Curious Pictures has produced a series of mixed-media shorts that are featured in Nike Women’s Be Transformed campaign, running on websites and in integrated media campaigns in the Asia/Pacific region.
Through digital agency AKQA, Curious Pictures produced five spots directed by Rohitash Rao, with another animation house producing the sixth.
The campaign illustrates the transformation of real women athletes using a mix of live action and animation to illustrate the potential that the Nike Zoom Sister line of shoes provides.
Curious Pictures enlisted the help of several international animators and illustrators for the spots, with each video drawing on a variety of animated styles to reflect the personality of the different shoes in the Zoom Sister series.
The original agency brief was straightforward, says Rohitash Rao. “Basically you had female athletes transformed into superheroes, to embody the transformational change that Nike products make in their performance.”
The agency specifically requested different styles for this campaign. They wanted a different look and feel for each spot, but with unifying opening and closing sections to bookend the shorts.
“One of the keys was finding several different styles of animation that were distinctive and that would work well in the context of making these athletes look beautiful, feminine, sexy, yet still look like superheroes,” says Roa.
“At one point, I think the agency wanted to have ten different directors do ten different films,” he continues. “We didn’t end up doing this, because of the cost involved.”
Roa and his team explored a number of styles, which were later rejected, including stop-motion. “We actually did a stop-motion test, which was something we all wanted to do, including the client Nike especially,” explains Roa.
“Time was definitely a reason as to why we didn’t. Also, we didn’t necessarily feel that it fit that storyline as well as the other styles we ended up using.”
According to Roa, his inspiration for each of the shorts came from music videos and feature films. Punching Bag, for example, was heavily inspired by Kill Bill and Raging Bull, he says.
The most challenging aspect of the project was deciding the most appropriate transition between live-action and animation for each of the short films. “The key message of the whole campaign is Be Transformed, with the each short’s focus on the women’s transformations,” explains Roa.
“And if you didn’t pull off the transformation, the spot didn’t work. That was the most challenging thing – how do you shoot the athlete in live action, knowing ahead of time what you were going to do for the transition so you made sure you had the proper footage to be able to do those transformations?”
In the short film Meteor, we see footage of the actress’ foot pivoting. Roa decided that this physical action would serve as the trigger for the transformation.
Although the spots were destined for the web and cinema – meaning Roa had the freedom to create lengthy transformations – he chose instead to carry out the transformations in brief time periods.
“It’s kind of like the caterpillar turning into the butterfly – you just want to get to the butterfly,” he explains. “You know it’s going to morph into something new, so let’s just move onto the magic of what it’s going to be.
"And, of course, everyone wants to watch the animated superhero version of that athlete, so the transformation is the story. It’s not about the process, it’s about what she transforms into.”
Unleashing the Meteor
One of the most challenging spots of the series was Meteor, which sees an animated version of a female kickboxer destroy an approaching meteor and save the world.
According to Roa, this made this the perfect spot for a full-on animation. “Once we decided this approach, we looked at what films in that genre inspired us.
Films such as Aeon Flux and The Animatrix – these were films that we had all collectively watched and pulled references from,” explains Roa.
“From this starting point, every single frame was storyboarded and we did an animatic and refined it countless times before drawing it for real. So it was a very long creative development process before we actually came to anything.”
Florida-based animation house, Humouring the Fates (www.fates.com) was drafted in to create the animations for Meteor, as well as the Punching Bag and Bike spots.
The animation studio’s first task was to transform Hanna, the actress in the spot, into an animé version of herself. “Fortunately, the actress in the spot had such an iconic look that translating her into animation was fairly easy,” says Humouring the Fates’ lead animator, Jesse Norton.
With the character design approved, the animation team and the director had to decide how the character was going to destroy this meteor and save the world.
“Once we landed on the idea that our heroine would use a kick – and her Flywire-equipped Nikes – to bore through the centre of the meteor and shatter it into fireworks, we knew we had our solution, and the rest was just a matter of drawing all that out,” says Norton.
This spot also started the iconic running glow that shoots up and down the Flywire technology of the heroine’s shoe in each spot, explains Norton:
“It was something that one of our lead animators came up with the in the animatic stage and, evolved into the iconic moment in each of the commercials.”
Humouring the Fates used the RetasPro animation tools and Adobe’s Creative Suite to create the three spots in the Nike Women campaign that they were involved with.
“We use a completely paperless workflow from Wacom Cintiqs for the drawing to the Retas package for the animation. But it’s more about the drawing than the hardware or software alone.
"A ton of man hours go into traditional hand animation, and the unusual techniques involved in these spots required a bit more than usual,” says Norton.
The key to Meteor’s look is the hand-painted effect, which is based on traditional gouache paint techniques. “We also animate every glow, highlight, and shadow by hand, with animators in-house that specialize in only this step of the animation process,” says Norton.
“We then use gradient effects, mask overlays, blur overlays and a whole bag of little tricks plus using textured brushes is how we achieve a non-digital look.”
The transition moments in Meteor were tricky, says Norton. “As with all creative projects, there were some moments where we had to improvise in order to get the feel the client wanted.
"So we ended up hand-animating to match all the camera shakes and wobbles. The animated layer stack was matched up to the best of our abilities with the time crunch.”
She continues: “We overcame this by the traditional animator’s best technique: brute force. Draw as many frames as possible to make the motion smooth, and if it comes out wrong, do it again.”
Hard-hitting watercolour techniques
“The technical issues with Punching Bag were unique, and while we had done a watercolour texture effect before, it was based more on a post effect,” says Humouring the Fates’ Jesse Norton.
“With the style AKQA and Nike were after, we had to invent a new way of colouring to keep track of how the paint colours would blend uniformly enough from each frame to the next.
"This new technique needed to have enough change from frame to frame to be noticeable, but still limit the amount of fluctuation, to avoid a jittery feeling to the paints.
“In the end it was a mixture of our old technique with a little new mojo,” she continues. “First, we shot HD footage of watercolor paints seeping into paper, then layered this over and over with differing composite modes to yield the desired colour space.
"Then we layered a few static textures to give the paper feel some grounding. The line layers, colour layers, shadow layers, and highlight layers were then composited into the scene with a little of the first watercolour footage over the top to marry the look down.”
A tall order for Jump Rope
Swedish animation house Zoink Animation created the animation for the Jump Rope spot. This features a live-action female athlete transformed into an animated character in a landscape filled with other comical, monster-like characters.
With just a three-week turnaround from character design sign-off to completed animation, the Swedish studio used 3DS Max to quickly build the characters.
Brad Noble’s Skeleton Rig was used to rig the main character, and biped rigs used for the simpler characters. “The hard part of the character was, of course, its hyperrealistic shoes,” says Klaus Lyngeled, lead animator on Jump Rope.
“These were built by our talented ZBrush modeller, Christopher Brändström.” The spot features some stunning atmospherics. “At first we were going to have all the clouds rendered with fluid effects, but it was quite hard to control the look of them and very heavy to render: We ended up with layers of hand-painted clouds in some shots. We used 3D layers to composite them in After Effects,” says Lyngeled.
“We believe in using fast effects – if things get too heavy to render then there’s no time to tweak them properly to look good,” he adds.
The very tight schedule saw the animators render most of the spot with the standard scanline renderer. Ambient occlusion and textures were baked into one shader and objects were camera-mapped so that textures could be quickly painted on without the need for complicated UV mapping.
The heaviest and most complicated part of the spot was the hair render, says Lyngeled.
“Since the spot had to be rendered in HD it took forever. We always render everything out in a bunch of layers and then composite in After Effects. We can then also tweak things like the colour of specific objects, depth of field and even lighting in After Effects,” he adds.
Project: Be Transformed
Studio: Curious Pictures, curiouspictures.com
Software: 3DS Max, Adobe After Effects, Adobe Photoshop, Celsys Retas!Pro Pixologic ZBrush
On the CD: You can view four of the spots on this month’s cover disc.