Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 5 (May 2000)

USER FOCUS: A Toy Tale




Animators create a television spot that's out of this world

By Karen Moltenbrey

Focusing on the premise that "every picture tells a story," the animators at Blue Sky Studios (Harrison, NY) created a short story within the context of an all-CG television commercial heralding newly expanded toy departments at Target retail stores. Based on the book Nova's Ark by re nowned children's author David Kirk, the 30-second spot is both narratively and visually complex. "In a half-min ute, we had to tell a complete story that reflected the world of Nova's Ark yet fulfilled the intention of the commercial-to advertise the retail store's larger toy section," says Carlos Saldanha, Blue Sky animation director.

As the spot opens, Nova and his robot dog, Sparky, rocket through space seeking an adventure when their ship suddenly spins out of control and crash-lands in a strange place. As Nova and Sparky explore their surroundings, they find a world full of toys-some swirling around in zero gravity and others stacked on shelves waiting for a wanting boy or girl. As the camera pulls back, we see that they are on a space station, which bears the Target store logo.
For a Target store commercial, animators at Blue Sky used Alias|Wavefront's Maya to replicate the look and feel of the characters from the children's book Nova's Ark.




One of the most challenging aspects of the project, says Saldanha, was remaining true to Kirk's Nova's Ark universe. To ease that task, the artists used views of the two characters from all angles, provided by the author's publishing company, as references for creating 3D models of Nova and Sparky using Alias|Wavefront's (Toronto) Maya. "We had to be me tic ulous; our characters had to look identical to those in the book," says Nina Bafaro, lead animator.

Replicating the book's lighting style was also tricky. Even though the Nova's Ark book was illustrated in a 3D style, the images in the book were lit as 2D still pictures, notes Saldanha. "So we had to ensure that our lighting was appropriate for the commercial's 3D animation as the characters moved through space," he says.
The commercial for Target's newly expanded toy department challenged the artists by requiring them to create more than 3000 detailed toys that, via swooping camera moves, can quickly move from the background to the foreground.




Aside from accurately portraying Kirk's characters and vision, the animators also had to create more objects for this spot than they had done for any other commercial. "We made thousands of toys that had to be fully conceptualized, modeled, placed into the scenes, and rendered," Saldanha says. To generate the more than 3000 toys that ap pear in the commercial, the artists modeled about 40 main objects in Maya, and then, using a procedural animation technique, replicated the models for the toys that appear on the shelves in the background.

Creating the commercial's CG toys, which are realistic representations of actual products, required just as much precision as modeling the characters. This is because the swooping camera moves that are used for the spot bring the toys in the background quickly into the foreground, where they are shown in detail. To achieve these complex images, the group used Maya and CGI Studio, Blue Sky's proprietary NURBS-based rendering program.

The sheer number of images in the spot pushed the studio's SGI (Mountain View, CA) workstations to the limit. "Although a lot of the toys are sitting on shelves, many are floating through the scene with their own signature animations-there is a toy duck whose wheels spin and a wooden cat that Sparky chases," Bafaro explains. "At least some part of every toy is moving, unless it is on the shelf." The most intricate movement involves a bright-red origami bird, which Bafaro and Shaun Cusak modeled and Mike Thurmeier animated in Maya, using an origami reference book to help them replicate the complicated folds. "In seconds, a piece of paper folds into a bird, and the bird flies off," Bafaro describes.

Because the toys are photorealistic, Saldanha was worried that they would clash with the nonphotorealistic look of Nova and Sparky, and Kirk's vibrant color scheme. But by using consistent lighting and adding some common shapes and colors, the group was able to create a cohesive look for the imagery. "A classic wooden truck looks very different from Nova, but it looks fine among the other less-contrasting toys," he says.
By using consistent lighting and common elements, colors, and shapes, the animators brought together objects from two very different worlds: realistically modeled toys and the nonphotorealistic characters from Nova's Ark.




The commercial also contains intricate lighting effects, including explosions, rocket thrusters, and flashing and alternating lights. Some scenes call for more than 300 light sources, which would have been cost- and time-prohibitive for this spot. "Instead, we created procedural lighting models to composite in 'fake' Christmas-tree-type lights that wouldn't actually affect the environment," says Dave Walvoord, senior technical director. The artists also added some compositing "cheats" to add glows and reflections that would have been more time-consuming to create in CGI Studio.

The mini story presented the animators with some creative challenges, but perhaps the biggest challenge of all, says Saldanha, was mimicking the work of a talented artist such as Kirk. "It's far easier to create a realistic model of an object from scratch than to replicate someone else's work," he says. "We had to disassociate ourselves from the real world and step into David Kirk's world. And we had to become storytellers much like he is."

Maya, Alias|Wavefront (www.aw.sgi.com)
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