October 6, 2008

Poetry in Stop Motion

A work of art demands to be beautifully framed, and for the modern car, what more appropriate frame could there be than a television set? But why stop there?
For "Zeitgeist," a new spot for the Ford Fiesta, agency Ogilvy and director Noah Harris (for Blinkink), decided to place the new Fiesta within a night-time cityscape, through which a couple of dozen stop-motion animated television sets move, continually assembling and disassembling themselves into an assortment of piles and shapes, all the time showing on their screens a smorgasbord of work from leading artists, filmmakers, and motion-graphics designers. Harris and his team--naturally wanting something as complicated as this to look simple--came to Framestore.
Each shot comprised some 20-plus passes, so a team led by VFX artist Paul O'Brien occupied up to eight of Framestore's Smoke and Inferno suites simultaneously at one point during production. "It was a brilliantly demanding project," says Michael Stanish, the spot's producer at Framestore.
"One of the key reference points was the photography of Gregory Crewdson, who creates these extraordinary and enigmatic tableaux-like stills from an imaginary film. Long exposures, night-time shoots, moving images juxtaposed with stop-motion animation--it was a challenging combination to say the least. The inherent demands of stop-motion animation, combined with the location and shoot schedule, as well as Noah Harris's extraordinary eye for detail, together meant that we were kept on our toes throughout the six months it took to make."
With a mere 12 nights allocated for the shoot, on each of which only 5 hourswere usable, meticulous planning was essential. To this end, some fourmonths prior to the shoot were spent on both research and development forthe optimal technical means by which to realise Harris's vision, as well asan elaborate frame by frame pre-viz intended to make sure that the shoottook place as efficiently as possible.
Says Dan Seddon, head of 3D, commercials: "It was an inversion of the normal process from our point of view: all of the hardest work and most of our man-hours took place on the pre-viz, with the post-shoot phase being relatively straightforward. Apart from making sure that the shoot schedule was feasible, the pre-viz was an opportunity for the director and creatives to change their minds--because there wouldn't be time to do that on location. So there was a fair bit of R&D on the best techniques to use. Noah had done tests on a building roof, moving 2 or 3 laptops around, and shooting them with a stills camera, giving a rough idea of the effect he was after. Initially, we thought that because it was a very rhythmic movement with boxes lying on top of each other, it might all be done procedurally rather than keyframed, since keyframing something on this scale seemed too daunting at that point. Meanwhile, our animators were coming up with cycles, and these turned out very well indeed, so we ended up building it up out of those. Once we'd got an edit sorted out, we created a stop-motion version of the whole thing in Maya."
The shoot took place in Berlin over 12 nights at the beginning of July this year, supervised by O'Brien. "We numbered the TVs on the pre-viz and on theback of the real TVs," recalls O'Brien. "And we gave the animators a 'playbook' containing every single frame to be shot, so they'd know exactly where to place the TV for each set-up. It worked out at around two minutes per frame to move the TVs--it was a military operation, basically." With the shoot over, the 3D team's work continued with TD Michele Fabbro lighting the CG televisions to match their real counterparts. In addition, the laborious task of tracking the material (using Boujou) was led by TD Jabed Khan.
"We spent a lot more time on tracking than we might normally do because it had to be so dead on," says Seddon. "You had these very rigid geometric objects sitting on top of each other, some of which were 3D some of which were real, and it would be very easy to see if they became misaligned. In addition, not only were we going to be adding 3D televisions, but we were also providing the locators for our Smoke artists (led by O'Brien and Tim Greenwood) to put the footage on the real TVs. It was a great example of 3D and 2D teams working together, because the material we exported directly into Smoke meant that Paul didn't have to do 2D handtracks and therefore saved considerable time and effort."
O'Brien agrees, "As well as facilitating the TV placement, the 3D tracking data proved invaluable when the (inevitable) rain during a couple of the shots meant that we had to replace a road. It was a great way to work."
The material was shot on 35mm using motion control, and the background plates and real TV elements were graded at Framestore by senior colourist Dave Ludlam, who also worked on all of the material seen within the sets themselves, which was created on a plethora of different media formats, including film, Phantom, HD cam, and others. This was all done in close collaboration with designers Superfad, who were animating this additional content. Fortunately, their offices are just across the road from Framestore's, making Harris's hands-on supervision of it all that much easier.
Greg Burke
John Corzier
Dom Sweeney
James Brook-Partridge
Noah Harris
Andrew Studholme, Bart Yates, Georgina Fillmore
VFX Framestore
TELECINE Framestore