Fish Out of Water
By Karen Moltenbrey CGW Chief Editor
March 11, 2011

Fish Out of Water

Not everyone loves sharks. In fact, they can be quite scary. But in a spot for Snickers candy titled “Focus Group,” these creatures are quite lovable, even as they freely discuss what we fear most about them: devouring humans.
Taking a comical approach, the commercial, from Framestore NY, opens with a focus group of CG Great White sharks discussing the flavor of some of the people they have eaten. The group agrees that the tastiest specimen had just eaten a Snickers Peanut Butter Squared treat.

The sharks act like real people because they evolved from real actors, shot on location by Jim Jenkins from O-Positive. Then, Framestore created photoreal CG sharks and composited them into the live-action plates. “We had great reference footage of the actors, which proved to be very useful,” says Shayne Ryan, animation lead. “Their performances drove a great deal of what our characters eventually did.” The group also looked at reference of previously animated sharks to see which traits the crew could borrow for this task. That also helped them avoid movements that were too human or too cartoonish.

“There was also a lot of looking at sharks and watching videos,” notes lighter John Montefusco. “We should have had Jaws on repeat while we did this spot.”

Prior to doing so, the Framestore team did a lot of research on Great Whites leading up to the production. That work helped the group realize that one of the biggest challenges of this spot would be making the skin of the sharks look completely real within the environment.

Framestore has worked on a number of CG fish and sea creatures over the years (Audi “Drink Like a Fish” & Johnnie Walker “Fish”), so lots of R&D had already been invested in getting the skin and textures of the sea creatures to look perfect. VFX supervisor Ben Cronin and CG lead James Dick even filmed a real dogfish on set to work out how the skin would react to the strip lighting. This was not so popular with the crew (for obvious reasons), but it made for great visual in-scene reference.

When it came time to creating the sharks, the team modeled them in Autodesk’s Maya, and then used The Foundry’s Mari for texturing and matte creation, as well as Pixologic’s ZBrush for model refinement. Rendering was done in Mental Images’ Mental Ray.

Yet the biggest challenge remained: the skin. Aside from Andy Walkers' shader development and Jesse Flores’ texture work, this was mostly done in comp. “By separating out our specular, reflections, water drip, and diffuse passes, we were able to combine them back together to get a nice balance that gave us a realistic look that was as close to our reference as possible,” says Montefusco. “The extra water-drip pass added a lot to the realism.”

The Framestore animation team had a lot of fun bringing out the characters of the different sharks. The casting was perfect, he says, and Framestore translated lots of nuances from their performance into the animation. According to Ryan, the biggest challenge in terms of the animation was walking the line between human and shark—bringing to life four individual performances while still trying to stay true to the reality of how sharks can move.

The animators rigged the sharks in the same way they would have rigged a human character: with controls for the pelvis, shoulders, arms, hands, and head. “Working this way made the human side of their performance easier to obtain in terms of body language and gestures,” says Ryan. “On top of that, though, we had to be mindful of how real sharks move. If they wanted to do a simple head turn, that motion had to be reflected all the way down the body. Likewise, we originally gave them more human motor skills in their arms that eventually we reigned back to a more awkward and, ultimately, more genuine level.”  

According to Ryan, the crew was able to drawn on its experience of animating characters with long snouts—for instance, the Geico Gecko. To this end, the group was able to use the same face rig setup and animation techniques on these characters. Yet, there were some differences. “Their faces have a lot more malleable mass in the cheeks, while having both less mobility in the brows and in the lips,” he explains. “Making it look like they were talking and not just flapping their jaws turned out to be somewhat difficult, but, ultimately, we ended up with a result I was pleased with."

Montefusco adds that after getting the final look down, the multiple renders presented difficulty. “We had some problems with subsurface flickering due to geometry shape,” he says. “It was a pain trying to find a work-around that would not dramatically raise render times, while juggling everything else that was being put on our farm.”

Besides the sharks, the crew created CG chairs, pads, and pencils.

Cronin brought everything together in Autodesk’s Flame, working in live-action elements for the interaction and finessing the comps in The Foundry’s Nuke.

“I feel it was the little things that really brought the realism higher,” Ryan says about the work, “the small drips of water on the chairs, the painful and not so noticeable integration of gills, and the small water shakes in the glasses.”

And unlike the characters in the commercial, the artists and animators at Framestore were not fish out of water when working on this job. Their recipe for success: “In the end, it was pretty much a refinement of techniques we bring into all of our commercials,” Dick says.

All told, a crew of five animators worked on the spot for approximately three weeks, along with four lighting TDs for four weeks, two Flame artists, and one Nuke artist for three weeks.

The end result? An engaging, funny spot that makes audiences love these characters, despite having their worst fears realized. Good comedy with photoreal creatures in a live-action environment—it’s the thing that Framestore has nailed yet again.