Aardman boogies up for Robinsons’ TV ad

Aardman Animations unleashes jiving juice, painstaking created in Alias Maya and After Effects, in Robinsons Orange Fruit Squash commercial.

The brief from agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty for the currently airing Robinson Fruit Squash TV commercial ran as follows: “We want you to pour orange squash into a jug of water and watch it settle, it turns into dancing characters that move and dance to music, they need to constantly change from one shape to another all the time dissolving and turning the water into orange squash. It must look absolutely real and convincing, be really fun, exciting, charming, full of great animation and all this to a great upbeat, feel-good timeless piece of music, leaving people with their mouths agape saying: ‘how on earth did they do that?’”

“After first hearing the brief I realized that at that particular moment in time I didn’t have the foggiest notion of how we were going to technically achieve what was needed,” recalls Aardman Animations Scott Pleydell-Pearce of his initial meeting with BBH to discuss what the animation house had to offer. “This just isn’t the type of job were used to doing or known for... we do funny talking creatures: cats, dogs, sheep, oven gloves, worms made from newspaper....you know...real things! Not abstract morphing figures made from real liquid squash dancing in water! That’s the kind of job the big effects houses do.

“I could have tried to talk about how much technical clever stuff we would have to do, blinding them with CGI jargon, but the truth was I didn’t have a clue how to achieve what they wanted, so I thought the best approach was to just have fun with the concept and the ideas. I think that was what clinched the deal for us, the fact that we all hit it off and had a really fun, exciting first meeting,” he says.

Down to business

The Aardman team began the project with lots of brainstorm sessions, as well as creating plenty of drawings, and then storyboards for the commercial. These were followed by animatics, and then a complete CG blockthrough with simple shapes and crude characters.

The team spent a lot of time researching how coloured liquids react in other liquids, says Pleydell-Pearce. Fish tanks were filled with differing solutions of glycerine and water, into which copious quantities of coloured ‘squash’ – made by mixing water colour paint, acrylic paint, food colouring, ink, poster paint, glycerine and water – were dropped, injected and poured. The glycerine helped slow down the diffusion so it could be captured on film, explains Pleydell-Pearce. The Aardman team took digital stills, 35mm footage and even some high-speed 125fps footage of the results.

“As far as a lot of the character movement goes, it was a case of taking their animation and applying to it the fact that these guys are made from diffusing squash and are hanging about in water... we simply had to make everything as fluid as possible,” he says. “Seaweed moving about in water was a great way of describing how these characters should move, no part could ever hold still so everything had to have lots of follow through to it.”

Once the music had been decided and the dance moves choreographed, the characters were modelled in Alias Maya using low-resolution polygon cages driving higher resolution smoothed versions. Rigging varied depending on what the character had to do, explains Tom Downes, senior technical director at Aardman Animations. “These ranged from pretty average FK/IK setups to multi-boned, latticed, non-linear deformers, blends and replacement setups,” he says.

Once the animations were completed, they were rendered with three passes: character definition, emission, and background. These passes were used in conjunction with Maya’s Fluid system, which was augmented with Aardman’s own proprietary software Additive Density Mapping (ADM) to create the ‘squash’ look, explains Downes.

“To further enhance the integration and believability, dynamic forces were added to the characters bones, which really helped to keep everything moving and being affected realistically,” he says.

Trying to sculpt and control the animation of the initial pour of squash into the glass jug was a difficult shot, recalls Downes: “It was like trying to sculpt smoke with electric fans”. Tracking that pour with geometry that had to morph into a musical note took several attempts and techniques to pull off. It was achieved using a combination of blend shapes, replacements and lots of comping, says Pleydell-Pearce.

Technical challenges

“We use Maya for all of our jobs as we love its ease of use along with its depth and adaptability,” says Tom Downes, senior TD at Aardman Animations. “Its scripting and expressions allow for lots of customization of its standard off-the-shelf effects.”

Downes and the team also used Maya’s 2D fluid system and After Effects on this job.

“We relied on After Effects extensively at every stage of production – processing density maps before the fluids were rendered, layering the rendered fluids and the final live-action compositing,” explains Downes. He outlined several of the technical challenges of this commercial and how he solved them. First was the visual challenge of balancing the definition of liquid squash with recognizable characters. This, he says, was sometimes only solved at render, but careful mixing of the four fluid layers at different stages allowed the team to make different bits stand out or not.

Achieving the correct shade of orange had to be done in After Effects using lots of filters. In order to make the animation transitions seamless, transitions in the density maps were made where possible, so the fluids iron out any evidence of a mix. Cross fades on fluids were done one pass at a time to make the transition as seamless as possible. To integrate the bubbles, which were added later, Downes used Reelsmart to add motion blur. “It may be slow, but it’s more manageable than using particles,” he says.

Finally, to give the animations more depth and add richness to the fluids, multiply layers were used, one of top of the other, in preference to using alpha mattes.

From the first meeting to final post, the project took the Aardman team six months to complete. “I must admit, in the beginning I had many a sleepless night thinking what the hell are we doing?”, says Pleydell-Pearce.

“It was a real emotional rollercoaster, one day it was all just way too daunting and the next I was all fired up because this is what animation is all about.... doing things that cant be done in reality. This is what really inspired myself and the team, the fact that we were doing something quite innovative and really challenging. The fact that it was helping to push the envelope of what can be done in CGI, that was a real buzz.”

Scott Pleydell-Pearce – director
Alan Short – senior animator
John Ogden – assistant animator
Tom Downes – senior TD
Philip Child – TD
Bobby Proctor – modelling, lighting and rendering
Steve Roberts - modeller
Louise Holmes - producer

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