Zoic Brings Photo-real CG to Broadcast TV with ESPN NASCAR “Dominoes”

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 2/2/2010.

ESPN NASCAR "Dominoes" spot

To the opening riffs of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” two NASCAR drivers jostle for position at the front of the pack. One cuts off the other by the wall, and the rear car speeds up, smashing into the front car. As the front car drifts from the wall, the rear car makes its move, attempting an aggressive pass on the right. But it’s no good – he sideswipes the front car and spins out. He’s slammed by another car and flips high into the air, triggering a massive pile-up. And straight through the smoke and chaos of the pileup – a third driver makes his move and takes the lead. “It’s anybody’s race.”

The 30-second spot for ESPN (see it here), promoting the NASCAR Nationwide series, was created by advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy New York and Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios. The commercial is significant because, despite its unique and stylized black-and-white look, it appears to have been shot in live action. In fact, it’s entirely CG.

Zoic co-founder Loni Peristere, who directed the spot, talks about why the commercial was created digitally, and how Zoic was able to create the illusion of perfect realism.

“The question from Wieden+Kennedy was, ‘we have a project, two scripts, which take place on the track, and would require significant action and stunt work. We’re trying to decide whether we should approach this from a live-action standpoint; or should we approach this from an animation standpoint.”

Wieden+Kennedy insisted the final product be photo-realistic; the agency did not want a commercial that looked like a video game.

But Wieden+Kennedy was insistent that the final product must appear perfectly photo-realistic. Peristere says the agency did not want a commercial that looked like a video game. “It was really important to them that it had the energy, grit and testosterone of the track. They were not interested in making a spot that didn’t have the reality of NASCAR.”

The agency was well aware how far CG realism has recently progressed. “Even in the last 12 months it has come a long way,” Peristere says. “With the advent of motion pictures like Avatar or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, we are seeing the potential for photo-real characters, photo-real environments, and photo-real action. But could we actually achieve that for a commercial, and could we afford it? What would the timeline be?

“We got boards for both spots, and it became readily apparent why they were even asking this question – they had a 40-car pileup in the middle of the first spot, and a pretty significant crash in the second. Now when you looked at the second spot, you thought ‘well, from a production standpoint you could probably pull that off’; in fact we’d done something similar for Budweiser the year before. But the 40-car pileup featured just an enormous amount of damage to an enormous number of vehicles, which from a production standpoint would be very expensive.

“And the ability to control the lighting and the camera and the art direction would be limited in a live action production. You would be fighting against the sun, making you rush through the shots, allowing you limited control over your color palette. And you would have the expense of wrecking an enormous number of vehicles.”

Peristere discussed the project with other principals at Zoic – fellow co-founder Chris Jones, commercial creative director Leslie Ekker, commercial executive producer Erik Press, and CG supervisor Andy Wilkoff. “We thought it would be fun to rise to the challenge,” Peristere says. “We knew the team we had been building over the last several years had the potential to do incredible photo-realistic work. We’d seen large leaps in the realm of photo-real characters. We came back to Wieden+Kennedy and said ‘yes, yes we can.’”

ESPN NASCAR "Dominoes" spot

Deciding to do the spot in CG led to the first question – should the drivers’ faces be represented in the spot? Human characters are the most difficult thing to create realistically in CG. “From a directorial standpoint,” Peristere says, “I felt it was absolutely essential to see the drivers, to understand who they were, and to know what their motivations were so we had a personal connection to the race. I had the ever-present voice of [Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly series creator] Joss Whedon in my head, who says ‘it’s all about the story; it’s all about the people.’

“We enlisted the help of some incredibly talented artists, including Brad Hayes, Brian White, and Michael Cliett.” Hayes and White had worked at Digital Domain on Benjamin Button and more recently on Tron Legacy, and had been a part of the development of a character-based VFX pipeline.

The technique used for “Dominoes” involved projecting the actual NASCAR drivers’ faces onto CG characters, allowing Peristere complete control over movement and lighting while still getting full, photo-realistic facial performances.

“Andy [Wilkoff] and I went to the very last race at Daytona, and after race day we met with the eight stars of our two commercials. We ran them though some technical setups, which involved a three-camera shoot against a greenscreen. I directed them through a series of emotions and actions that related to the story we were telling. We then took those performances back to Zoic, made editorial selects based on those performances, and gave them to Brad and Andy and the smart people to make something cool with.”

Dmitri Gueer, founder and senior editor of Zoic Editorial, was involved in the “Dominoes” spot from the pre-viz stage through the final product. He describes the editorial process as “non-stop,” and uses the facial performances as an example of Editorial’s involvement at each step.

“The pre-viz had the drivers, but we didn’t see their faces,” Gueer explains. “So the drivers were just a placeholder in the cut. When we later got the driver plates, we started picking the selects and placing them in the cut. Since the pre-viz already existed, you needed to find takes that worked for the placeholders.

“When you have the drivers’ faces mapped in the shots, it becomes apparent when we need to give them a little bit more time, or take a little time from them, because something’s not working out; and once you have a set of almost-final shots, the edit takes on a different spin. You need to pick the sweetest spots in the shots; you need to reestablish the pacing; you need to make sure there’s continuity from shot to shot; and that the edit comes together not just as a story, but also that it gels with the music and is captivating to watch.”

“We had the added complexity of a 40-car pileup,” Peristere says, “which involved extensive damage to CG vehicles, but which had to happen organically. That was hand-developed and designed by Brian White, another Digital Domain veteran with an intimate knowledge of physics and kinetics, who was able to use both animation-by-hand and procedural techniques to bring these cars into collision. You’ll see that every vehicle reacts and behaves just as a real car would as it impacts. When we have our big moment where we t-bone the hero car, you actually see it break where it should break, and that’s because Brian White made it so.”

I was looking to invoke the German Expressionist period, so I wanted these incredibly long shadows, with crushed blacks.

The spot also required an enormous smoke simulation. “Whenever these cars spin they generate tons of smoke. We worked closely with Zoic Vancouver, and a number of technical directors up in that office who specialize in smoke; they did the phenomenal nuclear explosion scene in the forthcoming movie The Crazies, for which they developed a lot of the pipeline for this — which involves Maya fluid dynamics, along with some techniques in RF4 Real Flow — so they could generate authentic smoke elements that gave the illusion and sense of a full-scale car accident on a NASCAR track.

nascardominoes3_630x354

“Kevin Struckman, Mike Rhone, and Trevor Adams all put in an incredible number of hours to make these smoke simulations incredibly spectacular, concluding with the hero car penetrating the giant smoke cloud, creating those beautiful little vortices that you see. That’s something that’s pretty tricky in a fluid simulation, and they were able to do a really nice job with that.”

In order for the spot to come together organically, there was an immense amount of compositing. “We brought in real smoke, spark, and pyro elements to underline the CG elements. Also, every single one of the 27 shots in this 30-second spot had upwards of hundreds of passes– lighting, reflections, highlights, lens flares, vignettes, grain – all of this stuff that had to be added as a secondary layer.”

The spot was rendered in full color, but the end product was always intended to be in a highly-stylized black-and-white. “That was a choice we made with Wieden+Kennedy, to create a style, a more graphic look. For me it was heading towards the films Alfred Hitchcock made in the 40s and 50s, and looking back even further to F.W. Murnau and Sunrise, and Fritz Lang and Metropolis. I was looking to invoke the German Expressionist period, so I wanted these incredibly long shadows, with crushed blacks. You’ll see a low sun – I call that the Ridley Scott sun, because Ridley Scott shoots at the magic hour all the time, and we wanted to put that in every shot. You’ll see these incredibly long film-noir shadows with bright brights, and black blacks.

nascarconcept_630x354

“Then we wanted to include the branding of Nationwide; so we applied the Nationwide presence as a design element. We had an illustrator, Eytan Zana, who did a phenomenal job setting the tone and palette.” Zana worked with Wieden+Kennedy, and with Derich Wittliff and Darrin Isono of Zoic’s design department, applying the Nationwide Pantone color to the stickers, the cars, and the track.

Peristere says, “I think overall, this black, white and blue we put together in the compositing really lends an original look to this spot that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

Zoic VFX supervisor Steve Meyer handled the final finish, color grading and color treatment. “We wanted to have sort of a Raging Bull kind of look, high contrast black-and-white. So the compositors left things a little bit more on the flat side to give range; and then I took that, got the style Loni [Peristere] was looking for, and added some of those little nuances like the road rumble, the extra shake when something flies by camera, that kind of overall stuff.

“It’s a stylized look that you could attribute to real photography. I’ve been in the business for a bit, and it blows me away when I see it. Wow, that’s frickin’ all CG? It’s a very impressive spot. I was glad to be a part of it, because I think it’s going to have some legs.”

In the end, it was up to editor Gueer to assemble the finished shots into the final product. “It was a non-stop editorial process, from the beginning when Loni was assembling the story, to the time when we had all the final shots on the Flame. One of the things Steve [Meyer] did was add camera shakes to the shots, which made them look much better; but it changes the nature of what you’re seeing, even the slightest shake. You go well, wouldn’t it be better if we cut a few frames from this, or extended it by a few frames? When we had the final shots on the Flame, we literally did editorial on the Flame, making it better and better and tighter and tighter.”

“With this giant team of 40 some-odd people who worked on this spot, it’s certainly one of Zoic’s finest hours,” Peristere says, “and we’re incredibly proud to have put it together.”

People look at this spot and say “where did you guys shoot this?” Well, we didn’t shoot it!

Press is thankful to Wieden+Kennedy for trusting Zoic with the production of such an innovative and risk-taking spot. “They had faith in us and patience with us, and that was really great, because it really took that to produce this spot. It was a great experience on both sides. They gave us a lot of creative freedom, to really bring out the best in us. We pushed ourselves really hard to the level of realism and level of detail.

“I mean this kind of work, this animation, the quality level, is something very new for broadcast,” he says. “The extent to which we have gone to produce this spot in a visual style, in CG animation, has really never been done before. It’s a full 100% photo-real CG spot.

“NASCAR is very concerned about representing their world accurately, which was a big challenge for all of us, both from an agency side and a production side. Down to the decals on the cars, and the physics of the accidents, what would really get damaged and what wouldn’t, where would skid marks be made on the track… So people look at this spot and say ‘where did you guys shoot this?’ Well, we didn’t shoot it!

“The music was Metallica – my understanding is they’ve never licensed their music for broadcast commercials before. That was exciting from the get go — definitely a driving force creatively, no pun intended, the kind of energy that brings to the spot.”

Press says the spot has exceeded everyone’s expectations. “We’ve seen that response all the way around, from the agency, from our colleagues in the advertising world, and from ourselves as well – it’s really some of our best work. We’ve really set the bar anew; there’s a new target for us now, which is fantastic.”

More info: ESPN NASCAR “Dominoes” on Zoic Studios; Wieden+Kennedy.

Why Are Firefly/Serenity Fans So Devoted… Even After All These Years?

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 12/1/09.

A model of Serenity.

Last month, the Los Angeles Airport Marriott hosted Creation Entertainment’s Salute to Firefly & Serenity, a small but well-attended fan convention featuring appearances by series actors Jewel Staite, Adam Baldwin, and Morena Baccarin & Alan Tudyk, both also from ABC’s V.

Of course Firefly is the science-fiction dramatic series broadcast on the Fox Network in 2002-2003, created by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel fame. Canceled after only 11 episodes aired, the show has since engendered a major Hollywood motion picture (2005’s Serenity), a novel, a role-playing game, two comics series, soundtracks, a slew of merchandise & collectibles, and countless hand-knitted orange “cunning hats.”

I stopped by to get an idea of what’s going on with Firefly flans*, and to find out the answer to the question, Why are people still so devoted to a show that had only 14 episodes (and a movie), after nearly a decade?

Here are some answers from convention-goers, from commenters on fireflyfans.net, and from Zoic Studios co-founder Loni Peristere.

The Browncoats, a Firefly-themed band.
The Browncoats, a Firefly-themed band from St. Louis, Missouri.

Some credited the show’s realism, like Co-Pilot Gary Miller of The Browncoats, a Firefly-themed band from St. Louis. “[It’s] because Firefly feels so real. It’s a sci-fi show without aliens. It’s about real people and real-life types of situations — in the future. Not to mention the dialogue, the acting, and the story are all brilliant.”

For me, it was all about the writing. The dialogue, and the way the characters were developed through dialogue, were just brilliant. I especially loved the dialogue for River Tam (Summer Glau of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), the ship’s ultra-violent fugitive waif — she rarely spoke, but when she did, it was always a bizarre window into her disordered mind. And usually either disturbing or hilarious.

On fireflyfans.net, hughff says: “I agree that the writing is the key. Too frequently today, television and especially film concentrate on the visual image. However, great films/shows recognize that it’s a synthesis of both visual images and dialogue.

“There was never any doubt from the very start that Firefly had the dialogue right. More than what it told us about the characters per se, I liked what it showed about their interrelationships. The verbal exchanges between Mal and Inara; the way Jayne treated Kaylee like a little sister, the way that Mal’s trust and respect for Simon grew incrementally — these were important to the flavor of the show.

“The show didn’t avoid complexity — these were real people living in a messy (i.e. real) world (alright, worlds) and as such, things were never simple.

“Finally, and Zoic can take more than a little credit for this, the show did have some great visual images: the Reaver ship sliding past in absolute silence; Crow disappearing through the air intake; Serenity rising up the cliff after the bar fight. The off-center and shaky ‘hand held’ camera work, even in the CGI, began a trend that has become everyday (Bourne Ultimatum, Battlestar Galactica) but broke new ground for me. When I first saw the first episode I thought, ‘How could they be so amateur?’ But by the end I was hooked into the vision and never let it go.”

Firefly-themed collectibles on sale in the dealer’s room.
Firefly-themed collectibles on sale in the dealer’s room.

One of the most interesting answers came from Dwight Bragdon, Board Member of the California Browncoats, a San Diego-based non-profit that promotes Firefly and Serenity fandom through charity. Since 2007 they have raised over $100,000 for charities like Equality Now and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “We are still in love with Firefly ten years later because of the type of people the show attracts. We’re smart, funny and caring, and we took our energy and enthusiasm for the ‘Verse and turned it into a community of giving….

“We can also see how much the cast and crew cared about the ‘Verse too… They lead by example too with their charity. [Actor] Nathan [Fillion] co-founded Kids Need to Read with author P.J. Haarsma; [actor] Adam Baldwin shows great support to the Marine Corps – Law Enforcement Foundation; Joss [Whedon] is a great supporter of Equality Now; and the list goes on.

“These guys and girls are people that I am proud to call friends, proud to call family and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”

For Beth Nelson, Chairman of the Austin Browncoats, another charitable non-profit based in Texas, the message of Firefly is hope. “People want to root for the underdog, because for many of us, we’re the underdogs right now. Firefly gives us that hope and inspiration. Firefly and Serenity tell the story of people who might have been forgotten, left behind, taken for granted — but if they work together, they can accomplish anything…

“So much of it has to do with how well the characters were developed and how sincere and believable the dialogue was – which is something Joss is known for… We’re all flawed; we can all identify with characters who… sometimes pick the wrong path, even with the best intentions.

“In the end, though, I think we all love what Firefly has become. Firefly went from being this amazing space western to so much more. Outside of the ‘Verse itself, the fans have become a family, a movement that got together to do more than just love a television show or a movie. Numerous fans are working towards charitable goals – ending violence and discrimination or making sure every kid has the wealth of knowledge literature can bring them.”

The dealer’s room.
The dealer’s room.

Loni Peristere was directly involved in the production of Firefly and Serenity, as visual effects supervisor. He created the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity, along with Whedon and production designer Carey Meyer. “When Joss first told me about the new show,” Peristere said, “he told me to read The Killer Angels,” the 1974 historical novel by Michael Shaara, which tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg from the Confederate perspective. The novel inspired Whedon to create Firefly.

Firefly is about not fitting in, about finding a place for yourself in a world where you don’t fit, finding a family and making a living,” Peristere explained. “There are very few shows out there where the stars are outcasts, who join together as a family, which as Joss says is what ‘makes them mighty.’ None of the characters fit in – Nathan is a Browncoat [stand-in for Confederate]; Morena [Baccarin’s character] is a whore; there’s the fugitive; the tomboy; the interracial couple; the weary shepherd; the mercenary who’s incapable of doing anything else. They would all be loners, if they didn’t band together.

“How Zoic was part of that, is we made the viewer a ‘welcome voyeur.’ The camera followed the emotional beats. By using a handheld camera on-set and a ‘handheld’ camera effect for the CG exteriors, we put the viewer in the emotional center of the story. The viewer is a voyeuristic participant – another outcast, a part of the crew.”

Peristere also feels a special kinship with the Firefly cast and crew. “We knew it was important. We fell in love with it because it was a great story to tell. The show was made by creative people we loved and respected for their bravery, because they embraced the outcast. All the creative people I respect the most come from the cast and crew of Firefly. It was a moment that’s impossible to recapture.”

One last reason the flans and Browncoats stay devoted – because Firefly died too soon. From Jaydepps on fireflyfans.net: “Another reason it is still relevant is because of how abruptly it was cut [off], and it never received closure. We’ve been thirsting for more. A good TV series goes for a decent amount of seasons until the story is filled in, mostly. Then the series leaves TV… Firefly was never given the chance to do this.”

More info: Creation Entertainment; the discussion on fireflyfans.net; The Browncoats website and on MySpace; California Browncoats; Austin Browncoats.

If you want to know why they call us “flans,” just read this aloud: “Firefly fan.”

My Halloween Serenity O’ Lantern [UPDATE]

I have learned today that having the audacity to wear a Firefly costume to work at Zoic Studios for Halloween will get you little but eye-rolls. (It’s the same costume I wore in 2006.)

But my first attempt at a Serenity O’ Lantern has received rave reviews.


My Serenity O’ Lantern in the “living room” at Zoic, with a slightly more accurate model in the background.


And a shot with the lights on.


And.. the original.

UPDATE


Me as Jayne Cobb, with the Serenity O’ Lantern .


And me as Jayne Cobb, posing in an actual door from the set of the film Serenity.