Super Spots
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 4 (April 2005)

Super Spots

The Super Bowl isn’t just a football game; it’s an event. Each year the broadcast of this NFL championship matchup draws tens of millions of viewers who are reluctant to lift their eyes from the television screen for even a minute, lest they miss a great play-or a great commercial.

Without question, the Super Bowl is the biggest day of the year for Madison Avenue, annually drawing television’s largest crowd. And despite this year’s 4 percent decrease in viewership, the game still pulled in an audience of 86 million. So there’s little question why agencies and clients go that extra yard, and pay that extra dollar, to show off their most daring, memorable, and creative efforts. Yet, last year’s negative publicity stemming from the combination of Janet Jackson’s half-time fiasco coupled with the predominantly off-color humor of the commercials had many agencies and clients “airing” on the safe side this year with clever but subdued ads in terms of their message, humor, and effects. Although the spots were criticized for being ho hum, many still managed to provoke a laugh or two, complements of the subtle digital effects that made them crowd pleasers.
FedEx/Kinko’s “Top 10” spot offered tips for accomplishing successful Super Bowl ads, including the use of animals, such as this digitally enhanced bear.

Humor and effects aren’t the only major ingredients of a successful Super Bowl commercial, at least according to FedEx/Kinko’s humorous “Top 10” spot, which appropriately summed up Super Bowl commercial content past and, as it turned out, present. The ad, featuring a dancing bear and actor Burt Reynolds, highlights the 10 key elements of a successful Super Bowl commercial: an animal, a dancing animal, a talking animal, a groin kick (popular last year), attractive females, a famous pop song, a cute kid, a celebrity, a bonus ending, and a product message, which is optional, according to the commercial.

The post work for the spot, done by Charles Quinn and Steve Koenig of visual effects facility Quiet Man, required rig removal to erase the compressor and air hoses attached to the animatronic bear. For several scenes, though, the artists had to rebuild the neck portion of the animal. That’s because the eye level of the person wearing the costume fell below that of the bear, requiring the man inside to lift a flap cut into the material so he could see while performing a dance and a simulated groin kick. To cover the exposed area, the artists rotoscoped patches of fur and rebuilt them using a Flame and Inferno system (Autodesk Media and Entertainment), and hand tracked the patch into the frame. “The fur had to look natural,” says executive producer Steve Holiner, “especially when the bear was moving around.”

Indeed, judging from the high ratings the spot received in postgame polls, the audience seemed to get a “kick” out of the way the commercial poked fun at the predictable content and gags used in Super Bowl advertisements. But what makes the ad so successful is the fact that most of the spots really did use one or more of the must-have elements listed in the commercial.
Artists added fur to the area around the neck of this bear costume in postproduction, making the faux animal look more natural.

Commercials containing animals are a sure bet with viewers. Last year, Budweiser’s “Born a Donkey,” featuring a burro that succeeded in joining the famous Clydesdales, was the definitive crowd favorite based on postgame surveys. Capitalizing on that success, Budweiser continued the story line this year in “Journey,” as an array of zoo and farm animals make their way down a dirt path to a barn for an unscheduled “cattle call” in hopes of fulfilling the same dream as the donkey’s.

“Having so many different animals on set complicated the shoot,” says Patrick Poulatian, visual effects artist at Brickyard VFX. An obvious setback was that “some of the animals just couldn’t be near others without causing problems.” As a result, each of the 12 animals-ranging in size from that of an elephant to a pig-was filmed individually against greenscreen. Later, the team at Brickyard used Flame to rotoscope and composite the 11 separate live-action film plates into group shots, making it appear as if the animals were filmed next to one another. They also used the Discreet system to remove the tethers and animal handlers present in nearly every frame.

Moreover, some of the animals, such as the camel and the ostrich, were particularly uncooperative during the filming, and as a result, the film crew lost valuable daylight. “We filmed the first two animals in the sunlight, and then we lost our light,” explains Poulatian. “So quite a few of the beasts had to be filmed at night, which resulted in inconsistent, unnatural light and hard shadows against the greenscreens.” To fix these problems, the group first cut the mattes by extracting the animal, then added each one into the environments, where the artists color-corrected the images. They also added the appropriate shadows, lighting, and interaction that would have been present naturally if the herd had been standing together in the sunlight. This process enabled the team to cast shadows from left to right and have them react properly, making it appear as if the animals were filmed in a group.
Numerous animals were filmed individually on greenscreen and “herded” together for a group shot in a Bud commercial.

“You can’t go wrong with an animal spot,” says Poulatian. “And people seem to be attracted to the Clydesdale commercials; they are appealing and endearing to nearly everyone, no matter the age.”

Apparently the folks at agree with Poulatian’s view of using animals in TV ads. In its three popular commercials that ran during the game, “Whoopee Cushion,” “Monkeys,” and “Titanic,” the company featured an office staffed by live chimpanzees whose antics thwart the business efforts of the only human employee not monkeying around. While it appears as if there are dozens of chimps, there were only four, which were dressed in different outfits for multiple roles. Given their volatility, however, only one or two could be filmed at a time. Therefore, it was up to postproduction boutique Vendetta Post to staff the office using a good deal of shot duplication, performed in Flame.

In one sequence, two dozen chimps are shown together as they exit an elevator. To accomplish this effect, the team used a partial motion-control rig to achieve the desired camera rotations and pans as each animal was filmed individually stepping out of the elevator. Using Flame, visual effects artist Crawford Reilly and his group rotoscoped the chimp from each shot, then tracked and composited all of them into the final scene, making sure that the 20-some layers of animals did not appear to be walking over one another while they shuffle forward.
Artists rotoscoped shots of individual chimps and composited them together to create a group for three ads.

Meanwhile, Toyota’s “Leash” commercial takes the talking animal approach to advertising, as a live-action dog prompts its owner to go for a walk. When the owner, who is engrossed in a television program, declines, the dog tells him that if the leash is the problem, it had just heard about the car company’s “$199 a month leash deal,” to which the owner promptly corrects the canine that it is a lease deal, not a leash deal.

To make the dog speak, artists at production house Spontaneous did a complete CG mouth replacement for the animal within Softimage’s XSI to achieve a natural look. Under the supervision of director of CG Lawrence Nimrichter, the team modeled the jowls, lips, tongue, and teeth in 3D, which enabled the animator to move the rigging as needed for the animation
Spontaneous artists did a complete CG mouth replacement that enabled this live dog to converse with its owner in a Toyota spot.

“When the dog realizes its mistake, the animal raises its eyebrows sheepishly and blinks its eyes inquisitively,” says 2D director and compositor David Elkins. “To accomplish this, I created a 2D mesh of the dog, which allowed me to track the movements of the face and adjust areas like the eyebrows, cheeks, and eyes, so it’s just not a mouth attached to a face.” The group then removed the real mouth and replaced it with the CG version, tracking the 3D model into the live scene first using XSI and later Inferno.

Live animals are popular in Super Bowl ads, though faux animals can be equally effective, as demonstrated in “Exaggerated Dad.” In the spot, a talking unicorn and the Easter Bunny confront a father after he makes excuses to his young daughter why she shouldn’t sample his Emerald Nuts, lest harm befall these fabled characters.

To give the animals their unique looks, the ad agency opted to capture the effects in camera, and then have artists at visual effects/telecine facility The Syndicate augment them in postproduction, to preserve the quirkiness of the piece. For example, the unicorn was a white horse with a prosthesis attached to its head. The group then used Flame to make the animal’s nostrils flare, its cheeks puff, and, more important, its mouth move, as when it scolds the father for his white lie.

Conversely, the rabbit consisted of a smaller puppet body and a proportionally larger costume head, worn by an actor. “The directing team decided this would allow for more extensive head and mouth movements,” says visual effects supervisor Kevin Prendiville. “It also gave the structure of the animal an odd sensibility that fit well with the theme.” Later in post, the team tracked and composited the bunny head onto the body within Flame, removing the rigs from the body puppet. Even though the actor was responsible for the eye, nose, and ear movements, the post group enhanced those motions and manipulated the facial features.
The Syndicate composited a bunny costume onto the body of a rabbit puppet to create this quirky-looking character for Emerald Nuts.

“It’s a simple concept with a simple execution,” Prendiville says of the commercial. “You don’t always need over-the-top effects if you present a good story.”

The Syndicate also used a combination model-part live action, part animatronic-for its HD commercial called “Rattlesnake” for Ford Trucks. In it, a man packs up his gear after mending fences, only to catch a glimpse of a rattler coiled at his feet. The snake turns to face him, opens it mouth, flicks it tongue, and strikes the man’s leg. The man looks stricken until he hears the snake coughing before rolling over dead.

Using this scenario to show just how tough a Ford truck owner is required extensive image manipulation to the reptile sequence, which featured live-action footage of real and animatronic snakes. According to artist MB Emigh, the group rebuilt the snake in Flame with elements from the live-action shoot, adding emphatic rattles to its tail, more coil to its body, and choking motions as its body convulses. The team also used Flame to track the image into the scene, and to composite a 3D animated snake tongue, created in NewTek’s LightWave, into the serpent’s mouth.
A part-live, part-CG snake provided the director with a perfect combination of action for a Ford truck commercial.

“Mixing and matching the snake parts really brought the reptile to life,” notes Emigh. “And working in HD takes the idea of visual effects to a new level because it is so unforgiving. You can’t hide anything like you can in NTSC.”

Visual effects and design company A52 coupled explosive visual effects with a cute kid to sell Nationwide Insurance’s “Science Project” spot, shown to a regional Super Bowl audience. In this latest commercial in an ongoing series, a boy’s homemade robot goes haywire, eventually blowing up the family car with Hollywood flare, much to the surprise of the youngster and his parents. To ensure that the digital effects would integrate properly into the plates, visual effects artist Simon Scott supervised the live-action shoot. Later, using Flame, he and his team composited several effects into the scenes, including computer-generated laser beams.

In addition, Scott used the Flame system to achieve the spot’s interactive lighting. “Because I was on set, I knew where the lasers were going to go and what they were going to hit,” he says. “So we shot the plate once, and we shot it again with neon tubes placed in the scene that illuminated the environment. We then used this plate as a compositing element for our interactive light.”
Digital and practical effects resulted in an explosive combination for Nationwide Insurance’s latest commercial when a robot runs amok.

The commercial ends with a big bang, a practical explosion filmed in camera. “It was meant to be smaller, but someone got overzealous,” says Scott. “However, the agency loved it, so we kept it.”

Verizon, with help from visual effects company The Mill, used a celebrity bent in its HD commercial called “Miniaturization,” which reduces various stars to miniature proportions so they can be seen on the company’s new 3G broadband phones that play movie trailers, sports clips, and music videos.

The ad opens to an Oscar-like red carpet as a limo pulls up to the curb and a mini Kid Rock jumps from the vehicle amid gasps from the crowd, which is told that Tinsel Town is clamoring to get tiny in order to appear on the phone. The camera then cuts to a petite version of Christina Aguilera, and then to a tiny Shaquille O’Neal, followed by a diminutive Deion Sanders. To achieve these “small” effects, the celebrities first were filmed against greenscreen, and then artist Dirk Greene composited them into full-size backgrounds.

Accomplishing this illusion required careful choreography so that the angles would match up in the final plates, as in the scene when a small O’Neal had to high-five his full-scale teammates. This was done with motion-control camera moves while shooting the players and then replicating those same moves while filming O’Neal on greenscreen. Greene and his group augmented the scene by adding full-scale images of hands and feet, which were shot on a separate plate and composited with the other imagery using Flame, thus giving the scene a greater sense of scale.
Compositing techniques were used to shrink celebrities, including Shaquille O’Neal, in size to promote Verizon’s new phones.

The most challenging part of the project, says Greene, was replicating the lighting changes of the wide shots in the small-scale elements and matching the shadows. This was particularly tricky with camera flashes going off in most of the sequences, he adds. In situations where the team was unable to match the lighting from the main plate, the artists simply painted the backplate.

Pizza Hut and visual effects facility Quiet Man also used celebrities-albeit Muppets-for “Destined to Dip,” a live-action/CG spot. The commercial features several well-known characters, among them Miss Piggy, who is dragged around a room after she catches a fast-moving strip of pizza as the rectangular slice tries to reach a dipping sauce.
CG pizza and a rotoscoped Miss Piggy team up to promote Pizza Hut’s new dipping strips, thanks to postproduction work by Quiet Man.

Using Softimage XSI, lead CG artist Kris Rivel crafted the 3D pizza sticks, which had to match the actual food in the first shot. “Our CG pizza had to look realistic, but we had to fix the lighting and create shaders in Mental Ray so that the cheese and pepperoni looked translucent but not too greasy and unappetizing,” he says. In all, the group rendered five to six passes of the pizza stick using Mental Images’ Mental Ray, and composited the model into the live action using Flame. The artists also used Flame to remove the extensive rigging that was needed to animate the puppets.

The Super Bowl is no longer just about football; it’s also about entertainment, both on and off the field, from the players and plays to the star-studded half-time shows and the dazzling, ambitious commercials that people talk about the next day at the watercooler. In fact, Super Bowl commercials have generated so much interest and buzz over the years that they have spawned their own competition, dubbed the Ad Bowl, and even receive their own pregame media hype and postgame ratings and analysis.

Yet, unlike in years past, there were no clear-cut winners in this year’s battle of the ads, despite the average price tag of $2.4 million for a 30-second spot. Perhaps that’s because many clients and agencies overanalyzed their content, ensuring that it was in good taste, and chose to play it safe with formulaic material. While it’s unlikely that any ad from this year’s selections will appear in highlight reels years from now, the examples highlighted here show that by using digital effects, companies were able to entertain audiences with some interesting offerings. Maybe next year they will apply the technology for more daring ads worthy of MVP status.

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor for Computer Graphics World.