Debrief: The making of Buck’s CG commercials
Benjamin Langsfeld explains how production company Buck created a vibrant world of paint swatches in its series of spots for Sherwin-Williams
Advertising agency McKinney approached Buck with a brief that challenged us to create a world using Sherwin-Williams paint swatches to tell a story about colour. It blew us away. We dove in, creating cinematic spaces that felt tactile and real. A red cardinal, lush stream-side underbrush, a gusty flight through silvered clouds – all evocative and indicative of what Sherwin’s paints can bring to its customers.
What we did right
1. We organised our workflow
A lot of what we did right has to do with our creative workflow. We storyboarded and pre-vized each project, and took the time to ensure that each element supported the main creative goal. We worked collaboratively, and encouraged everyone to participate creatively. More discussion helped us to resolve problems and plan the production faster.
The production was all about the paint chip cards, so we tried to keep them as efficient and organised as possible. We used photographic reference for everything as we went, and grabbed stacks of swatches from our local hardware store and started playing with them. We used a library of pre-built cards to model everything, and built a single shader that mapped all of the textures and render passes to all the different kinds of cards at once, allowing us to have fewer shader networks.
2. We created a set of rules
After a few experiments we decided to create a set of rules defining how the cards could be used. We wanted everything to feel real, like it could be done with a knife and glue. We then stuck to these rules for the length of the campaign. I think it really helped us, because we could review the design, model, layout or animation for a work in progress, and be able to judge its success clearly. If it felt rubbery or used a card that twisted in multiple directions, we would simplify it. We had a lot of fun exploring the world between simple, graphic and physicality. It was interesting to look back on the main challenges early in the campaign; we struggled with little design and modelling challenges, defining the way things should and shouldn’t look. But by the end we had the modelling down, and could explore vast landscapes and construction techniques with many thousands of cards.
3. We explored water and fluid-like motion
Water was a recurring theme in this series, and it presented its own challenges. Ryan O’Phelan, our CG supervisor, had some details to share. We explored ways of creating the sensation of water reflections with non-reflective cards. Our TD created a follicle-based colour sampler to derive card colour based on sampled reflection values. The closest colour values were found in our palettes, and substituted.
We also played with fluid-like motion, from rivers, rapids and waterfalls to ocean waves. Each spot had its own look and feel, so we didn’t want to just repeat older solutions. The glimmering on the still canyon river was done with a particle instanced grid of cards, and some simple dynamics. One shot that didn’t make the cut featured a large time-lapse river where boat wakes and ripples skitter across the water. We used a nifty script that our colleague Josh Harvey wrote for us to offset animation across multiple cards on a surface. At the end of ‘River’, the hero boat emerges onto ocean waves to rejoin her friends. We started with a simple stack of cards that rocked and slid like a rocking horse, and created a rough square patch of ocean that fitted together with all the adjacent sides when timed just right.
A few variations were needed to keep the pattern looking natural – adding little splashes on the rocks and rolling off the hull of the boats helped it along. The largest water scene was the ‘River’ opening, which was done by hand using motion paths and lots of tricky offsets. We tried to characterise small vortices and large bumpy currents of rapids before a waterfall.
4. We were flexible with rigging
Rigging characters presented a real challenge. We had set rules on how the cards could be used to construct our animals, sets and dynamic systems, so that put a lot of pressure on our rigs to work in a way that would allow our animators to bring out great performances (without too much distortion or intersections). We had to be flexible and plan on multiple revisions to our rigs on the fly. The more spots we did, the more we were able to make these considerations in the design phase, but luckily we worked with a few very patient riggers.
The hot air balloon intro was an interesting challenge. First we animated the shot, using a rig that could spiral up a stack of cards to form the top of the balloon. We used some scripting tricks to add a jitter or stop-motion feel. Then we used coloured lights to generate a light map, by using a script to sample the colours of each area and assign them to each individual swatch cell frame by frame. This allowed us to light the scene using the local colours on each swatch like pixels in an image.
What we did wrong
The term ‘colourful’ wasn’t clearly defined Part of the creative process is making lots of mistakes and then coming to a solution while still leaving some room for execution. Sometimes you get lucky with a great first solution, but it’s more likely that it’s going to be the third try.
One of the hardest things about this project was agreeing the same definition of ‘colourful’ between us, the agency and the client. We got stuck in a debate between thinking of it as a controlled palette with pops of vibrant colours and a full-on explosion of highly saturated colours for 30 seconds.
In the first spot, we really struggled with this and decided to adapt our pipeline to accommodate the unknowns of how colour theory would affect our client approval process. We could sense that lighting and compositing would be brutal between the ridiculous amount of geometry in our scenes and the limited amount of render time in our schedule, and the fact that we couldn’t agree on what colourful meant. So we rendered out mattes for everything – yes, everything – then built our comps from the bottom up. We figured we’d sacrifice colour spilling and realistic global illumination for the good of the spot.
It worked, but from then on we developed a really nice relationship with the agency and client, and added time to subsequent schedules to accommodate colour keys, concept art and colour story development before we even went into production.
Sometimes a production schedule doesn’t exactly synchronise with the client’s decision-making process, and in those cases you have to shoot first and hope you aimed in the right direction later.
For ‘Daybreak’, we sold the client on an idea that we boarded, tested and moved into production – but as it turned out, they weren’t fully on board with it as we’d originally imagined it. We wanted parts of the spot to feel like time-lapse footage. Up until then we’d dealt with mostly local colour studies, but for this one we wanted to talk about how light affects colour over time.
We animated the entire spot with fast-moving clouds, oceans ebbing and flowing, reflections shimmering and so on. But in the long run the client felt the story arc was too subtle, so we retooled a few shots to make it more about balloons and a journey.
We got to keep some of the best moments, but we had to throw out a lot of work. It was frustrating, but it turned out really well and is many people’s favourite spot. I guess the lesson here is to make sure everyone knows what they’re buying into from the beginning. A rip-o-matic pulling footage from the films Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi would probably have helped our cause.
In many cases, mistakes happen in the planning process and we end up backing out of a direction and changing courses mid-production. As long as you’re patient and trust your peers, this can work out fine – and in some cases you end up with a better idea. If anything, we’ve learned how to anticipate and plan for direction changes more effectively, ensuring that each element is built without dependencies, when possible. But as we all know, sometimes it’s plain and simple: back to the drawing board.
Format Television commercial
Project length 59 weeks
Team size Between 15 and 20 for each spot
Software used Maya, V-Ray, Nuke, After Effects, Photoshop, Da Vinci
Release date Five spots (‘Paint Chips’, ‘Bees’, ‘Daybreak’, ‘River’ and ‘Migration’) released between March 2010 and April 2012
About the author
Benjamin Langsfeld is a New York-based designer and associate creative director at Buck, a design-driven production company with offices in New York and Los Angeles. Since joining Buck in 2004, he’s immersed himself in short-form storytelling, developing design-based campaigns for clients such as Sherwin-Williams, Google, Coca-Cola, The X Games, Campbell’s and Nickelodeon
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on Wednesday, September 12th, 2012 at 11:53 am under Commercial, Features, Showcase.
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Tags: After Effects, CG, Commercial, Maya, Nuke, Photoshop, V-Ray