Seeing Spots
Issue: Volume 39 Issue 2: (Mar/Apr 2016)

Seeing Spots

For as long as any of us can remember, we have been pitched a plethora of products while watching our favorite TV shows. In the early days of television, companies would go so far as to sponsor shows. Some products were even integrated into the show itself – a practice that continues today albeit with a far more subtle presentation. (A Coke can clearly visible on a table, for instance, compared to yesteryear when the pitch was written into the show’s dialog.) 

Clearly, TV spots have evolved over the decades. Yet, it’s difficult to know what type of commercial will be a hit and what will be a miss. Even those million-dollar Super Bowl commercials can fall flat. While there is no special formula for a fantastic spot – whether on TV, the Web, or elsewhere – there are some things that are particularly appealing to audiences. Animals, cute kids, and humor almost always have crowd appeal. In the past (and even now), catchy jingles or catchphrases did the trick. Today, eye-popping computer graphics can likewise grab one’s attention.

A number of interesting commercials packed with CGI began making a bold statement of late, thanks to the imagination of agencies, the willingness of clients to embrace something different, and the genius of CG artists and animators. Here are some recent favorites.

Honda ‘The Dreamer’

Honda’s latest commercial, titled “The Dreamer,” takes viewers on a trippy CGI road trip through the imagination of a Honda Civic engineer. The wild, inventive journey features a wide range of 3D objects within many all-digital environments as a Honda Civic traverses an ever changing, ever expanding roadway. Except for a few scenes with the engineer, the entire 60-second commercial is completely computer-generated.

The vibrant spot, created by the facility Roof Studio, also contains the song “Walking On A Dream” by the Australian musical duo Empire of the Sun –
drawing viewers in on both a visual and audible front. The production was done by a core team of 10 over the course of approximately four months. However, the group’s ranks swelled to 25 at times as artists from around the globe contributed assets – objects and short animated sequences – to the whimsical piece.

“We had a great relationship with the agency [RPA], and they afforded us a lot of creative freedom,” says Sam Mason, who along with Guto Terni and Vinicius Costa, served as creative directors on the spot. “Creatively, it was very open for us.”

As a result, the group from Roof continued to add 3D elements and story pieces, even into the last day of the project. 

In essence, the designers let their imagination – or, more accurately, that of the engineer – run wild. And Roof was the ideal studio to do this, as the agency was already familiar with its previous design-centric work. “They wanted us to take some of that design sensibility, those elements of surrealism, and expand them outward to a full-scale universe that the car travels through,” says Mason. 

“The Dreamer” is a design-heavy spot that contains a plethora of cg elements and mini animations within a large-scale, digital environment. 

Scale It Up

The commercial opens with a live-action shot of an actor (the engineer) working on drawings at his desk. A digital door opens in the back of his head, and the 3D adventure begins. Initially, the scene starts in miniature, confined by the size of the engineer’s head. But once the car crosses the first bit of track, it becomes full scale. 

“We then created a massive landscape that went on into the distance,” says Mason. 

Scale was one of the main concerns, says Terni. The car started out proportional to the engineer, at miniature, but the client did not want to continue that feel through the rest of the piece. To avoid having the car seem small against the massive landscape, the artists used atmosphere, such as fog and other tricks often used for big, wide landscape shots. Moreover, the designers made the engineer appear giant size, rather than regular size, thus enabling the car to maintain a real-world scale. This was done through camera angles and filming the engineer segment at 60 frames per second, giving him a larger, more lifelike presence.

The CG car, though, is the star of the commercial and had to be product-accurate both inside and out. The group started with CAD reference data, and in the end, the vehicle model comprises between 500 and 1,000 parts – some of which are shown off early in the spot during an under-the-hood shot as the engine is inserted, revealing all the pieces of an actual motor. 

Not only did the car have to look full scale, but it had to perform like its real-world counter-part. The crew looked at a significant amount of live-action reference and tried to stay true to the laws of physics in terms of how a car would behave. Sometimes, though, that movement became more stylized when the vehicle was placed in impossible situations – for example, when it was launched across a void in the road. “Yeah, we had to break reality quite a bit to stay with the shot, but we tried to make it feel as natural as we could,” says Terni. 

As Mason explains, “It was kind of a ride piece, where one element sets the rhythm, and the continuity was the car and how it would speed up, slow down, and handle a turn. Since we had this abstract hero, which is the car, all it needed to do was behave like a car, and the world around it could transform.”

A Graphic Display

Soon after the CG car is introduced, a digital takeover occurs, giving the artists and designers more flexibility as the imagery and backgrounds became wilder and crazier. 

Half the landscape shots have CG all the way to the background. The scale is large. “We were going for some feature-film style, giant, CG landscapes. But we were doing it for a commercial,” Mason notes. “The challenge was transitioning from miniature scale to something cinematic and big, without losing the audience.”

According to Terni, they accomplished that by setting up a reality where just about anything can happen during this dream ride. “We let design lead the way with bits and logic. But there was a lot of dream logic, where nothing really made sense. And with that going on, the car just leads you through the environments while you witness all these hallucinogenic things happening all around you,” he says.

Terni points out that the studio often designs in 3D, as most of the directors are 3D artists themselves. As a result, there was no restriction on ideas or concepts – there was always someone to rig, model, and animate. Many background objects are abstract, but there are also some interesting choreographed motion of abstract mechanisms based on things from the real world and the language of driving, especially in the first half of the spot. In the second half, the designs were inspired by Rube Goldberg mechanisms that continued the action. 

“In some cases, we just ran with an idea on the fly, and one of the directors would make something or we would talk to the team and repurpose something to create a new object,” says Terni. “It gave us a lot of flexibility. Since we designed in 3D, we were able to incorporate things into the film that we felt improved it, without following a checklist of specifics we wanted to include. The whole thing was fluid, and everyone had quite a lot of input, as opposed to one person doing one particular, small task. Everyone had creative ownership.”

This style of workflow enabled the group to work quickly. “It is difficult for a large VFX studio to come up with an idea and two hours later have it in the production,” says Mason. “But we are a small studio and were able to do that.”

To create the objects and animations, the group used a combination of Autodesk’s Maya, The Foundry’s Modo, and Render Legion’s Corona. Compositing was done with The Foundry’s Nuke. For the liquids and clouds, the artists used “a lot of trickery” with low-resolution geometry within Corona. “There isn’t full-featured volumetrics for Corona yet. We created volumes out of 3D geometry that looked really nice, and then we painted on top of those,” says Mason.

Making a New World

The environments span the natural, to the futuristic, to the surreal and more. It started with strong concept design, as the designers mapped out the production in a traditional, albeit extensively detailed, way. 

(Top) MPC generated cg water, atmospherics, sails, and more for a viking-themed spot pitching death wish coffee. the boat’s interior (bottom) is practical.

“The difference was that we were able to make changes easily. “By designing in 3D, you can scatter vegetation and the terrain, and see a fast result. That is where we utilized the flexibility of 3D,” says Mason. “We started with this mapped-out base and then changed the positioning of objects and reworked some of the landscapes and added new mechanisms and things like that.”

The designers purchased some tree models and cut them apart and changed them up to make trees, shrubs, and a variety of foliage. 

Just how many objects are in the backgrounds is difficult to say. “It felt like a hundred million,” says Terni. “We had to deal with a large number of polygons in every scene.” Indeed, some shots contained more than a billion polys. The most complex scene, Mason points out, contained 30 million unique polygons and two billion to three billion instanced geometry, such as the trees.

“The amount and variety of geometry we had in every shot were staggering,” Mason notes. Terni agrees: “We tried to push the boundaries of 3D as much as possible. We kept saying, ‘Let’s do more!’

While the group managed to not break the renderfarm, they did have to do a significant amount of rendering through the Google Cloud Platform. Terni explains that they would use Corona running on local machines overnight, rendering in a low quality to check out progressions, and once satisfied with the results, would send them to the cloud for final rendering. 

Without question, the key to this project was the assets – as well as the design acumen of the team.

Death Wish Coffee ‘Storm’s a-Brewin’

A handful of VFX studios have been challenged of late to produce amazing water simulations for big-budget feature films such asIn the Heart of the Sea and The Finest Hours. And as visual effects artists know, generating water simulations is an arduous, time-consuming task. So when The Moving Picture Company (MPC) was tasked with creating a scene involving a practical boat filled with Viking actors getting tossed around on a turbulent CG ocean – for a television commercial, no less – the group knew theirs would be a difficult course.

In fact, the spot hardly can be considered ordinary. The 30-second commercial was featured during the Super Bowl, when close to 97 million sets of eyes were glued to television screens. This global appearance was a big deal for Death Wish Coffee Co., a small company that won the Intuit QuickBooks Small Business Big Game contest and earned the prize of a Super Bowl 50 commercial worth approximately $5 million.

Death Wish is highly caffeinated coffee whose packaging includes a skull and crossbones logo – branding that ad agency RPA was easily able to work with. A Viking scenario was conceived, as the Northmen battle a stormy, dark sea that cascades over a waterfall… where it is revealed that the liquid is actually coffee, as it pours into the mouth of a consumer. With concept in hand, the agency approached MPC New York for the creative.  

According to Vicky Osborn, effects supervisor on the project, the group had to determine what would be built practically and what would be computer--generated. In the end, the interior of the boat and all the crew were filmed live, as was the coffee drinker at the close; the exterior of the boat and the sails were CG, as were the water and atmospherics. “Anything in contact with the water and environment was ours, so most of the scene was created in post,” she says.

The MPC crew used a combination of 3D software to make the spot, including Autodesk’s Maya to build, shape, and render the exterior boat and sails, and Side Effects Software’s Houdini for the water and effects. Compositing was accomplished in The Foundry’s Nuke and Autodesk’s Flame. For tracking, the artists used Science-D-Visions’ 3DEqualizer. 


The commercial begins with a somewhat calm ocean that quickly turns turbulent against a gray, cloud-filled sky. Using the Houdini Ocean Toolkit, the artists generated water sims, building up to the rough sea. This included the ensuing foam, spray, and white water. “The Houdini simulation varied significantly across the job because we transitioned from mild water all the way up to crazy action and a waterfall at the end,” says Osborn. “So we used the whole range of the Houdini Ocean tool set.”

As Osborn points out, all CG water is tricky in its own way. “But the waterfall – to make it feel big and at the edge, where you quickly realize it’s not a water-fall at all – was the trickiest part of it all,” she says, noting that many layers of animation were added on top of the water to achieve the appropriate look.

Tied closely to the water simulations were the wind sim-ulations. “They were almost an extension of the water,” says Osborn. As the simulations were being built, the artists would generate more of the foam and mist that whips off the water surface, “and that defines the windy look,” she adds. “And then we added more mist and spray in the air to make it feel like a violent storm.”

While the water and wind simulations were tied together, the atmospherics were done separately. However, they had to feel like they were grounded in the same world as the water and wind. 

The sails, meanwhile, were animated in Maya, giving the artists more control over their movement. So instead of a full simulation, the artists used a partial rig. Then, a small amount of simulation was dialed in. “Because the boat was done in Maya, we thought we’d keep everything in the same program, and combined them [the boat and sails] afterward,” explains Osborn. 

Once again, the animators had to marry up the wind simulation, only this time they tied it in with the cloth motion in Maya.  

Boat Building

The boat’s interior, along with the oars and shields, were practical, as was one end of the ship with a removable dragon head so that the section could serve as both the front and rear of the ship depending on the shot. CG artists extended the portion of the boat that came into contact with the digital ocean. 

A great deal of planning went into determining the movement of the boat, with the artists completing a fully detailed previs prior to the shoot. “We went into the shoot knowing what movement we needed from the camera and how the boat would have to move up and down to feel like it belonged in the ocean environment,” says Osborn. 

The practical boat (the interior) was mounted onto a gimbal, which rocked it back and forth for the various stages of motion. “Then we had to matchmove that to the water simulation. But it is never exactly the same as how you plan it. Still, we had a good idea of what we would be looking at,” says Osborn. 

The movement of the gimbal was somewhat limited, working well for the opening shot but not as well for the subsequent shots as the water became stormier. As a solution, the crew tracked the boat and the camera movements on set, and then translated the information into the CG world. An extra layer of animation was added on top of the tracked motion to make the boat feel like it was traveling through the world, and the tipping motion was exaggerated to match the dramatic waves that were created. 

As Osborn points out, this project was more challenging than a lot of the commercial work MPC has done, mainly due to the technical demands of the water simulations and the animations of the boat. “It felt like a mini trailer for a feature film,” says Osborn. 


Pokemon ‘Train On’

The Pokemon craze began two decades ago, centered on fictional creatures that humans, known as Pokemon Trainers, catch and drill to battle one another for sport. Over the years, the characters and concept have grown in popularity through video games, trading cards, animated television shows and movies, comic books, toys, and more. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of this popular franchise, The Pokemon Company went global, with an ad during Super Bowl 50.

The spot contains live-action
footage with a good deal of invisible CG effects created by Digital Domain. What are not so invisible, though, are the computer-generated Pokemon characters that appear near the end of the commercial.

VFX Supervisor Aladino Debert spent time on set during the filming in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Because the scenes were to be representative of cities all over the world, digital enhancements to the plates were added here and there. Sometimes this meant set extensions, sometimes simply a greenscreen element. And in one instance, an entire CG environment.

The spot opens with shots of kids representing various countries in the midst of action and gameplay – distance running, chess, football – uttering the phrase, “I can do that.” Then a teen steps into a stadium packed with fans, Poke Ball in hand, coming face-to-face with four Pokemon characters: Gyarados, Magneton, Charizard, and Mega Lucario. The game begins. The shot transitions to a boy and his father facing the television, with the iconic Pikachu standing nearby. The father utters, “You can do that,” and the words “Train On” appear across the screen.

A handful of animators, riggers, and compositors had approximately three weeks’ time to complete the spot. “We created lots of smoke and dust for a sequence of shots, and added plants and vines, for example, to the scene of the girl playing chess within an environment of Eastern European-looking concrete buildings,” says Debert. 

For the latter, the group crafted a matte painting with realistic-looking plants and tracked that into the live--action plate. Initially, the artists considered using Paint Effects in Autodesk’s Maya or the SpeedTree vegetation generator, but since there wouldn’t be motion, a photo-based solution proved to be faster and easier.

“We added things to the scenes that you would never really think about,” says Debert. “In the live-action shots where you think there are no changes, we did something, whether it was changing a sign or the color of the sky.” The artists also integrated haze and clouds, along with various 3D elements.

The most complex environment, though, was the all-CG stadium. As Debert explains, the director and production company originally planned to film in an actual stadium. “When we first chatted, I pointed out that this is Pokemon and they would likely want us to modify the stadium. So I suggested that we just do it all in CGI,” he says. “We had created similar environments before, so I showed them the various stadiums we had done for past projects as part of our pitch.” 

The artists still had to construct the Pokemon stadium from scratch, but due to their previous experience with similar structures, they were able to work fast. Then, the crew generated a large CG crowd for inside using particles and crowd sims within Side Effects Software’s Houdini. As a result, the group was able to turn around a dozen or so stadium shots in a matter of two weeks. 

In addition to Houdini, the artists used Maya for all the modeling, animation, and rigging, as well as Pixologic’s ZBrush for the CG textures. Houdini was also used for the various VFX: dust, smoke, and fire. Compositing was done in The Foundry’s Nuke, while tracking was done using both The Pixel Farm’s PFTrack and Digital Domain’s in-house software. 

Creative Characters

There are clues to the theme of the commercial hidden throughout that a Pokemon fan may identify (such as the Nidoking chess piece and the Volcano Badge from Ash vs. Blaine appearing on the football helmets). However, the revelation that this is Pokemon does not come until the latter part of the spot, when the characters are in the stadium. While their appearances are brief, the creatures are iconic showpieces both here and in the Pokemon universe.

Digital domain placed an actor, shot on greenscreen, into an all-cg stadium filled with a virtual crowd for pokemon’s “train on.” The artists integrated iconic pokemon characters into real-world settings.

Digital Domain has had plenty of experience working with game characters (for cinematics), but this project was different. “This is the first time that these CG characters have appeared in a live-action environment,” says Debert. “It was an opportunity to make something no one has seen before.” This, however,  presented a conundrum: how to make these colorful, cartoony creatures fit within the real world of live action.

The artists integrated iconic Pokemon characters into real-world settings.

Because the characters are so popular, there was a wealth of information about each available to the artists – their capabilities, how they move, what they look like. 

Initially, though, the agency and artists envisioned a more realistic design for the five beasts in the spot, which included the dragon-like Gyarados and the draconic fiery, flying, bipedal Charizard. So the original models started off on the realistic end of the spectrum – how the characters would look if they were “real,” not just in terms of the lighting, but also in appearance. “We wanted them to be very different-looking. We were imagining the Gyarados as a real animal. Our dragon was very dragon-like,” says Debert. “It was more like a Chinese snake dragon.” 

The client, however, did not favor the realistic style. So, after “many, many iterations,” a happy medium was reached in terms of how realistic to make them versus how faithful they should be to the original designs.

“We brought the designs back to something that is closer to the look people would automatically recognize, while still keeping a fair amount of justification [for living in the real world],” says Debert. 

There were exceptions, however. “The agency and client let us break some rules when it was good for the shot,” says Debert. For example, the opening in the stadium sequence contains four characters, including Gyarados, which is extremely popular with fans. The way he moves, though, was not that interesting for this project. So the team came up with some variations, one of which the client approved. 

“It was not 100 percent accurate to how the dragon moves [in the Pokemon world], but it looked better in the shot,” Debert points out. “The client was flexible while keeping a tight rein on their characters.”

Nevertheless, two of the creatures – the yellow mouse-like Pikachu and the canine-like Lucario –appear with fur, for the first time ever. Pikachu is arguably the most recognizable of the Pokemon creatures, so adding fur (generated within Maya and Chaos Group’s V-Ray for Maya) to its typically plastic-like look was a significant step in the design process. 

“We were able to keep a little bit of the initial designs for a real-world look, while making the creatures easily recognizable,” Debert says. 

To help integrate Pikachu into the live action, Debert captured the lighting of the live action on set, creating an HDR dome-light setup whose global illumination was matched perfectly with the set lighting. A camera track ensured that the character would live within the camera moves of the live-action plates. The CG team also used the same type of handheld camera style for their work as the DP used, ensuring a consistent look from plate to the CG stadium environment.  

The artists also wanted the digital creatures to blend naturally within the CG stadium set – in terms of their aesthetic as well as their movements. “We wanted the stadium to be grandiose but also as realistic as possible,” says Debert. The team added “interesting” architectural details and elements to the stadium, making it slightly magical.

In the commercial, things clearly become real with the Pokemon training. And they are about to get even more real with Pokemon Go, an augmented-
reality mobile app expected to be released this year that is tied to the franchise and lets players capture, trade, and battle Pokemon characters in the real world. Are you ready for this challenge? Clearly the team at Digital Domain was when faced with a similar scenario.

Razer ‘Duality’

The boutique creative studio cum m+d in Singapore likes to tell a story. “I was never a big fan of showing off a product and its features just for the sake of it,” says Co-founder/Director Tan Wen Hao.

So when the group was recently challenged by longtime client Razer to design and create a commercial that focused on duality – using its mobile computer for work and play – the artists decided to break with tradition and do it with a story. 

The all-CG animation starts with typical product beauty shots, showing off the sleek lines and thin form of the newly released Razer Blade Stealth Ultrabook, as the bright green logo on the laptop stands out within a mostly black and white palette. The camera pulls back to the Ultrabook on top of a desk, business applications running on the screen, as an office environment builds around it in time-lapse photography. Day turns into night. 

Switch to another product shot, as a Razer Core is plugged into the laptop; background music begins to build. Another pullout shot follows. This time we can see smoke and dust as the walls begin to crumble around the machine, a first-person shooter video game visible on the screen. The walls give way, and the view outside is that of utter destruction in a post-apocalyptic world.  

“The idea was that the user would bring this laptop to the office and spend the day working with it, then take it home; when it’s connected to the Razer Core, the person is transported to another world,” says Wen Hao. “We wanted to clearly demonstrate the gamer of today, who requires portability by day and power by night.” 

The “Duality” commercial, which became an immediate hit on YouTube, was created for the product’s CES 2016 launch early this year, where it debuted at the Razer booth. 


According to Wen Hao, cum m+d over the years had been trying to nudge Razer toward a story focus rather than a pure product one, “so viewers could envision how they would use the product.” The studio also wanted to incorporate a hook to grab their attention – in this case, the explosion. While it took some time to lock down the concept and get approval by the large corporate client, the execution by the small studio took approximately two months. 

Creative studio cum m+d took a storytelling approach for “duality,” using time-lapse photography and other techniques in the all-cg commercial.

“We did storyboards for the first few concepts, but by the time they had agreed on this, we needed to jump straight to previs,” says Wen Hao, who had pitched the idea via Skype to the client, which is in the US. 

As Wen Hao explains, the studio was established on the 3D strengths of its two founders. It has since evolved into a creative agency that runs the entire gamut, from creative pitch to completion. “We started doing CG commercials for Razer around three years ago, then moved into product photography, since we had the CG assets already. Instead of Razer having to do product shoots, we could light the product in CG and use those for print ads,” he says. Web and print campaigns followed. 

“Now we serve as the creative and then execute the ideas for our clients. CG is one of our powerful weapons because it spreads across all the different channels very effectively, especially with products,” Wen Hao says. “It is an effective skill set and tool set for any creative agency.”

Cum m+d now comprises 10 full-time employees, each with a specific skill set, yet all are considered generalists – for instance, a photographer who knows lighting can light in CG easily. “We all bounce around the different fields, but we are individually strong in certain areas, too,” Wen Hao points
out. In addition, the studio hires an international talent pool of artists as needed, enabling cum m+d to compete with larger facilities.

With a team that varies in skill and makeup, the studio uses a core set of industry-
standard software – Autodesk’s Maya and Adobe’s After Effects, which most digital artists are familiar with. 

Explosive Work

Wen Hao points out that most of Razer’s products are black and previously have been shown within a dark environment with a little smoke and atmospherics. “It’s really easy to make a product look great against a black or stark environment,” he says. “But once there are other elements added, it is harder to make the product look beautiful and sit correctly with everything else. It’s no longer about just making the product sexy; you have to make everything look great.”

The animation for “Duality” starts with product beauty shots. The artists built the models in 3D using the product’s CAD files as reference. Then the group constructed the office, inserting upward of 50 realistic models – a bike leaning against the back wall; a cabinet with a printer, folders, books, and papers; a desk with a lamp, coffee mug, pens, papers, magazine, Post-its, and more. “We wanted to make the scene believable, and that required a lot of details,” says Wen Hao.

All the objects are fully textured and lit with global illumination using Chaos’s V-Ray and Lightmap’s HDR Light Studio.

The destruction scene was crafted by an artist who used Autodesk’s 3ds Max, along with Sitni Sati’s FumeFX and Cebas’s Thinking Particles. “Since the smoke effects were rendered in 3ds Max, we had to match the lighting to what was in Maya,” explains Wen Hao. Meanwhile, the devastation to the world outside is a matte painting.

Throughout the project, the team was handling very large files and transporting the data back and forth around the world. This included the office model textures as well as the destruction scene. “We were constantly handing the files among the artists,” says Wen Hao. “For the destruction, we had to move
gigabyte-size alembic files over to the next person to do the smoke simulations.” 

To render these heavy scenes, the crew used two cloud rendering providers: RebusFarm based in Germany and Fox Render Farm in China. Near the end of the project, the data was sent to four different locations before it was synchronized at cum m+d and then sent to Fox for final rendering.

“We are always trying to do work that challenges us and also helps our clients,” Wen Hao says. 

For “Duality,” Wen Hao and his group were successful, conceiving and delivering a project that blows viewers away.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Computer Graphics World.