BRITISH TELECOM “NETWORKING”
The Syndicate brought all of its visual effects acumen to bear on "BT-ICT Networking," a 60-second spot for BT, the British telecom giant, from St. Luke's, London. H.S.I.'s Joseph Kahn, working through London-based production company Exposure Films, directed the commercial, which is a metaphor for the agility of BT-networked businesses.
One component in a £26 million advertising campaign, the spot is "part of an enormous BT branding effort," notes Kenny Solomon, executive producer at The Syndicate. "St. Luke's selected Joseph (Kahn) for his visual effects expertise and storytelling ability across a range of media –features, music videos and commercials– and we've been involved with him on all levels. With our two divisions, The Syndicate in Santa Monica, and CafeFX, in Santa Maria, we had the experience and firepower to take on a project of this magnitude. Any one of the various effects we undertook -–creating CG people, building a completely CG city, crafting CG animals– was enough for a separate commercial."
Creating a Road Map
While TS's complex vfx play a pivotal role in "BT-ICT Networking," the creative collaboration between the studio and Joseph Kahn provide a playful touch to the vignettes which unfolds in BT's aerial data stream. By focusing on the performances of actors and their digital counterparts, TS and Kahn went far beyond simply choreographing a series of digital acrobats.
The spot marks the fourth time that TS digital effects supervisor and CG supervisor David Lombardi has teamed with Kahn. Most recently TS created vfx for "Torque," the high-octane motorcycle action feature that Kahn directed earlier this year. The commercial also reunites TS with vfx supervisor Eric Durst who previously worked with the company on Jet Li's "The One" and on the George Michael music video "Freeek", which Kahn helmed.
The BT spot represents five months effort by The Syndicate. "It has almost everything one could possibly throw into a commercial," notes Lombardi. "The entire piece is a ballet that pulls the eye along, constantly revealing something new."
The project began with Kahn providing some framing stills in storyboard form from which TS built an animatic. Then TS crafted a CG animatic, animating rudimentary, blocky-shaped acrobats and timing their moves. This CG animatic served as reference for the entire project.
"We spent about five weeks previsualizing the spot because we couldn't wing the shoot. It was way too complicated," notes Lombardi.
"The CG animatic was our road-map," says Solomon. "It was painstakingly precise and helped us select camera lenses, focal distances, layout. In retrospect, we stayed pretty true to the animatic; David and editor David Blackburn were able to drop finished work right into it." Solomon credits St. Luke's with "having the foresight to give us the time to make the animatic and trusting us that it would indeed serve as a road-map."
Is It Greenscreen Or Is It CG?
Trust also came into play during the greenscreen and CG processes. "Since so much of the spot involved greenscreen, the agency had to have faith in the director and he in us," Solomon continues. "Joseph has a long history with The Syndicate, and he was involved in this spot from the get-go. Yet he had to have tremendous faith that we'd create, render and composite based on his vision, because he didn't see finished shots until a month before delivery."
Kahn and Lombardi spent two weeks in Vancouver on a greenscreen set to capture as many live-action performances as possible, then supplemented real acrobats with digital characters only when the tricks were impossible to otherwise pull off. Kahn shot performers doing somersaults and flips on wires and on a tumbling floor and lensed actors with props like desks and tables. But he decided against motion control because he wanted the freedom of movement that a motion-control rig could not furnish.
Many scenes transition seamlessly from live-action characters to a CG characters, and back again. For example, the businessman plunging out the window to catch the flying fish, began as a live performer shot on greenscreen. The tumble was enacted by a CG character but when he landed in the chair at the conference table he again became the live actor. "The CG character had to be hand animated to blend in with the greenscreen performance," Lombardi points out. "Two people at the table begin as real actors but when we lose sight of their faces as their chairs flip, they become CG characters so we could control their movements."
The two businessmen trading Euros and gold were on wire rigs manipulated by grips so they could catapult over the guards who were standing on elevated greenscreen platforms traveling on a track. The camera recording the action was suspended on a rail. "It was tricky because the shot was two-and-a-half to three seconds and all the actions were timed," says Lombardi. "With the grips we were able to achieve live flips for the entire length of the shot."
Lombardi had hoped to use live-action footage of the businesswoman hand-springing from the file cabinets but in "hitting her marks on the tumbling floor we found she didn't cover enough ground," he reports. "We needed her to jump a greater distance than possible in a real tumbling run so she became a CG character. We transition back to her live as she lands in the chair for the doctor's consultation."
Thirteen primary actors were cyber-scanned for digital conversions. "They were in the foreground so they needed to be more detailed than other digital characters," Lombardi explains.
The forklift driver was shot greenscreen rotating on a lazy-susan in an open chair with a wheel and controls that simulated the CG truck he would be composited into later. The architect at his desk, the businessmen at the sushi bar, and the sushi chef were also live actors.
Going Fully CG
However, much of the spot was completely CG. The motorcycle messenger and his bike were entirely 3D modeled and animated, with the motorcycle a specific match to those used by English EMTs. "The motorcycle vignette lent itself nicely to the work we had done for Joseph on 'Torque,'" notes Lombardi.
The pair of houses based on the architect's model are fully CG constructions. "Each has a different look," says Lombardi. "One is a country cottage, the other clean and modern. Modeling supervisor Luke McDonald had fun assembling the houses which included 1,000-plus objects in each, including individual shingles."
The CG stampeding cattle also took advantage of TS's motion-picture experience creating 3D animals: the company had created the fantastic hybrid animals for the menagerie in "Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams."
The cargo ship is fully-3D and the captain is a CG character as well. The captain began as an actor on the greenscreen stage, but to get the depth of field and fast pull back required in the move from close-up on the captain's binoculars to a hundred yards away, a CG character and virtual camera were the only solutions. "We took photographic references, built the CG character and did elaborate texture mapping from the practical photography for complete control in moving in and out on the captain," Lombardi says.
Most high profile of all, however, is the CG city where the vignettes unfold. "Every CG modeler always enjoys working on cities. You often see cities but they don't always look as nice as you'd like. With this spot we had a project where we could work on a CG city at a very high quality level," says Lombardi.
Since the metropolis was to represent an international city and not be identified with any one area, a TS team photographed locales in Vancouver, Los Angeles, London, Ghent and New York, then the client selected buildings to comprise the CG metropolis. "We went back and shot more photographs for texture and model references for the animators as they created each building," Lombardi explains. TS's expertise with photogrametry came into play as the city took shape; the company had used the technique to much acclaim in the opening titles for "Panic Room." The finished CG city has an extraordinary amount of detail, including towels draped over the balconies of one building.
"When we built the city we weren't sure if the camera would move in closer to certain locations, so we made an effort to make sure that every block and building had low-rez and hi-rez versions so they'd hold up close to the camera," Lombardi points out.
TS sliced the CG city into foreground, mid-ground and background layers, which were rendered separately and given different lighting atmospheres, including a golden hour, in compositing.
"The finished CG city was one cohesive piece that showed off everyone's skills," Lombardi observes.
Tools and Techniques
TS marshaled its talent pool and extensive hardware and software inventory in Santa Monica and Santa Maria for the BT spot. Newtek's Lightwave 3D was used to model and animate the city and various objects while Alias/Wavefront's Maya was the software of choice for character animation. Compositing was done in Digital Fusion and Discreet Flame.
"What was different with this project was the extent of the motion tracking and camera matching into moves where the virtual blends into live action," Lombardi notes. "These kind of transitions are becoming more common in CG, and we have a lot of experience with them."
TS possessed the considerable firepower required for the lengthy rendering process. At times, 30 artists worked nearly around the clock to make the deadline.
At TS Jeremy Sawyer performed the spot's film-to-HD transfer with colorist Beau Leon performing the final color correction.
The five-month project required great organizational and logistical skills as well. "We knew we needed to adapt a feature-film pipeline," says Lombardi, "and our infrastructure is accustomed to that process. We had teams working simultaneously in Santa Monica and Santa Maria on different aspects of shots. We had the management structure to monitor things and help them move along properly."
The truly global aspect of the job found TS tapping its Cafe Sync networking software to link the main players. "We posted updates of work in progress to the Web for our Tuesday morning dailies meetings," recalls Solomon. "And, with our Cafe Sync software, the spot's art director in Australia, the agency in London, our offices in Santa Monica and Santa Maria, Joseph at home in the Hollywood Hills, Eric (Durst) on location for a movie, and people at the greenscreen stage in Vancouver could all participate. They could start and stop the spot and draw on a frame in real-time. It was a very interactive process."
Solomon emphasizes "it took a tremendous organizational effort, a real team approach and the strength of our two divisions to be able to successfully complete the BT spot. David Lombardi and his team were phenomenal. They gave their hearts and souls to this project.
"St. Luke's and BT were ecstatic with the results," he adds. "It was very flattering for the agency to have selected The Syndicate for this spot since they have great effects studios in their own backyard in London."
Credit Information: BT
Project Type: Commercial
Project Title: British Telecom, "BT-ICT Networking"
Release/Air Date: September 2, 2004
Production Company/Studio: Exposure Films
Director: Joseph Kahn
Executive Producer: Natasha Wellesley
Producer: Paige Seidel
DP: Brad Rushing
Head of Production: Ohna Falby
Production Effects Supervisor (On set): Eric Durst
VFX & Telecine Facility: The Syndicate
Executive Producer: Kenny Solomon
Digital Effects Producer: Richard Mann
Digital Effects Supervisor: David Lombardi
Modeling Supervisor: Luke McDonald
Character Animation Supervisor: Domenic Di Giorgio
Animators: David Lombardi, Luke McDonald, Domenic Di Giorgio, Brett Paton, Minory Sasaki, William Ashe, Brian Fisher, Mark Kochinski, Troy Slough, Shannon Wegner, Paul Griffin
Modeling and Texturing: Greg Jonkajtys, Josh McGuire, Jan Ebo, Frank De Wulf, The Grid, Brandon MacDougall, Trevor Harder, Nic Spier
Compositors: Kevin Prendiville, Brian Fisher, Minory Sasaki, Christine Goldby, Danny Braet
Flame Effects/Artist: Kevin Prendiville, Christine Goldby
Roto: Joaquin Pecheur, David Hochstadter
Flame Assistants: Lee Robinson, David Hochstadter
High Resolution Plate Photography: Scott de Freitas-Draper
Chief Engineer: Albert Soto
IT Support/Data Management: Lu Kondor
Film to Tape Transfer: The Syndicate
Colorist: Beau Leon
HD Transfer: Jeremy Sawyer
Editorial Services Co.: Avenue Edit, Santa Monica
Editor: David Blackburn
Producer: Michael Schreibman
Ad Agency: St. Luke's/London
Executive Creative Director: Al Young
Art Director: Nick Darkin
Copywriter: Scott Leonard
Producer: Jo Charlesworth
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