Out of Season
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 5 (May 2009)

Out of Season

Artists add a taste of summer to a cold, winter day.

Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog weather prognosticator, saw his shadow this past February, forecasting six more weeks of winter. Throughout the country, particularly in the northern half, folks responded with a collective sigh. Indeed, it had been a rough, long winter already, with plenty of snow and ice. If only the bright, warm touch of spring—or better yet, summer—would arrive sooner rather than later, to melt away the winter-time blues.

Phil’s prediction was correct, and we waited a bit longer for that to happen. But in a commercial for Bud Light Lime that debuted during the Super Bowl, there was no time like the present for this transformation, thanks to inventive digital effects work by Brickyard VFX.

Thanks to digital effects, summer arrived in the dead of winter during this Bud Light Lime commercial.

Oringinal Plate
The orginal plate.

In the 30-second commercial, called “Sphere of Summer,” a guy in a lightweight, short-sleeve shirt exits his apartment building with a six-pack of Bud Light Lime in hand. Outside, the trees, buildings, sidewalk, street…everything is covered in a layer of fluffy snow, and flakes continue falling. A gray haze blankets the environment, adding an extra chill to the scene. That is, until the man jaunts by. He is surrounded by a sphere of bright, warm, summer hues; as he passes through a scene, it suddenly transitions from a drab winter scenario to a vibrant summer one, then back again as he moves along. The setting within the sphere shouts “summer;” the scene outside the sphere, “winter.”

For instance, as the Bud Light Lime guy approaches a bundled-up man in a heavy coat, hat, boots, and gloves brushing snow off a pale-yellow car, the vehicle suddenly turns into a bright yellow convertible, and the man is now dressed in sneakers and khakis. The transformation is seamless, as is the transition back to the winter scene. In other shots, colorful flowers spring forth from a dormant planter, a lawnmower replaces a snowblower, and a woman cooking at a grill turns into a snowman. When the guy reaches his destination—a party—it, too, is awash in the colors of summer.

Pulling off such smooth transitions from the winter plates to the summer plates required a number of complex, multilayered composites. It also called for detail in the scenes, some of which were practical and some CG. Most important, though, was the lighting, which had to remain consistent to make it seem as if there were just one scene in the frame at all times, rather than two.

“[Director] Oskar Holmedal from Stylewar and I talked over the phone a bit to figure out how this effect of mixing summer and winter would look, how winter would turn to summer around a person. We agreed, based on our initial conversations, that we didn’t want to have two different types of lighting. We wanted the light direction to be the same, otherwise it would look too much like a composite of two different worlds,” explains Robert Sethi, who, along with Sam Kao, served as lead 3D artist on the project.

Making the Change

As Sethi points out, the project demanded a quick turnaround. The job was awarded on a Monday, and a week later the two-day shoot was done on a Warner Bros. lot. In between that time, Stylewar storyboarded the entire spot.

The commercial contains 19 shots, all of which have an effect applied to them.

For the shoot, there was just a single stage, so it had to be dressed twice. “We did the best we could with the time constraints, and added the rest of the complexity in post to make the shots look more refined,” Sethi says. “In the end, every shot has a lot of detail that you don’t really see until you watch it a number of times or see a ‘before and after.’” There are a number of obvious objects that are practical, but many are CG, including the flowers, trees, and falling/melting snow. The artists created these using Autodesk’s Maya and rendered them with Pixar’s RenderMan. Later, they composited the objects using Autodesk’s Flame, and tracked the scenes using 2d3’s Boujou.

consistent lighting
The key to the commercial's success was maintaining consistent lighting between the summer and winter plates, to make the scene look like it was from a single world.

On location, DP Crille Forsberg from Smuggler used a duplicating head on the camera so that he could film the two plates—one summer, one winter—using identical camera paths for each. The summer plate was shot first, since the Bud Light Lime guy’s performance would establish the spot’s timing. A spotlight tracked him through the scenes. When the take was satisfactory, the information was stored in the repeat head. Then, the set was quickly re-dressed for winter and the scene reshot.

“If there weren’t any actors in the scenes, we would have been able to do [the winter scene] in one take. Because there were people moving around, we had to make sure the plate corresponded with the summer plate we had already shot,” explains Sethi. “Even if the camera is repeating the same move, it doesn’t mean the people are. There are new things happening in the scenes, as well.” An overlay enabled the group to see both plates simultaneously on set.

Digital Touches

In addition to the obvious seasonal clues, the Brickyard artists added a haze layer in addition to one with falling snow, to give the scene a cold, drab feel. Other 2D enhancements washed the buildings and other objects in a layer of frost. “We used CG for all the stuff we couldn’t do when we shot [the action] on a sunny, warm day in LA,” adds Sethi. The goal: to contrast the seasons and to illustrate the differences between lively (summer) and dull (winter).

“Winter is not necessarily dull, but we graded down the plate to be grayer and brought down the saturations so this [concept] would read easier,” says Sethi. “We also took summer up a notch and exaggerated the warmness and happiness of the world.” This was done in Flame.

According to Sethi, the lighting was key to making it look as if there was just one scene, even though the setting said otherwise. “The ambient lighting in both plates is the same, which brings the two different worlds together,” he adds. “It was all about the lighting.”

While some of the objects in the shots are practical, many others are computer-generated, including the snow and the trees, which were composited into the plates within Flame, The artists then added a grayish haze to the winter scenes to emphasize the dullness of the season.

With such little time to prepare for the shoot and only six weeks to finish the television spot, Brickyard was anxious to get down to business. Nevertheless, the group first had to create a rough version of the spot for approval prior to locking down the effect.

“Oskar and I had talked about it early on and had done a concept image, but [agency DDB Chicago] wanted a full version a few days after the shoot, before we had a good read on the look,” Sethi explains. “We had to do the spot with a really rough effect and deliver that for testing”—in effect, having to do the work twice. “Usually you want to get the shot down and make it look as best you can, and say, ‘This is what we want to do.’ It was a different way of working.”

No matter, the creative team worked around the clock, successfully changing the seasons from winter to summer and then back again, says Steve Michaels, partner at Brickyard. And in doing so, they were able to thwart Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions for an early end to winter, even if it was just for 30 seconds.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor for Computer Graphics World.