-ground or so forth. Generally when you’re looking at fantasy art, people don’t paint depth of field. They’ll just draw your eye to right part of the painting by just hazing off areas of the image.
The route we used for that was in comp. There was quite a blurred boundary between 2D and 3D, and in Nuke we had a real integrated workflow between the lighting TDs and compers. We did generate some volumetrics and mist layers from 3D. We were also painting a lot of it in Nuke – using God ray tools or tracking in additive roto shapes and doing it in a more artist-driven way. We also used depth passes and world space passes to manipulate that work.
fxg: Did that look change over time?
Harrison-Murray: Massaging the palette of colors was not something that happened overnight – it really ran right to the end of the job, and we do it using Nuke. In terms of working with the directors, I would get the matte painters to do a super quick job on a sky or a far mountain range, and get early renders off the 3D guys, and then use Nuke to try to pull together a still frame to get in front of FX&Mat. Their feedback would inform the rendering and other tweaks.
So, slowly and surely, by producing these slap-comp test frames, we were able to refine this look they were after. It often involved degrading and throwing away a lot of the information from the CG. We used more sophisticated ways than just blurring it, but we would take away detail in a way that felt painterly, and trying to nail the color palette that the directors were into. We’d often look at it as a contact sheet as the job progressed, with frames of each shot. Then as we kept working you could see this palette start to emerge was the distinctive look of the spot.
Agency: Wieden + Kennedy Portland
Creative Directors: Hal Curtis, Sheena Brady
Senior Agency Producer: Matt Hunnicutt
Agency Producer: Lindsay Reed
Account Management Supervisor: Ryan Peterson
Production Company: Nexus
Concept Design: Nexus
CGI / Animation: Framestore London
Nexus Directors: Fx & Mat
Nexus ECD: Chris O’Reilly
Nexus Exec. Producer: Julia Parfitt
Nexus Producer: Isobel Conroy
Nexus Production Manager: Claire Thompson
Framestore VFX Supervisor: Diarmid Harrison-Murray
Framestore VFX Producer: Sarah Hiddlestone
Framestore CG Supervisor: Simon French
Framestore Animation Lead: Mike Mellor
Framestore Crowd Lead: Johnny Han
Framestore Composite Lead: Russell Dodgson
Framestore FX Lead: Martin Aufinger
Framestore Telecine: Simon Bourne
Music / Sound Design: Stimmung
Arranger: Robert Miller
Song: 1812 Overture
Music Exec Producer: Ceinwyn Clark
Music Producer: Joey Reyes
Sound Design: Gus Koven
Sound Mix: Lime Studios
Mixer: Loren Silber
Mix Producer: Jessica Locke