The Moving Picture Company’s team of animators rose to the challenge of creating a flamboyant and eccentric caricature of a French chef to act as the brand identity for Schwartz Real Paste sauces.

Directed and produced by Trevor Robinson of agency Quiet Storm, Schwartz’s new TV commercial for its Real Paste sauces features a flamboyant 3D chef. The 30-second ad shows a live-action housewife searching for inspiration while preparing dinner. She is visited by the animated CG chef offering a Schwartz Real Paste sauce as a tastier alternative to the dish that she’s cooking.

The creation of the 3D character and post production for the commercial was completed at The Moving Picture Company (MPC). MPC’s team of animators, led by Russell Appleford, began by producing a short 3D test to show the client how a CG character would work in the commercial. To create the test, a short piece of dancing motion-capture data was sourced from the Internet, says Appleford, and applied to the test model of the chef character.

According to Appleford, the most challenging aspect of the project was getting final approval for the design of the chef character, which was required to be the brand identity for Schwartz Real Paste. “It had to suit both Quiet Storm and Schwartz,” he says. “In projects like these there’s always a pipeline to follow – normally modelling, UVing and then rigging. The most difficult part to get approved is the modelling, which is the blueprint for the final character. Client sign-off on this is essential – without it you cannot move onto the next stage.”

Trevor Robinson initially supplied the animators with a VHS tape full of reference clips for the character of the French chef. “The most significant was from Father of the Bride, in which Martin Short plays Franc Eggelhoffer,” says Appleford. “The role is a complete caricature of a flamboyant, over-the-top, self-confident and slightly rude Frenchman.” Robinson also provided conceptual drawings showing a very tall, lanky chef with an enormous nose. After several proportional changes, the client and agency agreed on a ‘thin build and belly’ combination says Appleford, with the nose scaled down to half the original size for the final commercial.

Motion capture

The character was modelled in Alias Maya, with animator Jamie Fernandez creating the body and Appleford the head. Another member of the MPC animation team, Richard Nelson, added control meshes to a skeleton supplied by Centriod Motion Capture, and secondary animation controls were applied to the chef’s body to give control to points that weren’t covered by the mo-cap data including the cuffs on the jacket, his neck tie and trouser legs. Right Hemisphere Deep Paint was used to create UV & texture map paintings, and mental ray was used for the majority of the rendering.

The decision to use motion capture rather than hand animate the 3D character was taken for several reasons says Appleford. “Motion capture enables us to spread our workload more evenly over the course of a project. In this case, it gave us the luxury of having the animation finished two weeks prior to delivery – quite a feat in the land of CG commercials,” he says. “We usually work late, tweaking renders at 2am because they’re due the next morning. Having extra time enabled us to carry out extra mental ray render passes, and enhance the look of the shading, light occlusion, final gather and chrome passes that can all be subtly added in Inferno.”

Using motion capture also meant the MPC team avoided the need to generate a 3D animatic for pre-visualization purposes, and gave Robinson greater freedom in directing the commercial. During the live-action shoot, an actor dressed in full costume played the part of the chef, which meant the commercial could be directed as a non-CG ad, and the stand-in actor gave the actress someone to interact with.

Alive and kicking

“Trevor could visualize the shot via the actors, creating the live action that the mo-cap data would be taken from,’ says Appleford. “At the motion capture shoot at Centroid Motion Capture’s Halliford Studios, the actor’s movements and gestures were recorded on DV as reference for both Trevor and the our animators. For Trevor, this information helped him choose which take of mo-cap would be used for each shot. For us, they were a visual guide that could later be dropped into the edit.”

Robinson supplied MPC with two edits: the main edit with clean plates without the chef; and a second using the DV footage from the motion capture shoot. The 3D team used the DV edit as a lighting reference for the costume of chef’s whites, as well as a way of flagging potential problems that could arise when the chef was later composited into the shot. “These were later graded, along with the back plates to show what happened to his real outfit,” says Appleford. “Our CG whites were then made to match this bright, burnt-out look.”

Character rigging

Another bonus of taking the motion-capture route was the ability to set up a standard rig for the character which could be reused in the future by other animators. “Quiet Storm intends to use the same character for more commercials so working this way means the chef’s characteristics will remain the same regardless of which 3D artist is assigned to the project,” he explains.

Using motion capture to animate the character wasn’t all plain sailing though he recalls. The chef’s unusually long hands, in particular, caused problems in several shots where they intersected other objects in the scene. The animators rectified this by selecting joints and grouping them to create an extra node to offset the animation curves without interfering with the mocap information.

Facial capture also proved a challenge. Appleford decided to control the face using a series of blend shapes driven by facial data, which meant he could tweak the animation by hand if he encountered problems. “As a result of the extra control, the facial animation worked well first time round, only a couple of hours of tweaking were necessary to achieve the right facial movement,” he says.

Mental ray was used for most of the rendering – additional rendering was complete with MPC’s in-house occlusion plug-in, Gigolo. Apple Shake was used for test comps and the final composite was created by Nigel Mortimer in Discreet Inferno.

Producer: Sean Costelloe
3D artists: Russell Appleford, Richard Nelson, Jaime Fernandez, Alp Boysan
Inferno: Nigel Mortimer
Telecine: Jean-Clement Soret
Combustion: Darren Christie

Software used:
Alias Maya
Right Hemisphere
Deep Paint
Syflex cloth simulator
mental ray
MPC Gigolo
Apple Shake
Discreet Inferno