Fan Favorites
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 4 (April 2008)

Fan Favorites

Super Bowl XLII broke a number of records. The highly anticipated and ultra-competitive game was viewed by 97.5 million people, more than any other Super Bowl game. That turned out to be a good bargain for advertisers, which paid broadcaster Fox network $2.7 million for a 30-second spot, up only $100,000 from the previous year’s ad rates.

Without question, people were focused on this history-making game—had the Patriots won, they would have tied the Miami Dolphins for the NFL’s second perfect-season record, albeit with a record of 19-0 compared to the Dolphins’ 17-0 season. But with so much riding on the actual gameplay, did viewers pay attention to the commercials? The answer is a resounding “Yes.”

AdBowl, a Web portal that asks visitors to rank the Super Bowl ads, listed the top four audience favorites: Anheuser-Busch’s “Team,” Bridgestone’s “Scream,” Coca-Cola’s “It’s Mine,” and FedEx’s “Carrier Pigeon.” Visitors to the site could rate the spots in real time, igniting Internet chat boards while the game was in progress. As in past years, the best commercials were a mix of extremes—the invisible and the very obvious digital effects. Squirrels clearly don’t scream (as in Bridgestone’s “Scream”), and a horse can’t pull a train car (“Team”). And there are no monster-size pigeons (a la FedEx’s “Carrier Pigeon”). Conversely, the spots were also laden with such invisible effects as changing seasons (“Team”), re-imagined cityscapes (“It’s Mine”), and a falling crate that segues from CG to live action (“Carrier Pigeon”).

Whether the intent was a realistic or a stylized look, a humorous or a serious tone, or something else altogether, it was up to the entire creative group to work as a team to achieve the desired results. Obviously, this was done with great success in the four spots detailed below, with the VFX taking on the role of special teams to create the elements of magic and surprise, which made these spots particularly memorable.

COCA-COLA - "It's Mine"
Nicoli Fuglsig
Agency: Wieden & Kennedy/Portland
Production company: MJZ
CG company: The Mill/New York

Everyone loves Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, with its oversized balloons depicting popular characters. Wieden & Kennedy, with MJZ’s director Nicoli Fuglsig, built a commercial spot around this parade theme, with a story starring such balloons, along with some aerial high jinks not usually seen in the annual parade. The concept for “It’s Mine” was simple and compelling, and that, combined with a brilliant execution, had this commercial soaring above the others.

Coke’s “It’s Mine” entailed complex animation of the balloon characters. Also, Maya’s nCloth helped provide believable volume and squash and stretch.

The commercial starts on the ground, with big balloon versions of Stewie (from The Family Guy) and Underdog sparring over a bottle of Coke, a comical dispute they take to the heights above Manhattan. The ending twist is that neither of them wins the coveted Coke bottle: Rather, it’s the perennial loser Charlie Brown who, for once, comes out on top.

Production company MJZ originally intended to create practical balloons for all the characters, which would be used in the first one-third of the 60-second commercial. The switch to CGI would take place when the balloon characters broke free of their earthly constraints and soared above the city. Specialist balloon builders were hard at work on the giant balloons, but by the time they were finished, the design for the characters had changed, and there was not enough time for a rebuild.

“At first, they asked us to put CG feet on Stewie,” explains lead 3D artist Ben Smith from The Mill. “At the same time, we were working with the CG balloons for background shots. Everyone got excited about how they looked, so they decided to just use CG balloons for the whole thing.”

Creating the hero balloons didn’t increase the number of shots—which Smith counts as 30—but it did up the intensity of the work. Unlike the airborne shots when the balloons break free, the earthly-bound ones required sophisticated animation. “In the early stage, when the balloons are trying to escape the tethers, you see the ropes pull the surface of the cloth,” he says. “They were difficult shots.”

The background plates were shot at the beginning of December, giving The Mill’s team a week to start modeling the characters, which they did in Softimage’s XSI. The models were then rigged and simulated in Autodesk’s Maya, and transferred back to Softimage XSI’s embedded Mental Ray for rendering. The Mill’s “secret sauce” helped considerably in transferring the geometry back and forth between the packages.

“Our software enables our office to choose which package they want to work in,” explains Smith. “It worked brilliantly. When the animator is finishing, he or she overwrites the file, and it immediately updates in the render. Both animating and rendering took a long time to refine, and this way we could animate and render concurrently.”

Two other tools helped to sell the CG balloons. Autodesk Maya’s nCloth, which is based on the company’s new Nucleus technology, enabled the animators to maintain a believable volume for the balloons, especially as they squashed against skyscrapers and each other. “The squashy reactiveness was something we really had to push to make it absolutely real,” says Smith. “Using nCloth, we developed a few pre-settings that worked well, and then we tweaked it on a shot-by-shot basis.” The second tool was Autodesk’s Mudbox, a paint-based application that Keith Kim, an artist at The Mill, used to hand paint all the creases in the balloons.

The Budweiser Clydesdales are Super Bowl commercial favorites. This year, the effects are mostly hidden, especially in the backgrounds, where digital magic changed the seasons.

The Mill also created a background shot, when bad weather halted the shoot in New York. After taking digital stills of the New York location, The Mill’s artistic team rebuilt the backdrop in XSI and used Science-D-Vision’s 3D Equalizer to track it.

Because The Mill created the hero characters, it also played a role in the offline editing of the spot. In previsualization, The Mill creatives established a number of actions they wanted to incorporate, such as the head butt, and the timing for each action was crucial. “Early on, we realized the balloons had to move at a certain speed to look real,” Smith explains. “If they went too fast, they immediately looked CG. We had a lot of creative control to make [the animation] work as a story.”

Joe Pytka
Agency: DDB Chicago (Omnicon)
Production company: Pytka
CG company: Filmworkers Club

The Budweiser Clydesdale horses are a staple at the Super Bowl. Every year, viewers wait to see what the trademark horses will be up to. This time, Anheuser-Busch and its agency, DDB Chicago, have outdone themselves with “Team,” a commercial that hit a soft spot for viewers and wowed most of the critics.

Combining the emotional arc of Rocky with the beautiful horses and an adorable dog, “Team” charts the course of Hank the horse, who begins training in hopes of becoming strong enough to pull the Budweiser beer wagon. As Hank trains, we see him perform such super-equine feats as pulling a line of railroad cars, encouraged by a friendly Dalmatian, until he makes the team.

When Hank pulls the railroad cars, that’s probably one of the few moments that a viewer might realize the spot actually includes some digital derring-do. “The visual effects are there, but they’re so well integrated that you don’t even know they’re there,” says Rob Churchill, Filmworkers Club creative director and lead artist. “The effects were truly present to help tell the story.”

Perhaps the most invisible effect is the one that was the most pervasive. To show that Hank trained hard for an entire year, Filmworkers Club had to change the seasons in the  spot, which was shot in Southern California. “I did several matte paintings and composited them into the scenes for the rough cut, to make it come alive,” says Churchill. “For the final cut, I created matte paintings in Autodesk’s Smoke, and combined that with some photography.”

Using the 3D capabilities within Smoke, Churchill painted a full-on blizzard, enhancing it with stock-footage elements, for a scene in which the horse runs through a birch forest. For the autumn scene, he replaced foreground trees with others full of brightly colored leaves, adding falling leaves of similar hues. A farm in the background was replaced with the scene of fall trees on a mountainside. “The only elements that were left was one tree and Hank the horse,” notes Churchill.

For the shots of summer, all Churchill had to work with was a blown-out sky. “The original intent was to do a sky pass,” he says. “The agency thought it might be nice to put a mountain back there. We found a beautifully colored stock photo of a mountain-scape that said ‘summer.’ That was our base, and we doctored it up by changing the lighting a bit.”

For the final shots, says Churchill, the group went “full bore,” with meticulous rotoscoping around Hank, his hair, and objects to create a perfect matte, while hand-painted trees tin the background to make the composition of the scene perfect. Autodesk Inferno artists Chris Ryan and Rick Thompson helped add many of these subtle details.

For the scene of Hank pulling the freight cars, Churchill reveals that Hank galloped on the tracks, while another plate captured the train car being pushed by an engine. The engine was digitally removed from the picture, and Churchill’s team created 3D digital harnesses in Autodesk Maya.

“We had to make sure the rigging matched how the Clydesdales are rigged,” Churchill says. “We had the production company take close-up, detailed photos of the rigging so we could create it digitally.” For all the shots, the main tools—Flame, Inferno, and Maya—were networked together using Quantum’s StorNext data-management software so the programs could share the same multi-terabyte storage system.

Filmworkers Club’s own Rocky feat was finishing the spot in two and a half weeks, at the same time they were finishing seven other Bud Light commercials, eight spots, and a host of Will Ferrell Semi-Pro commercials. “It was a wonderful opportunity to show how much we could handle all at once,” says Churchill. Changing all those backgrounds to tell the story was challenging, but we got wonderful input from [agency creative] Adam Glickman, and that made us want to go for the gold.”

FEDEX - "Carrier Pigeon"
Director: Tom Kuntz
Agency: BBDO
Production company: MJZ
CG company: Framestore CFC NY

Carrier pigeons have a place in the history of mail delivery, and BBDO helped client FedEx use the feathered postmen to make a point about the company’s speed and reliability. In “Carrier Pigeon,” a young man explains to his boss how carrier pigeons, outfitted with GPS units, have solved all the company’s shipping problems. That is, until the duo look out the window and see monstrous-sized pigeons dropping crates onto a city street filled with people terrorized by the huge birds.

The commercial was an artful blend of live-action greenscreen photography and very realistic 3D computer graphics. Framestore CFC NY visual effects supervisor Murray Butler, who went to the live-action shoot, reports that the number of physical stunts captured in-camera helped in building the realism. “We did drop a crate from 150 feet in the air, and we did toss cars through windows,” he says. “We didn’t skimp on physical things on set and leave it all to CG. That, combined with what we did, gives the commercial a bigger, grander scale.”

The mayhem in the FedEx spot “Carrier Pigeon” is the result of physical effects coupled with realistic VFX. The giant pigeons, of course, are 3D.

Another reason to try to capture as much on the set as possible is that Butler and his Framestore CFC team realized they would have enough on their hands creating photorealistic pigeons. “The more physical elements we have, the better it’s going to look, unless you have an unlimited amount of time and can make CG glass, for example,” he says.

The 3D department began developing the pigeons in November, in anticipation of the mid-December shoot, with animation beginning Christmas week. “That gave us eight weeks,” says Framestore CFC senior technical director Andy Walker.

The Framestore CFC creative team simultaneously started previsualization to block out animation, and hunkered down with R&D on the pigeons. Reference material included a stuffed pigeon bought from a taxidermist. “Two problems were covering the body with feathers and getting the wings to open and close with so many feathers,” says Butler. “The transition from open wing to closed wing is quite complex.”

The main pigeon rig was built within Autodesk’s Maya, and it incorporated flight feathers and tail feathers. “With a mix of built-in Maya tools and customer tools, that got us 75 percent of the way there,” says Walker. “The interesting bit is that we used nCloth, a built-in Maya tool and a new technology that integrates all their dynamic simulation into a single pipeline.” According to Butler, nCloth was applied to the wing and tail feathers, which added dynamics and made the feathers lay perfectly over one another.

Smaller body feathers were still an issue, and Side Effects’ Houdini saved the day for this task. “It’s a very good tool for experimenting with highly technical setups,” Walker says. He describes the process: “In Houdini, we’d get the pigeon with the flight feathers already animated. Then we placed 15,000 to 20,000 body feathers over the body and groomed them onto the pigeon surface. We created a command-line raytracing tool that sorted out all the feathers and made sure they laid perfectly on top of one another.” The artists then brought the pigeons back into Maya for lighting and rendering.

Shots that combined real and CG versions of the same object were the most challenging. For example, live-action photography was used for the shot of the crate being dropped to the ground. “But we changed the trajectory, so we did that in 3D until the minute it hits the ground and breaks apart; that was when we used what was in-camera,” says Butler. “Over the entire spot, the main thing we did was add little touches—bits of dust kicking up, moments of defocus, camera shake.” In shots that didn’t have enough pigeons, the group added rotoscoped pigeons from other takes and added them into the final shot. All the imagery was composited using a Flame system.

The special touch that Butler and his crew found the most amusing were the helmets that the pigeons wore. Although the real pigeons initially wore prop helmets, they didn’t look convincing. So Framestore CFC created CG helmets and, using 2d3’s Boujou and RealViz’s MatchMover, tracked the shots so they could place the accessory onto the pigeons.

“One thing we thought was quite funny was the helmet display from the pigeon’s point of view,” says Butler. “We watched Terminator 2 and Resident Evil—for which Framestore CFC did the effects—to create the graphics you see.”

Director: Kinka Usher
Agency: The Richards Group
Production company: House of Usher
CG company: Method

It’s a calm day in the country, and Chester, a friendly little squirrel, hops out onto the road to retrieve an acorn. As he nibbles the nutty treat, he sees an automobile bearing down on him at a high rate of speed. This horrifying scenario unleashes a series of screams from a forest full of animals. One by one, in overwrought comedic style, a raccoon, an owl, a rabbit, a mouse, a tortoise, a doe, a grasshopper, three groundhogs, and the car’s passenger shriek. But, thanks to Bridgestone tires, their fears don’t come to pass; the driver simply and safely swerves around the terrified squirrel.

From the moment that the Method creative team got the boards, they knew one job they’d be doing was face replacement for the animals. “We knew they wanted exaggerated screams,” says lead 3D artist Andy Boyd. “And animals don’t open their mouths on cue.”

Director Kinka Usher did try, in fact, to capture as much as he could in-camera. To this end, an animal trainer brought a van full of animals to a shoot in the mountains near Los Angeles, and the crew was able to capture several of Chester’s movements using three squirrels. “We got the shot when his head pops up in the beginning, him running into the road to get the acorn, and the very end shot when he runs out of frame,” says 3D artist James LeBloch.

Boyd reveals what made this commercial particularly challenging: The animal faces the artists needed to replace were full frame—and in HD. “It’s easy to see if you don’t have the details right,” he says. “Doing a 3D squirrel was a challenge, but doing the face in 3D HD and cutting between the 3D CG face and the live-action one was even more of a challenge.”

For the animation, modeling, and rigging, Method used Autodesk’s Maya; for rendering and creating the animal fur, the team used Side Effects’ Houdini. Boyd created the fur tool that was plugged into Houdini.

In “Scream,” digital artists were tasked with face replacements of woodland creatures. Making the task all the more difficult was that the final shots were shown full frame and in HD.

All the other animals were filmed live action except for the cricket, which was dead but needed a face replacement. (Boyd is quick to point out, though, that the insect was not killed in the making of the commercial.) “We worked with a base plate where the animal did most of the motion, and we were tweaking it to get the most out of the performance,” explains Boyd.

Each artist chose an animal he or she wanted to work on. “In that way, each artist could focus on his or her own shot, so we had a variety of looks and feelings for each shot,” LeBloch adds. “Each artist owned the shot.” Tracking the animal’s head to replace the face was often done with 2d3’s Boujou or “old school”—by hand—if the face was too small.

The biggest challenge was turning all this work around in a short, eight-week timeframe. Most of the 3D comps were done in Apple’s Shake and Adobe’s After Effects. “We would render eight passes and pre-comp that, and then deliver two layers to the [Autodesk] Flame artist,” explains Boyd. “Then the Flame artist would finish the comp, integrating live action with CG.”

“A lot of the techniques we used were tried-and-true methods we’ve used for years,” adds Boyd. “When dealing with fur, getting it to work right when the animals were moving subtly was tricky. We had to be very detailed with our tracking so nothing would give away our effect.”

Boyd reports that creating the fur tool has already come in handy for another job and another animal: this time, a kangaroo, for a project he cannot name at this time. 

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