Greenscreen to small screen: three great ads

We showcase three great commercials featuring Halo spaceships, a plane fall survival and singing seagulls, with making of breakdown videos and analysis from visual effects supervisors at Method Studios, Alt.vfx and Rhythm & Hues.

The Halo effect

In ‘The Commissioning’, a trailer promo’ing the upcoming Halo 4 game for Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Method Studios delivered space-bound visual effects to depict Master Chief and his crew’s encounter with a new enemy. In the spot, from agency twofifteenmccann, production co. MJZ and director Nicolai Fuglsig, the UNSC Infinity comes under attack from the Maw, with Method completing both interior effects and a space battle before we see Master Chief watching from below.

Watch the Halo 4: The Commissioning spot.

Live action was filmed over two-and-a-half days, with four weeks of post-production. Visual effects supervisor Benjamin Walsh oversaw the efforts of Method artists in LA and Sydney for a 60 sec and 95 sec final. The limited shoot time necessitated re-use and redressing of the Infinity set, with Walsh acquiring as much survey data as he could in the time allotted. “Our head of tracking, Fabio Zapata, scanned all the sets which really helped,” says Walsh. “There’s this orange scan which scans the Infinity spaceship so it was good that he surveyed all that so his team could build basic geo of all the sets. Then it was a lot easier to generate effects passes over that geo and have interaction with the geometry and set.”

Watch a breakdown of Method’s VFX for the Halo 4: The Commissioning.

The orange scan itself was based on the same in-game effect. “There’s a simple scan that goes through things like an orange wall,” says Walsh, “but we wanted something more organic. It’s basically a distorted caustic pattern that we project through effects and runs over the geometry. There were different layers – digital scratchy line, caustic line, a glow element – we combined them all and gave interactive lighting on whatever objects it crossed. Ideally we would try to light objects on set with practical lighting, but we didn’t have time to do that. It ended up being all a post effect.”

A close-up shot of the Infinity.
The ship hologram.

Limited use of HDRIs was made, except for the final Master Chief shot filmed against greenscreen. Instead of tracking markers, Method relied on letters on the greenscreens in the background which means they could know exactly where part of the screen was located. “I also shot extensive photographs,” adds Walsh. “There’s one key hallway that we have and I shot that from different angles, which we could use to cheat backgrounds for matte paintings and make it feel like it’s a different room back there, say.”

Method Design contributed a shot of a rotating ship hologram on the bridge. “We added more detail to the ship model we received from the game makers, and then segmented it out,” explains Walsh. “Then we tried to make it look like there was a self-analyzing scan that the ship was doing of itself and alerting them that something was wrong.” Also added to on-ship shots were anamorphic style lens flares, while on the planet more organic hexagon and star-shaped flares were used.

For the space shots, game developer 343 Industries handed Method Studios in-progress ship models, which we up-res’d and taken to completion. “There were slight differences between our model and their model,” says Walsh. “We added pipes, antennas and small details. Also once we rendered and lit it, we then did another matte painting pass on top to add extra panel detail, and re-projected that back over the top.”

The Infinity gets sucked into the Maw, causing chaos on the ship, and extra pieces of debris and space junk to be drawn in. Says Walsh: “Those shots were previs’d first. We had to add scale to the ship, it’s a six kilometers long. You’d have huge chunks of meteor hit that, but you don’t want the explosion to be too big because it makes the ship look smaller. And when we moved it through the scene really fast and had lots of camera shake, it would make it feel small, so we had to slow everything down and have things in there for scale reference, like smaller ships flying around.”

The Infinity begins being drawn in to the Maw.
Final shot after the pullback.

A pullback from the Infinity of a person screaming to a wide shot of the impending doom began with an on-set plate of the window with a frame around it. “We did the camera move where it pulls back, and then did a back-up locked-off shot to track it into the CG shot if needed,” says Walsh. “Then we added reflections of the meteor chunks in there and we knew once we had some camera shake and turbulence as you’re pulling out of the meteor shower, it would be easy to blend into the CG camera move at that point. We did matte painting projections for close to the ship and a lights on and lights off version, so in 2D we could have some of the lights shut off as the engines shut off. The planet and the hole, the Maw, was all a projected matte painting on a sphere and effects elements for meteor trails, their fire, were placed on top of that.”

Just in case

In ‘Since Today’, a spot for Australian online bank UBank from agency The Monkeys and director Christopher Riggert, a man gets to contemplate life after falling from a plane. Landing in a forest, he encounters some wolves – the bank’s competitors – before a handy wayward suitcase dispatches them from the scene. The ad required visual effects for the plane fall, the forest surroundings and some dog-to-wolf enhancements – all handled by Alt.vfx.

– Above: watch the final spot.

Visual effects supervisor Colin Renshaw had only two and a half weeks after plates were shot to deliver the finals, but was heavily involved in pre-pro. “After we got the boards, we’d liaise with the production company Finch,” he says. “They’d go, ‘We can build a half-set of the plane interior, but we might need rig removal and extensions.’ We talked about how to do the wind and the stunt and debris as the guy gets sucked out of the plane.”

The plane stunt was filmed using a large hydraulic pull-back rig. “It was pretty amazing,” recalls Renshaw. “We had a huge wind machine blowing debris through the cabin. The stunt guy got pulled back – it was a ridiculous amount of meters per second – he bounced off the interior as well. That was pretty convincing. It happened so quickly you could barely see the wire, so there was virtually no wire removal.”

Watch Alt.vfx’s breakdown of the spot.

Alt.vfx completed a head replacement on the stuntman. “I shot the actor’s head walking backwards through the shot so I would get some perspective change on him and then we comp’d that onto the stuntman,” explains Renshaw. “Then we had two camera moves glued together – one where the talent was where the camera was fixed on him and we’d use old-school bumping the camera by the DP to give it shake and have it with extra movement. The second move was the pan-off which was the stunt and we stitched them together. We had to patch the doorway and put curtains back in which got destroyed in the first couple of rehearsals of the stunt.”

From the wire work stunt shoot.

The man spills from the plane – a digital jet model created in Softimage – freefalling with some of the ejected luggage. For backgrounds of the sky and ground planes, Alt.vfx used reference from stills shot outside of plane windows and purchased hi-res imagery. “The skies were a combination of projected backgrounds,” says Renshaw, “but the clouds were done in Nuke using the cloud tank capability it has.” Pieces of flying luggage and debris inside and out of the plane were created in ICE, while the main suitcase was a piece of geo animated in Flame with photo textures from the on-set case.

For scenes of the man holding onto his suitcase and then skydiving downwards, Alt.vfx began approaching these in both 3D and 2D, but the results were not at first convincing. “We went home in a huff not too sure how to fix it,” says Renshaw, “but one of our animators started watching skydiving footage – and she found the latest Star Trek movie which has that great falling sequence. One thing we noticed from that was all the coolest stuff had people on a diagonal and it just gave it a much better sense of speed and jeopardy.”

“We came back to Maya and put the live action on a card and started animating the card as well as the camera separately,” adds Renshaw. “We just went crazy with the snap zooms and really got a sense of speed with the diagonal movement. We created a language of movement. We then took those cameras we made in Maya, and just the cards, and re-projected the live action in comp, and added the clouds.”

The forest shoot.

Production filmed the forest/wolf sequence in a small snow-dressed thicket in a Sydney park, which was then extended by Alt.vfx via a matte painting. The wolves – one is featured in the shorter version of the spot, and two in an extended ad – were actually created from one malamute shot on location. “We ended up rubbing their fur with charcoal and dirtying them up and it turned out pretty well, but on the day of the shoot the likelihood of getting the dog’s performance in camera with the actor was slim,” says Renshaw. “So we ran in a 12×12 green in and rolled on the dog for 10 minutes, letting it growl and giving it stuff to chew, and it was a comp’d shot.”

“One of the two dogs just looked like it would lick you to death – it didn’t look mean at all,” adds Renshaw, “so we ended up doing a head replacement there. We extended the snout, we yellowed up the eyes, added some CG spits and drool and generally made it look more evil and nasty. That’s how we try and roll with production – by just letting whatever happen on the day and augmenting what we can.”

Addicted to bass

When a recent TVC for Cape Cod Potato Chips featuring singing seagulls landed on the airwaves, no one really expected it to be quite such a hit. But the spot, from GKV in Baltimore and directed by Rhythm & Hues’ Tony Petrossian, turned out to a real winner.

– Above: watch the final Cape Cod Potato Chips ad.

In it, the birds sing – appropriately – the A Flock of Seagulls song ‘I Ran’, and strut their musical moves on keyboard, base and drums. What makes the spot so intriguing, perhaps, is that the birds are photorealistic, despite the performances, and feature in harsh seaside sunlight. “The director was very clear from the beginning that the gulls were first and foremost birds,” says R&H visual effects supervisor Nicholas Titmarsh. “He did not want to give them human characteristics or make them caricatures in any way. That’s why the drummer uses his beak rather than holding drum sticks, and the lead singer plays the keyboard with his foot. So they are a band, sure, but they retain their seagull DNA.”

Background plate.
Background plate tracked.
Final shot.

“Because of that,” adds Titmarsh, “there are lots of funny moments in the spot like when the drummer knocks over the cymbal, the way he and the bassist react is all bird. The guitarist even takes a moment to preen himself, but then after a brief pause they leap back into being the band.”

Live action filming for the spot took place at Sycamore Cove in Malibu (the opening of the commercial with the sandy hill and lighthouse is in fact a matte painting). Rhythm & Hues shot video reference of real seagulls on the beach that would later be used by the animators. A stuffie was also present as a back-up but ultimately not relied on for shooting.

CG drums.
CG bass.

“[R+H] Commercials uses the same tools and pipeline as features so we are able to leverage off all the amazing work they do,” notes Titmarsh. “Following on from the work done on Yogi Bear, Life of Pi and other movies, we are now ray tracing our furry characters and so for us the capture of the HDRI and set data is more critical than ever to integrating CG characters into live action. The HDRI gives us our lighting and we only need to add some area lights for any extra fill. It’s very cool to see all the subtleties of the sky and sand color getting bounced back into the birds and their instruments.”

Using the photo reference, Rhythm used its proprietary Voodoo system for modeling, rigging and animation. “We have standardized rig kits for bipeds, quadrupeds and birds,” says Titmarsh. “However, we were very lucky that one of our senior riggers Matt Derksen working with Daniel Lindsey had recently updated the studio bird rig. They had cracked the problem of having a bird land and fold its wings into the standing state, something that had always been a huge headache and we tried to avoid like the plague.”

A final shot.

“This new rig gave us a lot more freedom in the way we could approach the performance of the birds,” continues Titmarsh, “and it really comes into play right at the end when the lead singer jumps up on his keyboard. It was really fun to watch Tony and John Goodman, our Animation Supervisors, act out ‘this is what a gull would do’ moments – it got pretty hilarious to watch them leaping about the room.”