Top Spots
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 4 (April 2006)

Top Spots

Digital effects turn in a game-winning performance in this year’s Super Bowl commercial showdown

By Debra Kaufman

The Ad Bowl, which takes place during Super Bowl Sunday, is a highlight of the year for advertising agencies, commercial production companies, and all the visual effects, animation, and post houses serving them. The commercials-supposedly Madison Avenue’s best-are as much of an attraction as the game itself, and this year was no exception.

The 2006 super spots appeared to be a notch up from last year, when cautiousness prevailed, squelching creative, riskier opportunities. As expected, humor continued to reign supreme, as did commercials featuring animals, particularly those involving Budweiser’s iconic Clydesdales.

The draws, as well as the duds, were the culmination of the hardest work in the shortest time, as agencies, production companies, and VFX professionals raced toward a fixed deadline, usually with just days to spare. Aside from being expensive in terms of work and time, the spots were also costly in terms of dollars-with an average price tag of $2.5 million for 30 seconds of airtime. The cost to air a commercial far exceeded the cost to create one, even though some of the special effects-heavy ads reportedly cost upward of $1 million to make.

With so much at stake, some advertisers took a chance with an unusual or risky presentation, while others played it safe with a variation of their tried-and-true formula from previous years. And then there were those that just plain missed the mark. The revolving refrigerator-a clever sight gag in which a “hidden” refrigerator to some luckless Bud drinkers ends up being a magic refrigerator to the tenants on the opposite side of the wall-was the all-round MVP this year. Anheuser-Busch also scored a big hit with “American Dream,” featuring the little horse that could, and “Superfan,” in which a sheep becomes a memorable streaker. FedEx also came out on top with a commercial that put cavemen in a cave office, replete with a troglodyte boss.

The ever-popular Kermit the frog was another hit, as the fuzzy puppet kayaks, climbs, and finally reaches his destination-the Ford Escape Hybrid-all with a song on his puppet lips. Gorgeous cinematography took a bow with the Cadillac Escalade commercial, with visuals that drew attention and almost made you forget that there really wasn’t a story.

Here is a closer look at some of this year’s top spots.

“Sports Heaven”

Mobile ESPN
Arnold Worldwide
Director: Jake Scott
Production company: RSA
Visual effects: Brickyard VFX

Mobile ESPN makes the entire world “sports heaven,” the theme of this successful spot. A young executive walks through the city, so focused on his new Mobile ESPN phone that he doesn’t notice the superstar athletes everywhere around him: a group of motocross racers speed out of a parking garage; a Chicago Cub steals a base across an intersection; a pro bowler sends the ball rolling down a driveway for a strike.

Brickyard VFX handled all the effects, and touched every shot with CG imagery and/or compositing. According to executive producer Jay Lichtman, who is based in the effects house’s Santa Monica, California, office, Brickyard VFX started the job with concept boards. “There were no shooting boards,” he says. “Director Jay Scott was brilliant. He and his production company went on location and created a live-action animatic that was very closely timed, and we followed that. He framed everything the way he wanted. It did change, but it was a good starting point.”

Nearly every shot in the live-action spot for Mobile ESPN was digitally touched in some way, including this one, with the original shown above and the final below.

During filming, Brickyard VFX Geoff McAuliffe and Robert Sethi supervised, collecting camera and lighting data, reflection images, and reference stills. The elements changed organically throughout production-up to three days before delivery. “There was an intersection shot with a one-down marker, which covered up a lot of the foreground,” Lichtman recounts. “It covered up too much action so the crew removed it, and we replaced it with two CG Formula One cars, one CG NASCAR car, and 18 to 20 CG motorbikes.”

The CG elements were created in Brickyard VFX’s Santa Monica facility, while most of the tracking, rotoscoping, and compositing were done in Boston, where Kirsten Andersen served as that location’s executive producer on the project. For the replacement shot described above, says Lichtman, the group also had to re-create the world behind the one-down marker, which required a CG road and buildings.

Last-minute changes were made to the spot, such as altering a baseball player’s uniform (first image set, above). Also, compositing work on the second and third set (below) of images added water and the Heisman Trophy to the respective shots.

In another last-minute change, one player on the Florida Marlins baseball team was traded to the Chicago Cubs during production. “We had to digitally change his uniform,” Lichtman recalls. In addition, the marathon shot was entirely digital, as well. “There was no ‘marathon button’ on the computer,” he notes wryly. Instead, the Brickyard VFX crew brought in their running clothes and, one by one, hopped on a treadmill and were filmed against a greenscreen.

Meanwhile, the in-house programmer built a script that allowed him to take the runners and place them on sprites, which read the distance that each person’s stride would carry them down the road for a realistic animation.

On PCs running Linux, the team performed all the tracking for the spot with 2d3’s Boujou, and all the modeling and animation within Autodesk’s Maya 7.0. The artists also used Adobe’s Photoshop for the textures and painting, Adobe’s After Effects for rough 3D composites, and both Pixar’s RenderMan and Mental Images’ Mental Ray for rendering. Final compositing was done on Autodesk’s Discreet Flame Version 9.2.6.

“It’s a very busy spot, full of elements,” says Lichtman. “We had to prioritize [the work], but we also had to make everything perfect. The rule we had was that it had to pass the ‘pause’ test-if someone paused the image on their DVR, it would still look great.”

Lichtman continues: “To make that happen, we needed to have the very best communication between the departments and the artists and the client. We needed them to understand the post process-and they did.”


DDB Chicago
Director: John O’Hagen
Production company: Digital Domain
Visual effects: Digital Domain

Budweiser’s Clydesdales are a familiar touchstone during the Super Bowl broadcast, and this year’s offering was particularly good. “Superfan” was one of this year’s most memorable spots, with a whimsical twist as the iconic horses played ball on opposing sides of a pasture gridiron.

The spot opens on a wide shot of a golden field with snowy mountains in the distance. The two teams of Budweiser Clydesdales approach the line of scrimmage in slow motion, as the fans on the sidelines-goats, antelope, buffalo, foxes, wolves, and sheep-wait in anticipation of the play. As the tension builds for the play to begin, a freshly shorn sheep sprints out onto the field. It’s a streaker, notes one of two cowboys watching the game. As the fans cheer, the sheep runs between the horses and then stands on its hind legs, as a shot of a fox strategically covers the animal’s exposed body parts for a G rating.

Fans from the animal kingdom were composited into this live-action shot as they watched the Bud horses play football.

Visual effects supervisor Jonny Hicks notes that the director asked the VFX team to be involved in the planning stage of the commercial, since the spot would require so many new, challenging actions. “We saw the boards of the sheep standing on its hind legs, waving its front hooves in the air, and shaking its booty,” recalls Hicks. “We had four weeks from concept to the finished piece.”

Of that production time, one week was spent shooting on location at Lone Pine, a small town nestled in a valley between two mountain ranges, where several animal wranglers looked after the real bears, wolves, sheep, and other animals, which were filmed individually against greenscreen. The main shoot involved the Clydesdales and the hero sheep, while the B shoot-accomplished using three cameras to get shots from different angles-captured all the animals that would make up the crowd scene. The greenscreen was L-shaped, so the crew could get front-on and side shots of the animals at the same time. To keep the lighting correct, the greenscreen setup was regularly moved throughout the day to keep the sun on the animals’ right side.

This Budweiser commercial required a number of shoots, including those with the animals and a series with backgrounds.

But the real challenge was getting the sheep to dance. This was done by three animal handlers wearing green Lycra suits; they manipulated the sheep’s forelegs for the waving motion and hips, to keep its legs on the ground and create a gyrating movement. “There was quite a lot of trial and error,” says Hicks. “Once the director saw the range of motion he could get with the sheep, we went through a series of moves and gesticulations so he could have more choices in the edit.” (The ASPCA was on hand to make sure the sheep were treated well.)

“All the magic happened with a lot of hard work in the Flame,” says Hicks. There was a huge amount of cleanup and [image] removal: for instance, painting the animal wranglers’ hands off the sheep and painting sheep textures back in, painting out the skewer of meat used to get the bear to run, and removing the collars that many of the animals wore.

Flame artists did a tremendous amount of cleanup in the spot, including painting the sheep’s animal handlers out of this shot.

One of the challenges was that, due to the enormity of the job, the group had to start shooting the animals before the crew shot the background plates the animals would be set into. The director and his cinematographer scouted locations carefully, while the VFX team took notes of where the background plate would eventually be shot. That work, in addition to good greenscreen shots, minimized the challenges the artists faced with the Flame composite.

Another challenge was designing the lineup of the crowd. “The considerations were visual,” explains Hicks. “We wanted to give a shape to the crowd, with a center point. The bison was the imposing center point, and we also got depth with characters situated in front and behind.” Some of the shots, says Hicks, comprise 50 to 60 layers. “It was a good, solid composite job that involved getting every bit of it right,” he adds, “and doing it all within a very short period of time.”


TBWA/Chiat/Day Los Angeles
Director: Jake Banks
Production company: Stardust Studios
Visual effects: Stardust Studios

In a trio of spots for a Nissan Murano campaign, all directed by bicoastal Stardust Studios’ owner/executive creative director Jake Banks, the Murano transforms into a manta ray (in “Glide”), a bird (in “Soar”), and then a paper airplane (in “Fly”), all designed to show how smoothly the vehicle’s Xtronic continuously variable transmission operates. “Glide” was the spot that debuted just before Super Bowl XL and aired during ABC’s Super Bowl halftime show.

For all three spots, Stardust Studios provided the design, live-action production, animation, editorial, and visual effects. The facility also previsualized the camera moves (using Autodesk’s Maya and 3ds Max) for the live-action shoot, building a 3D car in Maya and moving the cameras to match the car and helicopter perspectives. Director of photography Neil Shapiro captured dynamic shots that matched the storyboard using a camera-car, helicopter, and locked-down mounts. “We had to shoot the car in a way that would be in tune with the elements of flowing, soaring, and gliding,” explains Banks. “These extremely dynamic camera moves allowed us to be more free with the animation.”

“The idea was to keep it simple and clean throughout,” Banks continues. “The big thing we had to figure out was how the car actually transformed into the manta ray. Do the doors flip out and form wings? We went through dozens of ideas about how to do it. We wanted it to be stylized, with its own feel and look, and not seem as if it were transforming into a robot.”

In the Nissan Murano commercial “Glide,” digital artists crafted stylized 3D manta rays using 3ds Max and Maya (top), whose fluid motion matched the movements of the vehicle (bottom).

The two-day shoot took place on the tarmac at a local airport in San Bernardino, California. After the edit was locked and the crew pulled selects of what worked best, the team tried to mimic the previs. Six artists did roto and cleanup on the car at the same time as lead animator/visual effects supervisor Shane Zucker animated the manta ray with rough-rotoscoped footage.

The 3D manta ray was modeled in 3ds Max and animated in Maya. But before that was done, the group conducted research using books, videos, and other sources. “A manta ray’s motions are similar to those of a bat-very fluid,” says Banks. “We stylized the manta rays a bit so they weren’t entirely realistic in their appearance, and then rendered them out two different way-with a cell-shader render and then a shader render-and mixed them together. The cell shader gave the image an outline, so mixing the two gave the model more of a graphic quality, more illustrative.”

The artists also incorporated additional layers of bubbles, some water, reflections, and shadows, all a mixture of Adobe After Effects and Maya. Cleanup work for the car, which had reflections of the camera-car, was done in Autodesk’s Discreet Combustion. Lighting is always tricky when shooting a car, because the sun is always moving and the car itself is a giant reflective surface. So, the team shot the scene with the shadow side of the car to avoid bright hot spots.

“The live-action footage was very desaturated, so we had to pump color into it,” Banks says. “We blew up the car a little bit, but also had to make sure that we stayed true to its real color, which was blue. The manta ray was also blue, to match it to the color of the car.”

According to Banks, one of the challenges in using CG was staying true to the spot’s overall design. “The key was to keep it clean and simple, and not add too much,” he explains.

“The Wave”

DDB Chicago
Director: Paul Middleditch
Production company: HSI
Visual effects: Method Studios

In this spot, the stadium “wave” becomes a way for thousands of people with placards to create an eye-catching feat: to open a bottle of Budweiser, tilt it so the stream of beer goes halfway around the stadium of 97,000 virtual fans to fill a glass with the beer, and then drink it down. After the shooting boards came in, says Method Studios’ producer Kim Wildenburg, the team went through a careful previsualization stage, done by Pixel Liberation Front, to determine how the spot would cut together and, just as important, that the production company, agency, and VFX studio were all on the same page.

The two-day shoot took place at the LA Coliseum with 300 extras, who would form the foreground, augmented by thousands of Massive Software characters situated in the back rows of the stadium. Wildenburg, along with Method Studios’ CG director Laurent Ledru, attended the shoot, which included eight helicopter plates. For the shot that pans across the entire stadium, the crew moved the 300 extras en masse around the stadium to get nine separate shots.

CG artists built this digital stadium and filled it with Massive agents. They also made and placed digital placards in the stadium to achieve the unique Bud wave, shown here.

“The first test was to build the stadium and place the Massive agents so they lined up with all the plates,” says 3D VFX artist James LeBloch, who handled the Massive Software shots. To solve the problem of placing 90,000 virtual characters within the rows and aisles, Method Studios’ software developer, Andrew Bell, wrote a script to export placement of the characters from Autodesk’s Maya (used for modeling) into Massive. “Ultimately, what we did was model the stadium as NURBS geometry, and then the script gave James some controls that allowed him to define a region on the model and say how many rows and seats were in that region,” explains Bell. “Then the script would iterate those specifications and come up with a Massive setup that matched.”

All the placards were also CG, rendered in Maya, and the same placement created for Massive was used to generate the CG cards and put them in their proper location. The football teams are also Massive agents, says LeBloch, who notes the players were similar agents with adjusted textures and football uniforms. CG lights matched the lighting in the background plates.

“There was a lot of ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ in the first stage,” says Wildenburg. “CG would give us the basic pieces and animation, and we’d comp it with the live-action plates and send it to the agency and director to make sure we got the timing correct. Then it was sent back to the artists, who’d get into texturing, lighting, and rendering.”

The cards were animated in Maya but used a plug-in written by Bell, a custom instancer that created a particle system to represent the cards and then create geometry on the fly. “The instancer that we wrote exists as a single object inside Maya, but it’s generating 90,000 individual pieces of geometry for every card,” explains Bell. “All the cards were animating independently, but were treated as one object, which minimized the time used.” Another tool created by Bell allowed gray-scale values to express timing, to control when the placards flipped over.

“What was nice about that was that I could turn the tool over to a less technical artist, and that person could experiment with choreography just by painting a texture in Photoshop,” explains Bell. “He could see in nearly real time how that would modify his animation. It allowed us to open up the well-understood 2D toolbox to control time.” An additional function of the custom instancer was to create appropriate, individual textural information, which enabled the team to use one shader for all the cards. Texture placement was generated procedurally using the NURBS stadium as a reference.

Meanwhile, compositing was done on the Autodesk Discreet Inferno system, with Mark Felt serving as the lead 2D VFX artist. The spot was rendered in Mental Images’ Mental Ray, with the exception of the Massive rendering, which was done in SiTex Graphics’ Air using several PCs running Windows XP repurposed to form a Linux renderfarm.

“We’re always in the position of coming up with solutions on the fly,” says LeBloch. “And we’re pretty good at it, but that was ongoing all through this commercial. It was definitely one of the most challenging projects we’ve worked on.”

The Winners and the Losers

Not all the spots at Super Bowl 2006 were winners. In fact, there were a few memorable bombs. Hands down, the Ad Bowl critics gave a unanimous raspberry to “GoDaddy” (a young, shapely woman tends to have a clothing malfunction)-a commercial Ad Week’s Barbara Lippert called “a $5 million vanity project.” All in all, “GoDaddy” was a tired idea in a tired performance. Even so, some college marketing students gave it a provisional thumbs-up for grabbing attention.

That was not the only questionable commercial. You’re either a fan or you’re not of the weird king in the BK spot, and the fast-food giant’s Busby Berkeley routine with the Whopperettes left more than one Super Bowl party cold; although, some thought the vegetable showgirls in the commercial were amusing. The idea of a big 1940s-style musical piece, complete with showgirls, must have sounded like a good idea on paper, but in reality, it just didn’t play as it was intended.

In all, Super Bowl 2006 set a rather indifferent benchmark for the annual ad fest. Although the commercials were, as a group, a better lot than its tame counterparts in 2005, we can only blame for so long Janet Jackson’s show for dimming innovation and edgy ideas. It’s time to take a risk; that’s what Super Bowl Sunday is all about.

Debra Kaufman is a freelance writer in the entertainment industry. She can be reached at

Multimedia Campaign Culminates in Super Bowl Spot

“Flip to Mexico”

Frontier Airlines
Grey Worldwide
CG elements: Cell FX
Editing: WildChild
Graphics: Wildstyle

Frontier Airlines’ “Send Flip to Mexico” campaign reached its anticipated conclusion during Super Bowl Sunday, when audiences found out whether Flip the dolphin got his wish to be sent to warmer climates or, as the creature had threatened in the first spot, “Ultimatum,” if it would quit the business. The blitz of 12 30-second and 60-second TV and Internet commercials was supported by a Flip Web site (, an online petition, leaflet campaigns, billboards, and even a roving Flipmobile.

Viewers were already familiar with the Frontier animal mascots, all of them created by Cell FX in New York. According to Grey Worldwide vice president/creative Shawn M. Couzens, WildChild, along with its sister company, Wildstyle, has been working with the agency on the Frontier account since 2003. “We consider them a creative partner,” says Couzens.

The multimedia “Flip to Mexico” campaign blended digital elements into news-style film footage to achieve a look that melded fantasy and reality.

The “Send Flip to Mexico” campaign attempted to blur the line between reality and fantasy. The talking dolphin was pure fantasy, but the campaign built around him included extremely realistic newsroom and documentary-style film footage as “newscasters” covered the ongoing drama of Flip’s imminent departure-either to Mexico or to the animal mascot unemployment line. The realistic news-style graphics were all created in-house by Wildstyle.

“Though the CG Flip was used in the campaign, the one for the Super Bowl actually had the least amount of computer graphics,” reports WildChild editor Neil Miller. “It was more live action, which was unusual for the campaign in general.” When the project arrived at WildChild, voice-over artist Joe Barone, at Bar1, had already laid down the audio track. Miller then put together a cut based on the track, “faking” the animation by using some older animation sequences done by Cell FX’s John Bauman.

In the spots, Flip and the other animal mascots are always 2D. “We found that if they were 3D, they look a little scary, a little creepy when they come off the plane,” says Miller. As Bauman worked on the animations, he fed them to Miller as QuickTime files, and Miller replaced the “stand-in” animation with the finished segments.

One challenge was finding new facial expressions and physical actions for Flip. “We gave Flip some new reactions and motions,” says Miller. “We created a new physical vocabulary of new facial expressions, something that’s subtle but ones he hadn’t done before.” The spot was finished in Autodesk’s Discreet Flame. “The biggest challenge is that any time we finish a spot, our standards go up,” says Miller. “We’re always pushing ourselves to get the most out of it.” - Debra Kaufman

Computer Graphics World April, 2006
Author(s) :   Debra Kaufman