Landing A Whale
January 4, 2012

Landing A Whale

It’s time to dive into the big time with Grey NY’s latest turnout for DIRECTV. Directed by Stacy Wall of Imperial Woodpecker, the spot, titled “The Whale,” features a main character of the same name – The Whale, a diminutive casino gambler with an oversized lifestyle – who can’t believe his good fortune when DIRECTV offers him the biggest package of channels for the lowest price ever.

From his gigantic pet carp to his two super-tall supermodels and his enormous baby panda, this tiny high-roller clearly prefers to live BIG. MPC’s Los Angeles and recently opened New York studios joined forces to create the VFX largesse for the spot. For the first setup, the hero was supposed to be hugging a huge pet fish by the side of his pool. The best approach to achieve this visual effect was to create an animatronic fish, and Legacy Effects delivered a beautiful camera-ready model. However, this technique sometimes cannot offer the full range of motion desired, so a good deal of cleanup and compositing was required. Cables and a scuba operator were removed, including rotoscope of the main characters, and 2D re-animation of the fish to create splashes and droplets when it dives into the pool.  

The production schedule pushed into the evening, so several shots had to be altered in postproduction to maintain lighting continuity. Other minor cleanup issues, like adding/removing reflections in sunglasses and stabilization, played a big role in polishing the spot, but the most significant part was in creating an authentic but oversized CG panda. MPC worked closely with the agency and director Stacy Wall before the shoot to help visualize the characteristics of the panda. The idea was to create an adorably gigantic baby panda, and MPC ran with it by developing a 3D animatic before jumping into the animation.  

Based on past work, MPC had the ability to create a photoreal panda with the utilization of MPC propriety Furtility software. The difficulty was in the animation. To stay in line with the tone of humor in the DIRECTV campaign, there needed to be an exaggerated difference between the panda and The Whale. Along with scale differences and the unlikely interaction with The Whale, the subtleties of the panda’s expressions and mannerisms needed to be applied. After researching pandas through different medium types and shared reviews between the New York and Los Angeles offices, the animation was polished with agency direction through the end of the project.

When the viewer is first introduced to the panda, the intention was for it to have a similar disposition as the two women in the scene, adding to the comical nonchalance of the The Whale’s over-the-top lifestyle, but also allowing for a more magical interaction between the hero and his favorite pet. The story ends with The Whale sitting on the panda's belly, so to help sell this effect, the art department created a huge fake panda belly. Then all the details of the room were re-created in CG from references and HDR imagery, and developed with the MPC R&D team to get the right look for the fur. As with all fur projects it was a challenge, but MPC’s in-house tools aided in the realism of the Panda fur. 

The main advantage came from using Furtility, which was written in-house specifically for creating photoreal fur for the many films MPC has worked on. MPC Commercials has access to these tools, enabling the creation of the minute details that are so important to get the quality and realism that is necessary. Pixar’s Renderman was used to render the project with custom film shaders to get the lighting and fur to match those of a real panda. 

Working with fur is a leap of faith for the client, as it is an extremely technical process, where you only see the final results close to the end of the project. However, the advertising agency, Grey, kept the faith all the way through, and the result was clear.