Directors John Williams and David Lea’s most recent work is a video for The Offspring’s single Hit That – and it’s the dog’s bollocks. Combining live action, prosthetic masks and CG animation, the video follows the escapades of an unruly mutt on a rampage through a cityscape till he meets his nemesis… a vet intent on canine castration. Ouch! Digit talked to the directing duo on creative goals, technical issues, and how to handle a Great Dane with an attitude problem.
Shot on location in London, the video for The Offspring’s single Hit That from the new album Splinter features a mix of live action, prosthetic masks and computer animation. Conceived and directed by John Williams and David Lea of Passion Pictures, the video’s story is that of a crazed dog that escapes from his suburban home and rampages through the city with his owner in hot pursuit. The chase reaches its climax with the dog cornered in an alley, surrounded by his owner, the dog’s angry, illegitimate puppies, and a vet intent on canine castration.
Strongly stylized, the video’s characters are part men (and dog), part prosthetics and part CG. The video involved most of the in-house CG team at Passion Pictures to produce the character animation and lip sync. Rushes was responsible for the telecine and Inferno work to create the video’s distinctive atmospheric live-action settings. Realise Studios handled the CG tracking for the eyes and mouths, and Passion director Darren Walsh (of Aardman Angry Kid fame) and ScaryCat Studios made the masks.
Williams and Lea were asked to pitch on the project via Passion Pictures’ US music video representative Cath Berclaz. “We’d been sent a few US band tracks before to pitch on but they usually require strong focus on band performances, which is something we’re not too keen on shooting. But this brief was really open and stated that it wasn’t even necessary for the band to be in it,” says Williams.
“A lot of the ideas for the video came from the music,” says Lea. “For the narrative, we used the lyrics as our basis. We chose not the lead character, but a dog as our metaphor for the reckless, irresponsible man the song describes. Originally, the story was a touch clearer that the main dog is the absent father of these illegitimate puppies and ultimately he’s domesticated by means of castration. But, as the record label didn’t want the video to become too literal to the lyrics, we changed the plot slightly.”
The directing duo began by writing a treatment for video, which was well received says Williams, but with several others after for the job, they succeeded with the pitch by offering previsualizations of the look, mood and main character for the video.
Sing it loud
The style of the video and the strong, graphical look of the character were influenced by The Offspring’s vocal style – “loud and in your face,” comments Williams. After seeing the treatment, The Offspring decided they wanted to appear in the video, says Lea. The directors began character design based on the band members, and had almost completed the designs when the band then changed their minds, so it was back to the drawing board for a rewrite of the treatment and characters. “When the designs were approved we started work with a storyboard artist and work intensely on that for two days solid,” recalls Lea.
“We scanned these pictures and created a rough animatic in Adobe Premiere, constantly adding new ideas and making adjustments,” he says. “While this was happening, we were running initial tests on how it might be possible to create the effects we needed to achieve.”
To create the odd-looking characters in the video, the directing duo wanted to use physical modelled heads and add animated mouths and eyes. This approach mixed live-action, model making and animation – “techniques we’ve worked with before, just not all at once,” says Williams.
The main challenge was in solving how to get the three working together. “Talking with compositors from Rushes, animators from Passion and 3D tracking experts at Realise Studios, we discovered there was no one way of achieving this, but instead each shot would have to be done in the way that would work best for it,” says Williams.
Darren Walsh and ScaryCat Studios in Bath created the physical masks, hands and hair for the characters.
Adrian Wild was brought onboard as DOP and the team then began a recce around London for suitable locations for the live-action shoot. “We really wanted a look that wasn’t London but wasn’t America either,” explains Williams.
“We did an initial recce to decide on locations and shots, and a second with Adrian and his team, the first AD, the art department and visual-effects supervisors from both Realise and Rushes,” he says. “We all knew it was going to be a tight shoot and everything would have to be planned to a T in order to get the amount of shots we needed for the promo.”
Williams and Lea agreed to take turns in directing the shots on the live-action shoot. This was more out of necessity than choice says Lea, as they had decided to avoid the hassle and cost of using actors by taking turns, with the stunt man, to play the main human character.
“I remember the night before the shoot we spent a good hour walking up and down the street rehearsing how we should both move in the video,” recalls Lea. “A fair amount of curtains twitched.”
Even with carefully planning, the live-action shoot didn’t go entirely to plan. The star of the video, a Great Dane, was required to wear a similar mask to those of the other characters. Making this was quite a challenge for the ScaryCat Studios crew says Lea, and it was completed just in time for the day of the shoot. The dog, however, proved somewhat unimpressed with his costume.
“The dog wasn’t really very trained at all,” says Williams. “It wouldn’t wear the mask for long, and quickly grew to hate it and refuse to wear it at all.”
“We panicked at this point,” adds Lea. The duo solved the problem by creating a 3D head-tracking device made from small LEDs attached to a dog muzzle and fitted that on the dog rather than persevere with the mask. “The dog’s performance wasn’t great and we were resigned to the idea of scanning the textures from the model and applying them to a tracked CGI dog head, but then we realized we would be able to enhance the dog’s performance through animation, so the video evolved,” he says.
When the project entered post production, the pair were faced with just under two weeks to complete the video, with all the shots needing manipulation in one way or another.
“Luck seemed to be on our side as a big job at Passion was postponed for a couple of months, so all of a sudden we had a large CG crew of modelmakers, animators and lighting experts working for us,” says Williams. “It was our saving grace, and it meant we could really push the animation of the dog’s head, which made up for his slight performance and reluctance to wear the mask.”
Passion Pictures’ animators, led by Jason Nicholas head of CG, began work on the 3D models based on Williams and Lea’s original drawings. There wasn’t time to wait for the physical masks to be made because of the project’s tight schedule explains Nicholas. “When the physical masks were approved, we tweaked the CG models to match them and created the morph targets, lip shapes and the mouth of the dog,” he says.
The head were modelled and given morph targets in NewTek LightWave and then animated using Project Messiah. The animators began work on the lip synch in Project Messiah before receiving the final edit of the live action, animating the lip synch as if it was one long scene, explains Nicholas.
“The first thing we did was get a phonetic breakdown of the audio track, to get the right timings for the lip movements,” he says. “These timings are very important to achieve realistic lip synch, yet we find that the success of lip synch in animation isn’t really dependent on the software we use, it’s down to the experience of the animators themselves.”
Realise Studios, which was responsible for the CG tracking of the eyes and mouths, had used BouJou to track each shot. Camera-motion data was taken from this and attached to the relevant part of the soundtrack. The Passion Pictures CG team then lit each shot and produced a rough composite which, along with the mask and its alpha, was passed to Rushes for the final composite.
With so many people involved in the making of the video and the tight schedule, Williams and Lea had to make changes to the way they normally work. In the early stages of the project, the duo decided it made more sense to split the workload and liaise separately with the different groups and various companies involved.
“We would individually attend different meetings with these people and take responsibility for directing them,” explains Williams. “Initially this was hard going as we’ve not worked this way before, and it became apparent that we really had to keep a constant communication going with each other… making it clear what had happened during each day, and offer suggestions and ideas for the next.”
“I think visually the video has moved us on from a lot of our previous work. And, due to a steep learning curve and working with so many people over an intense period of time, we’ve learnt to work in a different way. That, in itself, was worth all the effort,” adds Lea.
John Williams & David Lea
Signed last year to Passion Pictures, directors John Williams and David Lea work on the principle of “two heads are better than one” and collaborate on all aspects of a project’s production from design and direction to technical approach.
The duo met at the South Wales International Film School in Newport, and graduated in 2000 with BA (Hons) degrees in animation. They’ve worked as animators with director Tim Hope on a number of music video and commercial projects, and Williams was credited as co-director with Hope on two videos for Coldplay: Don’t Panic and Trouble.
In 2002, Williams and Lea were approached by David Bryant of TheIndustry to make a commercial for Greenpeace – for which they subsequently won both the Special Jury Prize and First Prize in the European Broadcast Category at the Commercial Film Producers of Europe (CFP-E) Young Directors Awards.
Most recently the pair has worked on design, visual effects and compositing for Radiohead’s music video There There.
The Greenpeace spot shows the possible outcome of a nuclear power disaster and its devastating effect on the environment. Despite working with a small budget, Williams and Lea shot live action for the ad in three separate locations – Epping Forest, Blackborough Forest and woodland in High Barnet. Animals at the Charlton working farm, London Zoo, and even some friends’ family pets were photographed for the ad. Post production was completed at Passion Pictures using Discreet Combustion.