A government campaign required Lola to fill an urban skyline with giant CG cigarettes that had to look as real as the streetscapes they were standing in.

Public health advertising has a chequered history: in the attempt to persuade people to stop drink-driving, taking drugs or smoking, the government has often resorted to shock tactics, with limited success.

Now the powers that be are trying a new angle: rather than trying to scare people into quitting smoking by showing them horror-stories, a new commercial funded by the Department of Health takes a more collaborative approach.

The minute-long ad, Getting off Smoking, was made by agency Miles Calcraft Briginshaw & Duffy, with production by Pink and post-production by Lola.

In the ad, a cityscape is dotted with cigarettes the height of buildings. Each of the cigarettes has a person stranded on top of it. The camera pans between different rescue operations being mounted to literally help people ‘get off’ cigarettes.

Although the concept is straightforward, the project’s execution was complex. “The brief was a question of having photo-realistic cigarettes on a huge scale, to be rendered into live-action shots,” explains says Lola’s managing director Grahame Andrew, who was 3D supervisor on the project.

“This was also to involve the placing of the people in these shots, to make the whole thing believable.”

Lola was involved in the pre-production process and planning, meaning that the team had the chance to creatively influence the project, right from the earliest meetings: “The idea of using smoked cigarettes, rather than pristine ones, was certainly one that was aired during those early meetings,” says Andrew.

He explains that Lola was also involved in other aspects of the planning process: “Mainly Lola’s involvement was in advising what would make a good shot in terms of visual effects, and what would prove a convincing way of achieving the shots, involving both wide shots and close-ups.

"Early discussion with the production company, art director, production manager and Lola were vital to make sure that everything was going to be produced to the highest standard from all parties.”

After the initial meetings, Lola previsualized all the shots and produced an animatic, which helped the team to ensure that the shots had all the necessary elements.

Work also began on making the cigarettes absolutely photo-realistic and indistinguishable from the filmed footage. To do this, the team had to make the lighting on the CG cigarettes match the footage, using HDRI (High Dynamic Range Imaging) technology.

“In the pre-shoot period, we made a highly streamlined HDRI pipeline, to make sure that the correct HDRI images were available for each of the shots, ensuring correct lighting for each one,” says Andrew.

“The cigarettes were all pre-built, and photos from the recce shoot were used to ensure that the HDRI and cigarette models were all working.”

An HDRI sequence was shot for each set-up, and the information was passed back to Lola so that it could get the lighting of the cigarettes perfect.

“The HDRI images proved to be essential, and give the cigarettes that believable ‘in there’ quality,” says Andrew.

Shooting the ad

Two members of Lola’s team were present during the shoot itself: creative director Rob Harvey, who supervized the visual effects, and Max Wright, who was responsible for the HDRI.

Lola also shot additional material for the ad’s background: “There was also a generic greenscreen shoot of people from different angles, to composite onto the more distant CGI cigarettes,” explains Andrew.

“The spot spent about two weeks in post-production,” he says. “Post was a question of placing cigarettes initially into shots to make sure composition, framing and, to some extent, lighting were correct before we proceeded to the final render.

"There were also little bits of clean-up and foreground mattes that had to be worked on at the same time so that the final composition in Flame would have all the elements required.”

Andrew says that the tight deadline was tough: “The photo-realism of the cigarettes was Lola’s most challenging aspect of the project, followed by the break-neck speed that we had to complete all the shots in.

"These two [priorities] often fight against each other, but we were able to do quite a bit of pre-production work to make sure that when the shots came in we could hit the ground running without compromising on quality.”

The decision to use recently stubbed-out cigarettes, rather than fresh, unlit ones, proved tricky: “The smoke from the cigarettes was a question of compositing live action into the plates along with the CG cigarettes,” he says.

“We used burning embers from an effects shoot, which were subtly added to help sell the idea of a cigarette just having been put out.”

Making the cigarettes themselves realistic was tough, too. “The hardest part of the CG was to get the right level of crinkles and bends into the cigarettes. It’s often quite a subjective thing,” says Andrew.

“You make them like they really are, but because we were putting in stubbed-out cigarettes, the perception of the length of the butts for example, and the amount of distress of the cigarettes changes.

"You think you’re really familiar with the look of a cigarette, but it’s not until you give it a lot of attention that you realize some of the details involved. In the end you have to go for what looks right – sometimes in preference to what is right.”

Despite the tight time-frame and technical challenges of the project, Andrew feels that the project was a success. “I think the whole project ran so smoothly,” he says. “There was very little time, and a lot of things had to come together very smartish to get the finished result. To bring all of these separate elements together in a short space of time, to this quality, is very satisfying.”

A combination of real footage and clever CGI help the cigarettes seem like a realistic part of the cityscape. The use of HDRI images was essential to get the lighting right for the time of day.

Getting on cigarettes

Placing figures on the cigarettes convincingly meant that not all of the cigarettes could be created in post. Andrew explains: “One big decision in pre-production was how much of the cigarette was going to be real, and how much CGI. It was agreed that several real-size cigarette butts were to be made.

"This would enable us to place people on real materials for the closeups. This also helps the director and DOP to compose and frame shots.

"The other thing for the models was some form of integration with the ground in terms of ash. This, along with a large cylinder, gives the director something to work with, and helps enormously with the integration of the CGI cigarettes.”


Project: Getting Off Cigarettes
Client: COI – Department of Health
Studio: Lola www.lola-post.com
Software: Softimage XSI, Apple Shake, Autodesk Flame, Adobe Photoshop