Petpunk’s ad for the Lithuanian capital is a riotous blend of animals and CG.
The first reaction of any sane person to Petpunk’s newest project is total bafflement. The tiny Lithuanian animation studio has just finished a minute-long spot promoting Vilnius’ status as European Capital of Culture, which it takes over from Liverpool in 2009, and the end result, The Magnificent City of Vilnius, is unlike anything else you’ll see this year.
The commercial tells the legend of Vilnius’ founding and cultural history, and advertises the city’s modern-day charms: a soothing voice and tinkling music form the soundtrack, accompanying an anarchic, off-the-wall animation that zooms erratically from one madcap scene to the next, each one teeming with strange situations and animal-headed figures, leaving the viewer little time to absorb the unique aesthetic.
The look itself is as riotous as the pace. At times it’s hard to figure out which bits are CG and which are photographic elements – there is smoke apparently made of cotton wool, words apparently made of wood, mossy islands, origami characters who transform into CG shapes, and cartoonish figures with the heads of real animals.
“We are really interested in the concept of [something that’s] ‘handmade with computer’,” explains Gediminas Šiaulys, Petpunk co-founder, “We aren’t using computers and computer graphics to simulate different environments or techniques – it’s just clearly CG. And we wanted to add some natural human imperfection to it, to give more warmth, character and personality.”
It’s certainly not your standard tourist video, then – and Petpunk is an unconventional choice for such a commission.
The company is a relatively new two-man outfit, started in 2005 by Lithuanian creatives Šiaulys, Petpunk’s art director and illustrator, and Andrius Kirvela (who directed, designed and animated the spot).
It was already building a reputation for off-the-wall pieces brimming with fun and mayhem. One earlier project that may have led the city’s authorities to commission Vilnius was Petpunk’s promo for Welcome to Lithuania, pop band InCulto’s attempt to represent the country in the Eurovision Song Contest.
The video, like the song, is sweetly satirical with a subversive edge, sending up the country’s culture as well as celebrating it. So the Vilnius commission, which came from the promotional body for the city’s European Capital of Culture bid, was unexpected.
“It was a surprise for us,” says Šiaulys. ‘One autumn day we got a direct call from the state enterprise. They invited us, because they were thinking about a radical and maybe even animated TV commercial.”
One of the most compelling things about the spot is its sense of joyful amateurism and lack of polish. Šiaulys says that this was more or less inevitable – to Petpunk, the spot was “an experiment, and we were unsure of everything until the very, very end.”
Selling the city
Faced with a broad brief, they started figuring out how best to explain the city. “Our aim was to present the city, avoiding narrow and plain facts. [We wanted] to leave a lot of space for the imagination, to play with intrigue, to concentrate on mood and atmosphere,” explains Šiaulys.
“What we wanted was to give the animation included spontaneity, liveliness, a neglect of genre, and daring to be crude and primitive.”
Although Petpunk’s works are raucous and irreverent, the duo took the commission very seriously. “Though it’s very symbolic, this video will speak about Lithuania to the world,” says Šiaulys.
“We are responsible for whole country’s voice in a visual language. So our biggest challenge was to create that voice that will correctly represent Lithuania today – and to understand how to reflect Lithuanian identity with a contemporary design language.”
Planning the commercial’s narrative was straightforward: “We wanted to start with the Vilnius legend, touch on some historical facts and end up in modern days. We had a hand-drawn storyboard, but before that, all the sequences emerged verbally from Andrius’ head.”
They wanted the spot to be a “playful and colourful story, like a book of fairytales.” The spot’s look is similarly playful, juxtaposing rough live-action footage of animals, puppets and other with elements that are clearly CG.
“Hungry for experimentation, we searched for a strange aesthetic, mixing different styles and materials together. For example, when rough stuff meets obvious computer-based simulation.”
Petpunk set about assembling the materials with which to concoct the storyboards and look they’d devised.
“For the spot, we used various types of photographic images. Some bits were specially made and photographed, or still or stop-motion sequences, while others are just very basic textures downloaded from the Internet,” says Šiaulys.
“We used some very typical look textures – ones that are default in 3D software packages and games.” This stripped-down, rough-and-ready approach extended to the material they filmed themselves.
The characters in Vilnius have cloth-covered puppets for bodies (manipulated by the team, which took the simple precaution of wearing green gloves and T shirts to make comping the puppeteers out easier).
Their heads belong to real-life cats, dogs, rabbits and ferrets, who were filmed by poking the animals’ heads through holes in cardboard ruffs and paper plates, so that the rest of their bodies weren’t visible.
“We didn’t try to achieve a very smooth and polished look – our idea was to keep some roughness, as if it were just accidentally borrowed from various sources,” says Šiaulys.
To add to the chaotic effect of the spot, the team chucked 2D and 3D environments and elements together with the same mix-and-match attitude.
“We mixed very spontaneous, real 3D modelled and textured objects with just pre-rendered or Photoshopdrawn 2D planes, without trying to trick the eye into thinking they are the same,” says Šiaulys.
The team also gave a flat mask-like texture for the 3D objects, “to destroy the natural illusion of dimension and to create a more graphic look.”
Throughout the spot, almost nothing remains still for even an instant. For many of the full-CG elements, which are constantly moving, changing and developing, the team reversed simple modelling ‘reduce polygons’ effects, for example in the growth animations where trees and buildings sprout up and morph rapidly.
“While it’s not really the most suitable or versatile effect for animation, it gives an interesting and unexpected look, that somehow resembles clay stop-motion animation, but doesn’t try to mimic it,” explains Šiaulys.
The unpolished look dovetails neatly with Petpunk’s limited resources as a small animation studio, and the team avoided fancy software for the spot.
“We used the packages we know and work with,” says Šiaulys. “Material was prepared in Photshop, Illustrator and After Effects, then scenes were built in Softimage|XSI, rendered in lots of separate passes, and composed back and supplemented with additional elements and effects in After Effects.”
The team clearly enjoyed the process of establishing the jerky, fantastical and yet very ‘alive’ motion of the characters – and even the camera.
The characters hover and dash all over the place, while the camera dips and weaves through the scenes that appear straight out of a children’s storybook.
“As we have some concept of natural, human and doll-like motion characteristics applied to other animation fields (like pure CG), we did some experiments with various techniques,” says Šiaulys.
“In some earlier projects we made real ‘stick’ dolls, roughly [manipulated] them with our hands, filmed them, then tracked and used that motion on computer graphics. We got that imperfect – but naturally recognizable – shakiness we wanted.”
To achieve a ‘natural’ motion for the camerawork, Petpunk experimented with capturing the motion of mouse cursors. “It’s super cheap,” says Šiaulys cheerfully. “I played with the mouse on screen, captured its movement and applied to it the animation parameters I wanted. In this way, the motion loses the characteristics of natural physics (which cause real camera shakiness), but gains strange allusions to our computer navigation experience – [such as] the specific path and timing of on-screen cursors. In the Vilnius spot this technique is not very obvious, but this is how it was done.”
The spot overflows with a riotous sense of experimentation and enthusiasm, and Petpunk freely admits that much of it was made up as they went along.
“Don’t forget that we’re not experienced animation professionals, and often we were doing things for the first time,” says Šiaulys.
“But the project wasn’t rushed, so we had enough time to make it, then re-make it, then go over it one more time to fix it.”
He continues: “This project was quite an experiment for us, so we had plenty of problems and unexpected twists.” Unsurprisingly, one of the hardest bits proved to be filming the animals.
“It was terrible,” says Šiaulys. “Even though all we needed was animal heads, it became almost a surreal task for us – and we almost failed. We were really silly to think that we could handle it ourselves. Another thing that we’re still asking ourselves now is, ‘why did we choose white (not green) paper plates for their heads?’”
Still, in the trademark playful Petpunk way, the duo experimented its way round all the problems, with the help of an extra five staff drafted in to help on management, 3D, props, live-action camera, and sound for the six months it took to complete the spot.
Now that the project is broadcast-ready – it’ll be screened soon across Europe – Šiaulys says that Petpunk views it with a mixture of relief, pride and incredulity.
“When the client first saw the project, the response was, ‘that’s crazy!’. And really, it’s hard to believe that a commercial like this for a town managed to be approved by all levels of the government.”
Petpunk has posted a making-of gallery on Flickr, including several videos chronicling their efforts to make the animals follow direction. “Some of them always tried to escape the camera, while others were so lazy we could hardly get them to turn their heads, let alone getting them to do facial expressions,” says Šiaulys. The pictures and videos are on www.flickr.com/petpunk
Of all the challenges faced in the spot, Gediminas Šiaulys says, “the funniest one is how we filmed those animal heads. We’ve never worked with animals before and we had very limited time to do it. And they didn’t like it! So we only got about 25 per cent of what we wanted, but later on we realized that all the action in the spot is so fast that it would be enough.”
For the characters’ bodies, Petpunk used bizarre puppets with extra-long arms or legs, which they manipulated using short sticks while wearing predominantly green, to make trimming the puppeteers out afterwards.
Project:The Magnificent City of Vilnius
Client: Lithuanian state enterprise Vilnius: European Capital of Culture 2009
Studio: Petpunk, www.petpunk.com
Software: Adobe After Effects, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, Softimage|XSI
On the CD: You can view the sequence on this month’s cover disc.