If you need a CG handheld phone to execute jumps and take turns like a pro, you’d better ask a veteran skateboarder how it’s done. That’s what The Mill NY did when BBDO Atlanta approached them about creating a fully CG commercial promoting Pantech Wireless’ sponsorship of the Snowboarding 2011 Dew Tour.
Mill editor and longtime skater Ryan McKenna pored over skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing videos for inspiration while working alongside creative director Mario Stipinovich, design director Jeff Stevens and art director Emmett Dzieza on the spot. The result is a stylized world that artfully combines illustration, cubist geometry and motion with the help of Maxon’s Cinema 4D, Autodesk’s Maya, After Effects and a little bit of Houdini and Softimage.
Because BBDO had a pretty open-ended brief, The Mill enjoyed the kind of creative freedom designers long for with this project. “We knew we needed to target the young, Dew Tour demographic and that the phone had to do some of the things from the tour like skiing, skateboarding and snowboarding,” Dzieza recalls. “So we took the ball and ran with it in terms of developing the look and what the story would be.”
The Pantech phone’s shape steered the creative team toward designing around board sports related to the tour since it “would have been a hard sell to make it behave like a BMX bike,” Stipinovich says, laughing. After doing some research on various types of moves, the team presented a reference board of some angles from surfing and skateboard photography that they thought were particularly cinematic. “It’s was a mood board, really, that showed how we could show off the phone in a beautiful way,” Stipinovich explains.
Once the board was approved, they moved on to creating a more linear storyboard and a live-action edit that helped with workflow. Working in the same room together for the duration of the project enabled The Mill’s core team to collaborate while still sticking to their tight deadline—just three weeks from pitch to finished 30-second spot. “We had an editor, a 3D artist working on previs and Emmett and Jeff were building the skeleton of the thing,” says Stipinovich. All told, 26 artists worked on the spot.
“It was an amazing collaboration,” Dzieza adds, pointing out the importance of having “realistic” moves. “It had to be something someone could actually do, and that would have been hard if we hadn’t had a reference edit for the 3D.” In the end, the previs took four days to complete, but it was so thorough it became the final animation of the phone.
Real-life moves became real tricks for the crossover phone in the hands of 3D animators Ross Scroble and Sam Crees, making it possible to lock an edit in the first week of production. “Ryan’s edit gave us the cut points and transitions, and he was able to sort from existing footage for about 75 percent of this thing,” Stipinovich says. “We definitely tweaked it to our needs, but the edit he built really helped us with a schedule.”
It was freelance illustrator and designer Bryan Louie’s job to turn those modernist visions into illustrated environments the 3D artists could build off of. “We’ve worked with Bryan before and he’s amazing, so we gave him free reign to do what he wanted to do,” says Stipinovich.
Once the animation and look were finalized, the design team used CINEMA 4D to make the environments come alive. “It was great and it allowed us to projection map the illustrations onto the geometry we built,” Dzieza explains. “It was a seamless workflow because we were able to map illustrations onto the geometry so easily with CINEMA’s Projection Man.”
This project was one of the first big jobs for which The Mill NY has used C4D. “And it really expanded our capabilities with Cinema a lot,” says Stipinovich, adding that projection mapping was used most often but for some scenes they did unwrap the UV’s so they could work with BodyPaint. They created snow shaders and crystal rock shaders that came in handy for the skiing scene and Cinema’s Sketch and Toon helped them add a dynamic, graphic look. The Pantech phone was created with Maya and XSI.
Artists used Cinema 4D’s Dynamics to get the icicles hanging from the railing in that scene to drop and fall to the ground. “The snow scene was the heaviest C4D scene because there is a lot of refraction happening in the crystals that line the slope,” says Dzieza. (Those who look closely at the snowy mountains will spot a few Easter eggs, including a yeti.)
Creating the wave for the surf scene turned out to be the most challenging thing to pull off, Dzieza says. After making the shape of the wave in C4D and adding an animated textured created with After Effects, artists handed the geometry to a couple of particle specialists who work in Maya and XSI.
“With a shot like this it’s all about the details and we needed the water to look realistic, but we also wanted a graphic look,” he says. To achieve this, the particle specialists did a number of passes for the crest of the wave and trail of the phone and then brought it all back into After Effects for compositing. “The smallest inconsistency with one of these particle animations and it just looks wrong, so it was a pretty big bite to take off for such a short amount of time and I think every artist on the project touched that scene.”