User Focus - Bookworm
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 11 (Nov 2006)

User Focus - Bookworm

A recent television commercial for Visa incorporates a unique digital process to create what appears to be a simplistic animation...and one with a surprising twist.

The spot, called "Worm/Recycling," starts off quite unexpectedly, with white-line hand-drawn images of a retro-style boom box and a worm popping out of a hole. With the camera’s close framing, it’s unclear where this scene is taking place, though the lines through the top and middle of the screen and the gray-weave background suggest something vaguely familiar. Soon the worm begins to do the "pop and lock" dance moves to the ’80s electronica that plays in the scene…until a stork arrives and ends the fun.

About the same time, the camera pulls out, revealing that the scene is the product of a guy flipping through sketches he has made on his unused checks, flipbook style. The voice-over tells us that with Visa’s online bill-paying method and check card, "You may never write a check again."

"Everyone has doodled on a napkin or in the margins of their address book, so we just took that concept a bit further by having a person multi-purposing the empty pages of his checkbook as a virtual sketch pad," says Brickyard VFX’s Robert Sethi, co-lead on the project along with Yafei Wu.

To bring the effect to life, the artists referenced an actual checkbook, which was filmed on set, and modeled it in 3D using Autodesk’s Maya 7. Then the group imported the 2D line art, which was sketched and animated by Patrick Smith of Blend Films. Next, the team projected the content onto the 3D-generated checkbook. Finally, the Brickyard crew lit the new digital checkbook, tracked it into the live action using 2d3’s Boujou, and composited it with shadow passes and contact surfaces using Adobe’s After Effects and Autodesk’s Discreet Flame so that it blended seamlessly into the scene. Finally, they used Pixar’s RenderMan to render the 3D imagery.

To generate the effect, the group at Brickyard VFX first referenced and then modeled a checkbook in Maya, and later imported 2D line art.

According to Jay Lichtman, executive producer at Brickyard, the goal from the very beginning was to achieve photoreality throughout the spot. "Obviously the line animation is a leap of faith for the viewers," he says. "But after receiving the elements from the animator, our 3D artists treated it as a pen-on-paper effect and used it to texture the 3D checkbook pages, and rendered elements for seamless integration within the live-action plates."

The initial challenge, notes Sethi, was tracking the live-action plate so the 3D checkbook would lock into the scene and look believable in the actor’s hand. The other challenge, he says, was to develop the flipping action of the checkbook pages at a pace that shows the flipbook effect of the animation without strobing or losing valuable information.

"It’s not often that your project involves a break-dancing worm," says Sethi. —Karen Moltenbrey