Halex GT, Holistic Marketing and the Future of Advertising

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 1/26/2010.

Halex GT robots in a cornfield

In the midst of a vast Midwestern corn field, a friendly yellow industrial robot is on the hunt. Searching between rows of tall, green stalks of healthy corn, the robot discovers its prey, a single weed — tiny and innocent, but if it spreads the entire crop is in danger. The robot strikes, ripping the offending plant from the ground with its steel fingers. The corn is safe once again.

There aren’t really industrial robots prowling the cornfields of America. This is a 30-second commercial spot for Halex GT, a weed-control herbicide produced for corn farmers by Switzerland’s Syngenta AG. The number of businesses that might use Halex is relatively small, compared to most commercial brands – but it’s a lucrative product, and Minneapolis-based creative agency Martin|Williams was tasked with reaching those consumers through a television spot and Internet advertising.

Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios created the spot, directed by co-founder Loni Peristere. But there’s more to the story. Zoic was able to use the original assets it created for the broadcast commercial to create web ads and interactive landing page components, providing the client with Internet content that was much higher in quality than that usually created for online, and at a considerable cost savings.

Zoic commercial creative director Leslie Ekker explains that from the outset the studio pitched the idea of a holistic approach: including the creation of interactive assets as part of the broadcast VFX pipeline. “It’s more and more the case lately when we’re doing commercials, we ask during the bidding, ‘are you interested in an online dimension to this work?’ And the word gets around the agency, and they realize, yes, we need to get these resources from the spot; we can build on this work, and expand on it without very much extra effort and expenditure.”

Creating the Commercial Spot

The Halex commercial (see it here) came to Zoic on a short schedule and with a tight budget. “This job was awarded on a Wednesday,” Ekker says, “and we shot the following Monday, in Florida — after the production company found a location; the agency determined which robot they wanted to use; we sourced and acquired a robotic end effector; designed and machined the actual fingers; and worked out a way to puppeteer it live on-screen for the shoot. All of this in a very few days.

“In fact, regarding the end effector, we acquired the machine Sunday morning, and over breakfast I designed the fingers. During the day I supervised the machining of the fingers at a custom machine shop, while simultaneously running out with the live-action producer and getting a compressor and the air hardware, tools and supplies necessary to create all the physical effects. By 8:30 that evening we had a set of fingers for the machine, fully motivated and ready to go in the morning.

“It’s seldom that we do things with practical effects, but because of my background – I was a model maker for 20 years — it was not very challenging. The schedule is what was challenging. And that end effector is now being used in trade shows by the client, attached to an actual robot, performing weed-pulling demonstrations, live at their promotional booth at agricultural shows.”

The robot was this character, an iconic image they wanted to carry through all of the Halex branding.

Despite the fantasy aspect of the commercial, the spot required a high degree of technical accuracy, as far as the depiction of the product. “We learned a lot about farming on this job,” Ekker says. “The reason we went to Florida was we needed to show a certain height of corn, because this chemical is used on plants of a certain age. Also the fields there are very neat, very clean.”

The commercial had to be very accurate in its depiction of the cornfield, the plants themselves and how they grew, because the farmers to whom the spot was targeted would notice any inaccuracies. “Apart from those limitations,” Ekker says, “the client was wide open to creative suggestions. In fact Loni [Peristere], the director, had pretty much free reign with the storytelling.”

The practical effects in the spot are the end-effector and several attached hoses, and the actual weed that is grabbed by the end-effector. Ekker acted as puppeteer for the practical effect, operating the end-effector from the end of a pipe with counterweights attached to a pulley. “They changed the species of weed after we shot it,” Ekker admits, “but it passes well enough.” Everything else in the spot – the yellow robots, the cornfield, the weed as it grows — is CG.

One of the creative challenges involved digitally reproducing a time-lapse effect, showing the CG corn moving in the breeze as the weather changed and the sun moved through the sky. “We developed some very effective ways to show the translucency of leaves,” Ekker explains, “since we’re seeing them primarily back-lit; and to show the kind of animation that people expect to see from time-lapse plant growth — that kind of nervous, random weaving action.

“The background plate was supposed to be time-lapse, but it was at a very specific angle. Rather than dedicate a digital video camera to this one shot all day, I took our digital still camera, with an intervalometer, and set it up in a 5-gallon bucket buried in a corn field adjacent to where we were shooting. I lined up a shot with a very wide-angle lens pointed up at the sky at an angle.

“I framed it in such a way that we could take those high-resolution frames, and move another frame inside of it with some added distortion to give it the look of a camera pan-and-tilt, so that we could have a feeling of craning down and tilting up as this weed grows in the foreground. The move was created in that larger plate, adding a certain amount of keystoning for lens distortion, and it felt very much like a 3D camera move in time lapse, which would have to be motion-controlled in a normal situation. Luckily, because it was such a macro shot, we could do it with a single frame and a single camera position.

“That proved to be quite successful; we got several hours of time-lapse out of the way, with very low impact on the production. I would just go out and occasionally monitor the camera, change the battery, and make sure everything was okay.”

The practical end effector designed by Les Ekker.The practical end effector designed by Les Ekker.

Creating the Interactive Experience

While Ekker and his team were shooting the spot, and designing and rendering the CG, Zoic Creative Director – Digital Strategy Jeff Suhy and his group coordinated the web banner and landing page campaigns in support of the Halex marketing campaign.

“Martin|Williams came to us to build on the development of the 30-second spot,” Suhy explains, “which involved creation of the online assets. We worked in partnership with Martin|Williams in creating some particularly interesting banners, and modeled the robot for those banners; and we created the landing page, an educational experience which conveyed the attributes of the Halex herbicide, how it’s beneficial and its advantages over the competitors.

“The robot was this character, an iconic image they wanted to carry through all of the Halex branding. We animated the robot doing various things — pulling weeds, knocking a tractor off the screen, and other things.

We’re not just envisioning effects… we’re talking about designing the architecture of a fully integrative experience.

“The pipeline here is at Zoic pretty good for this sort of thing, so there weren’t any real technical issues. Les [Ekker] and his team designed the actions, and we on the interactive side designed the experiential elements around that, and how they interacted with the navigation. It’s a pretty seamless experience and I think it worked out pretty well for the client.

“It was cost effective, because we already had the assets; we already had 90% of the heavy lifting done, to get those assets ready for the web.”

Ekker was impressed with the final products produced by Zoic’s interactive team. “We did these little mini-cuts of the spot, in frames that were 75×300 pixels, tall narrow slices of the image. We would just use the essential shots to tell the broad story, and do some close moves within those frames on the greater-sized hi-def shot frame; and we wound up with some very artistic, very effective little story moments that require very narrow bandwidth, so they’re easy to stream online. It proved to be a really clean, elegant way to reuse existing assets.

“We adapted those animations for the landing page, and created some very interesting little interactive demos, with mouse-overs, triggers and hold cycles at the end, so the robot wouldn’t just sit there idly. It would sort of look around and wait for what’s next. And we managed to get a lot of personality into the animation. It was a lot of fun. A very quick, very efficient project.”

Suhy says this kind of holistic marketing effort provides more than mere convenience for the client. “The techniques used to develop this character and to animate this asset would normally have been prohibitively expensive for such a niche marketing campaign. If it were not for the efficiencies of Zoic’s pipeline, this would be reserved only for large budget, big campaigns that could afford to invest the money.

“The real message here is that, even for something as niche as Halex, we can do something that’s really high-end CG.”

Holistic Marketing and the Future

Erik Press, Zoic executive producer, commercials, believes this kind of holistic marketing is the next step in the evolution of advertising. “It’s not just about broadcast anymore. Fewer and fewer eyes are remaining on what we all have known as standard broadcast television, and now they’re moving to the Internet, and that’s what the future is. Part of the conversation at the front of any job is, what are the plans for integrated content? Clients have been really warming to that.”

As Zoic has expanded from its roots as a VFX house, with its own editorial, design and interactive departments, it has been able to offer services that are more encompassing and can meet a wider variety of client needs. “I think people are waking up to the understanding, as we put out who we are at Zoic, that we are problem solvers and educators because of the depth of our resources. There’s a little spark going off in people minds now, and Halex was a great example. There was an ‘aha!’ moment for them, where they said ‘oh, you guys can do that?’

“We want to look at projects strategically. There’s a financial advantage to approaching projects at the outset, knowing the different kinds of media platforms we’ll be creating assets for. It’s a new paradigm in commercial production. We’re not just envisioning effects for a 30-second spot, it’s much bigger than that. We’re talking about designing the architecture of a fully integrative experience. That’s new advertising at its core – the experience.

“I think for us as a company, our goal is to be at the leading edge of that kind of creativity and technology. Zoic is poised so well to have a great comprehensive, strategic view of what it’s going to take to get there.”

More info: Syngenta Halex GT page; Martin|Williams web site.

Syd Dutton: Matte Painting from Traditional to Digital

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 12/4/09.

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It’s a cliché to call an artist “legendary,” but sometimes the word fits. Syd Dutton has been a leading matte painter for film and television for over three decades. His credits include Dune, The Running Man, Total Recall, the Addams Family films, Batman Forever, Star Trek: First Contact and Nemesis, U-571, The Fast and the Furious, The Time Machine, The Bourne Identity, and Serenity.

The Emmy-Award winner co-founded Illusion Arts in 1985, which created thousands of shots and matte paintings for over 200 feature films over 26 years. When Illusion Arts shut its doors earlier this year, Dutton and Zoic embraced the opportunity to collaborate, and Dutton became part of the team.

When I sat down to interview Dutton over coffee, it was with the intention of putting together some kind of grand post about the history of matte painting. But it’s far more interesting to let Syd speak for himself.

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When I looked over your credits, I saw you worked on one of my favorite movies, Real Genius (1985).

That’s one of my favorites too. We did a practical matte for the B-1 bomber. [Val Kilmer and Gabe Jarret sneak onto a B-1 bomber on a military base.] In those days it was still paint on glass, and to get a sharp line for what was supposed to be the underbelly of the bomber, it had to be really sharp. But we were shooting at night. In order to black out the film, to do an original negative – you know what original negative work is, we needed two exposures — to get a real sharp line the matte had to be 50 feet out and 40 feet long. We spent several hours making it, putting cardboard where the belly had to go, making sure people would be underneath that line all the time. It was pretty fun.

But that was the coldest night of my entire career. I’ve been to some cold places, like Prague, but on that Van Nuys tarmac, that was the coldest ever.

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You also worked on David Lynch’s original Dune (1984). Can you tell me about the matte painting of the Harkonnen city on Giedi Prime?

Basically this was just a big painting. The people who are moving around were shot in a parking lot at Estudios Churubusco in Mexico City. Just one smoke and fire element was used over and over again. And then a car on a cable goes through the shot. The car was created by model maker Lynn Ledgerwood (The Bourne Identity), and measured about 8″ long.

The difficult thing about that was my partner and Al wanted to keep [film] as much as possible from being duplicated… we wanted to keep the painting on original film. So [we were] shooting the painting and making a very crude motion control frame-by-frame move; taking the film into an optical printer, trying to match the move through the optical printer; and then we put the people in and the smoke and the cable car. So we had to do a lot of adjustments, and we found that it had to be so exact, if we waited to shoot in the afternoon, the concrete floor had expanded. We had to shoot at a certain time in the morning, before the expansion occurred. So it was complicated, but we seemed to have lots of time in those days, and it was a fun painting to work on.

David Lynch would come by when I was painting it, and he would say “I like it, I want it dirtier.” He was always a nice guy, really a gentleman.

In your experience, what is the difference between working with traditional mattes versus digital?

There was a wonderful thing about doing original negative matte shots. You had to prepare the shot, and then you had to be committed to a matte line.

You had a whole bunch of test footage, and when the painting was completed you had to re-expose the same film, and hope that light bulbs didn’t burn out when you were shooting, or that the glass didn’t break. But it had a completeness to it, and so when you finished a matte shot, and when it came out like the ones in Real Genius — I thought they came out pretty well — there’s a great sense of completeness.

You made a long matte, you worked out the problems, you’ve been cold, you’ve endured that process, and you’ve gone through the photochemical process of developing the pieces of film, and working the matte line until it has disappeared. And finally you take a deep a breath and expose the two or three good takes that the director likes. And you put the worst one through first to make sure everything is working well, show it to the director, and then put the hero take through. Of course nobody had seen any footage unless they were shooting a B-cam, which they never did; and so it was kind of like the Catholic Church, where the director had to trust you that in two months or so you would have a finished product they would approve and like.

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Did you ever experience any disasters in that realm?

The only near disaster was when Tony Perkins — we were the first shot up on Psycho III (1986), that he was directing, and he was a real nice guy — and the first shot was this girl leaving a nunnery, and there was a piece of string that she had to follow so she would be on the [right side of the matte line].

And we had everything ready, the camera blocked off, and Tony Perkins came on the set. He came over to the camera, he looked through the lens and said “that’s perfect,” and then put all his body weight on the camera to lift himself up. And we said “we can roll in a few seconds!” I didn’t want to say “oh, you just [expletive deleted] up the shot!” We said, “oh, we need just a few more minutes of adjustment.” So we lied – we had to reset the matte, readjust the camera. If we had told him he had just screwed up the first shot of his movie, it was really bad luck. But that’s another shot that turned out well, I liked that shot a lot.

I can’t remember who the production designer was, I think it was Henry Bumstead [it was]. Everyone should know who Henry Bumstead was. He just died a while ago; he worked until 90, and died when he was 91 [in 2006]. He was Clint Eastwood’s favorite production designer, and in his 80s he designed Unforgiven — beautiful production design. Henry always made everything easy. Of course he had worked on Vertigo (1958).

According to IMDb, your first movie was Family Plot with Alfred Hitchcock?

Well, that was uncredited. I was hired by Albert Whitlock to work on The Hindenburg (1975) as a gopher, primarily, but then I came up with some ideas of my own, and Al liked them; so after Hindenburg Al made me his assistant. And Family Plot was again Henry Bumstead. Al really didn’t want to do the matte shot because he felt that it was – Hitchcock just wanted to show [actress] Karen Black what a matte shot was. It was a police station in San Francisco, a pretty easy matte shot; adding a second story, putting some what I would call “intelligent nonsense” in the background. So I painted that.

You had a fine art background?

Yeah. I went to Berkeley. Had a master’s degree. Had a wonderful time. Everything I learned, except for a sense of color, was totally useless when it came to matte painting. But it was still good to have that background. The best thing about going to Berkeley in those days was everyone wanted to be in San Francisco in the ‘60s. So I met people like Mark Rothko, pretty famous painters.

So what was it like to transition to digital, to have to train?

Oh, for me it was really hard. Rob Stromberg (2012, Avatar) was working for me at the time, and he embraced it really fast. I was just sort of afraid of it. I got used to it – it took me a while.

The people I know who were able to make the transition faster were people who like to draw things out. Bob Scifo (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Abyss) for example is a wonderful matter painter. He has worked here for Zoic a couple of times. He came from the school where you drew everything out, and then painted it in. But he still got this incredible emotional result.

The way I learned to paint was the way Al Whitlock painted and Peter Ellenshaw (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Black Hole) painted — you just started painting. Sometimes you didn’t know what you were going to paint, exactly; you knew what the subject matter was going to be — it might be a castle — but you just push paint around, and you start seeing things materialize – oh! I can see it now – and you let it dry, and try to bring all of it out of the fog. And that was a wonderful way to paint.

And in Photoshop, at least in the beginning, I couldn’t paint that way. I couldn’t make a big mess – it just stayed a big mess, I couldn’t refine it. The only way I could discover things and make a big mess was with Corel Painter; you can blend colors together and have accidents happen. And then at that point I usually finish the work in Photoshop.

When painting matte backgrounds now, you’re painting a painting, but there’s also the approach where you’re creating a 3D environment and making a 2D image from that.

Yeah. And there’s also projection – projecting a 2D painting onto objects. That’s another way to get camera movement. There’s no such thing anymore as a locked-down shot — that’s what matte paintings used to be. You would do everything in the world to make sure the camera didn’t move. And now people consider it a locked-off shot if they just hold the camera steady.

In the early days, you got to go out on location, sometimes to some really adventurous environments – a rock in the middle of some bay in Mexico; on a hillside in Europe somewhere. It was very physical, so you had that physical part. That part is now gone. Now I have to exercise to stay in shape, rather than just work. It was kind of dangerous, really – I didn’t think about it at the time.

There are no circumstances where they want you to go out and see the original location?

Not anymore. The visual effects supervisor will go to the locations, take photographs. He becomes the point man for every other department.

Does that feel like less involvement on your part?

Well, that’s the trade-off. The trade-off is that we can do now what we used to dream about doing. Which was, wouldn’t it be great if we could paint a grand, futuristic city and loop through it? Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a huge crowd running towards us in that shot? Rotoscope in a thousand people or something?

Things that we used to dream about, we can do now, but the trade-off is we don’t get to be as involved in the production as we once were. I talked to [Zoic co-founder] Loni [Peristere] about that. I said I feel bad for some of the kids here, that they’ll never be on the stage. It’s fun to be on location. He said the trade-off was they have all the tools to make their own movies. So, everything has a trade-off.

More info: Syd Dutton on IMDb.