14 March 2016
MPC has been a global leader in VFX for over 25 years. With industry-leading facilities around the world, it’s the company behind Three’s moonwalking Shetland pony, which became an internet sensation, as well as a host of successful advertising campaigns for brands including Samsung, Coca-Cola, Sony and MoneySuperMarket – for whom the studio recently created a CG dancing elephant.
Working closely with creative agency Mother London and Smuggler director Guy Shelmerdine, MPC was tasked with concepting and developing the 15-foot mammal. “The brief was to create an epic elephant dancing in New York with [MSM mascot] Graeme on top,” recalls MPC 3D supervisor Fabian Frank. “They’re both having a great time: they’re a great team.”
Created by MPC, the MoneySuperMarket elephant struts his stuff in the streets of New York
To ensure the right amount of attitude was injected into the elephant’s dance moves, Shelmerdine and Mother referenced a number of iconic characters: Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and Michael Jackson in the Billie Jean video, with a healthy dash of Beyoncé thrown in. “We looked at lots of references of elephants, too.” said Frank. “African elephants don’t usually make these kinds of movements – although they could – so we had to add this on top. We wanted to keep the range of movements within what an elephant could do. The bum wiggle was the hardest part because normally an elephant wouldn’t do that.”
The lighting also proved tricky, he admits: “In the city we have lots of different light changes and very localised light sources that we needed to recreate.” Integrating the elephant into the shot footage provided an additional challenge: “It was essential to match the interaction between Graeme and the elephant,” says Frank, “so Graeme was tracked and rotoscoped back into the shots, using select takes to perfectly match the elephant’s walk cycle.”
A solid pipeline was crucial to achieving the interactivity, speed and quality the client expected. MPC uses powerful HP Z-Series workstations – ranging from the Z420 to the Z820, all exclusively fitted with NVIDIA graphics cards – for its production pipeline systems.
“The HP Z-Series are used as our main workstations for our 2D and CG teams,” explains Marc Brewster, head of technology at MPC, “and they use Quadro 4000 series cards. We tend to keep them all to a relatively high specification, but some are equipped with larger amounts of RAM to enable users to work on especially complex scenes or increasingly higher frame sizes and frame rates – UHDTV being one example. On a recent project we were able to use a Z420 workstation and Quadro 4000 to work on a UHDTV-size project, with playback of UHDTV frames at full resolution, playing at 60fps with no frame dropping, whilst outputting three monitor feeds from the graphics card and a video feed from an expansion PCIe card.”
“Our HP Z-Series workstations are used as Flame machines. Both HP and NVIDIA provide solid, reliable and high-performing equipment that work excellently as a package.” Marc Brewster, MPC
For both MPC and its client MoneySuperMarket, the pipeline was perfect, giving the studio more freedom to push the creative boundaries of the advert. “The client loves the final result,” says Fabian Frank. “The details are very subtle in the animation of the elephant. You could never have shot that for real.”
Continuing to push new creative boundaries is one of the biggest challenges facing production studios in an increasingly competitive field. With technological advances and access to increasingly affordable kit and sophisticated software continuing to knock down barriers for competition, smaller studios are increasingly able to achieve the kinds of effects previously associated with high-end feature films. Throw in global government tax breaks, and a trend for bigger production houses like The Mill opening smaller studios, and rivalry between facilities is healthier than ever.
But competition breeds innovation, as London-based design and motion studio ManvsMachine proves. The team has picked up a number of high-profile awards for its work in recent years – including two Cannes Gold Lions and a D&AD Yellow Pencil for a series of logic-defying idents for Channel 4’s catch-up service, 4seven.
One of the stunning idents for Channel 4’s, 4seven catch-up service
Set in a supermarket, allotment and swimming pool, the idents utilise a split-screen concept that wraps each scene around a 90-degree corner, using a clever custom camera technique developed by the studio. “We did some tests on a table top with a Pritt Stick and mug,” laughs studio co-founder Tim Swift. “We realised it was essentially the same large-arc move, but just a later section of the same arc to create the two pieces, so we split the screen and offset it in time.” “For us, the biggest thing is using the tools in ways that aren’t so obvious,” says motion designer Simon Holmedal. “It’s about understanding what we can use them for.”
ManvsMachine’s recent launch campaign for Nike’s Mercurial Superfly boot is a cinematic motion masterpiece, and a case in point. The film shows the Superfly boot exploding through a series of marble sculptures. The initial brief was to smash porcelain figures, but ManvsMachine developed the concept further, employing advanced 3D scanning techniques to transform five models in various footballing poses into marble. “The camera rig is a small room that’s completely white, with 100 cameras set up around you,” explains head of 3D Rupert Burton. “The actor jumps into position and every camera shoots an image, capturing every angle of them in motion.”
Put the boot in
However, the 3D shoot was just one part of a complicated project, which required a lot of creative thinking from ManvsMachine – such as when the client wanted to highlight the woven aspect of the boot by adding knitting effects to the surface of the shoe. In the end, rather than rebuilding the mesh, Holmedal isolated a tiny section of the shoe and created a Python script to simulate the knitting effect. To generate realistic smoke effects, Holmedal created another Python script that measured the velocity of the moving pieces in the explosion, generating more smoke from the pieces that were moving faster. When it came to rendering the smoke simulation, an NVIDIA card was the only option: “Those are the only ones supporting CUDA,” Holmedal reasons. “This helps with simulating smoke. It’s about 10 times faster than on the CPU.”
“It’s about using the tools in different ways. It’s when you combine tools and knowledge you can create something great.”
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