How to sell cars: dancing hamsters, singing robots

Here’s a look behind the scenes of two new car commercials for Kia and Citroen, featuring visual effects by Method Studios and The Embassy. Updated with breakdown video.

‘Bring Down the House’ – Kia

One of the most popular commercials from 2011 was the Kia spot ‘Soul’ from agency David & Goliath, in which dancing hamsters took on a legion of dancing robots. We covered the spot here. Now, the hamsters are back in a disco-infused period piece, with even more impressive work by Method Studios. We talk to visual effects supervisor Andy Boyd about ‘Bringing Down the House’, from production company MJZ and director Carl Rinsch.

Watch ‘Bringing Down the House’.

The commercial was filmed by DOP John Matheison (Gladiator) at a theater in Prague, with real dancers wearing oversized clothing and a tracking rig, which was used to replace their heads with CG hamster versions. “They had a head piece they would wear that had tracking markers that we had spec’d out and measured, working in collaboration with Legacy Effects,” explains Boyd. “We actually tracked the whole body because we replaced the hands in most shots, and we were also tracking the body for interactive lighting – when the arm casts a shadow or moves in front of the head.”

Watch Method’s VFX breakdown of the spot.

That approach to tracking, led by Tracking/ Integration Supervisor Fabio Zapata, was just one of the advances Method employed this time around for the dancing hamsters. Another was the modeling of their clothing to help with interaction. “This year we actually modeled and tracked all the clothes quite accurately for all the collar interaction and any kind of indirect lighting or shadowing that comes from the clothes on their faces or heads,” says Boyd. “There were real clothes, but there was a representation of where the clothes were to foreshadow the lighting.”

Hamster fur development was also pushed heavily, with Method utilizing Houdini 12 and the Mantra renderer for more physically-based qualities. “We came up with some clever ways of sampling the plate to help drive the lighting, and automate a few things like that,” outlines Boyd. “We involved a lot more physically based techniques to light the fur. When we did the lighting on the previous commercial with the robots – that was only a year ago – I did a couple of test renders to try and push more of the physical qualities of the render, for example, lighting the fur purely with an HDRI and having a proper indirect diffuse bounce pass – all the subtle tricks to make it look real – but back then the render times were way too long and we couldn’t do it. But Houdini 12 is now so much faster.”

Lasers made integration particularly challenging.

“Our lead lighter, Brian Burke, who pushed the shader development to get the physical qualities – he came up with some clever ways of doing things such as transmissive lighting through the hair,” adds Boyd. “You know how you almost get back lighting or translucency through the hair – he came up with shaders for that using raytracing.”

In addition, the hamsters’ eyes were upgraded from simple spheres to modeled irises and pupils that gave a more human quality. “Last year,” says Boyd, “the eyes were based on a real hamster, and they were like black spheres that were very dark and reflective, and you couldn’t see anything inside them except what was reflected in the environment. This year we kind of cheated, just ever so subtly, and we actually modeled the irises and pupils inside the hamster eyes to get more physical refraction and reflections. And we gave different characters different colored eyes, so the conductor has blue eyes, for example. It just added a little more personality and helped to show where they were looking.”

The hamsters take their vehicle into hyperspace.

A significant challenge was the existence of lasers once the spot takes a decidedly disco turn. “When we were on the set and doing the pre-light,” recalls Boyd, “we looked at how the lasers were interacting with the environment. The DOP said to me, ‘What do you want to do, do you want me to turn these off?’ But I’m so glad we didn’t because firstly we would have had to add CG lasers to all the shots, but just all the subtleties and nuances you got with the lasers reflected off objects – even if you didn’t see a laser in the shot, it would hit something behind the camera and illuminate the object in front of you. There was no way we could ever really re-create that.”

The lasers, however, presented Method with complex fur lighting issues. Whereas in previous jobs they had usually contended with one lighting set-up that stayed the same in the whole shot, now there were completely different lighting environments as soon as the lasers came on. What’s more, lasers were required for a psychedelic sequence in which the hamsters take their vehicle into ‘hyperspace’. “All we filmed for that sequence was a car over black, and all the reflections in the car and the look of the lasers around the car were added as VFX,” says Boyd.

Original plate with head rig for tracking.
Wireframe hamster head.

Method completed crowd duplication, too, for the theater scenes, relying on just over 200 extras to shoot multiple plates with a Canon 5D and then fill the venue by instancing them on cards in Houdini. Method Head of 2D Patrick Ferguson headed the compositing effort in Nuke for the entire TVC.

“This new spot was pretty exciting because the previous one was mostly shot against greenscreen, with matte paintings and CG,” says Boyd. “But for this new one, the very moment we saw the agency boards we saw it was a period piece with really beautiful costumes and live action plates. I always find it more exciting to integrate 3D into a real environment. I’m curious to see what they’ll do next because I’m not sure how we’re going to outdo this one!”

Robot Chorus – Citroen

In ‘Robot Chorus’, a new Citroen spot from Angence H Paris that draws from the popular transformer robot established in earlier commercials, the metallic androids this time join in a ‘Live Aid’-inspired studio session. Having worked on previous incarnations of the Citreon transformer, The Embassy in Vancouver was called on to both deliver production and post-production for the new spot. We found out how they pulled it off.

Watch the Citroen ‘Robot Chorus’ spot.

The TVC was filmed over a day at a real recording studio in Vancouver. “The brief was to follow in the footsteps of all Live-Aid music videos with famous celebrities, actors and musicians,” says David Casey, Creative Director, The Embassy. “In a sense it is a homage to those. In fact, the same studio was used to shoot the Canadian charity video ‘Artists for Haiti’, so we had good reference for our project.”

Duet plate with wireframe.
Raw render.

Nuke screenshot.
Final shot.

To stand in for the CG robots, The Embassy relied on c-stands and crew, including one crew member who was 6’10” and close to the actual height required. “We would frame up with our c-stand or stand-in but would clear the frame before we shot,” says Casey. “With such a short turn-around on this project we wanted a minimum of plate clean-up.” On set surveys and HDRs were also taken.


A mo-cap session was then undertaken, using two of the performers who had appeared in the live-action shoot and so were familiar with the song and motions required. “With the close-up shots,” notes Casey, “we allowed the performers to be a bit freer with their motions and these takes usually turned out for the best. For shots in the crowd with other people we directed them to tone down performances a bit so as to minimize crossover with the performers in the plate. Even things like simple swaying are greatly amplified by a 7′ robot. We also had microphone and guitar props for the performers to interact with.”

Softimage rig.

The Embassy supplied robot geo to the mo-cap studio – Animatrik – in order to see real-time performances via Motionbuilder. “The motion-capture reference videos were cut by our editor as he cut the actual spot, allowing for quick approval before delivery of the actual animation files,” adds Casey. The robots models were created in Modo and XSI, animated in XSI and rendered using Arnold. Compositing took place in Nuke.

Original plate and wireframe.
Final wide shot.

Casey says since the original 2004 Citreon C4 spot, the most significant technological change at The Embassy to help with this kind of work has been the full implementation of a linear pipeline. “Coupled with the developments in digital cinema technology, ARRI Alexa et cetera, the transition of imagery through the pipeline is now seamless,” he says. “Matching captured HDRs to raw plates is now a trivial task. This allows the compositors to ‘hit the ground running’ with less time spent matching renders to plates and more time sweetening the comps.”