Bent Image Lab tells Digital Arts how it successfully merged stop-motion with CG, and the huge with the small, to create a sensational spot with real depth.
Beauty, whimsy and the absurd collide in a new spot for Coke, which sees a fantastic series of 3D worlds nested inside one another, holding the location of the hidden Coca-Cola formula.
Directed by David Daniels and Ray Di Carlo of Bent Image Lab, with a script by the Santo agency based in Argentina and London, the result is a woven, interlocked and constantly shifting cinematic animation that takes fantasy CG to a new level.
The concept was floated to Bent Image Lab by Santo, with the agency already having crafted a rough animatic. Bent Image Lab offered up three pitch ideas; the winning one took a magical realism approach that uses what Daniels and Di Carlo call ‘smallgantics’ and ‘bigatures’.
“Smallgantics is a photographic technique whereby full-scale environments are made to look as though they are infinitesimally tiny miniatures,” says Daniels.
“A bigature is an object we think of as being tiny, that is made to appear massive in scale, challenging one’s preconceptions of the natural universe.
“When pulling back from one scene to the next, we momentarily make the small things look big, and the big things look small, a shift in perspective that boggles the mind,” he adds.
“From an ant’s view of the surface of the purse, the fabric is made of huge crisscross sheets with thread the size of steel cables, with beads the size of blimps. The sense of immensity and object weight will take us from the impossibly massive to the incredibly delicate as the wire becomes silk, and the blimps become elegant pearls.”
“This is a tall tale, well told,” says Di Carlo, describing the spot as a series of “implausible idea[s] wrapped inside a riddle, folded inside a mystery, covered by a conundrum, enclosed inside a triumphant rollercoaster of absurd fun.”
He adds that the spot becomes increasingly far-fetched with each scenario the camera zooms through – “finally pushing all limits in a tidal wave of visual fun.”
The result is a CG spot that pulls back from a grain of rice using a continuous, floating camera shot, travelling through a series of unfolding fantasy environments in an infinite regression that shows how well-guarded Coke’s secret formula really is.
In order to pull off the story, the team had to mix together both stop-motion animation and CG models. And the spot wasn’t a purely creative project, requiring some head-scratching mathematics.
Smallgantics techniques demanded calculating a lens millimetre-to-back-plate relationship so as to create deep or shallow focus and depth-of-field.
This also allowed the team to run through the depth-of- field list of stacking silhouettes based on movement and object speed, and the speed of objects in relation to one another.
Layered over this was the relationship of the camera height to the subject, as well as surface and lighting complexity as the camera pulls back through the layered worlds. Working with both CG and traditional stop-motion is a particular strength of Bent Image Lab, says Daniels.
“Stop-motion does texture and surfaces very well, but you can never know your exact animation until the very end. Like a stage play, stop-motion is a heavily rehearsed performance piece, with a bunch of well-planned parts that are only viewable at the performance.”
On the flip side, CG can be right from the start – at least as a bare-bones performance, says Daniels. The final timing and look of CG can be later tweaked and improved, but the basic timing is usually sorted out right from the off, he explains.
“Both of these mediums present very lopsided differences, and previsualizing them together as a woven whole was a great challenge,” says Daniels.
Thinking the impossible
“Communicating what we had in mind to the crew was also difficult as no shot stops before another one takes over,” he adds.
“How do you define, to another person what is where and when is what, since things begin and end in overlapping waves, uncertain of exact size and duration?
"So we developed a master CG timing animatic for everything stop-motion and CG together. This way, the spatial timing, and lens issues were all ball-parked. Then, we broke everything in the spot into small pieces, and the crew could finally tell what we were thinking.”
One of the more complex elements to the spot was authoring the environments – water techniques were especially challenging. Each scene featured a different water style needing to be solved in CG, as the water had to adopt different ‘looks’ for each different scale it appears at.
For bigger bodies of water, the team used RealFlow – but the team also used Krakatoa in 3DS Max (which can handle millions of particles) to create froth, white-water foam, mist and waterfalls.
“Sometimes, we would add a moving texture map or interference layer of real water under moving mattes created in our 3D renders, to break up the shaders and CG surface treatments,” reveals Di Carlo.
“This was done both on the texture-map level, and sometimes in 2D post. “The whale splashes used each and every trick we had at hand. We created ‘big’ sheets of water with RealFlow, and froth, splashes, and white water foam with thousands of particles from Krakatoa,” he continues.
“We then added some simulated real water footage under moving mattes, and created a full-scale mock-up of a whale jaw, to film cascades of wind-blown water streaming out of a whale’s mouth,” he adds.
Abundant creative digital tools were used, with Autodesk 3DS Max, V-Ray, Next Limit RealFlow, Krakatoa in 3DS Max, Modo, zBrush, Body Paint, and Fume EFX all contributing to the 3D.
But the tools expanded to also include Photoshop and After Effects, Final Cut Pro, Boujou, Kuper Control and numerous 2D plug-ins including Magic Bullet, Shine and Real Smart Motion Blur.
“V-Ray is the renderer we like the most, due to its fantastic global illumination and it’s very easy set up and use,” says Daniels.
“3DS Max was the only 3D package that really had V-Ray about five years ago. Other platforms have been able to do V-Ray recently, but Bent became largely a 3DS Max shop due to our love of V-Ray.”
Daniels says that After Effects is everywhere at Bent – due to its wide general user base, reasonable cost, and sturdy ability to do almost everything well.
“We grew up with linear editing, and the AE timeline approach to layer stacking is more natural to us than Shake or Fusion’s node-based thinking,” says Daniels.
“Nothing against node-based software, but a coordinated AE team can make a massive human parallel processing effort, instead of a single-operator Flame station.
Hidden Formula needed a constant rolling post, where integrated clean-up and comps were happening on a daily basis.”
Stop-motion work was captured with a modified Olympus E-330 – the first professional-level digital SLR with a live video feature. Bent Image Lab used the Raw file format to adjust each frame up to nine or ten stops of head-to-toe linear latitude.
“Digital cameras are merging with high-end video as never before, and the newest generation is almost like miniature low-end Red cameras – able to shoot HD at a level unheard of three years ago,” says Di Carlo.
“As a studio, we were one of the early adopters of the Red cameras for some of our live-action plates, and it helps to have 4k images to bring to our post-production team.”
The script demanded a series of pullbacks that never stop – and the directing duo made it work by breaking the scene into different, linking shots with identical camera speeds so that the overlaps, hook-ups and crossing element issues all blended together into one slot shot.
The secret was to use a very wide-angle lens, with the camera positioned at eye level to the characters or lower. The result is that smaller things look big.
The camera itself moved back continually to boost the sense of dimensional perspective. The team also used a series of truck zooms, carefully hidden in the spot, whipping the zoom lens from 14mm to nearly 100mm and back again. These truck zooms were then disguised with some fast camera motion.
It proved a huge team effort, with two weeks given over to pitching, then 11 weeks from pre-production to post work. The project pulled around 45 people onto it at various stages, including pre production, CG, live shooting, post, art, set and modelling, as well as the two directors.
“Everything was a challenge,” laughs Di Carlo. “All of it! It was ambitious for schedule, budget and time. The biggest challenge was to figure out the interlocking nature of everything, the timing of the spot. It’s really a dozen large scenes inexorably linked into one spot.
"Inside each scene is a multitude of smaller actions and layers. Once the timing template was locked in at week three, it’s all been ‘baked’. In the end this commercial was all one single 60-second shot – and that’s not very forgiving.”
Communication was a challenge, too, according to Di Carlo. Due to scheduling conflicts, neither the agency creatives nor the client were able to visit Bent in its Oregon studio, so everything was communicated by phone, email, FTP, and mail.
“There was a moment in about week eight or nine when most of the shots were not complete. At this inflection point with about three weeks to go, it was hard to tell how the overall ‘feel’ would gel, how everything would flow together,” says Di Carlo.
“In animated spots, the hand-wringing happens at about the two-thirds to three-quarters point in the production. Everything is half-finished, shots are half-complete in the edit. This project was no different – there were questions such as ‘is it too fanciful?’ or ‘is it too real?’. It was important for our crew and production team to just hold on through
“I always liked the idea that the spot is like an ever-growing tall tale” this wall of worry, and then watch everyone relax as they began to see how well all the pieces finished out,” adds Daniels.
“I always liked the idea that the spot is like an ever-growing tall tale,” says Di Carlo. “Whenever I thought about the next sequence to come, I would imagine a storyteller that was getting caught up in his own momentum. He just could not stop, his ideas cascading out one after the other, each bigger and more elaborate than the last.
“Our task was to make the spot exciting and visually appealing without getting in the way of the story or the characters,” Di Carlo concludes, proudly.
“When people watch it, I can tell that they feel the same way as that imaginary storyteller. It’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment to see how much fun people have with it.”
Water was one of the more challenging tasks, says Fred Ruff. The team used Next Limit’s RealFlow, Frantic Films Krakatoa, and real water footage.
For the whale’s belly, the water was mainly a simulated mesh generated from RealFlow that was textured with several layers of water foam footage to make it frothy and green, and finally finished off splash footage and simulated particles.
For the leaping whales shot, the team used a combination of RealFlow simulated surface and simulated particles. They rendered the surface from V-Ray with HDRI reflection maps, and the particles in Krakatoa.
“The ocean water was simple,” says Ruff. “It was a basic polygon surface with a procedural displacement and a good V-Ray shader. As it moved across the tidal flats, we rendered out a mask that would allow us to composite a wet layer behind the water.
"The tidal waves were a sub-divided poly surface with animated UV coordinates. The froth was again simulated from Real Flow and rendered through Krakatoa.”
The CG suricatta’s fur was a time-consuming pass, according to Fred Ruff. Fur and hair effects were combed using 3DS Max’s hair and fur tool, and rendered separately with the hair buffer renderer.
The results were laid over a skin rendering of the suricatta. As 3DS Max’s hair buffer renderer doesn’t produce the motion blur results Ruff was after, the team used the Real Smart Motion plug-in within After Effects to match the motion back with the true motion blur in the renderings. Fur renderings took an hour and a half per frame.
Mix and match
The first half of the spot is mostly motion-controlled camera with stop-motion characters; the second half is primarily CG.
The pivot point between the two animation types is the treasure chest on the deck of the pirate ship, which is itself inside the belly of the prehistoric whale. According to Bent Image Lab’s technical director Fred Ruff, the pirate ship deck was built practically, four feet across, and shot on stage.
The witch doctor was animated in stop-motion, while the frog in the same scene was CG. “We used our motion-control rig and Boujou to match the CG to the stop-motion,” says Ruff.
“Once the camera pulls back from the deck, it reveals the CG ship, and this is what you see from a distance. The rest of the spot is then dominated by CG, with small elements of stop-motion.”
The Bent Image Lab team pulled out all the stops technology-wise to get the spot to the standard they wanted, but Fred Ruff points out that the machines can’t take all the credit.
“We love technology, but one of our greatest assets is our animators,” he says. “Most of them have a strong stop-motion background, because of their real-world understanding of a character’s weight and spatial motion, their first passes of the CG animation are very authentic.”
“We had quite a few characters in the spot – hermit crabs, a giant toad, a witch doctor, prehistoric whale, a two-headed suricatta (meerkat), and four different types of fish,” says Bent Image Lab’s technical director Fred Ruff.
“At Bent, we use 3DS Max, zBrush and Modo for our modelling. We also use the 3D painting portion of Cinema 4D for painting textures onto our characters.
“All of our characters are rigged for animation within 3DS Max,” adds Ruff. “We combine morph shapes and facial bones for our character facial animation.”
The surface of the island’s volcano was created with a set of layered textures used as a displacement, with V-Ray deployed to add realism to the rocky surface textures. With the surfaces handled within the renderer, it meant that as the virtual camera pulls away from the volcano, each frame would then render quicker then the last.
The island jungle was another large render, according to Fred Ruff. Although it’s not a major element in the spot, the jungle needed to be believable, with the CG model including about 720 palm trees and over 1,600 small bushes. The waterfall was created with 3DS Max’s Particle Flow.
Project: Hidden Formula
Studio: Bent Image Lab, bentimagelab.com
Software: 2d3 Boujou, Adobe After Effects, Adobe Photoshop, Apple Final Cut Pro, Autodesk 3DS Max, Luxology Modo, Maxon Cinema 4D, Next Limit RealFlow, Pixelogic zBrush
On the CD: You can view the spot on this month’s cover disc.