US digital studio Click 3X created an out-of-this-world promo spot for the MTV/Sprint Movie Awards, which sees a glowing Samsung phone blasted through space and time, dodging its way through a field of asteroids.

In this age of multi-channel interactivity, VFX and animation agency Click 3X made a very contemporary contribution to the 2007 MTV Movie Awards.

Led by senior VFX artist Mark Szumski, Click created a spot that was screened on the night, featuring a Samsung phone blasted through space and time. Voters were then prompted to participate by texting their favourite movies using their mobile phones.

With less than two weeks to complete the project, Click 3X had to work fast. Within three days it was boarded and an animatic ready, leaving five days to execute the job. “The animatic was the primary reason for success of this,” reveals CG artist Ryan O’Phelan.

“The job was half-finished when presented, so it went very smooth.” The animatic also acted as a virtual hand on the tiller once CG work was underway, reveals O’Phelan.

“The animatic really gave a lot of camera information, so once we had that approved we could drive CG cameras. Since the animatic was locked down, it also allowed us to do explorations into background, asteroids and asteroid fields.”

Szumski says the team wanted to avoid the asteroids looking “like rocks or space potatoes”, that they wanted the spot “to feel very alien and abstract, so the asteroids had to feel that way”.

In-house fine artist Gabriel Tick helped create the asteroids that were later modelled, providing a template for the team to work from.

O’Phelan picks up the asteroid theme: “From those inspirational designs we took a few different approaches on creating the asteroids. At first, we were trying to map them directly onto CG objects or rocks, then decided to use ZBrush – which we hadn’t yet used in production – to create asteroids from scratch."

That the piece would have a galactic theme was never in doubt. “MTV referenced Blade Runner for the piece, so we definitely approached this as a scene from science fiction,” says Szumski.

But the look Click opted for was not the dystopian sci-fi beloved of modern movies. “We referenced Fifth Element and Flash Gordon – things with a more European sensibility.”

He says the tone of the piece was also determined by MTV, who wanted to avoid “crazy CGI camera moves. Instead we agreed that we wanted motion control, straight cuts, an 80s feeling, and nothing too abrupt. We wanted it to feel filmic, colourful and art directed, and not to have the modern video game look.”

Szumski says the most challenging part of the project was getting it to look as good as they wanted in such a short space of time. “The animatic was the bible we worked from; we all had to stay on close point, so each knew what the other was doing.”

Keeping the workflow running in top gear was also crucial, particularly with such a small team. O’Phelan says Szumski didn’t just wait for CGI renders to come his way, but did the backgrounds in Flame, “which involved us exchanging cameras back and forth between the CG department and Flame systems”.

Szumski describes the space backgrounds as a “combo of Hubble space telescope imagery” and “a lot of fractal noise/fractal cloud effects to create nebulas”, and he created stars using 3D particles.

The animatic allowed us to be really creative and gave us momentum – we blasted through the tight timeline The black hole – through which the phone appears and disappears – was introduced to keep the spot engaging.

“In a 30-second spot, we had to find ways to entertain and make it filmic and action-oriented, with the phone racing to get to MTV Movie Awards,” says Szumski.

“We wanted to create a sense of drama and danger as it went through asteroid fields.” Head of CGI Anthony Filipakis says the black hole was “basically a galaxy from Hubble with added light shafts to make it seem like it was emitting matter and anti matter”.

The black hole was borne of a combination of textures and particles. “It was created using a vortex of particles with dynamic simulation, combined with layered texture maps to give it some photo-real and procedural texture maps.”

The wormhole effect, meanwhile, was done in Flame, with a combination of displacement mapping. “We wanted to make it feel like space was tearing open, similar to other teleportation effects we’ve seen, but a little more unique to our piece, and not just a flash,” says O’Phelan.

Time pressures may have been great, but the team didn’t let this compromise their creativity. “Even with the deadline we wanted to add as much detail and tricks,” reveals Szumski, “such as the little light effects the phone casts on the asteroids. It’s very subtle but adds a layer of detail.”

“The brief indicated an abstract energy glow [around the phone],” explains Szumski. "We looked at the work of Richard “Doc” Bailey and his work was the inspiration for the glow around phone. It feels like swirling nebulas and gives the phone a unique look.”

On the rendering front, Szumski says he didn’t get involved in adding too many render passes from Maya, “because the first couple I was getting from Ryan and the team looked so good I didn’t feel I needed them”.

Flame was used for the final render, with preservation of detail being the main aim. “Even though this was an 8-bit job I rendered at 12 bit in Flame," says Szumski. "This pushes the colour without blowing out. Glows, space backgrounds and the energy around phone look much more detailed and dynamic."

The team was pleased with the finished spot on many levels. “I was most pleased with the speed at which we completed it,” says CG artist Susan Taaffe.

For O’Phelan, it was the effectiveness of the animatic that was the telling factor. “It was so important. It gave us so much momentum. We blasted through it even with the tight timeline. We put bells and whistles on this – like the planet breaking up – but we could do that only because we were really clear on the project. [The animatic] allowed us to be really creative.”

And he adds that the streamlined decision-making process was another aspect that stays with him. The most pleasing thing for Szumski, was the fact “we worked really well and were all very in synch; there was no drama”.

He adds: “The completed job feels tight and together, like time and budget was four times the amount we had, because everyone was [firing] on all cylinders and coming up with great ideas.”

The initial design of the asteroids characterized them as out of this world, funky, craggy things, says CG artist Ryan O’Phelan.

Click's brief was to create an abstract energy glow around the phone. The team took their inspiration from the work of late, great CGI exponent Richard ‘Doc Bailey. “It feels like swirling nebulas, and gives the phone a unique look," says Mark Szumski, senior Flame artist.

Abstract asteroids

As the phone races to the MTV Movie Awards, it dodges huge asteroids in its way. Key to the success of the piece was ensuring the asteroids looked alien and abstract. The Click 3X team tried several methods to create the space rocks including mapping directly onto 3D objects before settling on building them from scratch using ZBrush.


Project: MTV/Sprint Movie Awards spot
Client: MTV
Studio: Click 3X,
Software: Maya, ZBrush, Flame