9 March 2016
Betfair’s ‘This Is Play’ campaign pays homage to the late, great Paul – the octopus famous for predicting the outcome of World Cup matches. The 30-second spot has four table tennis players taking on the creature in front of a packed stadium, and required a complex mixture of CG techniques to realise. It also didn’t help that it was being worked on concurrently in London and Latvia.
Fortunately, Gramercy Park Studios has its own proprietary visual collaboration workflow pipeline, developed when the studio began in 2013. This enabled teams to share HD footage and CG models – so while shooting the table tennis players in Latvia, the pre-viz team was able to send clips to the London-based CG artists so they could begin the process of modelling and rendering.
“The asset management helped deliver such a complex project in a short timeframe, by letting the artists work simultaneously on the rig, animation, layout, fluid FX, lighting and compositing.” Mark Beardall (VFX supervisor)
“All of these elements were updated many times throughout the project and the system helped guarantee that everyone was working with the latest approved versions.”
The project was somewhat asymmetric in its production, with the stadium designed and built using low-poly assets in Flame, even before the live-action shoot in Latvia had begun. “We had a 3D artist modelling blocks of geometry that we could import into Flame and use to develop the stadium interactively with the agency and director,” explains Beardall. “It was during this stage, working alongside 3D, that we were able to work out how we would need to shoot the extras to populate the stadium. It revealed that we would need to shoot front and three-quarter angles, including rear views, in case we pulled out wide later on.”
As the spot involved a variety of effects, including extreme slow-motion, the live-action team decided to shoot each member of the crowd at 100fps. They captured 80 people performing a range of movements from five different angles, “so the crowd would feel alive and natural at all times,” says Beardall.
To recreate the live action set, GPS used photogrammetry to derive a 3D version of the location. Multiple photos were taken from different viewpoints and stitched together in ImageModeler to produce a 3D model of the environment. “This data was then brought into Maya, where our CG team was able to rebuild the set using basic geometry, including tables, nets and banners, with the correct position of lights in each shot. We then projected the photos onto this geometry, which was fundamental in achieving accurate reflections of the set on the CG octopus.”
The hotshot cephalopod was built and animated in Maya and provided its own specific set of problems. “This was probably one of the hardest tasks we had to do,” says Beardall.
“Being such alien-like creatures, everyone has their own idea of what an octopus looks and moves like. Now take it out of its usual environment, put it in a stadium playing racket sports with real people, and you have quite a challenge on your hands.” Mark Beardall (VFX supervisor)
The team went through a range of looks, undertaking research on luminescent and semi-translucent materials, but decided on one that looked more “earth-like”, using reflections and sub-surface scattering. “The reflection was a hard puzzle to solve,” says Beardall, “as octopuses out of water look very different and are very slimy and slick. We ended up having to build two parallel shading trees, which were called as one single shader at render time, giving us control between high frequency and low frequency displacement and making it look more slimy or more bumpy.”
Rigging the octopus also proved problematic, comments Beardall, requiring the development of a rig that would provide the animators with a high level of flexibility.
“The rig continued to be refined throughout the project based on what the animators discovered along the way,” he adds.
The sequence was achieved by mixing realistic octopus poses with specific motions used by professional table tennis players. “It was an amazing feat,” claims Beardall, “but our animation team was able to bring the director’s vision to life and create a unique set of moves that blended perfectly into the live action plates, giving the sense of reality required by the commercial.”
Read more in the Graphic Master Series.