Spotlight - User Focus
Issue: Volume 33 Issue 7: (July 2010)

Spotlight - User Focus

Artist-owned and -operated bi-coastal effects boutique Brickyard VFX recently created CG frogs that appear alongside live counterparts in a new fairytale-inspired commercial for Mitsubishi entitled “No Fairytale.”

The ad puts a new spin on the classic “Princess and the Frog” tale, while highlighting the sleek and sporty design of the new 2010 Mitsubishi Lancer. The 30-second TV spot follows the Lancer as it winds down a beautiful mountain road. The ad illustrates some of the Lancer’s safety features as it swerves and stops short to let an unexpected throng of frogs cross the road.

CG work and editing follow, as the viewer sees the woman behind the wheel emerge and walk through the group of frogs. The hero frog begs the woman for a kiss. She obliges, turning the amphibian into a prince—but much to her dismay, the prince falls in love with the Mitsubishi and takes off.

An alternate Internet-only spot accompanied the TV campaign. In this version, rather than transforming into Prince Charming, the frog turns into the pop musician formerly known as Prince, who gets left in the dust by the woman and her Lancer.

Brickyard provided a variety of effects to this spot, most notably extensive CG work in creating the plethora of frogs. “Frog handlers brought in 20 frogs, but most were too small for the spot, so we ended up shooting just two real ‘hero’ frogs. The rest are a combination of CG and composites,” says Brickyard lead 2D artist Patrick Poulatian.

Brickyard used a variety of 2D and 3D techniques to create a modern-day fairytale to advertise the Mitsubishi Lancer. Among the tasks, the artists created a bunch of realistic CG frogs.

While the majority of the frogs are CG, for one close-up, the Brickyard team carefully layered shots of the real frogs to create the illusion of hundreds of frogs in the road. The hero frog in the spot is a combination of live action and CG; a CG mouth and eyes gave Brickyard artists the freedom to animate his speaking lines and manipulate his eyes and brow to sell the realism of a talking frog.

Many of the scenes were shot as clean plates as well as secondary passes, with a few real and fake frogs placed into the scene. This provided both real-world scale and lighting reference for their replacements. The hero frog (toad) was photographed in multiple positions for model reference and texture extraction, which provided the basis for the CG frogs. From there, three different frog models were created by the artists: two with the ability to be modified into a larger number of variants for the crowd shots and one hero for the dialog shots.

Using a combination of UV texturing, projection mapping, and customized shaders, the group was able to achieve a number of different looks, colors, and textural variations on the frogs in the scenes, so it felt like a crowd of hundreds.

Versions of the spot were created in both French and English (the commercial aired in Canada), with frogs talking in both languages.

Unpredictable weather conditions presented another challenge for the Brickyard crew. On location in the hills of Vancouver, British Columbia, the weather fluctuated between bright and sunny, and overcast and rainy. “We ended up balancing shots by adding matte paintings of mountains and skies to mesh environments for better continuity,” says Poulatian.

To create this spot, the Brickyard crew used Autodesk Maya for the CG modeling, animation, and lighting; Pixar RenderMan for shading and rendering; Adobe Photoshop for texture painting; Pixologic ZBrush for displacement map creation and texture manipulation; The Foundry Nuke for rough compositing and image manipulation; Autodesk Flame running on HP workstations for compositing; and Autodesk Flare for rotoscoping. On the hardware side, the VFX team used 64-bit quad-core Dell Precision workstations running Fedora Core 11 Linux for the 3D animations. The imagery was processed on a renderfarm of a Dell server and Boxx render nodes.

Digital magic turned a frog into a prince in this idyllic setting.

Creating any size crowd, especially with a tight production turnaround, is always a technically challenging undertaking, says Poulatian. “Although the commercial only required a few hundred frogs (as opposed to tens, or hundreds, of thousands), it was imperative that each frog could be controlled, hand-placed, and art-directed,” he adds. “This meant that the use of instancing and render-time proxy archiving was not a viable option, and the use of a third-party, crowd-simulation software, such as Massive, was not particularly time-efficient or practical given the constraints of the spot.”

Thus, the decision was made to have individual animation rigs in the scene, using Brickyard’s in-house file referencing system. This allowed the rigs to easily be loaded and unloaded individually and in groups, as well as updated as new versions became available.

To ease the time and effort it would typically take to animate so many frogs, a small set of animation clips were created that could be looped, offset, scaled, and retargeted for additional hand animation. These clips were then semi-randomly assigned to the various frogs in the scene, while still allowing for individual placement, orientation, and scaling. Frogs could be placed either by hand or by using painted particles on the surface of the road. The geometry was tagged with a random color offset within a specified range, allowing the shader to offset the color of the frogs and how their textures reacted to the lighting at render time, providing for greater variety. Using these groupings, solid color mattes were also generated so that specific colors of frogs could be easily manipulated in the compositing phase.

“By planning ahead and working with the custom in-house software, the shots were completed efficiently and with the ability to easily adjust individual characters without affecting the randomness of the crowd,” says Poulatian.

Planning was indeed crucial: In all, the group had just one week to complete the project.

And that was how this fairytale came true for Mitsubishi.