Special Delivery
Issue: Volume 40 Issue 5: (Sep/Oct 2017)

Special Delivery

In an attempt to answer the “uncomfortable” question that young children often ask their parents – Where do babies come from? – adults often abandon the truthful explanation for the age-old pro-creation myth that is more on a level with a youngster’s comprehension: Storks deliver them. 

In Leo Burnett’s live-action commercial for Fiat titled “The Stork,” one of these large birds lands on a family’s doorstep with a small bundle of joy, but upon seeing a Fiat parked in a driveway across the street, the stork instead delivers the precious cargo to the Fiat home. 

“It was clear from the beginning that the star of the whole commercial, from a storytelling point of view, was the stork. This ad only works if people believe what they were seeing,” says Martino Madeddu, 3D visual effects supervisor at MPC, the creative studio behind the stork character. “That is what Xavier pushed for at every stage of the production.”

Madeddu is referring to Xavier Mairesse at Mercurio Cinematografica, who directed the commercial. Also working with Madeddu was a team of specialist artists in the MPC Life group, which spent over two months crafting the photoreal bird, the star of the show. 

According to David Bryan, lead animator, the MPC team worked closely with Mairesse from very early stages of the production. “He acted out shot-by-shot how he wanted the stork to behave and the emotions it would convey,” Bryan says. 

The group researched extensively the actions of storks landing on the ground in a heavy, clumsy way, looking for different running styles and speeds as well as how the wings behaved. “Finding small imperfections in its movement was important too, so we could create that contrasting, graceful and delicate moment as the baby is placed on the ground, when the audience can see an intimate connection between the baby and the stork,” Bryan explains.

A Stork Is Born

To create the character, the group collected hundreds of images and closely studied proportion, shape, and all the minute details of a stork’s body, such as its beak, eyes, and legs. “It’s fascinating to learn how many intricate details this character, which we initially considered as relatively simple, has in reality,” says Madeddu. 

Michael Diprose, one of the lead artists, modeled the stork’s body from scratch. “A lot of anatomy study took place while we were modeling, especially for the head proportions and all the finer details, as we were pushing for such a high level of realism,” Madeddu points out. Once the base model was complete, the artists then began sculpting character-enhancing details, such as wrinkles and creases. 

“We were quite surprised by the number of imperfections a stork’s beak actually has,” notes Madeddu.

The feathers were also an important detail. An average-size bird can have up to 8,000 feathers, but something like a stork or a swan can reach much higher numbers, Madeddu points out. “Feathers cover 85 percent of a stork’s body, so we’re talking about 22,000 feathers,” he adds. “We looked very closely at footage and photography to understand exactly how they behave, from a single feather’s movement to how a clump of feathers respond to the bending of the neck.”

The artists created the feathers using a system that was built by MPC London’s Creative Director Diarmid Harrison-Murray, based on a Side Effects Houdini fur setup the facility evolved to create state-of-the-art feather software. “It’s robust and flexible tech that we can extend and adapt for different jobs,” says Christian Bohm, senior technical director on the job.

As Bohm explains, the system had to be developed slightly for this project, since the feathers of a stork are unique in the way that they create a very closed and smooth surface in one area and clearly visible, separate feathers in other areas. He says, “We added a way of bending the feathers slightly, for example, so we could create a softer look for the overall surface where needed.”

The Houdini fur system enabled the team to craft the feathers “down to every single strand,” says Bohm. The system was separated into two parts – the body and the wing feathers, which are both fairly different in the way they behave. A lightweight representation of wing feathers were animated within Autodesk’s Maya, and then replaced at render time with “fully-fledged” feathers in Houdini, before being rendered in Side Effects’ Mantra. “We had around 100 feathers for both wings, with approximately 1,000 strands per feather,” Bohm says.

The body, on the other hand, is groomed on the geometry level; thus the feathers were created according to the setup. This enabled the group to craft different shapes and appearances of feathers that could then be painted on the geometry for combinations and variations based on the painted masks. “This means it creates mixed styles of feathers where the masks of different types overlap,” Bohm says. “Combined with some procedural variation, this system basically makes sure that every single feather is unique.”

Due to this large quantity, rather than fully simulating the body feathers, the artists had to  “cheat” their movement. “Simulating around 25,000 feathers with 500 strands, all colliding with each other, is quite an undertaking, and you end up with a lot of weird movement,” says Bohm. “That volume was simply too high to achieve the result we needed, so we were able to add some noise to their bending and got to almost the same result as a full-blown simulation.” 

The wing feathers, however, were different. They were simulated on top of the animation, as there were fewer feathers to deal with on this part of the bird’s body. 

Rendering the fine-feathered bird proved especially difficult. “Frankly, we thought a stork shouldn’t be too complicated, since it only consists of soft, white feathers – how hard can that be? Well, we were wrong,” Bohm says. “We needed a lot of time and many rounds of experimentation and reviews to nail the distinctive look of a stork.The character required some really subtle tweaks and changes to achieve its overall softness, while keeping the amount of feathers, and their individual look, realistic.”

Animation Challenges

It wasn’t enough for the stork to look real; it also had to move in a realistic way – from the flapping of its wings and landing on the ground, to the subtlest twinkle in its eye and hesitancy when crossing the road to the neighboring home. “Xavier came into the studio and acted out, shot by shot, how he wanted the stork to behave, from imperfections in its movements, almost clumsy, to the contrasting graceful and delicate movement when the baby is placed on the ground, creating an intimate connection between the baby and the stork,” recalls Bryan.

To give the stork’s flight cycle a more natural and irregular look, the team developed a technique within Maya’s animation layers that allowed them to adjust how much energy they put into the body and wings by simply adapting the weight of each layer for when the bird is in flight. “For example, we posed our stork in a glide position as a base layer, then animated the flight cycle on a separate layer,” explains Bryan. 

In the commercial, the stork is given the important task of delivering a baby. Key to delivering a convincing performance was getting the weight of both the stork and the baby correct. After all, a baby wrapped in cloth hanging from a stork’s beak is not something you can find real-life references for. So, the animators had to contemplate how this extra weight might affect the motion of the stork and then incorporate that into the scene.

Unlike the stork, the baby is real. “We always try to follow the rule that CG should only be used when necessary; so the baby was real,” Bohm says, noting there would not have been any benefit to creating a CG baby. “Quite the opposite, actually, since mixing reality and CG usually is way more believable that relying on pure CG alone.”

Madeddu concurs. “We all think the same thing when we see a full-CG baby in a movie: ‘That’s not quite right, is it?’ You never know what it is, but your brain twigs that there’s something wrong,” he says. “Babies, probably more than fully-grown humans, are one of the most challenging 3D creations to overcome.”

MPC’s team came up with a creative solution: The production’s art department created a rig on set with a dummy baby filled with sand, all wrapped up in a bundle cloth. This was then filmed being placed on the doorstep – to provide reference, as if there were a real baby inside. “The tricky bit was when the stork puts the baby down at the doorstep of the house – in that moment we switch from a full-CG bird with a CG bundle to the real footage, which required very accurate comp’ing with the stork’s beak,” Madeddu adds.

While the story line of the commercial is based on an oft-repeated myth, the challenges faced by the MPC artists and animators to bring this scenario to life were all too real. And, like the stork in the spot, the group delivered.′

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.