CG robots, milk sims, digi-enviros & macro-cloth

There really is some stunning TVC visual effects work around at the moment. fxguide breaks down four recent commercials for Titanfall, Milk, BBC’s Winter Olympics coverage and Nike, with VFX by The Mill, Method Studios, Platige Image/Juice and Glassworks. Each look includes making of images and videos plus interviews with the artists behind the effects.

Titanfall – ‘Shadow’

The Mill produced the VFX for this 60 second Titanfall spot called ‘Shadow’. Lead 3D artist David Lawson delves into the live action shoot and CG Titans.


fxg: How was the spot planned out, boarded or previs’d?

David Lawson (3d lead artist): We’ve worked on an Xbox commercial featuring the Titan before, so our experience helped the preparation. We didn’t previs because we wanted the director to have total freedom. We discussed key shots, such as the dog at the window, with the creatives at Heat when they were storyboarding it. We knew how we wanted to push the look of it well before the shoot, which meant that we could begin modeling and texturing the titan beforehand to get the most out of it.

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

fxg: Can you talk about the shoot – did you have anything standing in for the Titan? Did you shoot any dust or other effects on set?

Lawson: Standing in for the titan, we had a guy walking around with a large pole representing its height for framing. In terms of effects, there was a large practical shoot in the landing scene. We shot a lot of large-scale explosions as well as a dust element with an incredibly brave hero actor – he stood in whilst all the explosions went off behind him and never flinched.

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

fxg: What tools and techniques did you use for building and animating and rendering the Titans? Did you have access to game assets?

Lawson: Respawn were very helpful in providing us with the game assets, giving us a great starting point. To achieve the level of detail we wanted, we remodeled and retextured the titan to provide realism in closeups. We have our own Arnold translator and our R&D team have made some great shaders that help us build an optimized rendering setup. This allowed us to react immediately to changes as well as giving our director and clients the freedom to tweak story points.

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

fxg: Can you break down that one shot where he is lifted into the cockpit – how was that achieved?

Lawson: Practically, we shot our hero being lifted into the air using wires to get the appropriate lighting. We then shot clean plates without our hero or rigs. We used the lift plate for timing for animation purposes, then created a CG stand-in to cast the correct reflections and shadows onto our titan. We finally rendered the titan in the foreground and background elements so that the 2D team could peace it together.

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

Nike – ‘Aeroloft’

Nike ‘Aeroloft’ zooms through the clothing brand’s newest vest in a live-action/CG hybrid with visual effects by Glassworks. fxguide spoke to director Rudiger Kaltenhauser about making the spot.

fxg: What message did you need to communicate in the spot and what were some of the early ideas in making that possible?

Rudiger Kaltenhauser: The Aeroloft brief was for a spot that presented both a specific product but also featured the Aeroloft technology in general. Nike asked us to create an animated journey showing the two keys features of Aeroloft: warmth and breathability. Our early ideas focused on more of a making-of story, where we saw the construction of Aeroloft. But we soon switched our focus to its function and created the whole spot as one dynamic camera move, moving around the athlete who was wearing the product. During this fly-through, we dive into one of the down-filled sections for some warmth and shelter from the cold world outside; we speed through the air-vents as the athlete inhales and exhales.

fxg: Can you talk about the reference you acquired from the live action shoot – how much detail could you use from photographs or scans of the clothing?

Kaltenhauser: Nike were able to get us a prototype of the vest and we used it to model from. We built a CG vest prior to the shoot and then lined it up with the 360-degree images of the athlete from the shoot.

We did not have a scan of the athlete, but instead worked from loads of reference images. We built a basic model of the athlete and created a tracking rig for the vest. The tracking was all done by hand using a few tracking markers placed on the vest. We were lucky as the vest’s air-vents could be used as built-in tracking markers.

Watch a making of for this Nike spot.

fxg: What were some of the key CG elements that you needed to solve and kind of R&D took place for the feathers and down material?

Kaltenhauser: The main thing was to have seamless integration between the live-action and CG macro shots. We planned the whole sequence and layout in XSI and from this we knew the camera positions and moves we needed. We broke the sequence down into 3 live-action parts and had 2 CG parts connecting these. This meant we needed to create 4 transitions between live-action and CG. These were all based on the same principle: once tracked, we created a vest using projected footage, and once using a CG render. We used the projected vest for as long as we could before blending into the CG vest.

It proved invaluable that we had meticulously planned the live-action shots. When I flew into the US for the shoot, it turned out there were visa issues. Instead of going to the first tech reccie, I was taken to a detention center and spent the next 18 hours in a prison cell on a concrete bench before being escorted back to the airport and placed on a plane back to Amsterdam!

By the time I got home the shoot was 6 hours away from starting. So, I had to relax and “attend” the shoot via Skype and FTP. I must say a big thank you to our DOP Pete Konczal and Jerry O’Flaherty who jumped in as last-minute live-action directors. They created shots that perfectly matched the framing and timing of our animatic.

For the down-filled sections, our senior 3D artist Dan Hope decided to go down a brute force route. By this I mean he built – based on reference photos – a few high-res downs complete with tiny hairs, with real volume to all the little “barbs”. From these he then created some mid-res feathers based on ICE strands. Everything was then ICE-instanced and simulated with standard forces. They were all rendered with real DOF and a lot of SSS in Arnold. Render times were massive but worth it.

Milk – ‘Milk Life Anthem’

How do you show milk in motion? This was the task set for Method Studios in New York by the Milk Processor Education Program for a series of new spots that the successors to the ‘Got Milk?’ campaign. We find out from Method how the ‘Milk Life Anthem’ TVC was made.

Milk reference: In the spot, milk splashes are shown in high speed photography ‘moments’ with little motion blur. In order to establish the right detail, a stills campaign featuring pinup girls in milk dresses by Jaroslav Wieczorkiewiz was referenced.

Additional reference came from videos discovered online. “Bizarrely we even managed to find a video of people rolling around at high speed,” says creative director Dan Seddon, “so we have some pretty good reference.” The team gathered milk splashes during a one day Phantom camera shoot, which were also later used in comp to supplement the CG milk simulations.

FX for the propeller shot.

R&D: Interestingly, initial tests into replicating the look of milk both as a slow motion splash and in the proposed outdoor setting revealed that it was difficult to achieve the right level of translucency and surface tension. “If we put enough markers we could get a really thin never-ending stretching stream of milk that looks very realistic,” says lead FX artist Andreu Lucio, “but we really couldn’t handle the speed of it, so we had to mimic that with a FLIP solver.” Ultimately, the look was adapted in Houdini for each ‘moment’ – whether that was as a propeller, a parachute or a large splash as someone plays a guitar.

The shoot: A mix of boards and previs informed the shoot for the spot. Method also acquired HDRIs, intending to apply these to their CG milk. But they found that it was almost too realistic and not as beautiful as the spot required (partly because the milk would be seen outdoors rather than in an indoor beauty shoot). Action was capture on the Sony F-55 between 120 and 240 fps. “We liked the lack of motion blur,” adds VFX supervisor Eduardo Alvin Cruz, commenting on the acquired footage. “We had to grow the elements in normal speed realtime, and then freeze the moment very fast. So we were actually fighting those moments with the speeds.”

Guitar milk sim.

Shot examples: To make the first milk moment with the propellers, Method tracked the boy and his mother and used crude digi-double stand-ins as placeholders. The milk sim was then run, with continuous tweaks (at first the milk covered up too much of the mother). Although a large degree of accuracy was not built into this ‘roto-mation’, a further technique adopted by Method involved taking 2D roto and extruding that into three dimensions to use as more accurate holdouts during rendering.

The basketball shot proved tricky as the original plan was to shoot the performer from a low angle as if he was mid—rocket launch. Method R&D the milk sim for that angle, but on set this could not be captured, so the sim had to be re-adjusted accordingly.

The basketball shot.

BBC Winter Olympics – ‘Nature’

BBC’s coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics was promo’d with this stylistic spot from Platige Image and Juice. Directed by Tomek Bagiński, ‘Nature’ makes use of live action performers and digital environments. We talk to some of the key artists involved.


fxg: Can you talk about how you used a mix of live action plates, backgrounds, miniatures and effects elements?

Tomasz Dyrdula (Juice CG supervisor): Our set was a mix of the 1 day shoot at the bluescreen inside the studio. And second day on the actual ice rink. On one hand bluescreen setup was pretty straight forward – there was not much philosophy there on the other hand, we had the ice rink shoot which was quite a bit of a challenge. Setting up the screens on the ice made no sense as the athletes usually were exploring long distances and there was no time and exact idea how to shift the screens from shot to shot. Doing it around the whole rink was no go from time and budget perspective. So we need to take a lot of rotoscopy under consideration and this is how it went along.

As far as the studio shoot, we had snow underneath the interacting parts – so wherever we had athletes touching the snow we tried to have it covered in the shoot. In some scenes we had to get it replaced anyway – but the initial plan was to have interaction covered and make the world around the actors entirely in CG.


fxg: What were your digital environmental solutions in terms of mountainscapes etc?

Dyrdula: Creating the environment turned out to be easier than it looks. Starting from the top we were very specific on what we want to achieve from the shoot. We wanted it to be “epic”, “film poster” like but believable. Also, we need to incorporate sporting arena elements into the nature’s landscape – so half-pipes, skeleton tracks, ski jump, etc.

Michal Misinski who was art directing that project set the bar high with his concept art so we wanted to do everything to keep it the same quality in CG. Time was a pressure and we try different approaches from VUE, elevation maps and satellite pictures. In the essence, they gave us great realistic effects we wanted, but it was an enormous pain to modify those to fit our landscape needs.

Above: watch a breakdown of the spot.

At some points we had even idea of creating our own models for that film, but it was a no go, as creating few square miles of the mountain terrain it’s just mission impossible. In the meantime we worked over the animatic so more and more we knew what shots are approved by the agency and the BBC. At that point for most of the scenes I made a call we should go as much as we can into creating exact matte paintings and projecting those onto fairly simple models of the mountains. It worked like a charm for the majority of the shoots.

Some of them were impossible to handle like that and it needed more CG work and modeling. Or amazing scans obtained from (those guys are doing some amazing scans) but a lot of scenes went the route of matte paint to simple geometry – texturing and render. For those we used V-Ray as we got some great results with it with decent timings. However, we remember some ice elements took as long as 8h per frame to render at very high sampling. But most of it went and rendered smoothly and quickly.

Character concept.
Character concept.

fxg: What were the most challenging aspects during the production?

Jarosław Handrysik (Juice rendering artist): Most shots with the mountain landscapes were created by combining matte painting and camera projections that allowed us to render it in V-Ray without global illumination. On the other hand, in the scene with caves it was quite difficult to make the icicles and to render the simulation of breaking the ice in the curling scene – the main challenge render time. At the beginning one full HD frame with GI, SSS and refraction rendered about 9 hours. After optimizing the scene and decreasing the number of refractions, we could cut it to 3h/frame.

fxg: What aspects of V-Ray helped you the most in this project?

Handrysik: Mainly V-Ray’s efficiency. It is a very good renderer because of its speed, great quality and trouble-free cooperation with all the plug-ins.

V-Ray Render Elements allow to regulate very precisely all the values of the rendered image which is of great significance when it comes to best quality rendering and getting  what you have hoped for. For Compositing we used Render Passes: Diffuse, Reflection, Refraction, Specular, Multimatte, Global Illumination, Light Select, Normals, Object ID, Shadows, SSS, Velocity and ZDepth. The snow shader was built on V-Ray Car Paint material with little sparks / flakes, and a mix of normal bump and displacement.

We did lots of simulations before we reached the desired effect. Some shots were quick and dynamic close-ups, others showed mountain scenery from a far distance which required a completely different setup simulation, balancing wind speed and turbulence seen from so far away. To meet all these phenomena we have studied many mountain and mountaineering films. The main tools for snow were Fume FX, Particle Flow, Krakatoa and Ice particles (Softimage).

Final frame.
Final frame.

5 thoughts on “CG robots, milk sims, digi-enviros & macro-cloth”

  1. Great article!! Thanks. In the milk spot, the first idea from below angle for the basketball player was better.. too bad they could not shoot it in the right angle.

  2. Pingback: Nike ‘Aeroloft’ | CGNCollect

  3. Pingback: BBC Winter Olympics – Nature | CGNCollect

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