October 20, 2010


Digital effects are key to a successful launch for Coors
When Coors Light and Draftfcb wanted to tell the world about their new re-sealable, wide-mouth bottle, Silver Bullet Aluminum Pint, they looked to the heaves, wanting to launch the bottle in the truest sense of the word: with a spot that features a NASA-inspired rocket launch.

Providing the necessary visual fire power was Framestore NY, which directed and produced the spot in which an aluminum bottle of “The World’s Most Refreshing Beer” appears incredibly cold and as large as a space shuttle.

“It is always a challenge to make a beer bottle look cold, and for this spot, where the bottle is the hero, we needed to use a huge amount of visual effects. We added drops of water, vapor, frostiness, and bits of ice,” explains director Murray Butler, who is also head of Flame. “Also, condensation is always a challenge to produce in effects and animation, but in this case, when you are dealing with issues of scale as well, it was a real test of our skills. We had to make sure the condensation was realistic and visible enough to make the bottle look as cold as the new aluminum Coors Light bottle, Silver Bullet Aluminum Pint, really is, but we had to make sure the condensation was not so large that it dwarfed the can.”

In fact, according to Butler, making the bottle look freezing cold was the biggest challenge in the creation of this spot. “The effects passes were so important; the frost, ice, vapor, and condensation made it look cold, not the modeling,” he points out. “We had to get the bottle to look freezing cold, but it also had to be as large as a space shuttle, so a lot of hours were spent creating condensation and ice that was authentic-looking but not so large as to dwarf the can.”

Mission Under Control

The spot, which was co-directed by Butler and David Hulin, Framestore head of 3D and VFX supervisor, opens with a sunrise shot of a massive Coors Lights Silver Bullet Aluminum Pint as it is being prepared for lift-off. The new re-sealable cap is attached to the giant bottle, and we cut to a mission-control scene that is crowded with technicians, desks, and computer screens.

“The mission-control scene was a lot of fun to direct, but it was a real technical exercise,” says Hulin. That’s because in reality, there was just one desk, and the crew moved it to different positions on the set. The mission-control set was shot greenscreen. “We had a little piece of carpet and one desk,” says Hulin.

Then the team shot each group of people individually and composited everything in post to create a tense and busy mission control.

“When you are dealing with something as iconic as mission control, we had to make sure that every detail—from the levers, radars, and screens on the desktops, to the graphs we projected on the wall—were as authentic as possible,” Hulin says. All of the screens in mission control and the mission control iconography were all CG.

Taking Off

During the launch, when the sequence begins, CG-created ice cubes tumble down to commence the final cooling, and the Silver Bullet Aluminum Pint is cleared for take-off. According to Hulin, the Framestore team spent a lot of time in post getting the moment of take-off to look believable and epic. The boosters fire, smoke billows from under the can, the ground shakes, and we have lift-off.

For some of the sky that is shown during take-off, the group pulled from the Framestore library, but still had to paint that up quite a bit. “We painted up the mountain range and also did matte-painting on the background off in the distance,” says Butler. The grass and concrete, though, were built in CG. “Basically, we did a lot of dressing on the scene,” he adds.

CG in Space

Framestore is well known for its feature-film work as well as its inventive commercial work. According to Hulin, the objective in this instance was to bring big-production value and feature-style effects to this commercial job. “Since our job was to make a 150-foot aluminum screw-top beer get launched into space, there wasn’t really an option to shoot much of it practically. So we had to focus our skills on creating photorealism,” he says. To that end, the group basically had to create an entire-CG environment. “There were so many photoreal elements that we needed to build, and we had to build almost everything from scratch,” says Butler. “And because the spot is re-creating iconic launch and mission-control scenes that people are very familiar with, all those things that we were building had to be incredibly authentic, and we had to be focused on detail.”

The CG elements include the launch pad, the concrete, and the bottle. To create the CG imagery, the Framestore artists used Autodesk’s Maya, Side Effects’ Houdini, and Autodesk’s Flame. In addition, the team accessed Framestore’s live-action library, pulling some of the vapor and flying ice from there. Nevertheless, the crew still had to do some CG on those elements. Moreover, the group also shot the sequence on 35ml film because “we really wanted to capture that cinematic look of a launch sequence that you would see in a Hollywood film or in vintage NASA footage, and we just didn’t think we could get the same affect in HD,” notes Butler. To deal with the scaling issues, the team camera angles that are often used when shooting physically large structures to help sell the sense of scale, including low angles with wide lenses and helicopter-style shots, where you drift around and above things. “We focused on thinking about how ‘real-world’ camera work would be able to depict the launch pad,” explains Butler.

The complexity of the modeling really helped the scale, as well. “When you look at something large, your eye is accustomed to seeing lots of detail the closer you get. We had to make sure the model was good enough to sell this,” Butler adds.

Notes Hulin: “It was great that, as directors, we could select the kind of shots we knew would sell the scale of the CG really well. If something wasn’t working, we could tweak it early on in the process. This is a good example of how it can work well when we direct a spot and also do the VFX in post. There is a cohesion that exists; you don’t have to go back and forth as much when you are also making the decision about things like camera angle as the director. It is really great to be directing a spot with a full understanding of how we shoot something will affect the work that we need to do in post.”

The FX work in the spot was accomplished using a combination of Houdini and Maya, with Maya being used to create the massive smoke plumes generated from the lift-off, and Houdini to do the rest, such as smoke trails, debris, vapor from the bottle, and so forth.

Maya’s fluid system was used to simulate the dense smoke that comes from the engines during take-off and was probably the hardest part, according to Neil Weatherly, CG supervisor at Framestore NY. “We used reference of shuttle take-offs and tried to match the feel of chaos close to the emission point and then the ‘calming down’ of the smoke as it loses velocity farther away,” he says. “Trying to keep enough detail in the cloud to stop it from becoming flat but also trying to keep a sense of scale was the biggest challenge with this effect, particularly in the overhead shot as the bottle flies toward camera.”

To create the general feeling of the chaotic nature of lift-off and to get across the feeling of coldness, the Framestore group filled out the frame with lots of extra effects, such as snow-like particles that are blown around the bottle. They also added subtle cues, such as cold vapor drifting slowly off the bottle as though it was straight from the fridge, as well as a dry-ice style vapor creeping over the edge of a bowl full of ice. These were all done using particle systems in Houdini and the studio’s own volume-rendering software. The artists also hand-animated ice chunks and water droplets falling down the side of the bottle, leaving trails behind them.

The other main effect in the spot was the bowl of ice underneath the can that has massive ice cubes dropping into it. Using Maya and Framestore’s proprietary rigid-body dynamics software, the artists could simulate this while having a fair amount of control over the timing and sense of weight of these chunks. The rendering of this ice bowl was done using Mental Images’ Mental Ray and was reasonably tricky, Weatherly says, due to the refractive/reflective nature of ice.

The idea was that all these individual layers of effects would contribute to an overall “cold” feeling as well as getting across the power of a shuttle taking off.

“The volume of VFX in this spot was huge,” Butler says. “The surrounding environment, the bottle, the billowing smoke, the shot of the bottle traveling through space, they all took hundreds of layers to render them realistically. But it was all worth it, we love the epic feeling of this spot.”

So, what made the project so successful in Butler’s opinion? “I think that the key was to keep our eye on the bigger goal during this entire process, that we wanted this spot to mirror the launch footage we are all so familiar with from movies like Apollo 13 and Armageddon, as well as vintage NASA footage. We looked at a ton of that footage and took great care to re-create the way the spacecrafts were shot, how the people in mission control acted, how the smoke looked. Those observations were what informed us as we built the models and decided on lighting and camera angles,” he says. “We knew that if we executed the spot with the iconic footage in mind, we would be able to produce something very slick. We had to make sure that everything was authentic or we would have wound up with something corny instead of something that we think looks epic and looks like the real launch footage that inspired us.”

The final shot in the commercial is of “The World’s Most Refreshing Beer” floating through space. And the parting words? “Houston, we have refreshment.” And indeed, that can also be used to describe the digital work in the spot.