Friday Flashback #469


By Michael Abraham

Ever get the feeling that you and your significant other just aren’t seeing eye-to-eye? Wouldn’t life be great if she (or he) would come around to your way of thinking, instead of persisting with her (or his) totally twisted take on the world? Wouldn’t the sun shine brighter, the wine seem drier, and the food taste spicier if those we love would just learn to think as we do? Wouldn’t it?

Happily, the answer – as implied by an innovative new spot for Levi’s – is a big “No!” Indeed, the 60-second “Twist”– the collaborative artistry of ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), director Frank Budgen of Gorgeous Productions (London, UK) and the tremendous effects work of The Mill (also of London) – embraces diversity and spontaneity just as lovingly as a brand new pair of Levi’s Engineered Jeans. According to the spot, the new cut of denim is quite literally “Twisted to Fit,” as the tagline goes, combining traditional Levi’s detail with higher-performance fabric and a twisted side-seam that will apparently hug your booty like an intimate friend while allowing you to twist and shout with a bunch of strangers.

Shot in the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, “Twist” brings a car full of remarkably limber young people to a roadside restaurant. A comely young woman rebels against the crowded confines of the backseat by stretching her long legs well beyond the natural limitations of bone and muscle. As miraculous as her contortion appears, it proves to be only the beginning.

Encountering a locked rest room door, one of the male passengers takes advantage of a supple young woman emerging from the ladies’ room. With a little creative twisting, the young man trades the young woman’s head for his own and promptly takes advantage of the available facilities. Featuring music by famed dance trio Pepe Deluxe, “Twisted” makes ample use of passionate imagination and some of the best effects the commercial world is likely to see.

“Ultimately, ‘Twisted’ was making unnaturally stretching and morphing limbs appear natural,” says Russell Tickner, Senior Animator at The Mill. “Although mainly a compositing job, there were a couple of pretty complicated 3D shots in ‘Twisted’ with which SOFTIMAGE|3D v.3.9 really helped us out.”

A 3D designer and animator for over thirteen years and a six-year veteran user of SOFTIMAGE|3D, Tickner’s background includes architecture, graphics and multimedia work for projects such as Lost In Space and the always-interesting Bjork’s album “Homogenic.” Since joining The Mill as a freelancer, he has worked on a plethora of 3D intensive commercials, including LincolnNew York LifeDaewoo, and Evian, and is creating effects shots with sister-company Mill Film for Simon West’s upcoming feature Tomb Raider. “Twisted” provided Tickner with some significant 3D challenges.

“I had to make various kinds of limbs and heads that were very closely modeled on the live action,” says Tickner. “We have an in-house texturing tool that allows us to take a 3D model and rotoscope it from the camera’s point-of-view. Once the live action material is added, you have a certain degree of extra movement that lets us move things around 15 degrees in each direction without seeing any distortion in the texture map. That way, we are able to make our 2D characters sort of appear to be 3D.”

For the scene in which the bathroom-bound man twists and then removes his own head, Tickner was provided with a live action scene in which an actor holding his head and moves his head as far as it would go to either side. The rest was up to the 3D artist.

“The scene required that this guy lift his head approximately four inches off his shoulders,” say Tickner with a smile. “Obviously, you can’t do that naturally. It involved some interesting rotoscoping, texturing and lighting to ensure that things matched the live action. They shot the entire spot in an extremely soft grade which is probably the most difficult type of lighting to match with 3D elements. Invariably, 3D has a vaguely plastic look, with high contrasts between darks and lights. When we held the 3D up against this very well-exposed live action footage, the look just wasn’t right.”

To solve the problem, Tickner went straight to the fully-integrated rendering wonder that is mental ray ®. “The latest version of mental ray has a great feature called Final Gathering,” explains Tickner. “It basically helps to light a scene based on information from texture maps. What I did was create a mock-up of the scene using the live action footage and texture maps, and then used that as my Final Gathering light source. So, all the lighting that landed on my various limb and head models was based on the actual, physical set. Rather than using point light sources and area lights to try and simulate the proper light, we were able to very quickly replicate the light in the scene. That really made such a huge difference to the spot’s natural look.”

Referring to the use of the newest version of mental ray as “vital” to the spot’s success, Tickner was also able to cut down on much of the color grading performed by the compositing artists.

“They did a little bit of color grading, just to polish things,” says Tickner. “The whole commercial was then played back out to film, then brought back into the Telecine where it was given its final, more polished grade. The fact that we used the very soft technical grade to match the 3D elements was very different from our normal procedure.”

In the end, Tickner can’t say enough about The Mill’s commitment to mental ray and SOFTIMAGE|3D. “Using mental ray in SOFTIMAGE|3D was one of the nicest parts of this job,” he says emphatically. “The reason we’re so committed to mental ray at The Mill is that we have the best directors in the world bringing in some of their best live action footage shot by the best DPs and graded by the best Telecine artists. With this top quality footage, we really need to provide the very best CG and 3D stuff possible. mental ray gives us that extra level of rendered image that we need to do the best quality work.”