Walking on Air
Linda Romanello
Issue: Volume 40 Issue 2: (Mar/Apr 2017)

Walking on Air

Chicago-based Filmworkers, which also has locations in Dallas and Nashville, has been fortunate enough to work on a number of high-profile campaigns over the course of the company’s 30-plus-year history. Some of these include campaigns for GM, Chrysler, Toyota, Ford, Firestone, Nintendo, State Farm, Allstate, Kool-Aid, Bayer, Mars Brands, SC Johnson, McDonald’s, Samsung, and Nike. Outside of the heavy VFX work the studio is known for, its Nashville office also works on music videos.

Among its successful branding campaigns is the studio’s continued visual effects work on the series of spots for Capital One featuring actor Samuel L. Jackson. The four-commercial set, conceived by DDB, Chicago, directed by Spike Lee, and produced by Pony Show Entertainment for Capital One’s Quicksilver card positioned Jackson in a number of stunning and highly creative digital environments.

Now in its third year in providing visual effects and post services for the popular campaign, Filmworkers was involved in this latest project from pre-production, preparing storyboards and concept drawings for the digital effects.

“Our campaign work relies on our skills to be a creative partner with the agency and production company,” says Creative Director Rob Churchill. “Our involvement starts at visual conception through finish, which includes concept art, style frames, storyboards, 3D animatics, VFX supervision, expert 3D and 2D finish, and delivery. The Capital One Quicksilver campaign is a successful one that we have contributed to for a number of years. As a VFX company, we like to think that our best spot will always be the one we have yet to work on. To creatively outdo yourself is the goal and what agencies love about us.”

In one of the spots, titled “Chasm,” Jackson is featured walking across a giant cavern on a bridge made of levitating stepping-stones. For that production, Churchill designed a rig for Jackson to use on the set to simulate the effect of unsteady stones. Once in post, Churchill and Senior Art Director Daniel Pernikoff supervised the company’s team of visual effects artists and compositors in creating the monumental, photorealistic environment that surrounds Jackson. That included meticulously detailed 3D matte paintings showing layers of canyon and mountains receding to the horizon, as well as clouds, shadows, and other details that cement the illusion.

“ ‘Chasm has, for the first time, Sam Jackson navigating a more naturalistic world,” explains Churchill. “Creating a levitating bridge over an enormous chasm was a creative thrill for the studio. It is entirely 3D, with elaborate textures created for just that spot, to keep this world unique to Capital One.”

“We previsualized the environment before production began so that Spike Lee and his team could use them in designing shots and choreographing movement during the shoot,” Pernikoff further explains. “That not only helped production work more quickly, it gave us a head start on postproduction, allowing more time to focus on creative refinements.”

Churchill says one of the big challenges in creating the series was “getting teams of artists all working together on a dozen spots with very sophisticated visuals. I say a dozen because the Quicksilver finish timetable matched that of the Jen Garner Capital One Venture Card spots we were finishing with equally high-end effects. We had to expand our pipeline to match the workload in a very short amount of time. Like our artists, our engineering team worked to get what was needed done. Because of this expansion, we have expanded our output tremendously.”

The spots were completed using a combination of Autodesk’s Maya and Flame, Side Effects’ Houdini, The Foundry’s Nuke, and Adobe’s After Effects, Photoshop, and Illustrator. “Whatever tool we need, we have them all,” says Churchill.

He adds, “The ability to work on a great campaign like this and build massive CG environments made it a visual effects artist’s dream come true.”

In addressing the overall quality of visual effects work found in spots for television, Churchill says, “VFX tools are constantly changing, and the quality of those tools always improves. Artists need to be committed to getting the most out of them creatively and technically. Within the studio, we are set up like a feature-film pipeline. We strive to achieve that level of finish in all of the campaigns we work on.” 

Linda Romanello (lromanello@postmagazine.com) is the managing editor of Post, CGW’s sister publication.