The best of the Super Bowl spots – part 2

Our second Super Bowl XLVII article goes Gangnam Style with Mirada’s Wonderful Pistachios VFX, Method’s Hotbots and more from The Mill.

Mirada cracks it, Psy style

South Korean popstar Psy’s hit music video ‘Gangnam Style’ has been watched by over a billion people on YouTube. With his Super Bowl spot – ‘Crackin’ Style’ for Wonderful Pistachios, he may well just rack up a couple of million more. Behind the spot is Fire Station Agency and director Mathew Cullen of MTh, with post production work by Mirada. We talk to Mirada’s Head of VFX and Animation John Fragomeni and visual effects supervisor Jonah Hall about the seamless work in the commercial.

Designing ‘Crackin’ Style’

“We knew that it had to stay connected to the original video that Psy had done,” says Hall. “The tricky bit was that, in visual effects, you can do anything, but if you over-extend, you can break that visual connection, because the original video that literally over a billion people have seen, is hilarious, and Psy has a style and language which made him unique.”

That meant that the final spot was realized with clean white backgrounds which, according to Hall, “made you focus on what was most important which was how hilarious the dancing was, and the connection between Psy and the nut girls.”

Filming the spot

A two day day shoot on a stage divided into a painted white cyc and a bluescreen stage took place with Psy and the nut dancers, choreographed by brothers Tone and Rich Talauega. DOP Guillermo Navarro shot on the ARRI Alexa. Nut costumes and props were fabricated by Legacy Effects.

To enable the dancers to see out of their costumes, small eye level holes were cut into the faces of the green nuts, with the dancer’s name written in Sharpie on a wireframe mesh covering. Mirada later tracked on seamless coverings to make the green portions of the pistachios appear as whole.

Nut explosion

The spot begins with Psy making a dramatic entrance from an exploding lone pistachio nut before launching into his signature moves along with a backing group of nut dancers. “We first had a big oversized nut in camera built by Legacy that was pulled with rope to time for the explosion,” says Hall. “We used that as a guide and simulated the shell exploding and rolling off-screen.”

The fluid-like explosion was created in Houdini, while Psy’s stunt was performed on a wire rig against bluescreen and composited by Mirada in Flame. “You then have these nuts on the ground that grow into the girls,” adds Hall, “and then they start dancing. The challenge was that the beats of the song meant a lot of restrictions as far as when we could have effects start and stop and then rest as the dancers began. We had to stitch the girls growing out of the nuts from several takes.”


During the spot, Psy takes on some of the pistachio nuts on the dance floor. “As the edit started to gel, what we had was a lot of talented dancers coming in and improv’ing with him,” recalls Hall. “We had to do a lot of splits between the nuts dancing and Psy – a lot of the funniest moments – he would do something hilarious and then a beat later she would do something hilarious and we wanted to bring those two performances together. That was pretty challenging because we had a very fluid camera that was being hand-moved around on a crane, and you had to marry the dance of one of them to the floor plane of one of the others.”

Mirada was also called on to do various rig-removals, roto and clean-up fixes, adding glints and glows and even reflecting pistachios in Psy’s glasses. “We also had to break out some of the portions of the costumes because the subtlety of the color green is very specific to this pistachios campaign for the brand,” says Hall.

Raining pistachios

The falling pistachio shots were achieved in Houdini. “The client really loved the nuts in the middle shot where Psy’s swinging his coat around, so we adjusted our set-ups and got it to look similar,” explains Hall. “We kept the nuts bouncing on the ground which felt like they were interacting with the dancers stomping their feet.”

Crackin’ workflow

‘Crackin’ Style’ relied on the tight integration between MTh and Mirada to give a Super Bowl finish on a tight turnaround – in fact, the spot was completed from shoot, to edit, to delivery in around 11 working days. “One of the hallmarks of Mirada is our integrated work flow, it’s efficient and that has been a game-changer in many ways,” says Fragomeni. “Story is always at the center of what we do, be it a commercial, a TV show or feature film. We’re involved in the pitch, and pre-production phase, we’re designing keyframes, supervising the shoot, editing and designing and crafting the visual effects. We approach every project as a creative partner, and want support our directors, agencies, studio’s and clients throughout the process, there’s this holistic notion to filmmaking and story telling at Mirada.”

The result is a spot that pays homage to Psy’s enduring and enormous popularity and delivers a fun message without the viewer necessarily aware of Mirada’s key effects work. “The curse of good visual effects is that if you’ve done your job and done it well, most people won’t realize what you did,” notes Hall. “But it really felt like we were able to add value to something that was already priceless. It was just as funny at the end as it was at the beginning and every time you played it it put a smile on everybody’s face.”

Rise of the machines

In ‘Hotbots’, a Carl Rinsch-directed Kia Forte spot from David&Goliath, Method Studios upgraded some auto show girls to the mechanical realm, including none other than Miss USA, Alyssa Campanella. And the ‘hotbots’ don’t take too kindly to anyone interfering with their vehicle. We talk to Method visual effects supervisor Ben Walsh.

Watch ‘Hotbots’.

Click here to see Method’s making of video for the spot.

“Our initial brief was to create a female showroom robot,” says Walsh,” who jokes that working on the sexy assistant meant that finally every CG artist’s fantasy was a ‘legitimate paid job’. “In the early concepts there wasn’t really any mechanical components, it was all about the design of the skin panels and flow of the seams. As the process progressed we started to incorporate transparent panels that revealed the mechanical skeleton/armature.”

Only the live action head and dress portions of the model remained in the shots, since Method’s CG skin renders for the robot panels proved incredibly successful. To create the panels, a full body scan was taken and the mechanical section modeled in Maya, the panels sculpted in ZBrush and texture work carried out in Mari.

Method tracked the live action performance in meticulous detail. “We knew we had to be very precise with this process so it was just heads down in the tight schedule,” says Walsh. “We anticipated that it might not always be an exact match so we planned to have a paint artist remove limbs and eat into the models to also allow for the background to be revealed through parts of the transparent joint panels.”

To replicate the on-set lighting on the skin, Method performed a polarized texture shoot and also relied on the full body scan of Campanella. V-Ray was used for lighting and rendering based on HDRIs taken at the shoot. “We often added a key light to give a little more shape to the CG panels or to replicate a cast shadow,” says Walsh.

Finally, the hotbot’s mechanical seams were infused with clear plastic windows and pulsating blue energy. “Initially there were twice as many blue energy wires (veins),” recalls Walsh, “but the agency thought it might be a little distracting so we reduced the amount. The pulsing energy was created in Flame using a matte pass from CG, with animated textures and lighting. To cap off the look, Method rendered interactive light passes through V-Ray to illuminate the surrounding mechanics.

Another big Bowl for The Mill

This year, The Mill was behind more than 20 Super Bowl spots. Yesterday we highlighted their Blackberry 10 ad visual effects, and today we look at The Mill’s work for Budweiser ‘Brotherhood’ and Milk ‘Morning Run’.

In ‘Brotherhood’, the beer brand’s iconic Clydesdales are shown on a journey from foal to mature horse. Danny Morris, The Mill’s 2D Lead Artist for Budweiser ‘Brotherhood’ said, “The VFX on Budweiser ‘Brotherhood’ are not at first obvious. The main work was combining plates so we could get good reactions between the man and his Clydesdale. I had to combine some plates that required heavy rebuilding/morphing. This was to create the desired reactions and help emphasize the emotion that is clearly evident in the man missing his Clydesdale!”

Watch ‘Brotherhood’.

Milk’s ‘Morning Run’ spot was a more VFX-heavy spot, depicting The Rock on a dramatic adventure to collect milk for his children complete, of course, with aliens. Charlotte Arnold, The Mill’s VFX Producer for Milk ‘Morning Run’ said, “There were lots of great elements for us to bring together for Milk ‘Morning Run’. Firstly, there was the CG giraffe and rhino. We also added additional atmospheric elements throughout the circus scenes including smoke, heat haze and flames.  We had to do some sky replacement that would hint to the impending doom of the alien take over without giving too much away at the same time.”

Watch ‘Morning Run’.

“Then, there was the big hero end shot,” she adds. “We shot The Rock in the apartment and then replaced everything behind him. This consisted of building the city with a mixture of CG in the foreground and matte paintings in the background. The ‘Mothership’ is a matte painting that we did at 3K and Corey Brown, The Mill’s 2D Lead Artist, then added lots of atmospheric elements to bring it to life: pulsating lights, steam vents, shadows over the clouds. The attack ships are also CG, and the main building explosion on the left was built with CG FX and a 2D fireball element on top.”

“We used Massive to fill the streets with running people, added CG cars, and even shot some Mill people on our rooftop here in NY and composited them onto the roofs of some of the other buildings. Corey and I are both in there; I get caught in the rubble of an exploding building…Corey saves himself though! Once all these CG elements were in place, the shot was brought to life with the final 2D elements of smoke and explosions to fill out the scene.”

In a Mercedes spot called ‘Soul’, The Mill augmented a poster and even actor Willem Dafoe’s fingernails, along with some removals and lasers work for User’s dance scene.

Watch the Mercedes spot.

The studio also worked on the Formula 1 race sequence. “The official F1 race car is only available in Europe, so we created the F1 car from scratch in CG,” said Tim Davies, The Mill’s VFX Supervisor and Lead 2D Artist on the spot. “We filmed a smaller race car during the shoot to frame up against and then removed it digitally and replaced it with the CG F1 car. Filmed at the California Speedway in Fontana we then perfected its F1 feel by adding CG crowds, bulking up the scene with additional stands and added details to the walls such as white striping flying past to enhance the feeling of speed.

“To create a dynamic effect for the car disappearing at the end of the race we also created CG particle simulations and removed the car from the scene halfway through the shot. We also replaced all the skies.Then, for the end shot we animated the blood vessel effect in Willem’s eyes and designed his vanishing effect by creating multiple layers to simulate his body vanishing magically like crumbling dust and carried it through to the final reverse angle of our hero.”

Tim Davies also worked on Tide’s ‘Miracle Stain’. “Firstly, we animated the stain falling off the chip and landing on the shirt. We then created the all important look of the salsa stain in the form of Joe Montana’s face and tracked it into each scene. Then came ‘Montanaland’! We landscaped the whole scene with matte painting and CG, designed the front gates and integrated all of the Joe Montana Stain images into the fence and the topiaries. We also created CG statues of the hero in his armchair and CG flags blowing in the wind. Finally, we created the imprint of the missing Montana shirt on the wall and integrated it into the final shots. We loved working with Joe!.”

Watch 'Miracle Stain'.

See the rest of The Mill’s Super Bowl XLVII spots in their round-up here.