Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 7 (July 2002)

Modern Classics

By Karen Moltenbrey

The Pillsbury Doughboy, Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, and a handful of other iconic television commercial "spokes characters" have an extra spring in their step. That's because these popular product "pitchmen," who have appeared in numerous commercials during the past few decades, are now sporting a new computer-generated look.

"Audiences are more sophisticated than they used to be, and they want to see something that's bigger, better, and more dynamic," says Dale Carman, chief visionary at Reel FX in Dallas, which recently completed a series of TV spots featuring a 3D GI Joe. "I remember seeing GI Joe on TV when I was a kid and I thought it looked great. But now when I look at [the original character], I realize how simple it seems compared to the 3D version."

Besides achieving a compelling appearance, there are other advantages to porting a classic character-whether a hand-drawn cel creation or a maquette-to 3D. Al though the initial digital modeling process is often more time-consuming, animators can reuse their model if they are creating a series of spots, which often happens. Also, using a 3D environment enables the director and animators to achieve unlimited camera moves and subtle actions that otherwise would be too difficult to attempt in other media. "It's difficult to draw small details by hand," says Frank Falcone, a partner at Guru animation studio in Toronto, which recently re-created Nabisco's Snak characters in 3D. "It's far easier to create subtle acting moments in 3D, which is a more controlled medium."

Working with computer-generated im agery also makes it easier for clients to view work in progress and make changes. "Then there are the obvious technical advantages to CGI such as lighting, shading, and rendering," adds Falcone. "You can create a sense of light that's consistent throughout the piece. You aren't just faking it with a series of paintings. You are creating a lighting environment that characters react to, and that detail can captivate viewers." Richard Rosenman, digital animation director at Redrover Studios in Toronto, adds that with cel animation, artists are locked into a flat color palette, and a tone pass or per-scene color correction can only help integrate but not seamlessly blend a character into its environment.
The 3D Pillsbury Doughboy has undergone minor design updates over the years, which helps maintain his fresh appearance. The most recent changes were done by Topix using Softimage for a series of new commercials.
Image courtesy Top

Yet, turning a recognizable character into one that is three-dimensional is far more difficult than creating a brand-new character. The most obvious challenge is to ensure that the character doesn't stray too far from its original look, or the recognition factor will be lost. However, this is often easier said than done. "When a character is hand-drawn, there are certain cheats an animator will use to bring it to life," says Falcone. "It's a legacy that these characters have carried with them for years and has made them recognizable to millions of viewers. However, some stylistic techniques-such as physically incorrect proportion [deceptions]-do not translate well in the digital world."

To compensate for this obstacle, Falcone advises animators to bring something new to the table. "You'll never be able to make the digital character look exactly like the hand-drawn version, which has more stylized flair," he says. "Instead, you should take advantage of the unique opportunities and capabilities that the 3D medium offers such as timing and subtly of performance."
Nabisco's Planet Snak trio of D'Oh (below), Captain Baker, and Steve the Robot entered another dimensional recently, when the animators at Guru re-created the hand-drawn characters in 3D for a series of national commercials for the Canadian market

Like Guru, other studios are finding their own ways to maintain the delicate balance between the past and the present as they breathe new life into classic commercial characters.

Poking Around
The Pillsbury Doughboy may be handy in the kitchen, but in computer graphics circles, the character is better known for its foray into the digital realm. Nearly a decade ago, Pacific Data Images reached a milestone by transforming the popular figure, which previously had been animated with stop motion, using 3D. Since then, the Doughboy has undergone digital nips and tucks, the most recent performed by Topix in Toronto for a series of 30-second spots that began airing a few months ago.

Aware of the brand recognition associated with the character, Pillsbury took great lengths to ensure that the Dough boy's appearance remained as authentic as possible by providing strict modeling and animation guidelines for Topix to follow. The company also supplied a digital Doughboy model to ensure visual consistency, since in the past, each studio's version varied slightly.

Even so, Pillsbury requested a few alterations in the character model. Using Soft image|XSI, the Topix team modeled face shapes, and textured, rigged, and animated the character, giving it a lighter and "doughier" appearance compared to the previous computer-generated models.

The biggest technical challenges facing the artists were lighting and rendering the character so it appeared to interact seamlessly with the live-action backgrounds and actors. This was done with Final Gathering, Softimage's integrated Mental Ray technology for achieving photorealistic lighting setups. Final Gathering enabled the animators to control all aspects of the lighting and make changes on the fly.
Using CGI enabled Guru studio to incorporate subtle movements-difficult to achieve with cel animation-into the Planet Snak animation. The animators did use the cel drawings to ensure that the overall appearance of the characters, such as Steve the Robot,

"We used digital stand-ins that were colored and modeled to represent objects in the live-action backgrounds, like a green cookie jar, for instance," explains animator Greg Klein. When rendered using Final Gathering, the stand-ins were factored into the calculation as colored light rays reflected onto the character." As a result, the character fit naturally into the live-action environment when it was composited into the final scene with Discreet's inferno.

"An animator working with an established character in either 2D or 3D is trying to achieve the same goal-bring life to a character through a believable performance," says Klein. "Once we've created a convincing performance, we take the additional step of integrating the character into its setting during the lighting stage so the two blend together seamlessly."

According to producer Diana D'Amelio, the team established the character's overall look during the first two commercials, setting the benchmark for how the Dough boy would look and act throughout the other spots. "That's when we reaped the time savings associated with using 3D," adds Klein.

Snak Pack
After a two-year stint as hand-drawn characters, the Nabisco trio of D'Oh, Captain Baker, and Steve the Robot, are making their 3D debut on Canadian television in a series of four 30-second commercials. "We're taking advantage of the digital tools to go beyond the limitations of a 2D environment," says Guru's Falcone. "A full-dimensional, physically accurate environment is also more aesthetically appealing."

The Guru group generated the new character models in Alias|Wavefront's Maya, using the original default drawings-which were initially designed by the studio's sister company, Chuck Gammage Animation-for reference. Nonetheless, the 3D characters had to undergo numerous design changes so they looked normal when viewed from every angle in the new medium. "The minute you translate a model that was created for the stylized world into the physically correct world of 3D, you get some inherent problems in the proportions," he adds.
Reel FX created several action-packed commercials featuring a stylized version of the well-known GI Joe character.
Images courtesy Reel FX.

To overcome this problem, the studio tried to think like 2D artists. "In 3D, the characters are not as malleable as they are in 2D, so you have to really think about what you're going to do in terms of the animation, then build your character to perform accordingly," Falcone explains. "The digital puppet has to be loose so the animator can incorporate custom shapes." In fact, the team tried to hand-craft the pieces, in a sense, by creating custom controls that provided the animators with presets. This enabled the artists to accomplish an action quickly-such as a facial expression-while still customizing the action.

"It's not just about hitting a specific pose or opening an eye," Falcone adds. "It's about how you do it that gives the character its unique personality."

Model Soldier
Reel FX recently revived the epic battle between GI Joe and his nemesis Cobra in a fully animated cinematic television commercial. For the Hasbro spot, the Reel FX team was charged with regenerating the classic two-dimensional GI Joe characters from past commercials while maintaining the original appeal of the toy. "We didn't want to try to create realistic human characters for the spot," says Brandon Olden burg, creative director. "It was essential that we stayed true to the brand." To ac complish this, the group opted for a comic book feel but with a fast-paced edginess that had yet to be seen by GI Joe fans.

"Anytime you bring something from 2D to 3D, you have a heritage issue to battle," notes Dale Carman, whose company has added a new dimension to several characters from children's TV shows, such as Barney the dinosaur.

For the GI Joe spot, the group began the project by researching the character's history, poring over old commercials, toy boxes, toys, cartoons, and comic books. "Our client gave us the flexibility to enhance him slightly," says Carman. "We also had to do some creative interpretation because there are certain things that won't work in a reality-based environment. In those instances, we had to get creative and say, 'This is how they meant the character to look.' "

Next, the group created and rigged low-resolution models in Hash's Animation:Master, so the detailed modeling and animation processes could work in parallel. The team also used these "proxy" models to create a detailed animatic using Discreet's inferno, so any kinks could be worked out early. Once the previsualization was completed, the models were brought into Maya, where subdivision surfaces were used to achieve a higher level of detail. For texturing, a team of 2D artists generated matte paintings, which were brought into inferno and then mapped onto the Maya models using Adobe Systems' Photoshop. Meanwhile, another group scripted procedural shaders, which were used for a number of elements, including the characters' eyes. For the postproduction work, the group used Discreet's flame and inferno.
GI Joe, who has a long history in the 2D realm, is battle-ready with his new computer-generated appearance in a series of toy commercials.
Image courtesy Reel FX.

"Creating the commercial in 3D brings it to life and makes it more dynamic," says Carman. "You can't achieve this sense of reality with 2D animation."

The studio is now working on more GI Joe spots for which the group will reuse many of the digital models and some of the existing animation. Not only will that be a tremendous time-saver, but it will also ensure consistency in the overall look of the series, adds Carman.

3D Cravings
While working at Topix, Richard Rosenman helped create a series of commercials featuring, for the first time, a 3D version of Post Honeycomb's Craver. To ensure that the digital version was as authentic as possible, the team refined the animatronic used by Industrial Light & Magic in the initial series of stop-action commercials. The animators then rebuilt Craver in Softimage, using the physical model for reference. "It definitely helped to have the original puppet handy for capturing fine details," says Rosenman.

A physical model isn't always available during the transition, but there are usually detailed drawings of the featured character from a front, side, and three-quarters view. "Still, there always seems to be one area of the creature that you're not exactly sure how to treat," says Rosenman. "For those, the artist makes a creative decision, which in the end will be scrutinized by the client and agency. Therefore, it's important to be conservative with these kinds of decisions. Generally, the more established the character is, the more approvals you have to acquire and the more difficult it is to make any creative changes."
Some classic characters, such as Toucan Sam, are keeping their cel-animated appearance. For a new cutting-edge look, though, artists at SimEx have incorporated the characters into a 3D background, thereby providing a compelling alternative to an all-CG pr

Tony's G-r-e-a-t New Look
If you look closely, you may have noticed that in the past year Tony the Tiger has changed his stripes-and more than once. Last year, Smoke & Mirrors 3D (London) completed an ad campaign in the UK that positioned Tony-the face of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes for more than four decades-as a CGI action hero. The rebirth of the character in 3D was to provide a consistent look for Tony, which had been difficult to achieve through cel animation.

Before generating the Maya model, the group teamed with a 2D artist on possible new looks for Tony, and then ironed out problems using a wax maquette. "We had to think about how Tony had done things in the past, then translate that into 3D," says Lee Danskin, senior animator.

Alas, Tony's 3D foray was short-lived. SimEx Digital Studios (Santa Monica, CA) recently completed a spot for Kellogg's that integrated a 2D version of the character into a 3D environment. "By using the mixed media, we were able to achieve a contemporary look without changing the character's appearance," says Allen Ya ma shita, executive producer at SimEx. "These characters have transcended two, maybe three, generations of viewers, and once you make them dimensional, they be come something else." In fact, SimEx created tests involving a CGI Tony, "but he just wasn't Tony anymore."

SimEx also used a similar mix of 2D and 3D animation for commercials featuring Toucan Sam and Sonny the Cuckoo Bird. "When you can move around in Z space, the spot looks very different," says Yamashita. "The medium gives the characters a new lease on life because you are taking them off a flat background and allowing them to live in three-dimensional space, which is how a young audience is used to seeing objects." To ensure that the cel characters blended into their CG environments for the projects, the artists applied cartoon-like textures onto the Maya background models using Interactive Effects' Amazon 3D Paint, Right Hemisphere's Deep Paint, and Adobe Systems' Photoshop, and matched the digital and cel lighting. The cel images were digitally inked and painted using Softimage's Toonz and Toon Boom Technologies' US Animation software, although tones, highlights, and effects were traditionally generated.
Bouncing between 2D and 3D during the past year, Tony recently appeared as a cel character in a CGI background.
Image courtesy SimEx.

"The environments give the 2D characters a three-dimensional look," says Yamashita. "It's almost as though you are tricked into believing they are 3D."

For a more cohesive look, SimEx created a 3D animatic of each commercial in Maya, then drew the cel character against the template, using a 3D version of the character as a stand-in. This allowed the team to determine the camera moves early in the process and adjust the shot if necessary. "We did a quick composite in [Nothing Real's] Shake and [Avid's] Media Illusion as soon as we could, then checked the timing on our Avid system before the artists and animators completed their work," says Yamashita. The group also used the 3D character stand-in as a guideline for lighting the cel character later in the process.

A Sweet Deal
Some clients view the integration of a 2D character into a 3D environment as an attractive alternative for modernizing a classic character, while others are still looking at an all-3D solution. In 1995, Masterfoods USA, a Mars company, decided to modernize its M&M's characters, choosing to use CGI to create the new look. Spearheading this reincarnation was Paul Michaels, the current president of Masterfoods. His main concern at the time was keeping the look of the characters consistent across its various advertising media such as television, print, and points of purchase. "We've been extremely happy with the results," Michaels says. "3D allowed us to accomplish our goals of modernizing the characters and making them more lifelike."

Helping Michaels and his company with the transition were Susan Credle and Steve Rutter, creative directors at ad agency BBDO, and Kirk Kelley, director at Vinton Studios (Portland, OR). Since then, the team has been creating nearly 10 commercials a year featuring the 3D characters. Originally, Kelley's group used NewTek's LightWave to model the characters, but has since migrated to Maya. For compositing the digital content into the plethora of live-action settings, the group uses flame and Shake. "With 3D, the characters look like they are part of the real world when they're placed in live action," Kelley says. "With CGI, we can do just about anything with the characters that BBDO dreams up."
The look and color of the M&M's characters have evolved dramatically over the years. Most of the changes occurred during their 30-plus years as cel creations. Yet, their newfound expressiveness is evident in their 3D incarnations.

Slow Changes
Despite the move to 3D a decade ago by the Doughboy, clients with classic characters are not rushing into the 3D waters. "There are still some great new designs occurring in 2D, in which the artists are trading more on design and visual appeal, while 3D is trading more on action and visual effects," says Rosenman. "With 3D, the character becomes stiff, and you lose a lot of the life that came through in the traditional animation. So the animator and studio must make sure that character doesn't lose its established persona."

While many ad agencies and clients are reluctant to use CGI, others are open to the medium and even to new changes, such as adding modern clothes and props, as well as modified character proportions. "Many of the characters were originally established decades ago and may seem outdated in style or attitude," says Rosenman. "3D animation can give the characters a fresh, new look. Eventually, all characters evolve over time, whether it's a result of 3D or not," he says. "just look at the Warner Bros. characters."
© 2002 Mars, Inc.

Even Tony the Tiger may get his 3D stripes back. Anne Deslaur iers, executive producer at Guru, says the studio has been working on an R&D project involving an all-3D Tony. The studio worked closely with its partner, Chuck Gammage-which has created 2D spots of the tiger integrated into a live-action backdrop-in an attempt to make the character as authentic as possible.

There is allure to using digital tools, and Falcone believes it is linked to the success of 3D feature films. "But if you look deeper, I believe kids are liking those films not just because of the medium, but because of the fresh ideas coming from those working in the medium," he notes.

"You can never get a 3D character to look the same as the 2D version," says Yamashita. "But it's not a question of choosing between the mediums based on their advantages and disadvantages. You select one because it enables you to achieve the look you want."

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior associate editor at Computer Graphics World.

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