Ford Fiesta’s TV ad see the miniaturized car racing around a giant pinball table courtesy of The Mill’s Flame artist Barnsley and some almost invisible 3D effects.

Directed by Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, Ford Fiesta Pinball is a TV ad that sees everyone’s favourite small car zipping around an oversized pinball machine, dodging giant steel balls as they hurtle towards it.

Despite the unreal premise that involves differently sized elements, Bardou-Jacquet decided to avoid a fully CG route for the ad, instead shooting a real car and a real pinball machine for a greater degree of naturalism. It was then up to post house The Mill to work its magic in comping footage of the two together.

The Mill’s senior Flame artist, Barnsley, began the project by calculating the scale difference between the actual car and the hypothetical car as it would have appeared if it were the pinball. He calculated it would be 86 times smaller than a real car. This meant every measurement relevant to the pinball shots needed to be painstakingly enlarged 86 times when the real car was shot. For example, if the camera in a pinball shot was 10mm away from the imaginary pinball/car, the camera’s position in the actual car shot would be placed at 860mm away.

For the commercial to work, the car and the pinball table had to be shot using the same camera angle so they would line up. The pinball table was filmed using a specially designed life-scale model and an endoscope camera lens the size of a long cigarette. The real car was then shot in a studio with camera angles and distances recreated to mirror those of the pinball shots. Using proportionally scaled boxes – one representing the actual car, one representing the car if it were the pinball – Barnsley was able to exactly match the pinball and car shots. By shooting the smaller box in situ on the pinball table, the car shot could be made to match by using the larger box and aligning its position to the smaller box on video overlay.

“It took a lot of patience and organization,” says Barnsley. “We had to carefully log and file every shot.” To ensure the concept worked in post, Barnsley was heavily involved in pre-production and supervised every shoot.

3D animation

Although the aim was to make the car’s journey around the pinball machine as realistic as possible, a substantial amount of 3D animation was needed to incorporate naturalistic shadows and reflections in the pinball, the car and the pinball table which could then be fed into Flame for the final composite.

“3D played a vital part of the commercial in making the car look like it was really sitting in the pinball table,” explains Tom Bussell, 3D animator at The Mill. “For this to be believable we had to fake the lighting, shadows, and the reflections. We needed to reflect the car in the pinball table and the pinball table in the car. Although the effects might be subtle, when they’re all comped together it all adds to the realism.”

The Mill’s 3D artist, Russell Tickner, created a precise 3D replica of the pinball table using measurements and reference shots for each part, which were provided by the modelmaker of the real pinball machine. As the 3D model was created before the commercial was shot, every part of the table had to be completely accurate to life, because at that point it hadn’t been decided which parts of the table would be shot, and which parts the car would pass close to.

A model blueprint

“We went to the modelmaker’s workshop where the real model was being made and took photos of the front, side, and top so we could rotoscope each one in Softimage|XSI,” explains Bussell. “We also got EPS files for all the modelmaker’s artwork, which was very useful when it came to putting our 3D model together and lining up the wireframe to the footage.”

“A benefit of using Softimage|XSI on this project was the workflow when it came to separate passes,” explains Tom Bussell, 3D animator at The Mill. “In one shot in particular we had a steel ball rolling past the car, with reflections of that in both the car and the table, plus motion blur, and all the other passes on top. We ended up with over 10 passes. XSI let us change quickly between all these passes in one scene. Having this many passes is not always necessary, but in this case we needed to be able to control these elements separately when being composited.”

The Mill’s 3D team then had to create the Ford Fiesta in 3D in order to have something that could be tracked and have reflection textures applied to. As the car and the table had been shot separately, the team had two separate pieces of footage to work with. The first step was to line up the camera so the pinball table wireframe matched with the live action footage. With this in the correct position, the team brought in the car footage and tracked the 3D car to the live-action car using the same camera.

The 3D model was used to create a shadow pass and a pass that reflected the car in the objects of the pinball table.

“Ford sent us the CAD data of the car which, although it required some tweaking to get a usable smooth mesh, saved a lot of time overall,” says Bussell. “The key to making the reflections in the car look real was in the texturing, as textures needed to represent what was really going in the scene such as the flashing lights and targets.” The fastest and most efficient way of achieving this, explains Bussell, was to project the live-action footage onto the geometry.

“The problem we had with this, however, is that whatever is behind the camera doesn’t get textured. We got around this by setting up another camera from a different angle and camera projecting different footage,” he says.

To add some extra interaction between the car and the pinball table the team rendered out a light pass with point lights at the same position and colour as the real lights on the table. They then animated the visibility based on data from the light technician on the shoot, which gave the correct light sequence that could be mixed in to the final composite.

The future of 3D commercials

According to Bussell, the use of 3D animation is growing in the world of post production – whether it be obvious effects, or the seamless photo-real work as in this commercial. He attributes this to the success of 3D animation in feature-length films in the last few years. “Clients and post houses are always competing to get the same quality of feature films but in four to six weeks rather than six to eight months,” he says. “As technology evolves in leaps and bounds, 3D becomes quicker and more efficient, so more can be achieved in the short commercial deadlines. If you look at some of the bigger budget commercials on TV, they are using more and more of the feature-length effects.”

While he acknowledges that for most commercials completed in post production, 3D artists will continue to spend the majority of their time merely enhancing what’s already been shot, he believes there remains several avenues in which the use of 3D in commercials can be explored.

“Seamless photo-real work is not always the desired effect, there’s plenty of room for more stylized work,” says Bussell.

Producer: Fi Kilroe
3D artist: Russell Tickner
3D animators: Andrew Proctor, Tom Bussell
Flame artist: Barnsley
Flame assistant: Jay Bandish