The Boy and The Piano, and VFX
March 5, 2019

The Boy and The Piano, and VFX

The annual John Lewis Christmas ad is said to signal the start of the festive season in the UK, and this spot will endear audiences well into 2019. Created by the VFX maestros at MPC, it’s one of the most technically complex, with MPC building a digital version of rock superstar Elton John for this VES Award-winning rumination on the passage of time and the giving of gifts.

Over the years, John Lewis and their production partners have explored an assortment of imaginative ideas via a variety of creative mediums – all in the search for the ultimate tearjerker. We’ve seen 2D animated woodland creatures, lonesome CG penguins and monsters puppeteered out from under the bed. 

For its 2018 year-end advert, the retail chain tackled an even more challenging medium: a photoreal CG human…who just so happened to be Elton John.

“Creating a CG human is a challenge in itself, but one certainly doubled by the fact that the campaign is also the most anticipated UK advert of the year,” says Anthony Bloor, creative director of CG at MPC, the studio responsible for bringing this vision to life. “We faced a hugely technical exercise in VFX. We needed to use all the tricks available to us to create an end product we could be proud of.”

ftrack was the grimoire that helped to categorize, organize and catalog each of those tricks. Using its production tracking and project management functionality, MPC was able to set about creating what was one of the most convincing CG human seen in an advert to date.

I’m Still Standing

Named “The Boy and The Piano,” the ad explores the meaning with which a Christmas gift can be imbued – in this case the very first piano of Rocket Man himself, Elton John.

We see the performer’s life in reverse, with progressively younger versions of Elton John playing to different crowds in different venues throughout the course of his life. The camera swoops and swings from one era into the next, finally coming to rest on the first notes ever played by the pianist, which echo back through time to the present day.

It’s a beautiful advert – not to mention an incredible technical feat; one recognized by the 17th Annual VES Awards for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Commercial.

And rightly so. The younger versions of the famous musician required extremely complex CG. After all, audiences around the world are distinctly familiar with Elton John’s face. Any discrepancy would be emphasized tenfold.

“Creating a convincing human face in CG has long been a challenge that very few want to undertake – the problem being that audiences are incredibly sensitive to picking up the subliminal details of a face,” says Bloor. “To take this on with such a recognizable person was therefore a fascinating thing to attempt – particularly so when our colleagues at MPC Film had achieved one of the most convincing CG humans to date in Blade Runner 2049 .” 

Circle of Life

Initially, the creative team on The Boy and The Piano had chosen to use prosthetics – an approach that worked for wide shots but not quite so for those closer to the actor portraying the young Elton John. For these shots, a CG version was required. ftrack helped to manage the assets that created this animated face, along with the extremely complex compositing and lighting that occurred around it.

“Even though our animation, lighting and compositing teams all sat right next to each other, we used ftrack every day, all day for asset management – from rigs to textures, animation caches, renders and output images,” says Bloor.

But the team extended further than one room. An entire team of dedicated artists also operated out of Bangalore, India, where they worked on a multitude of 3D assets, matchmoving and compositing. ftrack kept them in the fold.

“When the physical distance and time offset of global production make verbal communication difficult, that’s when ftrack truly becomes invaluable – especially on a project as intricate as The Boy and The Piano,” says Bloor. “Despite the massive distances separating us, we knew the progress and intentions of each team working on the project, all thanks to ftrack.”

Your Song

“The John Lewis campaign was due for delivery just a short six weeks after the shoot,” says Bloor. “While some of our shows are much longer, many are very short. We need something that can adapt to whatever size show we are working on – and ftrack does just that.”

ftrack owes its scalability to integrations with numerous industry-standard tools, alongside its deeply customizable Python API. Together, these features enable deep connectivity between ftrack and any pipeline into which it is integrated.

At MPC, ftrack is deeply implement into the MPC pipeline, and everything is run through ftrack as much as possible to fully version control everything produced. “This approach vastly streamlines the production process, as we never need to go hunting through scenes to find things,” Bloor says. “If there’s ever a problem, we can identify where and when very quickly with ftrack, and then address it. That’s thanks to ftrack being so tightly intertwined with everything that we do at the studio.”

Can You Feel the Love Tonight?

MPC used ftrack to help to track and define each asset as it moved from one end of the pipeline to the other. Towards the end of the project, the name of the game was detail, with the MPC team fine-tuning the more subtle aspects of the Elton John CG re-creation.

“The last two weeks of the project was all about almost subliminal changes to minute expressions,” says Bloor. “Not every version was a step forward, so being able to track where something had come from and when was vital in ensuring that we were always building upon the right version, in the right way, at the right time.”

ftrack ultimately helped the MPC team to lock in an acutely accurate version of the famous singer’s visage. Like the notes of a piano, the hugely varied set of assets that made up this CG countenance were meaningless when considered as individual items, but when combined via a concerted effort conducted by ftrack, they became something beautiful, moving and captivating.

“Post-production can be unpredictable, but ftrack helps to turn chaos into something that everyone involved on a production can easily understand…and enjoy,” says Bloor.