On September 18 2006, amateur footage of a giant puppet stalking the streets of Reykjavik began to appear on user-generated content sites like YouTube. Over the next week, various videos sprung-up all over the net, documenting the puppet’s bizarre actions from different people’s perspectives.
As more and more clips appeared, it became apparent that the puppet was in fact a 60-feet tall giant marionette that was being controlled by helicopters. Finally the campaign has been announced as a commercial project from the joint forces of Levis, BBH and The Viral Factory.
The companies involved have revealed that the event never happened at all. It is, in fact, just a collection of 2D & 3D visual effects from Absolute Post. All that was actually filmed in Iceland were extras reacting to nothing at all.
The clips apparent validity is helped by being interspersed on YouTube's links panel with real clips from a number of Royal De Luxe outdoor performances, such as the Sultan's Elephant in London in May 2006, which involved leading giant puppets through major cities.
To give the campaign authenticity, The Viral Factory wanted it to look as though members of the public shot the films on whatever format they owned: mini DV, webcams, camera phones and digital cameras. This would give it a look so far removed from traditional, highly-polished visual effects shots, it would be impossible to believe that it never actually happened.
So the solution, when on location in Iceland, was to devise seven groups of people, from clubbers out for the night to lovers cosying-up in the bedroom, and give them various lo-fi cameras. They were then briefed as to the imagined choreography of the 'invisible' puppet: the first AD transmitted messages to the groups, via earpieces, with instructions of what the imaginary puppet would be doing at any particular point in time, so that all the groups filmed in unison from their different perspectives.
Back in London a series of 10 empty (ie: puppet-free) shots were selected from the various sources of footage. A two-foot high marionette was shot in a greenscreen studio so that it could be composited into the empty shots. In order to convincingly composite the puppet into the empty shots, all the background footage had to be painstakingly tracked in 3D using a combination of automated and hand tracking.
The tracking was then imported into Flame so that the puppet could began to inhabit its environment. When everyone involved was happy with the action, position and size of the puppet, the 3D dept set to work on creating the illusion that it was being controlled by helicopters by building and animating the choppers in 3D. After testing several formations of helicopters and control rigs, it was decided that a Chinook would take the weight to puppeteer the head, whilst two Lynx helicopters would control the arm movements.
Final compositing took place in Flame where one of the toughest challenges was matching the puppet and helicopters back into the degraded quality of the original, lo-fi footage. This wasn’t as straight-forward as it sounds: the footage was deliberately shot so badly, that tracking references were almost non-existent.
Absolute's VFX artist, Phil Oldham, said: "In short, Absolute re-wrote the post production rulebook by recommending that plates were shot at night, on handheld cameras, using poor-quality domestic DV stock, pointing at empty, reference-point-free skies. But it was all lovingly done in the name of authenticity."