The seemingly impossible was made possible, thanks to Square Zero’s live hologram
At the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival this past summer, advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi and VFX house/production company Square Zero surprised the audience attending the New Directors’ Showcase there by bringing Paul Arden, former executive creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi London, back to life via hologram. This digital marvel was a high point during Saatchi & Saatchi’s 20th annual “Nothing Is Impossible” New Directors’ Showcase and a way of honoring the man who introduced the first ever New Directors’ Showcase in 1991.
Square Zero created live the hologram to present proceedings at the event—which has become one of the most popular during the Cannes Lions Festival. In addition to Arden, the company re-created in holographic form Richard Myers, Saatchi & Saatchi’s creative director for global culture, which also played a role in the presentation and introduced fellow hologram Arden.
“Every year at the New Directors’ Showcase at the Cannes Advertising Festival, Saatchi & Saatchi opens the show with a spectacular display,” says project director Najma Bhatti from Square Zero, whose previous projects at the company include the holographic CGI re-creation of Abba for the Abba World Exhibition. “This year, Saatchi wanted to honor Paul Arden, former creative director of the company, for the 20th showcase, as he had presented the first [showcase] and sadly passed away two years ago. They were thinking of using holograms in some way for the opener, and the two ideas married up.
So the challenge and the beauty of the project was to bring Paul back to present in the Nothing Is Impossible-themed showcase, as he addresses the audience with a current speech.”
The project took about eight weeks from start to play-out at the festival.
The first week involved purely R&D, and after that, it went into full intense production.
As Bhatti explains, there were two parts to the piece. The introduction—when Arden is given the stage—and then the second section after the Directors’ Showcase, when Arden appears back on stage to say thank you and farewell to the audience. The entire piece was approximately two minutes long.
Square Zero used cutting-edge technology and Musion Systems’ projection to create the holograms for the showcase. The piece was generated through the combination of film footage, a specially shot body double and recorded voice double, motion capture, and CGI.
As Bhatti notes, this project posed a number of challenges for Square Zero. First, there was the limited amount of film footage required to make the piece work. The second big challenge was finding a convincing enough voice-over artist, without which the whole piece would have been shelved, Bhatti contends. The lip sync was also a big hurdle. Even though the voice-over artist studied Arden’s speech and emulated his mouth movements for the CGI, putting it all together somehow didn’t just work straightaway. The lip sync was constantly studied and tested and refined.
“We got the lip sync to a place where I was finally satisfied with it the day before we flew out with the files to Cannes,” says Bhatti.
The team spent a lot of time searching for footage that it felt was useable in terms of quality, duration, and other criteria. This video was supplied by Nick Sutherland Dodd, Arden’s former business partner of many years.
Nevertheless, a lot of work was done to make the footage useable. It needed extensive rotoscoping and stabilizing to get Arden’s head into a neutral position so that a computer-generated jaw could be added. “There was such a limited amount of footage, and we needed approximately a minute and a half to add the speech to,” explains Bhatti. “So the final piece that you see was actually created using footage that had been looped and bounced several times over.”
A body double was cast after the group’s research into Arden’s body language and costume detail. After much searching, a voice artist was cast, who studied Arden’s voice from clips Square Zero had available, as well as the mouth movements, which the group needed to capture while recording the speech. “This way we could also get our motion data for the animated part,” Bhatti says.
Rotoscoping was done using Imagineer Systems’ Mocha, while The Foundry’s Nuke was used for stabilizing, compositing, and lighting. All the editing was done on Apple’s Final Cut Pro.
In terms of CG, Jonson Jewell, animation and visual effects artist, re-created the jaw entirely in CGI within Autodesk’s Maya, modeled to Arden’s features. Next, the mocap data was flowed into the model, which was blended into the footage head. The head was then tracked onto the body double.
Richard Myers, meanwhile, was filmed along with the body double for the presentation intro handover to Arden. And on the presentation day in Cannes, he was dressed identically, so he could appear both real and virtual at different times, “and really make our audience rack their brains,” says Bhatti.
To generate the holograms, the team used an old technique, called Pepper’s Ghost, on the Musion Eyeliner system, which allows for life-size 2D projection of people and graphics to appear three-dimensional in a controlled stage setting.
“We worked with Musion Eyeliner Systems, which we have worked with for several years now,” says Bhatti. “HD images are projected onto the system and black backgrounds disappear, creating transparency.”
According to Bhatti, there were many separate elements in the making of this project, and the key was to bring all those elements together seamlessly.
Also vital to the project was detail. “Every small detail was important, from researching what Paul would have worn, to how he spoke, walked, and gestured with his hands,” she says. “The Saatchi team was invaluable here, as they had worked with Paul for so many years and knew all the little nuances that made the piece really believable.”
The team knew they had succeeded when Arden’s family viewed the piece before it debuted, and were pleased with the results. “They said we had done a brilliant job, which meant that all those little details had really come together,” Bhatti says.
Not long ago, Square Zero brought Frank Sinatra back to holographic life for Simon Cowell’s 50th birthday celebration (see “Real Illusion,” January 2010). Vicky Godfrey, also a Square Zero company director, was the producer on the Sinatra project as well as the Nothing Is Impossible hologram.
On the Frank Sinatra job, the footage of Frank singing was rotoscoped, colorized, and then tracked onto a specially shot body double. But, this project involved a whole extra level of complication involving the audio (getting an artist to sound like Arden) and in the CGI (applying that audio in a way that it really looked like a CG jaw was emitting those words). In the case of Sinatra, a recording of the singer was used. “However, the results of our Frank Sinatra project convinced us that we would be able to go to a new level and deliver,” says Bhatti.
Moreover, the Cannes Showcase was in front of very discerning creatives, so in that sense, the team had a harsher audience than that at Simon Cowell’s birthday. Still, both were successful and well received in their own right, Bhatti contends.
Bhatti continues: “I won’t forget the intricacies of lip sync in a hurry after this project! Mainly, we will take a lot of positives from this project, working with the Saatchi team and aiming for a very high level delivery and then being able to fulfill that was very inspiring. And of course, we will continue to keep in our minds that, indeed, Nothing is imposssible!”
So, did the hologram actually fool anyone? Yes, it did. “We felt we had really achieved the impossible and brought Paul back to present the showcase so convincingly that journalists asked if they could interview the body double after the hologram went out at the showcase,” Bhatti says.
See a video clip of the making-of at http://vimeo.com/13708912.