Dutch studio The Ambassadors worked from start to finish on a new fully CG animated television commercial for Mona, a luxury desserts brand. Everything from design of the TVC’s claymation-like characters through to the final sound mix was carried out at the studio. We talk to Ambassadors co-founder and visual effects supervisor Ton Habraken about how it was done.
fxg: Can you discuss the background to the production of Mona?
Habraken: The Ambassadors has a relatively unique setup as a creative studio. Our visual effects and CG team sits under one roof with our design and animation directors, sound-designers, editors and our software/innovations guru’s (The Lab). Day to day these different areas can work on numerous different projects. But it also offers the possibility for The Ambassadors to be a one-stop shop for a full TVC production. Every element of the production process can be handled in-house. From the concept sketches and storyboards, through the CG, comping, editing, sound right up to grading and delivering it for broadcast.
Having everyone working so closely together on projects means that the teams are constantly communicating and this fosters an environment where every department is inspiring each other.
fxg: What were some of the conceptual steps you took in bringing to spot to life (for e.g. illustrations, boards etc)?
Habraken: One of our in-house directors, Vincent Lammers, oversaw the project and all the design and concept work, it was his vision that ensured a unified and detailed look. We were working with a client who was using character animation in their advertising for the first time. This meant we had to be very clear how the process works and let them understand that having great pre-production and getting it approved would be the backbone of a great looking spot.
Our Design and Animation team created a ton of beautiful concept work and pretty much designed every element of the spot right down to the smallest detail. And it is these small details (like the fridge magnets, the family portraits on the wall, the hipstergram filter on the photograph and the cat in the background) that ultimately add up to give the commercial its depth and character. All of this resulted in a lot of work-in-progress presentations with the client and the agency too keep the line of communication clear and tight during the entire process, a lot of credits for this smooth process go too our producer, Daphne Litjens, who ran a tight ship and was at the agency, together with Vincent, almost three times a week to present our progress.
fxg: Can you talk about the tools and techniques used for modeling and rigging the characters?
Habraken: The characters were modeled with a standard workflow of Zbrush and Maya by Jeroen Cloosterman and Nick Groeneveld. They paid special attention to the fine surface details of clay. The character sculpts really captured that un-even, lumpy feeling of clay and the tiny surface details of fingerprints that sell the scale.
The body rigs were set up to allow plenty of squash and stretch. We wanted them to have the flexibility to be able to do anything you might be able to do with a real clay model and allow the animators ample freedom to play around and come up with ideas.
For the facial rigs we knew we would also need very high levels of control. We invested a lot in a complex face rig that combines a bones based approach with a blendshapes setup. This provides us with a best of both worlds scenario. The blend shapes allow fast posing and strong basic shapes, while the bones allow the animators to go in and tweak the fine details and really exaggerate the performance.
The combination approach of bones and blendshapes definitely added a layer of complexity to the rigging process because of the cyclical setup of ‘bones that drive blendshapes that in turn drive the bones’. But the results were truly worth the effort. The animators were able to capture 99% of what they wanted straight from the rig and still had the option to ask the modellers for a sculpt of a specific blendshape to capture a particular smile or raised eyebrow.
fxg: How did you approach the claymation style of animation - what reference did you look to for this?
Habraken: Our main point of reference for the claymation style was predominantly Wallace and Gromit and the work of Aardman. Both Wallace and Gromit are so full of life and character and that is something we really wanted to capture in our characters Sjors and Jacques. Vincent also brought a box filled with clay to the studio to use as reference, and just for the fun of it. All the animation was done on 2s which instantly gives that stop-frame feeling. Scale was also a very important part of selling the claymation style – we established a 1:5 scale and made sure that every detail from a fingerprint smudge on the fridge to the weave of the table cloth adhered to that ratio.
fxg: There's such a pleasing feel to the final look - can you talk about your lighting, rendering and also final compositing decisions?
Habraken: Mona desserts are a family brand and it was our intention to capture the typical dutch feeling of ‘gezelligheid’ - which roughly translates as cosy, togetherness. The lighting needed to capture that feeling of a warm spring afternoon. CG supervisor William Jeffers was responsible for setting up the lighting workflow for the spot.
V-Ray was used as renderer, which has always had a strong reputation for its architectural interior lighting. We used this strength to create a warm interior lighting for the room. The setup was based on a primary sunlight that shines in through the windows and the soft bounces of light from the GI create a realistic golden glow around the room. But we knew that this would also mean ‘architectural’ render times – which would be unacceptable for a 30 second spot with a quick turnover. So we used our lit interior as a base to render out a HDRI environment of the kitchen and use this HDRI as the base lighting for our characters.
This VFX style approach meant we had a background ‘plate’ of the kitchen and a foreground layer for the characters and props lit by an HDRI dome light. This base setup meant we could quickly add a few key and rim lights to the characters and have them rendering without forcing V-Ray to break a sweat. The end results married together seamlessly and the quick render times really benefited us with delivering iterations quickly and allowing animators to see their work as final renders at an early stage.
We really wanted to deliver a very physically tactile final result and add the small details of realism such as depth of field, subtle film flicker and lens aberrations. The compositing was carried out in Nuke by Stephen Pepper who combined all the subtle effects and details that ultimately add up to and sell the stop-frame feel. Final finishing and grading was done in Flame.
fxg: The sound design and music really add to the spot, can you talk about your approach to these aspects?
Habraken: The voicing was quite a tough nut to crack because we needed the actors to really match the animated characters. We didn't want them to act too much out of their own character, making it sound like a funny animation voice, it had to fit naturally.
After many casting rounds we found Ruben van der Meer & Ton Kas as the ideal match for the roles, one being energetic and young sounding and the other a little older and more skeptical. The recording of the final voices was a lot easier since we now knew what we needed after all those test recordings.
We tried to keep the sound design as simple as possible, realistic, funny at times but not too distracting. The animation is so nice that it didn't need a lot of help in sound design, just the things you need to hear in a clay animation to help explain the actions. The music we made is a little bit like a sitcom ident, a short intro to set you in the scene and a short outro after the pun.
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