How Passion created Aleks the billionaire meerkat

Passion Pictures has recently unleashed Aleks, a charming but slightly scatty CG meerkat with a strong Russian accent and a fondness for smoking jackets, onto UK TV in the new ad campaign for car insurance comparison site, via agency VCCP.

In the ad, Aleks protests that a simple misunderstanding means that large number of visitors to his site are actually hunting for

The spot was directed by Passion director Darren Walsh, who directed the animation for last year's wildly successful BBC iPlayer April Fools ad, which saw penguins take flight. Digital Arts caught up with Walsh and visual-effects supervisor Neil Riley to find out about the making of the ad.

DA: What was the brief for the project?
DW: The brief was to create a commercial that could have been directed by Aleks himself. As a self-made billionaire (back in the 1970s, hence the fading grandeur) he has unlimited funds to create both a proud self-portrait and a somewhat frustrated message to the viewers - Please stay away from my site, this is the one you want!

We were asked to create a very realistic meerkat that spoke and behaved like a real person rather than a cartoon character. Likewise the setting should be very real and atmospheric. We also liked the idea of him appearing lonely and maybe a little forgotten.

The creatives at VCCP wanted a meerkat for a number of reasons most of which became clear when Darren Bailes (the creative director at VCCP) climbed up onto his chair in the first meeting to demonstrate. It's difficult to explain but when they stand up their is a mixture of searching and pleading.

The black marking on the eyes make him look forlorn. Aleks is frustrated with people swamping his site and the frenetic actions suggest he could snap at any moment. The standing thing also has a regal air to it which fits the aristocratic part of his character - as if he's sort of posing for a classic portrait.

DA: How did you translate this into the final piece?
DW: We spent a day shooting background plates at a really good location for Alex's mansion in south London. It was a slightly beaten-up, wood panelled drawing room which we filled with a collection of ostentatious furniture and props. The art director, Robyn Paiba, rustled up a few bespoke props including a meerkat coat of arms above the fireplace and some meerkat portraits to fill the walls. You'll also notice little foot stools everywhere for Alex to elevate himself on.

We lit and shot it to feel cold and dusty. We also beefed up the fireplace to give it that baronial feel. Olivier Cariou did a fantastic job of lighting the ad and giving it an almost painterly feel.

Simon Greenall provided the voice for Aleks. It was a real joy because he's really funny and kept putting his own Alex-isms into it. He would throw in strange squeaks and sniggers for fun and it just came together so well. We used the edited voice track as a playback during the shoot. It gave everyone a sense of Aleks and his world as we assembled shots.

DA: What software did you use and why?
NR: Softimage|XSI for the modelling and animation, and Nuke for compositing. Hardware-wise, backgrounds were shot on the new sony F35 digital camera from Take 2.

DA: How did you go about getting Aleks' movements realistic?
DW: We knew it would have to be a CG meerkat, so we spent a few days watching the BBC wildlife documentary series Meerkat Manor to get the shape movement down, then built our own 3D model. We adapted his features a little to fit the character and groomed him a little too.

We started the key animation as if he was just a normal Meerkat - sitting up, looking around, sniffing around. We then embellished the action with more human gestures and finally put the lip sync in. Again, we really didn't want to go too far with the phonetic mouth shapes because it would look too manipulated. Most of the dialogue is just a flapping mouth, it works really well.

DA: What was the biggest challenge you faced, and how did you overcome this?
NR: The main challenge was achieving a result we were proud of in a really short amount of time without sacrificing the animation or the rendering.

Other issues were: keeping the character “meerkat-ish” while giving him enough human characteristics to carry off the script. It was tough to get the right shoulder and arm animation right. We also had to decide on a scale that worked well within the environment.

Click here to watch the ad.

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