Method lends a hand

When Australian free-to-air television channel SBS wanted to promote their documentaries stream, they looked to agency US Sydney and VFX house Method Studios for a little…hand-holding. The resulting three promos feature recognizable footage from docos such as Wildest Africa, One Born Every Minute and America Revealed as scenes playing out on miniature landscapes that are ‘flipped’ over between a person’s hands – the tagline is ‘There’s always more to uncover’.

We talk to Method Studios director/creative director Richard Swan in Sydney about how they used real footage, 2.5D and 3D elements to bring the promos to life. Includes a making of breakdown video.

Watch the Fresh History promo, one of three created for SBS by Method Studios.

The brief

Taking imagery from documentaries airing on SBS and presenting them in a semi-interactive way with the set of hands unfolding the action was the initial premise presented to Method.

Method received a rough script that outlined the concept. “Our pitch back to them via style frames was based around adding in a lot more atmospherics, looking at shots and the angle of the shots that would fit best in the point of view of the hands,” says Swan. “We trawled content to see what would work, and thought about content that could break off the edge of this platform, like water, and then we were combining these two worlds.”

Original reference footage for the boat.
Stand-in card used for tracking.
CG water and wireframe boat.
A still from the final scene.

SBS and the agency’s only concerns in the conceptual stage were about how Method would achieve the effect of having a flipping plane with depth and movement, and only 2D images as source material. “They said, ‘This is brilliant, but how are you possibly going to do that?’,” recalls Swan.

Method ultimately looked at each topic and the sourced vision for each promo, and then decided whether it would be achieved by roto’ing the real footage, doing re-projections or creating the scene entirely in CG. Initially, the scenes were all going to fold out in a book-like manner, but Method was able to devise different ways to start each promo. For example, the hand pulls over a medical sheet to begin the birth scene, and for the marching soldiers the hand sprinkles on snow to start the promo.

All hands on-board

For the three promos, three different sets of hands were filmed. The talent would rehearse with a rough Quicktime of the vision and an audio cue for when to flip, concentrating on where the horizon line would be in the final piece. A 10cm x 10cm card stood in for the platform, either a square or cross shape, so as not to obscure the hands, with tracking markers affixed front and back via pins and wires.

“The card was made of foam board,” says Swan. “It was interesting, when we tracked that, the flexible properties of foam could be seen in the end result. You can feel the bounce and all of those idiosyncrasies and nuances of human movement are in there.”

The flip

Each scene was built as a separate piece of footage slightly longer than it needed to be, with transitions achieved on a case by case basis. “We were concerned about the height difference between say the waterfall and the final scene,” notes Swan, “but in the end we could just blend them as a final part of the process, such as by feathering the water more. The horizon played as a good wipe device and it’s also such a quick flip that we could hide it in 12 frames.”

Breaking down the promos

Each promo had a topic – fresh history, travel and adventure, and real lives.

Fresh History

‘Fresh History’ begins with Russian soldiers marching through the snow, then flips to a helicopter approaching high tension wires (from a doco about technicians who traverse the electricity lines), followed by a fishing trawler at sea, a shot of wind turbines and finally the SBS logo in a snowy setting.

Watch a making of for the boat scene in Fresh History.

The soldiers were roto’d from documentary footage and placed over a re-built ground plane. For the high tension wires, Method created these in Maya and then relied on 2D cards for background trees with a CG ground plane. An important aspect of this scene, and all the others, was the light source – the sun. “That was the glue in all of the spots,” says Swan. “It’s subtle but it’s a theme and it was always in the top right.”

The next transition is to a ship in rolling waves, a scene informed by real footage. “We thought we might be able to roto the actual boat but then we had all the seagulls passing over it,” recalls Swan. “Then we thought we could keep some of the interactivity of the ocean and put in a CG ocean and borrow some foreground ocean elements. But what we ended up doing was building a boat. We took some textures off the real boat and did some quick geo in 3D, and roto-mapped the animation.”

“Then we built the sea with some stock vision projected onto geo,” continues Swan. “The foreground wave that breaks out is a sim and there was some simple Maya ocean presets for a base level of the sea. The birds were done as Nuke cards and then we added lots of atmos and even water droplets on the lens which were in the original footage.”

The final SBS ident at the end of each promo was conceived as a simple grayscale 3D element, shadowed by the television network’s logo.

Travel and Adventure

This promo starts with the hands ‘opening’ up (with sand particle effects) to a camel train traveling among dunes. “The camels were roto’d out of the documentary scene, as was their contact point,” says Swan. “Then we built basic geo and projected some sand onto it.”

Watch the ‘Travel & Adventure’ promo.

A boat and buoy make up the next transition followed by a icy explorer before the scene becomes a stunning waterfall that divides the platform. “This was originally a helicopter shot around the falls,” explains Swan. “We grabbed stills from the chopper shot and spread them out. We turned them into a matte painting and projected that onto the geo. We loved this idea that we could open up the card and have the water cascading through it.”

Method added rainbows, steam and extra lighting to the shot based again off the original footage, tracking in elements from the real waterfall and then completing the scene with a basic water sim. Like the other promos, shadows were incorporated in comp onto the hands, and in this shot, in particular, the fingers were reflected in the water.

Real Lives

‘Real Lives’ moves from a hospital birth to a horse drawn cart, then to a hospital emergency and finally an ambulance scene. The hospital portion involved the clean up of original footage and the addition of a patient and table to contain the action, as well as CG curtains which actually wobble slightly as the hands move.

Watch the Real Lives promo.

The ambulance was also real documentary footage, but because of the parallax shift, Method re-projected found ambulance textures onto simple geometry, roto’d the officers, re-built the ground plane and added interactive lights – not just on the ambulance – the lights also appear to bounce off the background. “Also, the shot was just about finished, but the left hand side was looking a little empty so we decided to add a bike accident,” says Swan. “We got a bike out of the 3D library, smashed it up and added a helmet.”

Always more to uncover

Method Studios completed the promos over a staggered six week period, with Swan noting that the time line was brief but did allow for substantial creative input given the endless amount of footage that could have been used (some scenes that didn’t make it into the final promos involved canoeists along a flowing river, and jumping springbok). “I like that they ended up being very diaroma-esque,” says Swan of the promos. “In the end the process became a lot more technical than we imagined, but the pay-off was the level of believability.”


Client: SBS

US Sydney
Executive Creative Director: Christy Peacock
Head of Art: Tim Chenery
Creative: Carlos Savage
Creative: David Roberts
TV Producer: Trelise Caughey
Account Director: Alex Tracy
Senior Account Manager: Tim Stuart
Client: SBS
Acting Marketing Director: Katherine Raskob

Method Studios
Director/Creative Director: Richard Swan
Executive Producer: Celia Nicholas
VFX Producer: Dawn Walker
Senior Designer: Liz Ellis
Senior Editor: Mark Bennett
Senior Colourist: Andrew Clarkson
Lead Compositor: Alex Ortoll
Lead Senior 3D artist: Chris Breeze

We Love Jam
Music Composer: Hylton Mowday
Sound Design/Engineer: Andrew Stevenson

3 thoughts on “Method lends a hand”

  1. Pingback: Another video on 2.5d and 3d element. | Animation and Special Effect Composition

  2. Pingback: SBS Documentary | CGNCollect

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