When kittens and buffalos transform: a how-to

In a recent spot for Vodafone, Time Based Arts engineered some uncanny and epic transformations between a kitten, robot and even a buffalo to demonstrate how the telco’s sim card can power up almost anything. Important Looking Pirates also contributed with photoreal shark action to the spot based on the studio’s experience on the film Kon-Tiki. Time Based Arts executive producer James Allen gives fxguide a how-to breakdown of the steps taken to deal with each of the transformations in ‘Add Power to Your Life’.

Watch ‘Add Power to Your Life’

How-to: find your location(s)

After the spot had been storyboarded and previs’d, multiple locations were used for shooting. “Iceland’s epic landscapes were selected to act as the background to a number of shots, most importantly the buffalo and rocket train sequences,” says Allen. “The windswept beaches of Denmark were used as the location for the car shots as it emerges from the water, and in nearby northern Germany a full set build was created for the diner location. Everything that you see in that location was created and built in situ, from the telegraph pylons to the gas station.”

After the Germany shoot, production moved to a studio shoot in Prague for the rocket ship and then a watertank setup for the underwater sequence. “In fact,” notes Allen, “the shark scene was ultimately re-shot in Budapest in an indoor pool owing to the terrible weather conditions. The project certainly kept us on the road for a few weeks!”

How to: turn an egg into a kitten

The first transformation thanks to the Vodafone sim card involves an egg turning into a kitten. “We had to clearly establish a mechanical nature that suggested a technological driving force and stay away from anything that might suggest a biological process,” explains Allen. “For the egg close up we designed the panel structure to feel geometrical in order to balance with the wilder fur springing out from inside.”

The sim card unleashes its first power.
The sim card unleashes its first power.

Time Based Arts chose to split the cat’s structure into “an interesting array of panels and create an animation rig that would scale, move, rotate and flap each element into position using motion offset/propagation for it to feel choreographed and tidy,” says Allen. “Once we had a working basic move we then refined by hand the secondary animation on the panels and animated layers of fur to build up effortlessly into the final dense and clumpy hair style of the real kitten plate of the following shot. For the final touch we replaced and animated a CG tail and ears on the real kitten plate to connect to the previous shot and to blend seamlessly with the kitten’s performance.”

How to: turn your kitten into a robot

The kitten then morphs into a leaping robot, which, says Allen, was designed with its own back story so that it “could have been created in the garage workshop of an eccentric robotics expert and who could engage our hero for a brief moment before setting off on his journey.”

The kitten begins its transformation into a robot.
The kitten begins its transformation into a robot.

The robot came together with initial sketches, modeling in ZBrush and finaling in Maya. “Since the robot was proportioned like a gorilla,” adds Allen, “we adapted the full rig to fall somewhere between a biped and a quadruped. As most of it was hard-surface, we could directly bind our objects to the rig through groups and constraints. We scripted a few extra systems to layer transforming parts on top of the animated character. Whilst we blocked out animation for the shots, we continued to add geometry and extra details throughout the process.”

How to: make your robot jump through a window

The robot leaps through the window, breaking it. Exterior and interior HDRs were filmed and several plates with the CG robot comp’d in Flame made up the final shot: the key actor’s performance, the exterior with correct exposure and multiple plates of the glass being smashed.

See how the robot jumped through the window.

Arnold was Time Based Art’s primary renderer for the spot. “Arnold is very good at optimizing high points and highlights and trying to minimize artifacts when rendering,” comments Allen. “It also handles motion blur and depth of field particularly well which was very useful considering the nature of the framing and movement of the robot. Some of our render times were hitting over the hour mark, but considering we were using 4-8k textures, GI, diffused reflections, 3D motion blur and hi res HDRIs, this seemed very reasonable.”

For texturing, Time Based Arts chose MARI, letting them paint hi-res textures (some up to 8K) onto the surface of their 3D creations. “This was crucial to convey the wear and tear of our robot,” says Allen. “It also allowed any texture changes to be achieved very quickly as you can build shaders within the software to visualize how things are going to look before you actually start to render them for real. We were very happy with the finished result, our only disappointment being that the robot didn’t get too much screen time. As is the case with the best supporting actors we felt that he could have his own commercial next time!”

How to: turn your robot into a buffalo

After researching the possibility of shooting a real buffalo, and real stunt rider, for this part of the spot, the creative team ultimately settled on a CGI creature and background plates to realize the sequence, which starts with the robot edging towards a car as it turns into a buffalo before a man jumps on its back. Filming took place in Iceland. “It was important to the director that the spot felt naturalistic in terms of camera work so this meant that the plates shot were quite freeform and loose,” says Allen. “Although this added a level of complexity, it arguably was a great help in adding realism to the CGI animation once incorporated. The selected plate was camera tracked and stabilised a little to remove too much camera yaw plus a mountain was added for continuity.”

The robot/buffalo in mid-transformation.

“The buffalo was created from scratch with the model based on a testosterone pumped Photoshop still signed off by the director and client,” continues Allen. “It was rigged anatomically accurate, with simulated muscle and fat reacting to the animated skeleton/bones. A hi-res mesh was attached to an enveloped lo-res cage before a secondary skin deformer added the effects of the muscle/fat sim. Multiple layers of fur were created and styled based on the director’s ideal haircut, and a simulation system developed that resolved quickly yet offered good variation in hair movement. Finally, mud, dirt, straw and sporadic hair clumps were added to further breakup the creature’s CG-ness and enhance realism.”

How to: have your actor ride the buffalo

For the live action element, a gimbal was built for the actor to ride on. Explains Allen: “This was covered with real buffalo fur primarily to capture the close-up shots of the hero in the proceeding shot but it was also very useful lighting and texture reference of course for the creation of the CGI animal. The actor’s movement was captured and the gimbal was so powerful that it had the added bonus of forcing the actor to cling on for dear life, which translated perfectly to the final shot! Some stabilization and re-timing of this footage was completed which allowed the run cycle of the gimbal and CGI to be blended together to plant our hero firmly on the back of the CGI.”

Watch a breakdown of the buffalo ride.

The actor leapt onto a moving green covered gimbal that was attached to the crane arm of a lightweight truck. “This then drove away at speed whilst lifting the crane so that the actor’s movements were representative of him traveling on something that was both moving rapidly and at the same time growing,” says Allen. “This live action stunt was all captured on a repeatable head that meant it was possible to remove the car and shoot clean plates.”

How to: ride a shark

Here, Important Looking Pirates created several shark scenes. ILP executive producer Måns Björklund explains. “We sent a model of our shark to the production crew in Czech republic who molded a part of it (mid section around the fin) for the actor to hold on to when he is dragged underneath the water in a water tank.”

A close-up of ILP's digital shark.
A close-up of ILP’s digital shark.

The shoot took place in a pool with a practical shark fin on set. “We cleaned up the plates and added in a CG shark,” says Björklund. “After the animation was done we put a lot of effort into tweaking the lighting effects such as caustics and fog to make the shark really fit into the scene. We also added in some small CG fish and a seabed to bring the ocean to life. There was no doubt that we had to make this look as believable as possible as not to deter from the wow factor of this commercial.”

Björklund says that the main challenge was the ‘hero’ jump shot for the shark. “We decided to go the full CG route for this shot. The toughest part was the water simulation with splashes coming off the shark and actor as they exited the water. Our extensive experience of working with liquid simulation in Naiad-Houdini was invaluable here having done several high end commercials and the feature film Kon-Tiki.”

How to: turn your shark into a race car

Making its way from the water, the shark becomes a race car. “The director loved the classic 1978 Le Mans Porsche 917 and was keen to use this as the hero car in the spot to add character to the story,” notes Allen. “This proved to be an interesting problem to solve. Radical Berlin were able to source an original car which was delivered to the set with a very watchful minder. The problem was that at over 2.5 million Euros (and in fact without a working engine) it was never going to be sent speeding down the beach! To solve this we devised a plan that broke these shots down into multiple elements.”

Watch a breakdown of the car shot.

A Porsche Carrera was used as a stand in which was filmed with a Russian Arm. “This stand in was matte black which meant that any water spray could be separated from the bodywork without picking up highlights and superimposed later,” says Allen. “It also shared the same wheelbase as its older cousin which meant that we could use the tires’ interaction with the sandy ground for the final comp.”

Meanwhile, the actor was filmed static and in situ at the beach location in the original cockpit of the Le Mans Porsche with a high speed wind machine to suggest speed. Allen notes that “this also allowed us to get the close-ups inside the cockpit. The selected car shots were then camera tracked and the stand in car itself object tracked.”

The Porsche on set.
The Porsche on set.

Time Based Arts then modeled a CGI replica of the Le Mans Porsche based on the reference with new decals and details and then animated to match. “Meanwhile,” says Allen, “a bespoke piece of 3D animation for the transformation of the shark to car was being completed. Again it was important to retain the look and feel of the transformations we’ve witnessed earlier in the commercial. All of the transformations had to feel like they were from the same family even though the objects themselves were so diverse. The final elements were brought together in the composite where some additional integration elements such as water splashes were added.”

How to: build a rocket train

The race car finally transforms into a rocket train, a vehicle that required credible designs with incredible performance. “Initially,” recalls Allen, “a lot of time was spent researching possible designs both for the rocket itself and the train that carries it, getting the two to work together in terms of design, scale and textures. There was a lot of back and forth with the director and agency, with mood boards and initial low poly Maya models, as we worked to achieve a look that everyone was happy with.”

The rocket train zooms along.
The rocket train zooms along.

Time Based Arts looked to reference from a 1960’s ‘rocket-fronted’ passenger train, the James Bond – Golden Eye train, and the Proton M Russian rocket. “Because our hero rides on the top of the rocket train, a physical model of the rocket surface was also constructed by the art department for the studio shoot,” says Allen. “Some of the details of the rocket surface were developed between the 3D team and the art department working back and forth. The actor and also a stuntman were shot clinging on to this set build against a green screen, suspended by wires and in the path of a 100mph fan.”

“The penultimate shot of the rocket train involves it pulling apart and mechanically deconstructing,” notes Allen. “These were the biggest challenges in terms of animation and hence rigging. A lot of R&D and ‘playing’ was done with ways to deconstruct the rocket and feasibly get it to fold in upon itself in interesting ways whilst seamlessly reducing its scale and mass without it simply shrinking. Once a method was decided upon, the rig was fine-tuned around the animation. In this sense, we worked backwards to achieve this result.”

A still from the Iceland shoot.
A still from the Iceland shoot.

Time Based Arts again used Arnold to render several passes for use in comp, “including various IDs for the flames which were done almost entirely in 2D with 3D smoke and dust passes provided additionally,” says Allen. “The live action footage of our hero was separated by the 2D team in order that it could be placed over and integrated with our CG rocket train, with contact shadow passes provided. The final shot of the rocket part bouncing out of shot over the sand was done across Maya and XSI. Maya rigid bodies was used for the simulation, with ICE used in XSI for the interaction with the ground.”

The final result is a spot that Allen suggests provides a ‘low-fi and naturalistic feel’. “Transformers with kittens – what more could we ask for?!”


Client – Vodafone

Agency – Jung von Matt/Alster
Creative Director: Goetz Ulmer, Simon Hiebl
Agency Producer: Christoph Koehler
Art Director: Pavel Bondarenko

Production Company – @radical.media Berlin
Director: Sebastian Strasser
Exec Producer: Lutz Mueller, Christoph Petzenhauser
Producer: Susa Ehlers

VFX Company – Time Based Arts
VFX Supervisor: Sheldon Gardner
Exec Prod: James Allen
Production: Chris Aliano, Hannah Clark
Flame: Mike Skrgatic, James Allen, Luke Todd, James Adamson
Flare: Steve Grasso
Smoke: Mike Aveling
Nuke: Leandro Vazquez, Andre Dias, Matt Shires, Jeanette Monero
Previs: Richard Perry
3D: James Mann, Chris Woods, Ben Cantor, Graeme Turnbull, Jeroen Hooghoudt, Poul Resen Steenstrup, Toby Winder, Oscar Gonzalez Diez, Denis Baudin
Concept: Andrew Brooks, Matt Clark

VFX – Important Looking Pirates
Executive Producer: Måns Björklund
VFX Producer: Magdalena Berglind
Lead 3D Artist: Bobo Skipper
3D Artists: Jonas Andersson, Patrik Wedinger
2D Artists: David Wahlberg, Jens Tenland, Niklas Nyqvist

2 thoughts on “When kittens and buffalos transform: a how-to”

  1. Pingback: Vodafone ‘Add Power To Your Life’ | CGNCollect

  2. Pingback: The making of a Vodafone commercial - or how to transform objects in video - wolfcrow

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