14 March 2016
For clients, CG is a powerful marketing tool that lives outside the laws of physics: if you think it – and have the money – it can be done. For creatives, it offers vastly increased flexibility, expensive shoots are no longer restricted by the weather or availability of physical prototypes, and far flung locations can be recreated from the luxury of the studio.
“We’re just finishing off a commercial for Dyson at the moment,” says Adam Jenns, founder of London-based creative production studio Mainframe. “The first shot is of a smoggy Beijing skyline and tracks through a window into the 30th floor of an apartment. There wasn’t the time or money to go and shoot in China, so we recreated the whole thing in CG and you’d be hard pressed to tell it’s not real.”
CG has never been more sophisticated or in demand than it is at the moment. Fifteen years ago, it was the preserve of top-budget commercial jobs coming out of a small handful of high-end post houses. Now it’s rare not to see a press or TV ad that doesn’t have some element of CG, from shapeshifting vehicles to anthropomorphic Russian meerkats. But while the creative opportunities are seemingly limitless, project deadlines aren’t. Shorter production cycles and higher client expectations are two of the biggest challenges facing studios today. You might have a team of CG artists who are proficient in the latest software, but if you can’t render your state-of-the-art imagery in the tight timescales allocated, you’ll lose the contract.
“Probably the biggest challenge we face is battling against schedules and budgets,” admits Adam Jenns. “High quality CG projects take big teams and a lot of expensive hardware and software, and some clients have become fairly demanding in their expectations as they see CG projects everywhere and assume the costs have greatly shrunk.” In some areas, of course, costs have shrunk. The cost of hardware, for example – the combination of processor, memory and storage – continues to decrease annually. But as CG adverts become increasingly complex, a host of factors, from higher-resolution images and higher frame rates to the continued march of new technology like stereoscopic 3D and 4K, continues to drive demand for faster workstations and rendering hardware.
Mainframe created a fleet of superbly crafted CG bees for Harrods
Keeping on top of technology is one of the hardest and most expensive elements for a production company to get right. And it’s becoming harder: tapeless workflows, cloud-based services and improved editing, grading, VFX and audio systems promise to vastly boost efficiency through increased flexibility and improved workflows. To keep up, studios need to reinvest in new technology. And it isn’t just about meeting deadlines or client expectations: the fewer production line bottlenecks there are, the more time there is for creative innovation. “At Mainframe we always have big ideas,” says Jenns.
“NVIDIA graphics cards have made a really big difference to the overall speed of our DaVinci Resolve grading suite” Adam Jenns, Mainframe
His studio counts Virgin, Giorgio Armani, Stella Artois and MTV amongst its clients, and refuses to compromise on creativity just because its computer technology isn’t fast enough to perform the level of design needed. The studio recently beefed up its grading suite with two NVIDIA graphics cards in an external PCI expansion chassis, enabling the team to drastically reduce rendering time.
“For money versus GPU power they’re unrivalled. They’ve made a really big difference to the overall speed of our DaVinci Resolve suite,” he reflects. “NVIDIA graphics cards are at the heart of everything that requires GPU power,” Jenns continues. “Constantly improving processor power makes our lives much easier, but the next big thing in CG is GPU rendering: rendering with your graphics card rather than [the CPU]. This is going to be a huge step forward for us in terms of getting renders out quickly. And anything that speeds up the time it takes to realise a project puts more time back into the hands of the artists.”
NVIDIA technology was critical to Mainframe’s latest commercial for luxury London department store Harrods: a striking spot featuring a fleet of intricately crafted CG bees. Following a run of successful projects for the upmarket establishment over recent years, the client approached the studio with a relatively open brief to write, direct and produce a commercial for its fine watch and jewellery rooms.
“The scope of the project was fairly wide, encompassing a cinema ad, stills for Harrods Magazine, and content for both its in-store screens and iPad app,” Jenns says. “We were given some examples of bees, beautifully crafted out of jewels and various watch parts. Our challenge was to create a simple narrative and stunning CG world for the bee to inhabit.” With a concept decided, Mainframe began by creating style boards to sell the look and feel to Harrods.
“We then went through the process of old-fashioned storyboarding and, once this was signed off, started working on an animatic to block out the action,” he explains. Having been given the green light on action and timings, the team launched into modelling and rigging, and after a couple of weeks started the animation process, which took approximately a month to complete. After that came lighting, rendering and compositing, followed by the final colour grade.
“The biggest challenge, creatively, was to create a beautiful and tactile world out of a set of metal mechanical parts, which are in their essence fairly hard and cold,” reveals Jenns, adding that every aspect of the project had to match the “extremely high standards” that Harrods maintains. Mainframe used Maya for the 3D, rendering the project with V-Ray and completing the compositing in NukeX. “The final colour grade was completed in DaVinci Resolve using the new NVIDIA graphics cards that we purchased to speed up our grading suite,” he says.
“We’re all extremely proud of the final result. The quality of the renders and richness we achieved in the final film was exactly what we were aiming for. It’s fair to say that the client was extremely happy with the end result.”
To read more in the GC in Ads series, click here.
Read more in the Graphic Master Series.