Super Bowl LI will always be remembered as one of the greatest games (and comebacks) of all time. As exciting as the game was, there was only 16 minutes of actual ball in play, as seen by this chart from CB Insights.

The question is, will any of this year’s Super Bowl commercials be remembered as well?

With the NY Times reporting that the average cost of a 30-second ad during Super Bowl LI is now US$5 million, (up from $4.8 million in 2016), advertisers are highly motivated to be creative in order to have their spots, breakthrough in terms of recall and effectiveness.

While judging the ads ‘success’ is complex, there were a lot of very good creative spots in Super Bowl LI. Here is one of the spots that we liked and recalled from 2017.

Honda Yearbook

The spot includes animated original pictures of Amy Adams, Jimmy Kimmel, Magic Johnson, Missy Elliott, Robert Redford, Stan Lee, Steve Carell, Tina Fey and Viola Davis.

The spot was directed by the award winning Angus Wall. “Our goal was to make it look as simple as possible and get out of the way of the concept and its’ message …which entailed using every trick in the book (and then some) and breaking several rules along the way.”

Angus Wall is both a Director and film editor. He and fellow film editor Kirk Baxter won the Academy Award for Best Film Editing for the David Fincher film The Social Network in 2010 and again in 2011 for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. A long time Fincher collaborator he was also nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. In addition to TVCs he earned dual Emmys for designing the title sequences of Game of Thrones and Carnivale.

Executive Creative Director Jason Sperling championed the spot for Agency RPA. Adweek reported that
“There were a few ideas we were looking at, and there was a long discussion about what was right and would hit on the car, hit on the brand, hit on the emotion we wanted,” Mr. Sperling said. “At the end of the day, you don’t want to be in the Super Bowl if you don’t have something that feels brave and is going to stand out.”
“Thinking about these celebrities back then, and the fact that there were kind of just like all of us to some extent — some of them may have even been bigger losers than we were — but they kept pursuing their dreams and ended up where they are,” said Mr. Sperling. “It really mirrored the idea of the story of Honda so well.”

The spot was particularly complex as the original pictures are not high res fake images but real pictures. The animated images were then placed into a newly re-created yearbook. The agency obtained the star’s old pictures and then a52 placed into practical shots of real yearbooks collected from various staffers at RPA, a52, and Honda.

Those surrounding classmates photos of staffers and their families included Executive Creative Director Jason Sterling’s photo on the far left, in Tina Fey’s yearbook. “It wasn’t my best hair day,” he said.  Sterling’s great aunt and great uncle’s photos are in Stan Lee’s yearbook, and the husband of an RPA creative director sits to the right of Missy Elliott. The students’ names were changed to follow alphabetization in the lineups.

The spots started with the recording of the actor’s voiceovers. The stars improvised some of the dialogue. The team then filmed both the actors and various lookalike stand-ins closer to their target age who also basically also re-delivering the star’s pre-recorded lines. This gave the a52 team invaluable reference for the animation. The agency is not able to show any of the making of footage of the original dialogue recordings, but the recreated lip sync to each person’s newly recorded dialogue is a very polished implementation by director Wall.

Viola Davis who delivered a brilliant performance in Fences (yet again).

We spoke to the team at a52, Urs Furrer: VFX Supervisor,  Adam Newman: CG Supervisor, Adam Carter: Rigging Lead and Andrew Wilkoff, the On Set Supervisor.


FXG: How did you approach the problem?

Urs Furrer: A great quote from Angus Wall, the director… “The spot achieves a simplicity that belies the complexity “under the hood” “. It was much much more than mapping photos onto a rough model. We needed all the detail, complexity, nuances and reality from a fully animated photo-real head to be able to bring them to life.
From the beginning, it was evident that there wouldn’t be a single ‘magic bullet’ that would work on all of the shots. Some of the stand in’s filmed were able to capture the essence of the celebrity more than others, as well as having features that were a closer resemblance to the star’s photo. Not all of the heads could be straight CG, nor could they all rely on a strict 2D approach.

Adam Newman: Based on initial tests, for the faces that weren’t full replacements, we gave the compositing team a version of the meshes with the eyes and mouth sealed so they had a smooth canvas to manipulate in flame.

Urs Furrer: From that, we developed a quick workflow that involved unwrapping faces that we filmed to easily manipulate them as a flat image. This became incredibly useful as we were able to blend in elements of the photos, witness cameras and even CG renders as the level of complexity and accuracy increased.

Adam Newman: For the faces that were full replacements, we used the high res 3D scans taken at the time of the VO session to create the base meshes, and mapped the texture that came with the scan to animate to all of the plates or reference material. We then de-aged the model both in 3d sculpting and texture painting. In addition to custom shaders and texture maps, we mixed in parts of the current aged texture from the scan where we could to maintain as much of the character as possible.  On the 3D side, we spent the most time iterating and refining both the animation, and shaders.


FXG: I assume the face doubles were filmed with multiple cameras, but there was some mention of a 3D camera? Did they mean an RGBD camera?

Kirk Shintani: They’re referring to the 3D head scans that we did on site at the various recording studios.  SCANable is a long, long time friend and collaborator, and they traveled with us all over the US to scan all the talent so that we had a concrete base to start from.


FXG: What tools did you use in your pipeline?

Urs Furrer: We used Maya, Nuke, Mari, Zbrush, Photoshop, Flame, Houdini, Wrap3 and PFtrack


FXG:Was the face rig a basic FACS blendshape style rig?

Adam Carter: We created a custom joint based auto-rig.  The rig was generated from a template that matched the muscle groups of the face.  Every muscle responsible for facial expressions was accounted for, and we generated a joint cage of over 375 bind joints skinned to the mesh.  We chose a joint based rig instead of blend shape to allow for frequent model changes, while automating the process of rebuilding the rig.  It also gave us a softer feel, and more control to tweak and fine tune in animation.  The controllers drove a joint chain representing the muscle it was simulating. Each chain was attached to the skull and interconnected so when a control was moved all proper muscles would be triggered, preserving the feeling of the underlying facial structure.

Adam Newman: In addition, we modeled fat pockets that were added into the rig to be used by Houdini to achieve the sliding skin and sticky lips effects.


FXG: How long did you have to work on it?

Kirk Shintani: We worked with Angus in mid October to help finalize a VFX methodology for executing this spot and we started pre production shortly after that.  Most of the VO sessions took place after Thanksgiving into December, and we started Editorial and Post Production mid december.  Delivery was end of January.


FXG: Was anyone at your end on set for each of the talent/star’s recordings?

Adam Newman: Yes we had 2 full crews. I was on the traveling east coast crew with super producer Danny Hirsch, SCANable, and our live action production manager. We did Steve, Tina, Missy, and Jimmy Kimmel who were all a pleasure to work with.

KirkShintani: While Adam took care of the east coast, our other onset supervisor Andrew Wilkoff and our live action line producer took care of the west coast sessions.  We acquired as much data as we could in the short amount of time we had.  Everyone was very, very gracious with their time, and made the sessions really fun.


FXG: Did you have to degrade the output to make the final animation look more like a printed page?

Urs Furrer: 

The final output had some degradation, but we used some practical elements for the pages rather than an all CG approach…throughout the job we shot some tests and discovered that it was really nice to see some context, and to give the photos a ‘home’. Plus, all the imperfections and the character you get from print, paper and real photography really grounded the effects. It’s a tangible, nostalgic vibe that we needed. Almost like someone had found the books and was scanning through them. Seeing things like the edges of pages, book bindings etc gave you context, and just grounded everything.


Adweek also reporting that RPA had an interesting strategy when it came to casting. The agency approached the four main Hollywood talent agencies with the idea and budget, and whichever agency  managed to bring the best group of talent forward would get their stars in the spot.

In the end, WME delivered the winning lineup. “It actually became a really difficult choice, because there were so many incredible names they put together,” Mr. Sperling said. “It ultimately came down to who felt right and how we were expressing the best diversity in terms of gender, profession, age.” A late addition, however, was Viola Davis, who’s repped by CAA. “I had gone to an early screening of ‘Fences,’ and just had a feeling she was going to be talked about for the Oscars, which is just a few weeks away, so adding her just felt right,” Mr. Sperling said.


Other Noteworthy Spots

Here are other spots fxguide liked (with or without VFX).

The Battle of Evony

Mobile game publisher Top Games US, Inc. debuted two spots to launch Evony: The King’s Return around this year’s big game broadcast. Working with ad agency Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, Method Studios handled VFX on the two-minute teaser which debuted online on February 1, and on the a 30-second big game spot showing the climactic battle.

In the campaign, leaders from various historical eras converge as allies in an unlikely battle – including America’s George Washington (Aaron Eckhart), England’s King Arthur (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and China’s Empress Wu Zetian (Fan Bingbing). The spots depict each character’s unique region and vast forces as they prepare for battle, culminating with all three coming together to storm an enemy castle.

Method VFX supervisor Benjamin Walsh led a team of 30 artists, creating a wide range of CG effects including Massive  crowd armies and accompanying weapons and horses, and atmospheric elements including fireballs, fog, and smoke, composited in Flame. Artists also created matte paintings for various environments, including the enemy castle and surrounding landscape, King Arthur’s medieval ruins, and George Washington’s Virginia countryside. The CG Supervisor was Lee Carlton, and the Compositing Supervisor was Chris Bankoff.

Walsh explained: “We only had a two-and-a-half week post schedule, so as soon as the shoot wrapped in New Zealand we were sending back data to start building the CG soldiers for the three distinct armies. Our dedicated artists did a wonderful job of efficiently executing the rigging, painting, lookdev, and multiple animation cycles required on the soldiers carrying weapons, flags, and riding horses – to create these beautifully cinematic spots.”

Easy Rider: Mercedes Directed by the Coen Brothers

Kia Niro | “Hero’s Journey” Starring Melissa McCarthy


Daytona Day

The Nascar Dayton spot features a high volume of VFX work. Ingenuity Studios had only two weeks to turn the spot around. The VFX / CG elements included a giant robot, race cars and large crowds. While Ingenuity Studios team worked day and night, Fox was simultaneously shooting footage.
“When we were initially approached about this project we knew the turnaround would be a challenge.  Editorial wasn’t fully locked until Thursday before the big game!  With such a tight deadline preparing as much as we could in advance was key.” Grant Miller -Creative Director / VFX Supervisor

Only portions of the shoot took place at the Daytona Speedway duriung an off day at the stadium and thus the infield was empty.  In preparation the CG team built the entire Daytona stadium while Fox was still shooting, complete with cheering CG crowds, RVs filling the interior, pit crews, etc.  This meant that once editorial locked the team needed to track the camera, adjust the lighting, and then render all the stadium passes for each shot.

In addition to prepping CG for set extensions, Ingenuity Studios also got a head start on the giant robot that shows up half way through the commercial.  “Once the storyboards were approved and we were clear on the level of detail required we took our concept bot out of ZBrush, retopologized and unwrapped it, then proceeded to do surfacing and materials in Substance Painter.  While we had some additional detailing to do, we were able to get the textures 80% completed by applying a variety of procedural materials to the mesh, saving a ton of manual painting” he explains.

Other FX work included 40+ CG Nascars to fill the track, additional cars for the traffic jam, and lots of greenscreen and roto work to get the scenes shot in Charlotte into Daytona.  “There was also a fair bit of invisible work to clean up sets, remove rain, paint out logos, etc.” he adds.

…and the Snickers live commercial

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