Super vfx for the Super Bowl – part 1

In part one of our Super Bowl XLV commercials coverage, we look at Method Studios’ ‘Carma’ spot for Bridgestone Tires and The Mill’s ‘Reviews Are In’ ad. And check out episode #101 of fxguidetv for in-depth interviews on Animal Logic’s ‘One Epic Ride’ spot.

Click here to watch fxguidetv #101

Leave it to the Beaver: Bridgestone

In Bridgestone Tires’ ‘Carma’ spot, a driver’s close encounter with a very thankful beaver is repaid when the animal saves his life from a raging river torrent. Method Studios in Los Angeles helped realise the beaver as a digital creature.

Watch ‘Carma’

Directed by Kinka Usher for agency The Richards Group, the spot reunited Method CG supervisor Andy Boyd with the same team behind the popular Bridgestone ‘Scream’ Super Bowl commercial that featured a digital squirrel. “When I first found out about the spot,” says Boyd, “there were already some rough storyboards that had been done and that was pretty exciting seeing that, especially when we found out it was the same creative and director, who we got on really well with.”

CG model showing guide hairs

The spot was filmed with the aid of a real beaver and a stuffie beaver on location as reference, and some early enthusiasm towards achieving a number of the shots practically. Ultimately, since the animal had to perform very specific actions – not least of which were a salute to the driver and a later fist pump – Method created an entirely digital beaver for use in the commercial.

That process began with modeling of the beaver in ZBrush and Maya, with Maya also used for rigging and animation. Part of the animation challenge of the salute and fist pump shots was to maintain the high level of realism. “It was a major challenge to make this little guy salute and make it feel natural,” observes Method visual effects producer Mike Wigart. “So there was a lot of back and forth with taking this beaver, making him salute but not making it too cartoonish, or conversely, too stiff.”

Work in progress for the beaver

A large part of the push for realism also came in terms of the creation of the beaver’s fur. Boyd’s experience in rendering realistic fur is long-standing, having developed his own grooming system inside of Houdini using the Mantra fur procedural. “For this project, we started R&D’ing by taking my fur system where we left off from the squirrel spot and bringing it to a whole new level,” explains Boyd. “A lot of things I was cheating on the squirrel before look-wise – say the translucent back lighting- I could now do physically in the render and could have proper interactive environmental lighting.”

A further fur challenge on ‘Carma’, however, was that the beaver had to appear in both heavy sunlight and in the rain. That meant there were essentially two looks required for the animal. “From a CG standpoint,” says Boyd, “the beavers were almost completely different – it’s almost like two separate creatures.”

CG beaver and photo reference

The beaver’s wet fur was accomplished via additional grooming in Houdini that Boyd based on real reference of the animal on set. “Kinka is amazing in the way that he tries to get as much as he can in camera,” notes Boyd. “And even if for example the performance is not going to be the one used in the edit, we’ll still get a real beaver on set and Kinka will film it. So we had a great reference to see what the fur looks like in the pouring rain.”

“It was a major challenge to make this little guy salute and make it feel natural”

Mike Wigart

Method also endeavoured to incorporate the on-set beaver as much as possible into the final shots. “We were trying to do as much as we could using the body of the real beaver,” says Boyd. “For the end shot,” explains Boyd, “they filmed the beaver and it was almost perfect except that obviously he wasn’t doing an arm pump and his head was looking slightly in the wrong direction. So we replaced the arm and made an arm pump in CG, and we camera projected the head back onto the model and turned it a couple of degrees to get the eyeline right.”

The raging river torrent and collapsing bridge from which the driver is saved were achieved mostly as CG elements. “The foreground is real and in the distance is a matte painting,” says Boyd. The whole river is all CG, and that was a collaboration with Scanline VFX in Germany. When we saw that shot, we thought we’d straight away call the pro’s and they came on board to collaborate with us.”

Final shot of the river

“We built the bridge in CG using photogrammetry from the location,” adds Wigart, “we animated the bridge as a Houdini simulation while Scanline was creating the water torrent. It was interesting trying to get those elements working together when they were being done in separate places, but it turned out great. Kinka set up the shot nicely for the effect — having the river snake into the background gives it depth and makes it feel very real.”

Finally, Method composited in fine details like CG rain, lightning, atmospherics, mist and insects to bring the spot together in time for the big game. “It’s always pretty exciting working on a Super Bowl commercial,” concludes Boyd, “because everybody involved is a little more ramped up. It does add to the pressure of things because everybody gets involved, all the way to the top. But it also makes for an exciting workflow when there’s some hype about it.”

The Effects are in (CG):

The Mill’s LA office was behind the visual effects for’s ‘Reviews Are In’ spot, directed by the The Perlorian Brothers for DDB Chicago. In it, a group of showroom vehicles discuss their website reviews.

Watch ‘Reviews Are In’

Production filmed a set of traditional cars in a real showroom, as well as clean plates. Initial discussions centred around replacing only parts of the cars to enable them to talk, but ultimately entirely CG cars were created to give the vehicles wider performances. “What that gave us was this great in-camera reference of what the cars looked like in that place,” remarks lead 2D artist Tara Demarco. “All along we had great colour reference and lighting and texturing and glass, all the stuff you want in a car.”

“I think it’s one of those almost perfect jobs,” adds co-head of 2D Phil Crowe. “If you had a shopping list of all the things that you want on a shoot, and all the things you can generally get away with, effectively Tara has listed every single thing you could wish for in terms of how we got the shots.”

Each car in the spot was to have its own personality, but could not for trademark reasons look like any particular car model. “They had to be stripped of certain badges and extra details,” says Demarco, “so we ended up with these iconic cars that all have a little bit of personality but not too much identifiable detail.”

The Mill used existing 3D car models for the vehicles and matched them to the showroom vehicles, before removing things like lights, grilles, blinkers and other parts and replacing these with more generic pieces. “The cars started to look like real cars again once we put new details in, and new blinkers and that headlight detail,” says Demarco. “When you strip the detail out, it starts to look like the caricature of a car and not a real car. So our challenge was to have it be both not identifiable but also have some expression.”

From there, The Mill animated the hood and front end of each car as mouth shapes in Maya and additional movements of the whole vehicles. For the car bodies, the lighting and rendering team relied on special textures, flakes and reflections baked into the paint finishes. “There were also little bits of texture put in the car,” says Demarco, “like down in the undercarriage or inside the grille to reveal the guts to the car while it’s talking.”

To integrate the rendered cars into the scene, artists looked to properly match the shadows, reflections and contact points on the floor with those of the real cars. “We tried to get all of the different
reflection passes to match what we had done in camera,” explains Demarco. “Additionally the guys had HDRIs of the rooms the cars were in. So the reflections are from the actual shoot day at the dealership.”

Crowe says the reference cars were indeed invaluable for the visual effects team at The Mill: “If we said that we would be replacing the cars in CG, production might sometimes turn around and say, ‘Well, do we need the cars there?’ The answer from us is always absolutely, yes.”

“Just about every bit of every car has had its own little colour tweak”

Tara Demarco
The Mill

“It was excellent of production to get those cars in and get them in the right place,” says Demarco, “because we never would have known all of the minutiae of grading and placement that we pulled from the real plates. There was strange colour stuff happening in the room with the combination of daylight and car pane colour. I would never have predicted that we would get say three different colours in a shadow!”

The spot was composited entirely in Flame, using some 3D pre-comps and a linear colourspace to maintain soft edges. “We had all kinds of 3D passes to really separate out the bits of the car and to grade it into its own proper colour space,” notes Demarco. “Just about every bit of every car has had its own little colour tweak, so that it matches the in-camera car.”

“For example,” adds Demarco, “the in-camera car for the red car, Tom, has this blue that’s bounced from another car somewhere else or perhaps from outside – we don’t know where it was from. But we still introduced extra blue lighting into our red car on the side of it just so that it would have the same blue shadows and that it would feel inside this world.”

A slight camera drift in the plates was mimicked in tracking and applied to the 3D cars, which were generally in static positions. “I feel like you want to pay attention to the cars and everything that they’re doing,” says Demarco. “You don’t really want it to be something you have to catch, visually. If it were to be a whip pan to and from a car talking, that’s time you’re not seeing the animation. Again I think that’s the Perlorians helping us, giving us enough time to tell our story visually.”

This year, The Mill contributed to several Super Bowl spots and for its artists it can be an intense time leading up to early February, but always worth the effort. “As an artist, you know it’s coming,” says Demarco. “The December and January period is incredibly busy. But it’s only one month and we do make some pretty cool stuff.”

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