In two new spots for UPS, studio Psyop creates an amazing, seemingly hand-crafted cardboard world filled with lions, gladiators, elephants, and acrobats.

Working with ad agency Doner, US animation studio Psyop has created a fantasy world and characters that appear to be made entirely of cardboard for UPS’s latest campaign.

Two TV spots have so far been released, telling epic tales that illustrate the extent of UPS’ services beyond shipping packages. The first, titled The Presentation, sees a bespectacled businessman facing a chariot and a fierce lion to get his point across to the audience before being saving by a UPS representative.

The second, Circus, is set under a big top, with a woman in danger of dropping her fragile shopping as she walks a tightrope. With the help of UPS all her packages are saved and she reaches the other side to applause.

Along with the challenge of fitting each epic tale into just 25 seconds of animation, the need to make the environments and characters look as if hand-crafted from cardboard raised some interesting technical issues for the Psyop team.

“The brief from agency was to make worlds out of cardboard that felt simultaneously epic and handmade. All of the scripts read like short films and we worked hard to tell these stories in a visually impactful way but in a tight timeframe,” explains Eben Mears, Psyop’s creative director.

“We were also given the task of creating characters and environments that looked truly hand-crafted, with the caveat that everything must always be made of cardboard,” he adds.

“The design of the worlds and characters in each spot was intense. It’s an interesting struggle to design everything out of cardboard and make it look and feel ‘real’.

"Our use of corrugation and texture, plus the thought that went into the rigging of the characters, was an epic struggle in and of itself.”

Mears and his team worked closely with the creatives at Doner to hone the scripts for the commercials and create detailed storyboards.

Psyop took inspiration from stop-motion films including Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Rankin/Bass Production’s classic Christmas television specials.

According to Tony Barbieri, Psyop’s lead technical director, creating a fully cardboard world and characters that emulated a stop-motion aesthetic was a particular challenge for the team’s CG animators.

Each character had to be broken apart and looked at again to visualize how it would be built if it really was made from cardboard. This was to ensure that each would have the full range of necessary motion. “We didn’t want the characters to look ‘CG’, so we tried to not cheat by using tricks in 3D,” says Barbieri.

“This forced us to approach character setup with some additional boundaries that in some ways made setup easier, but in others ways it forced to us to become more like mechanical engineers and focus on the details of believable mechanics.”

The 3D models were created in Maya, with nearly all of the cardboard’s corrugation modelled in detail. However, this placed a huge strain on the studio’s pipeline.

“We pushed Maya to the limits on what it can handle in a scene due to our geometry polygon counts being so high,” says Barbieri.

“It also pushed how much corrugation our modellers were able to handle before cracking mentally.”

Ensuring that the geometry of the corrugated cardboard characters wasn’t too obviously CG was also tricky.

“If we kept the geometry too clean, it ended up looking too CG. Our creative director, Eben kept referencing lasagne noodles whenever he saw corrugation that was too clean in dailies,” says Barbieri.

“On the other hand, if we pushed it too far, our cardboard ended up looking like it came out of the garbage so we had to walk a fine line between the two.”

By adding this level of detail, the team could see straightaway how it would work in a render without concerning themselves with model close-ups, shadow effects or textural detail in the subsequent compositing stage.

Environment creation began in 2D with sketches based on the script and references supplied by the ad agency. With the sketch approved, Psyop’s designers then created the scene in Photoshop.

From here a parallel pipeline was set up, with 2D and 3D teams working hand in hand says Helen Choi, lighting artist on The Presentation. “For The Presentation, we already had an initial model and texture of the stadium.

"However, we wanted to figure out a couple of elements in the stadium that weren’t quite resolved. So we rendered out different passes for the designer so we could preview our ideas in 2D before we made changes in 3D,” she explains.

“This helped us save time and effort. After our initial environment and camera was locked down, we embellished each shot by adding the details it needed.”

Texturing the environments was straightforward, says Choi, with the team scanning every cardboard box they could find to ensure that the imperfections and wrinkles of the material could be recreated.

Outstanding characters

With every element of the spot made to look as if built from cardboard, one concern was that the characters would get lost among the background environments.

“We decided that playing with tonal variation through lighting and texturing would help us control the focus of each shot. We used Mia-x shaders with the Remap HSV node so the lighting artists could tweak the value, hue and saturation as needed,” says Choi.

On several scenes involving dozens of fully animated characters, detailed props and environments, as well as numerous animated sources of light, file sizes quickly topped more than 1GB.

The serious horsepower provided by 64-bit machines with lots of RAM was essential to handle these scenes, says Anthony Patti, lighting artist on the Circus spot.

“One of the most important features of the pipeline, from the lighting point of view, was a tool created by Tony Barbieri that allowed us to texture the props, environments and characters in a separate file and load it into the lighting scene at will,” Patti says.

“We decided to assign the textures in such a way as to help us when setting up our render layers. We would go through the regular process of approvals for texturing, but then alter those textures to account for the various render layers we knew we would need.”

So in the layout files for Circus, the floor was kept consistently one colour, the walls another, and various other props yet another, he explains. This meant that the lighting artists could ensure that the characters and props had the same setup for every shot.

“This also allowed us to standardize our output as much as possible, so compositors could work from a standardized skeleton and the composite was made easier,” says Patti.

“Consolidation of passes in single renders was also important, for example rendering a single pass with as many different kinds of tools as possible... [we’d have to] assign ambient occlusion to the red channel, facing ratio to alpha, Z depth to green, Y depth to blue and that would make a single image file. Then we’d share these shaders with the other lighting artists to make sure our output was the same.”

Efficient rendering was key. This called for good communication and planning between the lighting artists and compositors.

“If a compositor asked for a tool to reach a certain feature of a character, we’d ask for three more they might need, simply to fill up the channels of the new pass and not waste processor power outputting a tiny feature, such as the pupils of the eyes,” says Patti.

“Of course, there are always exceptions. Some of the things we would plan for may not be needed or used, so we would end up breaking from the process and just building render layers based on whatever tools were necessary to tweak certain features. You can never plan for everything, you can only do your best and slog through it until it’s done,” he continues.

The efforts of the texturing and lighting artists made compositing “really fun”, says Psyop’s lead compositor Molly Schwartz. The sole compositing challenge was the complexity of the shots themselves, she adds.

“Each shot was broken out into dozens and dozens of layers – including the base beauty colour and final gathering for all the elements, character and background passes, Z depth, Y depth, ambient occlusion, mattes, as well as lighting passes, including various rays and shafts,” she says.

“The lighters also gave us three separate-channel light and shadow passes with which we were able to manipulate all of the lights and darks in each scene, really bringing colour and warmth into the highlights and shadows.”

Using the cameras imported from 3D, Schwartz and her team created skies and suns for each spot, and added live-action elements including smoke, dust, and particles.

“We then topped off the whole mess with dozens of effect passes from our unleashed particle madman – all kinds of beautiful dust, trails, even more light and sunshine rays, twinkly bits and flying cardboardy bits,” she says.

The high number of passes required in the composite meant maintaining continuity in the colours of the cardboard was a key consideration. According to Schwartz, lots of discussion and comparison between shots was needed to ensure all the scenes matched and the cardboard effect worked successfully across each spot.

“Cardboard is ‘brown’ which meant balancing values with a lot of subtly different hues of red, yellow and orange to keep a consistent colour palette,” explains Schwartz. “I miss blue sometimes, but I will never see brown as just brown again.”

Mears concludes: “These spots were a pleasure to make and we’re happy with the worlds we were able to create. For us, this project is a combination of a real cardboard aesthetic and cool little stories.”

One problem the team found was that of condensing a suitably ‘epic’ narrative into the tiny amount of time available. “Most of the stories we wanted to tell would have suited a 60-second format, so we spent tons of time editing boardomatics and revising our storyboard frames based on what told the story the best,” says Mears.

“It’s common for most CG animators to strive for super smooth animation,” says Jordan Blit, lead animator at Psyop. “This can be a difficult hurdle to overcome when trying to emulate a more hand-crafted, stop-motion style.

"Trying to work frame by frame would have proven too laborious and changes later on would have been difficult to make. So, we solved the problem by disciplining ourselves to work as we would normally, but looser. We also skipped the polish phase all together, keeping the motion more raw, spontaneous, and not to mention timesaving.”

“Cardboard is not pretty but practical and efficient, therefore we had to find ways to glorify the material aesthetically,” explains Psyop lighting artist Helen Choi. “For The Presentation, we went for the golden-hour look, mimicking natural sunlight. The lighting setup was simple and efficient, with one spotlight for sunlight and two directional lights used as skylights.”

The team rendered using mental ray and final gather with an image-based lighting dome. Once the initial light rig was in place in the scene, they started test-rendering in low resolution thumbnails. “This not only saved us time, it also allowed us to see how the light and shadow affected the overall composition. If it didn’t look good in small thumbnails, we could be sure that it wasn’t going to look good in bigger resolution,” she says.


Project: Circus and The Presentation spots Client: The UPS Store
Agency: Doner
Studio: Psyop,
Software: Adobe After Effects, Autodesk 3DS Max, Autodesk Maya, Mental Images, Mental Ray, Side Effects Houdini