By Karen Moltenbrey
Once too expensive to consider for use in television commercials, visual effects soon found their way into this realm, enlivening and enhancing the spots. Today, countless commercials are using increasingly complex VFX to entertain, to explain and to elevate a message. Here, we examine two very different approaches to using effects in this way. In the Verizon commercial Helping Doctors Fight Cancer, augmented reality is transferred from a holographic medical application and fused into a heartwarming piece thanks to an extremely delicate production process. For the Chantix Turkey Campaign, digital artists took a completely different method, incorporating a stylized digital spokes-character — with feathers, nonetheless – into various scenes.
Verizon Helping Doctors Fight Cancer
The main goal of television advertisements — whether they are 15, 30 or 60 seconds in length — is to sell a product. Some do it through a direct sales approach. Some by “selling” a lifestyle or brand. And some opt to tell a story. Verizon took the latter approach for a campaign promoting its 5G Ultra Wideband.
For the spot Helping Doctors Fight Cancer, directed by Christian Weber, Verizon adds a human touch to its technology through a compelling story illustrating how its 5G network is being used within a mixed-reality environment so doctors can better treat cancer patients. The 30-second commercial features surgeons and radiologists using high-fidelity holographic 3D anatomical renderings that can be viewed from every angle and even projected onto a person’s body for a more comprehensive examination, while the imagery can potentially be shared remotely in near real time. The augmented-reality application is from Medivis, a start-up medical visualization company that is using Verizon’s next-generation 5G wireless speeds to deliver the high speeds and low latencies necessary for the application’s large datasets and interactive frame rates.
The spot introduces video footage of patients undergoing MRIs and discussion by Medivis cofounder Dr. Osamah Choudhry about how treatment could be radically changed using the technology. Holographic medical imagery is then displayed showing the Medivis AR application being used on a patient.
“McGarryBowen New York, Verizon’s advertising agency, wanted to show the technology in the most accurate and the most realistic way possible. So, we studied the technology,” says Vico Sharabani, founder/COO of The-Artery, which was tasked with the VFX work in the spot. To this end, The Artery team opted to use as much of the actual holographic content as possible, pulling assets from the Medivis software and fusing it with other broadcast-quality content.
The-Artery is no stranger to augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality. Highly experienced in visual effects, Sharabani founded the company to solve business problems within the visual space across all platforms, from films to commercials to branding, and as such, alternate reality and story have been integral elements to achieving that goal. Nevertheless, the work required for this spot was difficult and challenging.
“It’s not just acquiring and melding together 3D assets,” says Sharabani. “The process is complex, and there are different ways to do it — some better than others. And the agency wanted it to be true to the real-life application. This was not something we could just illustrate in a beautiful way; it had to be very technically accurate.”
To this end, much of the holographic imagery consisted of actual 3D assets from the Medivis holographic AR system, captured live. At times, though, The Artery had to rework the imagery using multiple assets from the Medivis application, and other times the artists re-created the medical imagery in CG.
Initially, the ad agency expected that The-Artery would recreate all the digital assets in CG. But after learning as much as they could about the Medivis system, Sharabani and the team were confident they could export actual data for the spot. “There was much greater value to using actual data when possible, actual CT data,” says Sharabani. “Then you have the most true-to-life representation, which makes the story even more heartfelt. And because we were telling a true story about the capabilities of the network around a real application being used by doctors, any misrepresentation of the human anatomy or scans would hurt the message and intention of the campaign.”
The-Artery began developing a solution with technicians at Medivis to export actual imagery via the HoloLens headset that’s used by the medical staff to view and manipulate the holographic imagery, to coincide with the needs of the commercial. Sometimes this involved merely capturing the screen performance as the HoloLens was being used. Other times the assets from the Medivis system were rendered over a greenscreen without a background and later composited into a scene.
“We have the ability to shoot through the HoloLens, which was our base; we used that as our virtual camera whereby the output of the system is driven by the HoloLens. Every time we would go back to do a capture (if the edit changed or the camera position changed), we had to use the HoloLens as our virtual camera in order to get the proper camera angle,” notes Sharabani. Because the HoloLens is a stereoscopic device, The Artery always used the right-eye view for the representations, as it most closely reflected the experience of the user wearing the device.
Since the Medivis system is driven by the HoloLens, there is some shakiness present — an artifact the group retained in some of the shots to make it truer to life. “It’s a constant balance of how far we go with realism and at what point it is too distracting for the broadcast,” says Sharabani.
For imagery like the CT scans, the point cloud data was imported directly into Autodesk’s Maya, where it was turned into a 3D model. Other times the images were rendered out at 4K directly from the system. The Medivis imagery was later composited into the scenes using Autodesk’s Flame.
However, not every bit of imagery was extracted from the system. Some had to be re-created using a standard 3D pipeline. For instance, the “scan” of the actor’s skull was replicated by the artists so that the skull model matched perfectly with the holographic imagery that was overlaid in post production (since everyone’s skull proportions are different). The group began by creating the models in Maya and then composited the imagery within Autodesk’s Flame, along with a 3D bounding box of the creative implant.
The artists also replicated the Medivis UI in 3D to recreate and match the performance of the three-dimensional UI to the AI hand gestures by the person “using” the Medivis system in the spot — both of which were filmed separately. For the CG interface, the group used Autodesk’s Maya and Flame, as well as Adobe’s After Effects.
“The process was so integrated to the edit, we needed the proper 3D tracking and some of the assets to be built as a 3D screen element,” explains Sharabani. “It gave us more flexibility to build the 3D UI inside of Flame, enabling us to control it more quickly and easily when we changed a hand gesture or expanded the shots.”
With The-Artery’s experience pertaining to virtual technology, the team was quick to understand the limitations of the project using this particular equipment. Once that was established, however, they began to push the boundaries with small hacks that enabled them to achieve their goals of using actual holographic data to tell an amazing story.
Chantix “Turkey” Campaign
Chantix is medication to help smokers kick the habit. To get its message across in a series of television commercials, the drug maker decided to talk turkey, focusing the campaign on a CG turkey that, well, goes “cold turkey” with the assistance of Chantix.
A series of four spots — Slow Turkey, Camping, AC and Beach Day — prominently feature the turkey, created at The Mill. The spots were directed and produced in-house by Mill+, The Mill’s end-to-end production arm, with Jeffrey Dates directing.
L-R: John Montefusco, Dave Barosin and Scott Denton
“Each one had its own challenges,” says CG lead John Montefusco. Nevertheless, the initial commercial, Slow Turkey, presented the biggest obstacle: the build of the character from the ground up. “It was not only a performance feat, but a technical one as well,” he adds.
Effects artist Dave Barosin iterated Montefusco’s assessment of Slow Turkey, which, in addition to building the main asset from scratch, required the development of a feather system. Meanwhile, Camping and AC had the addition of clothing, and Beach Day presented the challenge of wind, water and simulation in a moving vehicle.
According to senior modeler Scott Denton, the team was given a good deal of creative freedom when crafting the turkey. The artists were presented with some initial sketches, he adds, but more or less had free rein in the creation of the look and feel of the model. “We were looking to tread the line between cartoony and realistic,” he says. The first iterations became very cartoony, but the team subsequently worked backward to where the character was more of a mix between the two styles.
The crew modeled the turkey using Autodesk’s Maya and Pixologic’s ZBrush. It was then textured within Adobe’s Substance and Foundry’s Mari. All the details of the model were hand-sculpted. “Nailing the look and feel was the toughest challenge. We went through a hundred iterations before getting to the final character you see in the commercial,” Denton says.
The turkey contains 6,427 body feathers, 94 flight feathers and eight scalp feathers. They were simulated using a custom feather setup built by the lead VFX artist within SideFX Houdini, which made the process more efficient. Proprietary tools also were used to groom the character.
The artists initially developed a concept sculpt in ZBrush of just the turkey’s head, which underwent numerous changes and versions before they added it to the body of the model. Denton then sculpted a posed version with sculpted feathers to show what the model might look like when posed, giving the client a better feel for the character. The artists later animated the turkey using Maya. Rendering was performed in Autodesk’s Arnold, while compositing was done within Foundry’s Nuke.
“Developing animation that holds good character and personality is a real challenge,” says Montefusco. “There’s a huge amount of evolution in the subtleties that ultimately make our turkey ‘the turkey.’”
For the most part, the same turkey model was used for all four spots, although the artists did adapt and change certain aspects — such as the skeleton and simulation meshes – for each as needed in the various scenarios.
For the turkey’s clothing (sweater, knitted vest, scarf, down vest, knitted cap, life vest), the group used Marvelous Designer 3D software for virtual clothes and fabrics, along with Maya and ZBrush. However, as Montefusco explains, tailoring for a turkey is far different than developing CG clothing for human characters. “Seeing as a lot of the clothes that were selected were knit, we really wanted to push the envelope and build the knit with geometry. Even though this made things a bit slower for our effects and lighting team, in the end, the finished clothing really spoke for itself.”
The four commercials also feature unique environments ranging from the interior and exterior of a home to a wooded area and beach. The artists used mostly plates for the environments, except for an occasional tent flap and chair replacement. The most challenging of these settings, says Montefusco, was the beach scene, which required full water replacement for the shot of the turkey on the paddle board.
Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer, covering visual effects and post production.