A sad salt shaker, dejected after learning that Knorr’s ‘Sidekicks’ contains 25 per cent less sodium, is the star of ‘Salty’, a David Hicks-directed commercial with visual effects by Toronto-based axyz. Lead animator Dennis Turner and Inferno artist Andres Kirejew talk to fxguide about the challenges of the spot, which included listening repeatedly to Michael Bolton’s ‘How Am I Supposed To Live Without You?’.
Watch making of video – 4 Meg
fxg: I think the stand-out aspect of this commercial is Salty’s performance. How did you approach his look and feel?
Turner: That was one of the pivotal things about the spot – we had this little character called Salty and the audience had to be able to empathise with this guy, especially when he cries his salty tears at the end. As the character animator on the spot, I ended up having to walk a fine line between making Salty perform and emote and keeping him within the realm of being a ceramic salt shaker. Less is more, here.
The main personality inspiration was Charlie Brown – that same dejected, deeply down feeling that he has. And he has a dejected waddle. I’ve actually had people here at the office accuse me of being Salty because I’ve been doing the same dejected waddle. I was able to get into Salty’s headspace and become the character, which is what you want to do as an animator – be the character.
Turner: The initial model was provided to us from a company that had done some online web spots and some still work. We used Side Effects Software’s Houdini for all of our effects work. We took that model into Houdini and added in some detail and more articulation. His legs were a particular challenge, because his feet are twice as long as his legs are tall. So getting that foot and pant area to move in the right manner was really tricky. The lighting and shading was also done in Houdini’s proprietary renderer, Mantra. We used their Physical Based Renderer, or PBR, engine.
fxg: What were some of the things you did in animation to sell Salty’s performance?
Turner: A lot of it is the waddle and the rest of it is the little head turns and head motions he does. A lot of times I would sell a performance just with a little head movement or a little head droop. We also used his ears to advantage to try and sell his mood a little more. We’d droop them a little more, or pick them up if he was feeling a bit better.
fxg: I also like that his little mouth is open the whole time.
Turner: I actually built some rigging tools to allow me to change his mouth shape if I wanted to. We did initially experiment with that, but we realised early on we wanted to leave his face as a porcelain mask. It does two things: it makes him be a salt shaker more; and it allows the audience to put their own emotions in there. The simpler a face is, the more an audience will project their own emotions into the character.
fxg: What kinds of things were done on set to integrate the character into the shots?
Turner: The only thing they really did aside from shoot the plates themselves was shoot a little model of Salty in each shot with each lighting setup. We also shot the silver chrome ball in each scene. That allowed us to dial in the lighting, because we could take the chrome ball, unwrap it and use it as an environment light. That, coupled with the BPR renderer in Houdini, really allowed us to nail the look.
fxg: There’s some nice water interaction in the rain scenes. How was that done?
Turner: The water is little bits of metaball geometry adhered to Salty’s surface. They’re adhered in such a way that we could move them about where needed with some hackery and clever tricks. The rendering of the water drops involved attaching an appropriate shader to them and allowing the BPR renderer to work its magic.
fxg: Was something similar done for the salt that he cries at the end?
Turner: The salt was basically little cube geometry, but they’re so tiny you can’t read them individually. They were rendered much the same way as the water drops. A translucent salt-like shader got stuck on them and they picked up the environment from the sphere.
fxg What were some of the compositing challenges?
Turner: We ended up providing separation mattes for all of these things so that they could be dialed in for the compositing. We had mattes for Salty’s shirt, skin, the water drops and the salt tears. The reflections were separate elements as well.
Kirejew: Comp-wise, a lot of the pre-comps were done in Nuke before they started pumping out all the layers and prepping it for final. These guys always pump out EXRs, everything’s all embedded, so at that point I can strip out what I needed and play around. The compositing challenges were actually pretty easy. The 3D guys did such a great job getting everything looking great that when I had the final elements it came together really well. We comped it in the Inferno and it was literally just a matter of dialing in the shadows, dialing it down, adding in grain and maybe removing tracking dots.
Turner: It was also pretty good render-wise. The guy who wrote the shaders for Salty, Mario Marengo, put them together in such a way that, out of the box it wouldn’t have been as smooth or as elegant as it seemed to be, but he made it relatively effortless for the rest of us to make Salty look really good.
fxg How did you overcome any depth of field issues, especially working with such a small character?
Turner: We ended up having to render the Salty elements with depth of field rendered right in. The depth of the field was so narrow – there’d be parts where the front of his head would be in focus and his ears would be out of focus. It wasn’t something we could do on the element at the end. It had to be baked right into the render with the appropriate depth, circle blurs and circles of confusion.
Kirejew: On the one close-up scene, we were sitting with the agency and the editor on the Flame to mock it up for sign-off. It’s just such a minute depth of field that they needed a cue for it to work.
Turner: We would take that cue and do the depth of field in the render so it was physically correct. It was so narrow at times that all of Salty couldn’t be in focus, and he’s only an inch and a half across.
fxg: What were some of the things done in compositing to help finish the shots off?
Kirejew: For the shadows I really just took my cues off the plate and balanced them properly that way. It’s so well shot, and the grade that they did worked so well, really to be honest it was just a matter of matching it.
Turner: We did have some challenges when Salty was very distant and tiny. He had to be visible but also not so bright that he wouldn’t work in the plate. They’d done all this really great moody, raining lighting stuff.
Kirejew: We also did raindrop removals. On the alleyway scene, there were these big monster drops right near the lens that we had to paint out.
fxg: I think it’s a really nice-looking spot, but the only thing that got to me was the Michael Bolton song, because it stays with you, and I thought I had heard the last of it in the 80s…
Kirejew: [Laughs] We would literally sing it in the hallways. It would get in your head and three days later I would be in bed singing it.
Turner: My wife would be like: ‘Would you quit humming that song!’.
Dennis Turner: Lead Animator/Shading/Lighting
Mario Marengo: Shading/Lighting
Jerry Corda-Stanley: Tracking/Shading/Lighting
Inferno Artists: Andres Kirejew, Terry Power
On Set Supervision: Dave Giles
Executive Producer: Irene Payne