An intricate animation of a full underwater orchestra for United Airlines by Shy the Sun and Lung has proven a stellar hit – Digital Arts finds out how it was created.

It’s an intriguing proposition: a silver glint is spotted in a hand-drawn sky, triggering a richly detailed orchestra made up of aquatic creatures such as an octopus, crabs, and flying fish, performing the jazzy orchestral piece Rhapsory in Blue.

The ad – in which this marine orchestra serenades a passenger on a United Airlines flight – has already chalked up thousands of views on YouTube and garnered peer admiration for South African animation studio Shy the Sun and 3D animation house Lung Animation – also from South Africa.

Ironically for a spot for an airline, the brief came out of the blue for Shy the Sun, after a previous project created by the studio was spotted by United’s ad agency.

“We didn’t have to pitch,” says Shy the Sun’s Nina Pfeiffer. “Ad agency Barrie D’Rozario Murphy (BDM) had stumbled upon The Tale of How as they were seeking talent for this year’s United campaign. When they saw the piece, they wanted us to do something similar; so they came up with a brief especially for us. They called us up and offered us the job. Who could say ‘no’ to that?”

The brief was a single line, according to Pfeiffer: “Sea creatures serenade a passing plane”.

The studio was given full creative freedom, as long as the result was both organic and naturalistic. Initially, the studio went wild, conjuring up as many characters and scenarios as it could muster.

The team also studied how a real orchestra is structured, which helped them filter through the characters to ones that would work best within the musical line-up.

Creatures were also selected based on what could make sounds that could pass for real instruments. As the spot progresses, the animation takes in the string, brass and percussion sections, parading each creature in turn.

With the project based on the animation style of The Tale of How, Shy the Sun stuck to its graphic formula, adding a few more effects, more detail, and more space.

“The visual style is an intricately detailed, organic design,” says Pfeiffer, “shaded and lit in a way that would make it live in a real, spatial environment.

Live-action elements like wind and waterfalls were shot and then used to create a real-looking environment for the 2D designs to live in. The 3D characters were then matched to this treatment, and the job was done at 2K, so we had the opportunity to cram in as much detail as possible.

“Each separate element was originally drawn on an A3-size canvas, then scaled down when we built up the compositions,” Pfeiffer continues.

“We wanted to create visual overload. We tried to keep even focus on everything throughout the shot – this enables to viewer to see what naturally catches their own eyes, and also makes it interesting to watch again and again. We wanted people to see something new every time they watch it.”

The project demanded immaculate planning. Shy the Sun prepared detailed storyboards and animatics, and exhaustively listed everything that would appear in the spot.

The team took photos of textures, plants, rocks and elements to create the set. Shy the Sun director and animator Ree Treweek was responsible for drafting the characters for handover to Lung, while director and animation Jannes Hendrikz photographed and filmed real-life waterfalls, crashing waves and other marine elements to prep and clean up for comp work.

Treweek also drew and coloured all the elements that would appear in the environment, such as plants, coral, shells, pools and rock structures. The rest of the environment – from clouds to the sea – was then added.

With the environment close to being completed, Lung handed over the 3D characters that the studio had been creating.

The sea in 3D

Lung Animation – a two-man team made up of Arri Reschke and Claudio Pavan – faced a huge challenge considering the volume of work that the duo needed to produce.

Over 90 per cent of the characters are 3D, with the rest 2D with live-action elements. The pair also worked on creating 3D for shadow passes of the plane over the orchestra, while the ocean was a wave element rendered out of a 2D plane that Shy the Sun had used to build the ocean for comps.

The production pipeline between the two studios was mostly seamless thanks to the simple rigs needed for the creatures, with Lung creating the 3D work using Softimage|XSI Foundation.

“Ree would come up with the characters, along with patterns for skins, and from there we would model them in 3D, taking into account that when taking a 2D character into 3D you need to change a few things for them to look good,” explains Claudio Pavan.

“The nice part was that Ree would almost always let you add your own ideas to add to the creature, which was fun.”

Once the creatures were modelled, Lung would unwap each one so that textures could be added in Photoshop. Paven says: “We used a lot of Ree’s hand-drawn textures and patterns to create their skins. Then they went off to be rigged – and most had simple rigs – but a few got a little complicated.

"The octopus, with its eight arms that plaited together to form odd hands and the Belching Noah, who vomited up tinier Noahs, were fun. Animation also got a little more complicated, as we had to animate [the characters] to music and specific instruments in the music. Another tricky aspect was rendering and getting the creatures to look 2D, but not feel entirely flat and maintaining a balance in the thickness of their outlines.”

The audio was a challenge that is echoed back at Shy the Sun – with Pfeiffer saying it was one of the most difficult tasks of the project: “Gershwin’s track [Rhapsody in Blue] is 13 minutes long, and a big challenge was to pick the right part, compressing it into a minute to tell our story. At the end of the project, a recording was made as the orchestra played live to the final animation. The spatial environment works beautifully and the characters really seem to enjoy playing together.”

Team spirit

Nina Pfeiffer says that things were made simpler by having a good relationship with the agency, BDM. “They understand the dynamics of working with artists and allowing us to do what we intend – they enabled us to be the artists and do what we’re good at.

In researching and developing the spot’s characters, the team referenced old scientific prints, as well as the works of Patrick Woodroffe (below) and Ernest Haeckel.

The process of synching each sea beast’s movements to the audio of the instrument it was supposed to be playing – in a complicated and fast-moving symphonic piece – was challenging, “especially when you’re not musically inclined,” adds Lung’s Claudio Pavan. Performers included an octopus organist, a killer whale timpanist, and a lobster conductor.


Project: Sea Orchestra
Client: Barrie d’Rozario Murphy/United Airlines
Studio: Shy the Sun (, Lung Animation ( Software: Adobe Photoshop, Softimage|XSI
On the CD: You can view the sequence on this month’s cover disc.