Side-stepping the traditional shock tactic approach to road safety, Smith & Foulkes have crafted an animated series that relies on CG characters to bring the impacts of accidents to life.
Nexus Productions directors Smith & Foulkes’ latest work is a three-part series of animated commercials for the Department for Transport’s THINK! child road safety campaign.
It involves the distressing subject of children being seriously injured in road accidents, but rather than use the shock tactic of explicit footage of blood and broken bones, the duo (Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes) adopted a children’s storybook approach that relies on the facial expressions of the young characters as they react to accidents that happen off-screen and are not shown to the audience.
Smith & Foulkes’ animation talents are currently achieving widespread recognition: their short This Way Up has just been shortlisted for the Best Animation Short category of the Oscars.
“The brief for THINK! was to visually interpret the cautionary tales in a way that would be memorable yet serious enough to get the very important message across,” explains Alan Smith.
“The agency originally wanted severe broken bones and blood everywhere to really shock children into realizing the dangers of the road – but this would have been unsuitable for broadcast.
"Instead, we had to find a way to make the spots as hard-hitting as possible without being too scary to be on kids’ TV”.
The Nexus directors pitched a simple visual style that showed the key characters in an isolated island of detail rather than a fully realized landscape.
The commercials focus closely on the injured children, who stand almost immobile, staring for a painfully long time into camera to starkly underline their inability to take part in activities which previously they enjoyed.
“We couldn’t show cars hitting children – but we could illustrate the events through the children’s shocked expressions and sound, with the audience watching the children react to accidents that we couldn’t show,” explains Smith.
Stop, look, listen
Another creative restraint was the need for each commercial to show the correct road safety measures, as required by the Department of Transport.
“Some of this important information, such as the correct procedure when crossing the road or the need to wear brightly-coloured clothes, was visually uninteresting, so we had to be careful not to appear to dull and preachy,” says Adam Foulkes.
In keeping with the storybook approach, the child characters in the campaign are highly stylized with big, soulful eyes and oversized heads – which further helps draw the viewer’s attention to the character’s expressions and reactions to offscreen events.
The duo worked closely with the illustrators Mustashrik Mahbub on the character development and Adam Willis on the landscapes. “It was important to find a character design that the audience could immediately feel comfortable with,” explains Smith.
“We looked at a whole load of ‘children in art’, from the cloyingly cute to the downright scary, but at the same time we obviously wanted them to look fresh and different from anything seen before, so it was a difficult balance to strike.
“Most importantly, they had to look like they are living in 2009, not in some Edwardian theatrical production,” adds Foulkes.
A richly atmospheric environment was equally important in order to keep the films visually engaging and to act as a visual balance to the characters’ mostly static, reactionary performances.
“The painterly storybook style seemed to fit perfectly with the way the tales were narrated, turning them almost into a series of individual illustrations,” says Foulkes.
“On This Way Up, we developed a technique for camera mapping paintings onto 3D geometry that has proven really effective for making a 3D environment have a painterly feel,” says Smith.
“For these spots, we used this technique to transform a 2D painting into a 3D canvas that would maintain its integrity as the camera moved through space.”
As with most of their 3D projects, the directors used three key software tools on the campaign: 3DS Max to create the 3D elements, After Effects for compositing, and Photoshop for textures and backgrounds.
Achieving the layered, watercolour look required a lot of back-and-forth between the programs, say the directors – with Photoshop mattes and textures used in 3DS Max, 3DS Max preview frames imported back into Photoshop, and numerous render passes from 3DS Max put through After Effects filters.
To match the backgrounds, the 3D characters required highly detailed, UVmapped, painted textures integrated with sophisticated skin and clothing shaders.
“For the most part, the characters are no different than any of our 3D projects,” says Smith, “The only unique thing was their hair. The problem was making hair that had the dynamic qualities of a hair simulation while maintaining the brush-stroke, painterly feel of the overall look – very tricky!”
The duo achieved the realistic look they wanted by using a 3DS Max plug-in, Hairtrix. Smith & Foulkes are pleased that they were able to convey the campaign’s message in this suggestive, non-direct way.
“But for a campaign such as this, only time will tell whether the commercials are truly effective in their aims,” they say.
It was crucial that the overall look and feel of the spots was finely balanced between being storybook-like enough to grab the attention of children, and realistic enough to ensure the message hits home. The colour palette helps to ensure that the spot stands out amid the technicolour screaming of children’s TV ad breaks.
Project: THINK! Child Road Safety campaign
Client: Department of Transport
Studio: Nexus Productions, nexusproductions.com
Software: Adobe After Effects, Adobe Photoshop, Autodesk 3DS Max
On the CD: You can view two of the spots on this month’s cover disc