Blue Line Guy
DRAWING THE (BLUE) LINE: QUIET MAN GETS THE SOFTIMAGE|XSI BLUES
BY MICHAEL ABRAHAM
In a recent spot for AT&T, ad agency Wunderman and New York’s Quiet Man emphatically proved they know when and how to draw the line. “Blue Line Guy” is a 60-second animated spot designed to promote AT&T Worldnet Service Plus, the telecommunications leader’s all-in-one internet package that encourages all you prospective users of the service to draw from your imaginations about perfect service. By way of example, the spot offers a particularly imaginative character doing just that.
According to spot director David Shirk (Quiet Man’s head of 3D) and his team, the challenges of “Blue Line Guy” were substantial, and only exacerbated by the project’s very tight six-week deadline. As a result, most of those twenty-one days were eighteen hours long. The results, however, were definitely worth the great effort.
“It’s a good thing that we all love this job, or this project would probably have been impossible,” says Shirk with a chuckle. “The creative team was fantastic to work with. The agency producer, Sue Chiafullo, was impeccably organized and really understood what it takes to do animation. We ended up having a great time, and SOFTIMAGE®|XSI™ was a great help.”
Set against a paper-white background which occasionally and conveniently tears to reveal vital information, “Blue Line Guy” opens with an outstretched outline of a stick man using a deep-blue crayon to draw both himself and his dream internet service. When the voiceover speaks of faster log-ons, the Blue Line Guy transforms into a Zorro-type character, using his blue crayon to slash time off connection speeds. When the topic changes to instant messaging and chat services, the character speaks to his crayon and is joined by another character. Finally, slightly more fleshed-out characters appear on a crayoned computer screen to represent video email.
Clearly unfinished but completely fluid in his motions, the crayoned character of the Blue Line Guy somehow manages to convey both the creativity of simple hand drawing with the precisely-organized planning of a blueprint. The effect is one of the purely imaginary about to made real, brilliantly exemplifying AT&T’s declared effort to turn the every day into the extraordinary.
“From the beginning, the agency knew what they didn’t want to see in the spot,” says Shirk. “They had a good storyboard, but they told us right away that they did not want the spot to look as if it were traditionally animated. Even though they wanted this character to be drawn with and carry around a blue crayon, they did not want the quirky, hand-drawn quality that the scenario might imply. It was very important to them that the Blue Line Guy look three-dimensional and have the coherence of a genuine character. Our technical director, Bradley Gabe, did a great job with shader development to help us determine how this character might look in 3D space.”Asked to describe some of the project’s bigger challenges, Gabe hesitates for a moment before replying. “Geez, where do I begin?” says Gabe. “Maintaining a level of consistency from frame to frame was one of the biggest challenges. In a texture that is meant to look like a crayon drawing, there are all kinds of problems regarding distortion whenever you’re using 3D. That was kind of tough to figure out, but the Render Tree in SOFTIMAGE|XSI helped me to develop some really great shaders. With some help from SOFTIMAGE|XSI, I was able to come up with a solution that would give us the right look, and still not hit our computers too hard.”
With just six weeks to complete the entire job, the Quiet Man animation team admits to some concerns about creating a believable animated crayon drawing in 3D. “We were quite concerned about how the final animation would look,” admits Michael Wharton, senior animator on the project. “Crayon tends to look very granular, like a bunch of dots really. With only six weeks to produce the entire spot including pre-production and rendering, we had to ensure that our production pipeline was completely established technically. For me, the challenge was animation, animation and re-animation. Following Dave’s lead, we all worked hard to get it right.”
Part of “getting it right” required some further yeoman service from technical director Gabe. Working through the many iterations of “Blue Line Guy”, it became increasingly clear that it would require an unusual amount of switching between FK animation, where a character’s limbs travel through space seemingly on their own power, and IK animation, where a character’s limbs are momentarily rooted to a portion of the environment it inhabits. Unlike most commercial animations, FK-IK switching was often required within a single animation.
“What I wanted to do was create a rig that would keep things as simple as possible for controlling this biped character,” Gabe explains. “When we realized that the character would have to do things such as pull a crayon and be pulled around the scene, I knew I would have to create a rig that was slightly more complex. Essentially, it was my job to set up a rig that would allow the character to do perform both FK and IK animations and occasionally switch between the two in the middle of an animation. This character rig really had to do everything.”
As the project progressed and evolved, however, Gabe’s rig had to keep up with the many changes being implemented. It was at that point that SOFTIMAGE|XSI was of particular value, according to Gabe: “SOFTIMAGE|XSI has some fantastic tools for moving animations from one object to another. If you maintain a consistent naming convention that can be recognized across iterations of the character, you can transfer the animations you’ve already done to each new version of your character. We had some things to iron out, of course, but now that we’ve worked through this very challenging project, we’ll be able to use this rig on future projects.”
“The SOFTIMAGE|XSI Animation Mixer was also a big help in facilitating the process of this project,” agrees Shirk. “With all the retroactive changes made to the character’s rigging, we were able to use the Animation Mixer to create animations and easily transfer them to the new characters. We could make all kinds of changes, and it would literally take just a minute or two to get the character up again in its new version. That was awesome, because we never had to be afraid of going back to make changes. It was really, really simple to propagate them back through the chronology of the spot.”
Gabe concurs and continues: “A lot of seemingly impossible things were possible in SOFTIMAGE|XSI,” he says emphatically. “Setting up a lot of different render passes and that kind of thing took a minute instead of the hours it would have taken before. That was fantastic, especially towards the end of the project.”
And, in just sixty seconds, “Blue Line Guy” truly says it all.