Brickyard VFX Builds Stellar Effects for Panasonic
July 9, 2010

Brickyard VFX Builds Stellar Effects for Panasonic

Brickyard’s bi-costal teams joined forces with ad agency Arnold and prodco Untitled to promote the new Panasonic 3D HD VIERA TV

Artist owned-and-operated bi-coastal effects boutique Brickyard VFX has delivered an out-of-this-world viewing experience for “Odyssey,” a 30-second ad introducing the new Panasonic 3D HD VIERA TV via ad agency Arnold.

“Odyssey,” directed by the Cronenweths via production company Untitled, transports viewers from the comfort of their living rooms into a galactic journey through outer space--complete with star fields, a collapsing sun, gamma ray bursts, meteor showers, and gorgeous nebula. The spot opens as a family dons their 3D glasses and turns on the Panasonic 3D HD TV, which quickly becomes a portal into an alternate galaxy. The 3D experience proves so immersive that the family is actually transported into the screen and begins to float through space. They watch incredulously as astronomical elements float past in a meteor shower and reach out to feel the surrounding planetary objects, begging the question, "With 3D this lifelike, can we still call it a TV?"
 All of the CG elements in the spot, including the sun, meteors, star fields, nebula, and particle effects were created by Brickyard. To achieve a lifelike, 3D, space aesthetic that would showcase the television’s new 3D capabilities, Brickyard’s Santa Monica team started with test comps and then built CG models of the sun using Autodesk Maya. From there, the team continued generating the rest of the planetary elements, lighting and animating each as it passed through the sequence of events, and tapped Renderman for rendering. Brickyard also constructed displacement maps and hand painted a number of textures to contribute to a stylized look to the elements. When it came time to design and animate the meteors, the team created a number of different rocks  and generated realistic textures, ultimately using a combination of particle instancing and hand animation .

While designing and executing the planetary CG components of the spot proved no difficult task for Brickyard’s seasoned team of artists, animating a realistic representation of the scientific events that occur throughout the ad with a tight deadline looming overhead proved to be one of the greatest challenges.
“Constructing a lifelike depiction of a series of natural events that you can’t see physically happening before you is a difficult task,” said David Blumenfeld, CG supervisor, Brickyard VFX. “Since we couldn’t physically view the sequence, we had to imagine the various parts in action and find ways to create an interesting visual representation, while remaining true to the science behind it--all in a short amount of time.”
To overcome these challenges, Brickyard’s Dave Waller and David Blumenfeld provided on-set supervision during the original shoot in which the Cronenweths used flying rigs to accurately capture the flying family. The team shot with a RED digital camera, which allowed Brickyard to walk away from the shoot with footage and start adding in the CG elements that very same day.

 In order to create textures for the CG elements, the team began with references they found online and in nature.  For instance, the meteors required a rocky texture that was both realistic and exciting.  Brickyard’s team looked at a number of photos of real asteroids taken from different NASA space probes as well as from other sources such as the Hubble and land-based telescopes.  It was clear from these photos that most asteroids have a relatively smooth surface, lightly pock-marked with small craters and other impact remnants.  The team then looked at various rocks found scouring about outside, attempting to find more sharp details and variation to make the look more interesting.  From there, Brickyard’s team went into Adobe Photoshop CS, where they began to paint their combination of these looks onto 4k and 8k maps (for use in rendering).  At the same time, they painted their initial displacement maps using Pixologic ZBrush.  This gave them the ability to paint in all the cratering and jaggedness to displace the model at render time, which saved time on modeling and while animating the scenes. 

Because Renderman's displacement is of such high quality and easily allows the artist to layer various displacements in the actual shader, this provided the team with a great amount of flexibility throughout the process.  They experimented with creating their actual color maps in ZBrush, but found that their Photoshop textures gave them a better workflow instead, so they opted for that route.  For the Sun texture, the team created the original look in Renderman with a series of layered solid procedural textures, animated warps, and transparency maps.  By rendering multiple layers of this in different, offset shells, these could be stacked in the composite to create a volumetric surface, which seemed to swirl on itself.  Later in the compositing phase, additional textures were created for the sun using Photoshop and Flame.

 To create particle effects, the team used the standard particle set in Maya.  They ran a number of simulations for the meteor shower: the heated accretion disk around the collapsing star, the Sun's corona, the flares being ejected from the heated surface, and some inner details on the gamma ray bursts.  Some of these effects were rendered with the Maya hardware and software renderer, while some was done with Renderman.  One nice benefit of Renderman was the ability to render hardware-only particles in software, allowing for true motion blur, depth of field, etc.  They were able to use this to great effect for generating the spinning heated matter around the star as it begins its collapse to a singularity.  For the meteor showers, the scenes, which have thousands of rocks being ejected, began with a simple particle simulation for the location and rotation of the rocks.  Particle instancing (where geometry is copied onto each particle) was utilized in this case for speed and simplicity.  Starting from a selection of nearly 100 different rocks, these were instanced out onto a few thousand particles where their size, rotational speed, and incidence angle was randomized.

In preparing for the effects sequence in the Panasonic Odyssey spot, one of the most challenging and exciting parts was developing the order of events leading up to the climactic supernova and subsequent meteor shower.  While researching these real-world phenomena and their physical properties, it became clear that some of these events were invisible to the naked or telescope assisted eye, and that the visual effects would play a large part in bringing them to life.  After sorting through large stacks of NASA imagery, watching a number of documentaries on the topics, and looking at other visual reference including some popular science fiction movies, we were able to create a visual timeline of events that would occur through the duration of the commercial. 

Because this spot is essentially a commercial within a commercial, it proved more useful to create the effects sequence as one continuous thirty second spot which could be edited down into the live action.  We accomplished this by creating a detailed animatic, while at the same time performing R&D on the particle systems, shading methodology, and look development for the various objects.  Once the animatic was complete and turned into a rough edit of the spot, we were then able to focus our time on the pieces that would be seen.  This included a rapidly accelerating spinning and collapsing star, a heated accretion disk and gamma ray burst, an explosion shockwave, an expanding nebula, and a meteor shower.

Once all of the variations and animations were completed, the Santa Monica office provided a variety of elements to Brickyard’s Boston office, where lead 2D artist Sean McLean took over.  Arnold Creative Director Roger Baldacci sat side by side with Sean while he combined the 3D pieces with his own newly created 2D elements.  Sean used actual Hubble imagery as reference for the final composite.