Friday Flashback #389

Blue Line Guy



1smIn 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.

4smClearly 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.”

3smPart 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.”

2smAs 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.



Friday Flashback #373

PLF uses SOFTIMAGE|XSI to pre-visualize challenging scenes in the Wachowski brothers’ second installment of The Matrixtrilogy, The Matrix Reloaded.

FREE YOUR MIND…ONCE MORE PLF Pre-viz Helps Reload The Matrix

by Michael Abraham
In The Matrix Reloaded, the first of two sequels this year from directors Andy and Larry Wachowski, the ingenious filmmakers behind The Matrix (1999) continue a cinematic trilogy that invites audiences to imagine their existence on different terms.  Again plugging into their unique vision – and to the talents of key collaborators such as Senior Visual Effects Supervisor John Gaeta – the directors take a truly comprehensive approach in bringing the movies from novel creative and technical concepts to the screen.The need to visualize in 3-D many of the most challenging scenes for both “The Matrix Reloaded” and for the third film, The Matrix Revolutions was integral to the Wachowski brother’s approach, as well as to the planning and production of the visual effects.

Pixel Liberation Front (PLF), whose pre-visualization work using SOFTIMAGE|3Dand SOFTIMAGE|XSI on such motion pictures as David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) and Panic Room (2002) and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) has been turning heads around Hollywood, was hired to provide the pre-visualization for the film.

When Colin Green founded PLF in 1995, he worked on such action fare as Judge Dredd(1995), which starred Sylvester Stallone, and Eraser (1996), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Green interfaced closely with John Gaeta on these projects, and through this process developed a shared understanding of the methodology for approaching the VFX production process – a process that would ideally encompass extensive pre-viz, technical planning and execution to ensure creative continuity from pre-production through to post. When Gaeta was given the chance to supervise visual effects for “The Matrix,” a then little-known film being created by the all-but-unknown Wunderkind directors, he sought out Green and PLF.

Although scheduling conflicts got in the way for that production, the timing was right when Gaeta came back to PLF to collaborate on the sequels.”We were, of course, thrilled at the chance to work on ‘The Matrix’ sequels,” says Green.   “It was great to work with John Gaeta again, and it was a given that the ideas behind the effects would be groundbreaking.  When we first saw the storyboards and concept art (drawn primarily by Steve Skross and Geoff Darrow) for the Freeway Chase in ‘The Matrix Reloaded,’ we knew we had a very rare opportunity to be involved in something really special.”The Freeway Chase is one example of the film’s mind-blowing moments, with Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) battling agents, crashing cars, jumping from bridges and maneuvering motorcycles against traffic. It’s also an example of how PLF’s pre-visualization process came into play to ensure that the sequence lived up to the directors’ vision, and could actually be pulled off by the production crew on set and the visual effects team in post.

The entire process was carefully studied, not only by Gaeta and the rest of the VFX crew, but also by Stunt Supervisor R.A. Rondell, DP Bill Pope as well as many others to ensure that everything was coordinated creatively and technically to make the sequence as good as it could be.As was the case for all the shots on which PLF worked, the Freeway Chase seamlessly combines unbelievable stunt action with unprecedented CG and virtual cinematography. Lead Pre-viz artists Laurent Lavigne and Kyle Robinson created accurate digital models of all the elements in the sequence, including the set, characters, key props and set dressing.  They also added virtual cameras that allowed the filmmakers to pre-determine each shot and scenario right down to the type of camera lens that should be used.“We could tell from the start that the Freeway Chase was going to require a lot of very precise pre-viz to achieve the level of precision choreography and stylization that was evident in the boards,” says Green. “We worked in SOFTIMAGE|3D and SOFTIMAGE|XSI for over four months to create and polish the sequence design with John, Larry, and Andy.”  PLF’s artists then traveled to Alameda, California, to spend several more months supporting the shoot on set, translating the sequence from Softimage scenes into physical specifications that could be used by the location and stunt crew. Simultaneously, other members of the PLF team were developing pre-visualizations for the scenes to be shot in Australia.

All told, Green and PLF devoted the better part of two years to working on the productions, with Green spending nearly eleven months at Fox Studios in Australia, where he was joined by fellow PLF team members Lavigne, Robinson, Alex Vegh and Rpin Suwannath. The PLF team was joined in turn by Aussie artist Rob Nunn and Coordinator / Editor Duncan Burbidge.

The PLF team used XSI to pre-visualize in 3-D the filmmakers’ design of the so-called Mega-City, which appears in, and is central to, each of the sequels. “The Mega-City is really the ‘Downtown’ of The Matrix,” explains Green. “All of the action from both sequels was located within a comprehensive 3-D city map, which we built in XSI. We created some absolutely enormous scene files, and were definitely very happy to have SOFTIMAGE|XSI to help handle the task. The great polygonal modeling tools made this process much easier than it would have been in other applications.”
Green used SOFTIMAGE|XSI extensively on such scenes as the one showing Trinity’s dramatic exit out the window of a Mega-City skyscraper. The elaborate and complex screen action, which follows the character as she is pursued by an agent, required a full pre-visualization from PLF in SOFTIMAGE|XSI.

“To pre-visualize the complex camera animation style of these shots, we made considerable use of the Animation Mixer, the Constraint Blending capabilities, and easy rig-building interface in XSI. Having access to all of these tools inside the fast and responsive interface in XSI made a big difference for over-the-shoulder shot design sessions. It was wonderful to work with these tools.”