Stardust Provides Watercolor Beauty for Shell

The new UK Shell Campaign uses a truly beautiful technical painterly technique. Key artists from Stardust Studios tell fxguide about the painterly ‘Get the most out of every drop’ spots created for Shell in conjunction with JWT London.

early style frames

fxg: Can you tell me about the idea behind the spots? How were they conceived?

Allan Bibby (director): The concept from the agency was summed up in the tagline – ‘get the most out of every drop’ – it was about enjoying every journey you take, appreciating the journeys you take, understanding the precious nature of the moment as well as about showing the excitement of those moments. The agency wanted us to interpret these moments, to show how the drops themselves form these images and tell this story.

It was really important to everyone that the film look as though it was created by fluid – as if when the drop hits the paper and spreads, it really feel like liquid seeping through paper and forming the imagery, but also that the film feel ‘real’ – that we see and feel the real emotions of our talent in their situations. Finding that balance between reality and the techniques involved in visually telling the story was the key challenge.

builds on the idea of a drop

fxg:What sort of concept work or tests did you embark on before coming up with the final look of the ink spreading across the paper?

Mark Roehr (3D animator): We played around with almost every animation tool we had at hand, from Maya to Painter to Particular. At one point we even considered bringing in a paint animation specialist – in other words someone who would actually paint every frame of the spot. I don’t think we left any stone unturned.

For example, Maya’s PaintFX is a great tool and it can achieve all sorts of painterly looks, and of course we have tremendous control over the animation there, but when it came down to it, it couldn’t achieve the fluidity and complex randomness that the footage gave us. We also played around with watercolor stills mapped onto extremely low-friction nCloth shapes, which gave us a great watercolor look but was a nightmare to control. We were working with 2K (and in some cases 4K) plates, and we needed to be sure that whatever package we chose was robust enough to handle the job without being a major bottleneck.

Tim Regan (compositor): We did a good amount of R&D exploring 3D and 2D particle systems along with physical tests. Studying all the results we concluded that the table top ink tests provided the most organic and efficient results.

Tonya Smay (compositor): We bought as many types of black ink as we could find and a variety of thinners and things that would react with the ink. We tried wax pencils and crayons to curb the spill as well as oils and thinning agents to create slower and broader spreads of the ink. We also experimented with different size brushes and droppers. We found that the ink also reacted differently to different papers and different levels of water saturation.

Aaron Maurer (designer): We knew going into the process that we wanted to capture as much of the subtleties of watercolor as possible in the final animation and stay as far away from CG form and movement as possible.

live action shoot

fxg: Can you talk about the elements shoot for the ink?

Tim Regan: We used many methods to control how the inks mixed into the white of the paper. A light box was built which allowed us to incrementally change the following variables: the angle of the paper, the source of light, the wetness of the paper, the amount of ink poured on the paper, the weight and tooth of the paper. While the smallest change in any of those variables led to extremely different results, the light box’s design allowed us to really fine tune the speed and spread of the ink into the paper.

Aaron Maurer: We also used a grease pencil on the paper to control where ink would or wouldn’t go. This came in handy when we had certain shapes from the live action footage we knew were going to be filled in with color in the the animation. We could draw out the general shape of a car or the Shell logo and have it fill in with ink naturally.

fxg: What was involved in acquiring the live action location footage?

Alan Bibby: We discussed different approaches to how to tell the story – everything from motion capture, to greenscreen live action, to masking out real paper and filming the ink filling those areas. In the end, even though we knew we were going to effect the footage super heavily, we knew we had to shoot real people on real locations.

Finding locations in California that felt ‘global’ enough for such an international spot was a big part, as was casting – several of the vignettes had to be shot multiple times with different ethnicity talent (some of whom had to be precision drivers too), and shot multiple times with different car brands to create one solely Audi and one solely Fiat narrative. We ended up with some amazing locations and talent, and lucked out with the weather.

Most of the car-to-car was shot on a pursuit systems rig – its an amazing vehicle, a Porsche Cayenne turbo with a 15 ft techno on the roof. We also shot from cranes, shutting down downtown LA, cars on process trailers to get interior shots, helicopters – each day was an incredible challenge to get all the shots.

The crew was amazing, especially the choreography between the DP and the stunt coordinator was incredible, getting an amazing amount of great footage in a really compressed schedule.

live action shoot
shot in California

fxg: How were the live action and ink elements then combined? Can you talk about the rotoscoping and tracking challenges of this work?

Tonya Smay: The first challenge was to make it seem as if the live action footage was being painted on instead of just wiping on with a watercolor texture on it. The second was to get the still images of the watercolor to seem to spread out or in time with the stock footage wipe, and not look warped and distorted. We used the ink shoot elements as a matte over watercolor-painted stills. While the ink was spreading out, we warped the watercolor still in time to match the speed. There was a tremendous amount of roto work done on the live action. The scene was broken down into all of its elements, ie. woman’s skin, hair, shirt, skirt, shoes, car windows, tires, body, grill, sky, road, trees, other cars, etc.

Tim Regan: The precision of the roto really allowed us to create rich watercolor textures, while maintaining the live actions tonal range and integrity.

Mark Roehr: There was a lot more tracking than you’d expect from looking at the end result. Every shot was stabilized out of the can, and then various elements were re-tracked for the ink footage to be attached to. For example, some shots required 3D camera solves so that the road ink would follow along in real perspective.

Tonya Smay: The watercolor could flow from the initial drop into each shape as it was being painted on. We added layers upon layers of the animated water colors, each more deeply embeded with the original footage. Then, to blend the edges even more, we added trailing bits that were tracked to an element but were bleeding off as it moved across the page.

live action ink shoot

fxg: I think there’s a great mix of movement, colour and artistry in the final spots and I love that the final result feels very natural and not CG. How do you think you would describe this kind of design work?

Alan Bibby: It was a great collaborative effort. A great team of talented artists worked on the film – from the designers to the DPs, the compositors and animators, and it’s their artistry and talent that shows.

Mark Roehr: It doesn’t look CG because it’s not CG. There’s just more complexity on the surface of good watercolor paper than we could script into Maya if we had months. And that means we got far more variety from that than we could’ve hoped to achieve in CG.

Tim Regan: As an artist it’s great to use a tool to build something that is free of that tool’s hand.


Project Name: Shell “Performance: V Power”
Debut Date: June 26, 2009
Length: :30

Ad Agency: JWT London
City/State/Country: London, England, UK
Group Creative Director: Jaspar Shelbourne
Art Directors: Andy Huntindon, Martin Smith
Head of Production: Dean Baker
Assistant Producer: Jack Bayley

Production Company: Stardust Studios
City/State/Country: Bicoastal, USA
Director/Creative Director: Alan Bibby
Live Action Producer: Rich Kaylor
Director of Photography: Brian Newman
Executive Producer: Mike Eastwood
Head of Production: Beth Vogt
Senior Producer: Greg Heffron
Assistant Producer: Ryan McRee
Editors: Andrew Borin, Patrick Burns, Jr.
Designers: Aaron Mauer, Julene Bello, Oliver Schroeder, Danny Ruiz, Dustin Lindblad, Bryan Louie
Storyboard Artist/Illustrator: Glenn Urieta
3D Modeling/Lighting/Animation: Mark Rohrer
Tracking: Weichieh Yu
2D Animators/Compositors: Tim Regan, Tonya Smay, Marco Giampaolo, Bashir Hamid, Rick Malwitz
Rotoscoping: FX3X – Macedonia