Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 11 (November 2002)


Using digital technology, Playground, a production and effects studio in Santa Monica, California, recently created a television commercial for the Saudi-Arabian National Agricultural Development Corporation (NADEC) that has the look and feel of an epic in terms of its scale, style, and length.

Saudi Arabia's old and new worlds converge in an epic-style two-minute television commercial airing in the Middle East. Digitally created elements help give the live-action production its grand proportions.

"The promotion showcases NADEC's work in regenerating the arid landscape for agricultural use and introduces the group's new logo," says Playground's Craig Price, creative director for the project. "The overall concept was to show the progression and convergence of traditional old-world values with modern advancements, and that the two could coexist. Additionally, the client wanted it done on a grand scale, with wide shots of horsemen and the desert—sort of a Lawrence of Arabia look."

The Playground team satisfied those requirements by using well-known elements from the Arab country's past and present, and integrating them into an intricately choreographed two-minute production—far longer than the 30-second spots that typically air in the US. The commercial, shot in Namibia's coastal desert, opens with a grandfather and his grandson watching an approaching sandstorm as it sweeps through the empty, arid landscape. As the scene unfolds, the clouds above part, and thousands of men on horseback, each carrying a flag, are seen charging toward one another. Gradually, the galloping riders assemble their flags into a giant NADEC banner, complete with the group's new logo, which is then hoisted aloft by a squadron of helicopters.

Using inferno, digital artists replicated and composited live shots of approximately 100 actors dressed in traditional Saudi garb to generate the large armies of charging horsemen required for the commercial.

The expansive, pristine dunes of Namibia provided an impressive backdrop for the live-action production. However, achieving the grand-scale look of the foreground elements—such as the large mounted armies, the flowing football field-size banner, and the numerous swooping helicopters—required the use of digital technology.

To generate the huge groups of charging horsemen in classic Saudi dress, the production team filmed approximately 100 extras on horseback, which were then divided into smaller groups to create non-repeating patterns of movement within the final-cut scene. Later, the various groups were digitally replicated during postproduction with Discreet's inferno compositing software. As a result, the original 100 charging men quickly became a few thousand. "Using a CG solution to generate the army was out of the question given the time limitations," says Price, "Instead, we accomplished it the old-fashioned way, in post."

Using Maya, the artists constructed realistic 3D helicopters, which appear in a number of shots throughout the commercial.

The use of computer graphics, however, was required in the scenes containing the soaring helicopters. The director wanted a downward view of the choppers, making the shots look as if they were acquired in midair from another helicopter flying above. "Doing an air-to-air shot was not practical in terms of cost," notes Price. "So we took some aerial shots of the desert, and inserted photorealistic 3D models into the scene."

To build the helicopters, a team of artists at Playground started with a Viewpoint model that closely resembled a real helicopter used on the set for filming. Using Alias|Wavefront's Maya, digital artists at Playground tweaked and textured the model, which was then replicated to create the squadron. The practical helicopter also served as a reference for texturing and lighting the virtual versions. In the end, the CG helicopters were used in all but a few of the scenes in which the choppers appeared.

The most complicated scene in the production involved the wide-angle, top-view shots of the large, flowing banner as it was assembled from the small flags carried by the horsemen. The difficulty, says Price, arose from the complex simulated cloth motion needed for the banner and the complicated scene tracking required for seamlessly integrating the digital elements into the live action.

First, a cameraman aboard the helicopter filmed dramatic views of the desert floor for the background plate. Next, the digital artists created the giant, rippling banner using Playground's proprietary cloth-simulation software. According to Price, the group had looked at various plug-ins to Maya but didn't find any that achieved the desired results. In particular, the cloth had to react differently under different types of tension, as it would be pulled by the horsemen and then by the helicopters. Also, the group needed a massive banner that was semitransparent, similar to the cloth used for sails, and had to react accordingly.

The team used 2d3's boujou to track the various shots in which 3D objects, such as this large, billowy banner, were integrated. The desert's featureless terrain made this process particularly difficult.

At the end of the scene, the banner—surrounded by the horsemen—is lifted and then dragged away by the helicopters. "That shot alone contains a big camera move that had to be tracked," notes Price. Tracking that shot as well as the others proved especially difficult since the featureless desert terrain provided little or no obvious detail to use as tracking points. He also notes that it was always very windy on set, and the desert cleaned itself quickly, erasing footprints and other disturbances that would have made tracking easier to accomplish.

The team overcame those issues by enhancing the contrast of the footage and color-correcting it to exaggerate the edge detail and to obtain shadows. They then used 2d3's boujou automated motion-tracking software. "In effect, we created a tracking plate," says CGI supervisor Paal Anand, "and the enhanced detail was enough to give boujou something to work with in an otherwise featureless scene."

Now that the commercial is behind them and recently began airing in Saudi Arabia, Price and his team can look back with a certain sense of satisfaction at having produced such a grand project. Price notes, however, that without the use of computer graphics, the team could never have delivered on the client's request for the epic-style promotion. "It's ironic to think that in the beginning we tried to keep the CG elements to a minimum," he adds. "But without them, the scale would not have been nearly as impressive." ..

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior editor for Computer Graphics World.