When Kellogg’s needed realistic-looking cockerels driving tractors and using mobile phones, it turned to the animation experts at Aardman to bring the concept for its new Multi-grain cereal ad campaign to life.
When the hub of a brief is making a CG cockerel look comfortable using a mobile phone then it’s clear some outstanding work is called for – so who better than Aardman to pull off such a feat.
In fact, the client Kellogg s, didn t want just one cockerel, but three, in a spot for its new product, Kellogg’s Multi-grain Corn Flakes. The spot features three breeds of cockerel taking care of their own crops, being wheat, corn and rice – the main ingredients of the new product.
“We open on our hero, Cornelius, who is surveying his crop of golden wheat blowing in the morning breeze,” says Aardman director Bobby Proctor.
“We expect him to give out a ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ but instead he reaches under his wing and pulls out a mobile phone.”
Another cockerel overlooking a field of corn takes the call, and then speed dials a third cockerel that’s next to a paddy field. It then cuts cut to a scene outside the gates of the Kellogg’s factory, where a worker sees three cockerels driving tractors towards the factory, bringing their crops with them. Proctor says:
“The challenge was to create realistic CGI cockerels who had a very naturalistic physiology but who had the ability to use mobile phones and look fairly at ease with doing it.”
Proctor says the original brief from agency JWT was for the CG cockerels to be realistic, but that as the job evolved and they ended up with more of a “heightened reality” look. Aardman was happy with the look because “it had a sense of reality yet also afforded us to make the film more beautifully illustrative”.
The complexity of creating realistic feathers was immense. Aardman had access to a stuffed cockerel, plus stills and film footage of real cockerels, and its technical directors partially wrote software to create CG feathers prior to starting the job.
“It was a month or so of detailed anatomy studies, non feather geometry builds and then the process of feathering and rigging before our guys actually saw a fully feathered, fullcolour cockerel,” reveals Proctor.
“The way the feathers software was written was very clever, in that it allowed the animators to choose at what level of complexity they wanted to see the feathers,” says Proctor.
“For bigger action shots and wide shots they could work quickly with a rough approximation of the final feathers, whereas for the more subtle actions they could really dial-up the detail so they could see any potential intersectional problems with the feathers.”
For storyboarding, Aardman stuck to the agency script “as it just seemed to work really well”, and drew up 2D storyboards to create a timed story-reel in Final Cut Pro.
“This allowed us to make really quick editorial changes to the timing of each shot,” says Proctor. “It’s important to be happy with the film at this point, as changes are much more costly and time consuming later on in the production process.”
Characters and set design took the form of a combination of 2D designs in Adobe Photoshop montaged into photographic stills. We wanted to work on softening features that might look scary about the cockerels, such as beaks, small eyes, and talons, says Proctor.
Once the 2D elements had been approved the team began the 3D build. Proctor says: “We use Maya on Windows for our pipeline, so everything is designed with that in mind.”
They started by building the non feathered geometry using Maya s Polygon modelling tools, rendered as RenderMan subdivision surfaces. Fine details were added using displacements painted using Mudbox, and textures added using a combination of Right Hemisphere’s Deep Paint 3d and Photoshop.
“We then moved on to using our in-house feather tools to give the cockerels their bulked-out forms using multiple feather groups to represent each part of the bird’s body,” reveals Proctor.
“We wrote custom RenderMan shaders to give the feathers their characteristic appearance, which included occlusion and iridescent effects.”
The finished model was handed over to the rigging team, who set up a rig to allow for as naturalistic a performance as possible, but still left room for anthropomorphization “so they could convincingly use their mobile phones and drive tractors”, says Proctor.
He adds: “We also spent a great deal of time rigging the feathers so the animators didn t have to worry too much about how they behaved." In theory they would just need to animate to the silhouette, and the feathers software would take care of how the feathers deformed across the cockerels bodies.
Once the first cockerel had been rigged, the team made duplicates, with variations mostly down to feather colourings, facial details, body mass and feather distribution. For the backgrounds, stock footage was used, and the team spent weeks rifling through stock sites for suitable images.
Aardman’s animators then produced a detailed pre-vis block-through, to work out timings and camera angles for each shot. “These scenes inevitably end up evolving into the actual Maya scenes we finally light and render from,” says Proctor.
A third of the entire four-week schedule was allotted to animation, and two animators broke down scenes to allow them both to have a combination of wide shots and close ups. They referenced film of real cockerels, to imbue the finished work with as many lifelike nuances and mannerisms as possible.
“Some of the secondary animation in the wattles and combs looked as if it was created dynamically, when in fact it was all key framed by hand in Maya,” says Proctor. After Effects and Shake were used to composite the final renders with the background footage.
“The team was stretched both creatively and technically,” admits Proctor. “It was one of those jobs that although extremely complex under the hood, on the surface just looks so simple.”
The complexity of creating realistic feathers within the tight deadline was immense, says Bobby Proctor. As a solution, Aardman’s technical directors wrote software to create the CG feathers, allowing the animators full freedom over individual feathers.
“Every feather needed modelling to allow close-ups of the birds,” explains Philip Child, technical director at Aardman. “The solution we devised offered full control for adjusting the shape and style of the feathers.”
Feathering a cockerel – step by step
1. The skeleton and head of the bird with the tail feathers in place showing overall proportions.
2. The bird body is sculpted in Maya in the normal way.
3. A modeller sculpted a NURBS silhouette of the bird to describe where they want the feathers to lay and how they need to flow over the body.
4. Low resolution preview feathers were generated over the body to give quick feedback for the animators.
5. Final polygon feathers were generated over the body which closely match the sculpted silhouette. 6. Finally individual RenderMan curves are generated for each feather which automatically create the characteristic splits and fluffiness seen in real feathers.
Project: Kellogg’s Multi-grain Phone A Friend ad
Studios: Aardman www.aardman.com
Software: Autodesk Maya, Apple Final Cut Pro, Apple Shake, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe After Effects, Pixar RenderMan, Mudbox, Right Hemisphere Deep Paint 3D