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How CGI in Commercials Changed the History of Film: A Creative Cow Magazine Extra

COW Library : Adobe After Effects Techniques : Steve Wright : How CGI in Commercials Changed the History of Film: A Creative Cow Magazine Extra
A Creative COW Magazine Extra


How CGI in Commercials Changed the History of Film

Steve Wright

Steve Wright
Los Angeles California
©Steve Wright and CreativeCow.net. All rights reserved.




Article Focus:

While digital compositing is what I do, I started out as a CGI artist working on television commercials. For me, it all started on Super Bowl Sunday, 1984 - "Super Sunday," the showcase for all cool new commercials. A spot came on with a sexy robot pitching the virtues of packaging food in cans for the Canned Food Information Council (a spot entitled "Brilliance," created by Ketcham Advertising). It blew me away!




Having a nodding acquaintance with CGI at the time, what impressed me was the incredibly svelte motion of the robot. It was smooth, graceful, sensual - and totally beyond the capability of the stiff robotic motion of early CGI keyframe technology.

I suddenly realized that television commercials like this were pushing the envelope of early CGI development, and I just had to be a part of it. Within six months I was working at Robert Abel and Associates in Hollywood, the award-winning television commercial production company that produced Brilliance, the Super Bowl's first computergenerated 30-second spot.

I then found out the secret to the sexy robot. Remember, this was years before motion capture. They painted some spots on an aspiring actress, sat her on a swivel chair, and filmed her from two angles simultaneously so they could match the robot's moves to the actress's from these two views. It was the world's first eye-match motion capture!

A small fortune was spent developing this ground-breaking spot, and it played exactly once.

The sexy robot is a perfect example of how television commercials have played a critical early role in propelling CGI technology forward. The brilliant creative director at the Ketcham agency who hired Robert Abel had a grand vision, but not the foggiest idea of how to produce it. However, they did have lots of money - often, the real stuff of progress.


FROM THE GROUND UP

In 1985 you didn't purchase CGI software, you wrote it. Abel had a software department with some 25 programmers and they pushed the envelope of CGI software for each and every spot they worked on.

Some of his programming team later went on to found Wavefront Technologies, the first company to sell off-the-shelf 3D software for the production world. Wavefront was acquired by Silicon Graphics in 1994, and integrated with code from a former competitor, becoming Alias|Wavefront in the process.

All of the early players in the CGI game were producing spots for broadcast. They offered a unique juxtaposition of forces, as illustrated by the sexy robot story. Television commercials had very high production budgets, as much as a million dollars for a 30 second spot - outrageous at the time - combined with an insatiable thirst for ever more stunning visuals. CGI was the new thing that could deliver these stunning visuals.

But why would anybody spend $1 million for a television commercial? Because they are going to spend $25 million or more on the air time! Who in their right mind would want to lower the commercial's impact to save a few bucks?

These outrageous costs subsidized a large software development department that wrote the new software required for each commercial. The previously written software was developed just enough to produce the last commercial, so it always needed to be enhanced for the next.

There were two problems with this approach: first, it took months to produce a 30 second spot; second, the software was not general purpose. Software was written specifically for a single commercial, and was therefore limited and incomplete.

These two issues prevented early CGI from being useful for feature films and kept it relegated to the rarified atmosphere of high-end commercials.

CGI Commercials
Above and below: Images taken from one of the earliest CGI commercials, "Brilliance" by Ketcham Advertising, 1984.
CGI Commercials


SUPERCOMPUTERS

There was another major obstacle to feature film work, and that was the rendering time. At Abel's, the computer room harbored two "super- mini" computers, each with a 1 Megahertz CPU, with 10 megabytes of RAM and a 500 megabyte hard drive. Wow!

The video resolution images were rendered in upwards of one hour per frame. They were then sent to a RasterTech frame buffer over Ethernet for viewing on a monitor.

To lay off to videotape, a 1" reel-to-reel videotape machine was rented for the weekend. It was connected to a Lyon-Lamb animation controller that allowed it to lay down one frame of video at a time.

Since videotape has to be moving to lay down a frame, the Lyon-Lamb controller commanded the tape deck to back up, pre-roll, then do an insert edit for each frame, one frame at a time, for the 900 frames of a 30 second spot. It took almost three hours to lay a 30 second spot off to tape.

Today, of course, the "Brilliance" spot could be done by a part-time high-school student on a desktop computer in a week.

From The Last Starfighter
The Last Starfighter, ©1984 Lorimar Film Entertainment


FROM TV COMMERCIALS TO THE MOVIE SCREEN

There were some early efforts to use CGI for feature films, but these were mostly brief "cameo" appearances. One of the earliest was the title sequence for "The Black Hole" (1979, Disney) - done by Robert Abel - featuring a wild ride down the throat of a green wireframe black hole.

Early 3D animations used vectors instead of bitmapped graphics to save rendering time. The Evans and Sutherland PS-300 vector graphics display could play back a wireframe animation in real time, with one limitation: the monitor was monochrome.

To make colored vector graphics, the vectors were separated into color groups - all the red vectors in this file, the green vectors in that file, etc. Then a 35mm camera was parked in front of the PS-300 monitor to film off of it. Add a color wheel with colored gels, and you're ready to go.

Start at the beginning of the shot, put up the vectors that are to be red, rotate the red gel in front of the camera lens, then shoot the entire shot one frame at a time.

When done, back the film up to the first frame, call up the green vectors and the green gel, and repeat.

It worked surprisingly well and several color vector graphic projects were done this way until raster graphics became more practical.

The first major use of CGI in a feature film was "The Last Starfighter" (1984) by Digital Productions. To render the high resolution images required by a feature film in a reasonable amount of time, Digital Productions used a Cray X-MP supercomputer (cost: $15 million) and used only phong shading - no texture maps. The resulting shiny metal appearance worked well for the shots of spaceships in outer space, which was the only place it was used. It's a marvelous example of working within the limits of the technology.

Other cameos followed. Examples that come to mind are the stained glass knight in "Young Sherlock Holmes" (1985, Lucasfilm), a brief morph shot in "Willow" (1988, Lucasfilm), and the water weenie in "The Abyss" (1989, ILM).

CGI Commercials
A few of the images and commercials created by Robert Abel and Associates at the dawn of CGI


BULLET-TIME: AHEAD OF ITS TIME

Around 1994 I had another "bolt upright" moment. In this spot a man was leisurely hosing off the side of his car, when suddenly the scene froze and the camera whipped around to the front of the car.

What I couldn't figure out was how could the water freeze in mid-air like that? If it was CGI, how could it match the camera move? This was years before motion tracking.

Little did I know it at the time but I had just been dazzled by my first "bullet- time" shot, years before The Matrix made it famous.

One thing to keep in mind, however. I was jolted by the mysterious technology used to create the shot due to my background in digital effects, but the average viewer does not know a pixel from a hockey puck. It's not the dazzling technology that makes great spots, it's great design.

If the sight of the water frozen in mid-air fascinated the viewer, then the design was a success. If the viewer shrugs and moves on, the technology was wasted. Remember: technology alone does not intrigue.

3D CGI Imagery
Some of Steve's early 3D CGI imagery


CHEAPER. FASTER. HIGHER RESOLUTION.

Starting in the early '90s with "Terminator 2" (1991, ILM), "Jurassic Park" (1993, ILM) and others, photorealistic CGI was becoming good enough, fast enough, and (relatively) cheap enough to begin to be used in the high resolution long-form of feature films.

At this point the feature film industry took over as the driving force advancing CGI development. There were now huge software departments with a hundred programmers to expand the software and support the production of big-budget feature films.

Cheaper and faster computers became available that were hurled at the all-important rendering time problem. Of course, as computer power has expanded logarithmically, the rendering requirements have expanded exponentially - hair, fur, cloth and water sims, global illumination models, high dynamic range images, and massive particle systems.

So we still have rendering times of several hours per frame for feature film, even with these massive increases in computing power. It seems that no matter how advanced the technology becomes, there are always wildeyed art directors out there with a grand vision and no idea how to do it. Bless them.


Steve Wright Steve Wright Los Angeles, California

Steve Wright, author of the book "Digital Compositing for Film & Video," looks at some of his favorite commercials. With more than twenty years experience creating broadcast television commercials and feature films, Steve's opinions may surprise you or help you recall some of your own favorites. Steve's credits include over 70 broadcast commercials and 50 feature films. Steve began his career with the legendary Robert Abel & Associates, pioneers of many techniques that birthed modern effects and production methods. Steve has also served as Technical Director at Kodak's famed Cinesite Hollywood studios.



Creative Cow MagazineFor his article in the Creative Cow Magazine's "Commercial" Issue, film compositor, VFX artist, animator and Creative Cow Contributing Editor Steve Wright (Ray, Traffic, Blade: Trinity, Never Die Alone and 60 others), told how the computer graphics animation technology we see in film today actually originated in the world of commercial advertising. (He knows. He was there.)

You don't want to miss those stories, so click the image at left for the 6 MB PDF download of the full issue.

In this Creative Cow Magazine Extra, Steve provides even more details, including the demo reel for CGI pioneers Robert Abel & Associates, and a great spot that Steve created for Volkswagen...with cows!


Here is a nostalgic collection of early CGI work for television commercials. The most stunning entry is the Robert Abel demo reel. He combined both creative genius and advanced technical development to make some of the most impressive CGI commercials in the earliest days of CGI. In those days you didn't buy 3D software, you wrote it!

A few early CGI commercials are described here which were produced in my Hollywood CGI studio "Sidley Wright & Associates." Primitive by today’s standards, they were at the bleeding edge of technology back in the days when a pixel was really a pixel.

Also included is a full-length :30 second spot of one of the Fahrvergnugen commercials mentioned in the magazine article – in black and white!

 


Robert Abel reel
Click on the Abel icon at left to travel down memory lane and view an incredibly early Abel demo reel from around 1986.

These were the days when phong shading with texture maps was a major technological coup. CGI was so precious and primitive that even some of the early render tests of the new shaders written at Abel’s were included in the demo reel!

The demo reel was an artful edit of commercials, industrials, TV show openers, raster and vector projects, all synchronized to the throbbing beat of "The Art of Noise." A real show-stopper at Siggraph and NAB in 1986, this incredibly exciting piece is not to be missed!




The twisted wingtip shoe shown here is from a 1992 CGI commercial for Regal Shoe, a top quality shoe manufacturer in Japan.

CGI shoe


The feature they wanted to illustrate is how their shoe was incredibly good at absorbing moisture. (I guess the Japanese have real sweaty feet). We modeled and texture mapped the shoe from a physical model (they gave us a real shoe!) then twisted it up with a simple deformation matrix - a big deal back then.

The water was not cgi – there were no fluid dynamic sims back then. I hired an animator (a real animator that could draw on paper) then scanned in his drawings and converted them all to simple black and white mattes. I then used the Pixar compositing computer to image process the animated mattes to look like water.

This spot actually won a “Denstu”, which is the Japanese Clio award.





Here is a very early (1989) example of live action in a CGI environment done for DreamQuest Films before they realized they were spending too much money at my studio and created their own CGI department.


CGI Mitsubishi

They shot live action film of the two cars, the Mitsbishi Diamante and Emeraude, driving all around an insert stage. We then built a CGI environment and hand-tracked the 3D camera to match move with the cars.

The cars had to be roto’d because they didn't have a greenscreen stage large enough, and you just don’t shoot shiny green objects on a green screen anyway.

The speckles in the air were diamond (Diamante) and emerald (Emeraude) shards which rained down over the cars during the entire spot.





“The Addams Family Groove” was a very early music video (1991) for HBO featuring MC Hammer.

CGI Mitsubishi


The gag was that the puckish Addams kids chopped off Hammer’s head with a guillotine and we had to show his still-rapping head bouncing along the floor.

This being years before the days of Cyberscan, I sat MC Hammer on a chair mounted to a turntable with a motor. He sat still while we filmed him turning 360 degrees, then I took thin strips from the center of each film frame and merged them together to make a Mercator projection of MC Hammer’s head. This was then spherically projected around a 3D head. The lips were animated with a deformation matrix to give the impression of him singing.

It worked well enough for video.





Creative Cow animation
Click on the Fahrvergnugen icon to view another early (1990) commercial where a live action car was placed in an all 3D environment we did for DreamQuest Films.

The whole gag was to start the commercial as a simple 2D black and white Fahrvergnugen logo, then seamlessly transition into a 3D world with the car driving through it.

The live action car was shot first on film then delivered as video. Since this was before Boujou and MatchMover Pro, the 3D scene and camera had to be hand-tracked using the back-to-back arrangement of SGI machines described in the magazine article.

Ah, those were the days!

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