Untold's talented team of VFX specialists divulge details of the creative process behind these award-winning CG creatures
Devising cute and cuddly characters to help advertise a brand is a widely used and highly effective industry trope, and Untold Studios has delivered many key characters from the biggest creature-led campaigns of the last few years. From a gallivanting photorealistic tortoise, to a mischievous Dorito-eating sloth, it seems there’s nothing their VFX team can't dream up.
Tasked with redesigning Churchill the Dog, a thirty year old brand mascot, the award-winning studio played a pivotal role in reintroducing Churchill insurance to audiences, by giving the beloved character a CG face lift. Following this major achievement, Untold went on to work on a Super Bowl ad for Frito-Lay; a hilarious spot featuring a creature-driven cast led by a kleptomaniac sloth.
Keen to explore the meticulous planning and first-class creativity that goes into these hugely successful spots, LBB’s April Summers speaks to two critical members of the Untold VFX team; Tim Van Hussen, head of animation and Chloe Dawe, character supervisor. The pair dish the dirt on the unforgiving nature of crafting lifelike animals, resisting the urge to keep ‘adding more’, and how they do their best to avoid creatures falling into the ‘Uncanny Valley’ category that haunts the dreams of CG artists.
LBB> What is your process at the very start of a new project?
Tim Van Hussen> Getting on the same page with the director, agency and client is key. Scoping out ideas, testing those ideas, and collaborating with the director and creatives very early on helps to build a strong foundation for our contributions to the project.
Any photorealistic creature job means finding photorealistic references. Lots and lots of references. And then some more. We study every little detail in the animal’s look and behaviour in order to believably create a digital version of the animal. We also ritually sacrifice a baby fox to the CGI gods, for good luck. A CG baby fox, of course. No live animals were hurt in the making of this article!
Chloe Dawe> Reference, reference, reference. We gather all sorts, from close up details, to anatomy. We choose our ‘hero’ reference that we discuss with our clients. Sometimes we take this reference and create a concept of the character using bits and pieces of all the appealing parts we have found – this helps to create our own unique character. Making sure everyone is on the same page from the start is crucial.
Creating a detailed CG creature requires a team of artists equipped with a broad range of skills brought together by meticulous planning. In the early stages of a project we experiment a lot. We create hundreds of sketches, mood boards, concept stills, anatomy studies, animation tests and all sorts of other weird and wonderful experiments, in the name of research and development.
LBB> How does this process differ depending on the requirements of the creative brief?
Tim> More often than not, we get involved in a project because the animals have to do something the real world one (boringly) can’t do. Because it’s CG, you can do just about anything, but that doesn’t mean you should. Over the top design changes or performances that go beyond what would feel natural for that animal, could break the illusion to the point that people go, “that looks like bad CG”. Even worse, it could fall into the ‘Uncanny Valley’, essentially creeping the viewer out bigtime, rather than engaging its audience with a cool message. It’s our job to work closely with the director and agency in that early stage, to get what we want from the animal, while avoiding those pitfalls.
Chloe> When it's a realistic animal, from a character stand point, there is only so much we can push beyond their actual look, before it becomes too stylised or cartoony. In these cases, the rules of the look are a lot more locked down.
With fantasy and character creatures, it’s different. We spend a lot more time going over character sketches - both in 2D and 3D - to work out the look. Quick and loose, finding qualities that either do or do not work, using the bits that work and refining them. This is a fun process and you really connect with the character as you go on this journey of discovery with them and the client.
LBB> When it comes to crafting life-like creatures such as the Gerry the Goose, what aspect of the creative pushes the believability of a character the most?
Tim> Creating lifelike creatures is pretty unforgiving. One flawed aspect and the whole thing collapses. The devil is in the details, and we keep adding and refining details until we really have to stop, to meet that pesky deadline.
When creating a character or creature, we like to come up with character traits, quirks, idiosyncrasies, a backstory even: the creative directors love this part. That foundation helps to steer and unify the thousand tiny creative decisions the artists make when adding imperfections; in the pores, through discolouration, by adding dirt, or creating asymmetry in the face, to name a few. The same backstory helps to inform nuances in the performance. A creature walking can be done a million different ways and our job is to find that version that gets just the right feeling across.
Chloe> It's the attention to detail. Not just the fine stuff, but the very core of the character. We spend a lot of time really refining the silhouette, every angle has to be accounted for. We always have to be thinking; “yes, he looks good from this side, but how will he look when his chins up, or he's looking down. How much of the eye do we realistically see from this angle?” All of these things are looked over again and again until it’s right.
Knowing what to leave out is also important, sometimes there is a drive to add more and more detail, show every scratch, pore or scuff, but nature is a lot more nuanced than that. There is a subtle flow and blend to a natural surface, and showing this blend and difference can make the important details ‘pop’.
LBB> Did you have to overcome any major obstacles during the creation and execution of the Emirates spot? If so, what?
Chloe> Creating feathers for a realistic bird is a complicated affair. A lot of departments have to work closely together to work out options and overcome problems, so there is a lot of trial and error, testing and re-testing.
LBB> In 2019 Untold Studios were tasked with reimagining the iconic character of Churchill the Dog for the company’s rebrand – how did you navigate this?
Tim> A choice had to be made early on: should Churchie look real as part of his redesign? If not, a world of appealing design choices opens up, at the cost of integration into the real world, and true believability. We ended up going for a realistic doggie, which meant we had to be quite strict about making the head bigger, eyes bigger and cuter, mouth smiling – the bread and butter of client requests. It was our responsibility to educate the client about what would and wouldn’t work; a happy dog doesn’t smile like we do, rather it squints its eyes slowly and gently, has a relaxed physique, and maybe wags its tail. That educational element helped build trust and confidence, allowing the client to give us the autonomy to do what we do best.
LBB> How did you ensure Churchill’s movements were true to life?
Tim> It’s all about copying those little behaviours that a real English bulldog showcases. The animators study lots of footage and observe all the bigger things like weight transferring between legs, or timings of feet during a walk. But also the smaller details, like the specific strange rotational movements of the hips when they walk, trot or run, or how the ears slightly change depending on their emotional state, down to the way an eyebrow twitches when the eyes dart, and how the toes squish out just slightly when a foot is planted on the ground.
Dogs are notoriously difficult to create in CG because people are so familiar with them, being a man’s best friend and all. This means that on top of all the little animated details, Churchie wouldn’t look close to real without all its loose skin rolling, flapping and folding about on its body and face. The biggest challenge there was to get that sense of realism, without overdoing it, because Churchie can’t look unappealing, obviously. And if you’ve Googled “English bulldog jumping” you’ll know with all that loose skin their faces can look cute, but also just downright scary.
LBB> The Frito-Lay Superbowl ad is an absurdist spot that combines real animals in a real world environment with unreal movement and reactions. How do you straddle the line between believability and surrealism when crafting characters?
Tim> We quickly agreed that the ad had to start with a sense of realism. Only when the sloth ate a crisp, would things escalate. This meant that the character designs should stay realistic and the performance would be where we broke the rules of reality, in service of a good ol’ laugh.
To keep surprising and entertaining the audience, every subsequent close up of an animal reacting to the spicy snack had to be more extreme than the one before. As things escalated in the story, so did our performances. As soon as you breach that threshold of realism in animal performances, you can ask yourself: “if this can happen, what else can happen?” The answer was a sassy bird, a fox doing ‘The Robot’, and a twerking bear. This kept the film fresh and interesting to watch, but also to create. It was a joy to work on.
LBB> Avanti’s Feel Good Travel spot follows an ambitious tortoise as it journeys across the country on roller skates. Why do you think animals engaging in far-fetched and inconceivable activities have such great appeal?
Chloe> Audiences love animals, and animals doing out of the ordinary things - who doesn't love that!? We just have to look at how animal videos trend to know that a spot like this is going to hit the appealing nerve. The fact that Terri the tortoise has so much joy on his little face connects people to an emotion and a moment, and this feeling of joy is contagious.
LBB> In the Avanti spot, there are a few epic close up shots where the audience gets a peek at Terri the Tortoise’s detailed, hyper-realistic face. How long did it take to finesse the final look of this character?
Chloe> The full character from concept to completion was around 9 weeks. We spent a lot of time throughout the process, refining the character, checking against reference and receiving feedback. The detailing of Terri took the longest time, we had nothing to hide behind, no clothes or fur, so everything needed to be on point.
The sculpting process was very methodical. Starting with the base forms; the overall silhouette, and the bigger shapes of important areas, like the main shell segments. Then onto the medium forms; the ridges that made up the shell segment, each scale and the folds of skin that showed off his characteristic long neck. The high detail, this is where we get in super close and map out all the small striations on every ridge of his shell, the small skin peels on his scales, the fine wrinkles around the scales and then on top of this, and background noise that made all the tiny dimples on each scale.
Through each step there was a lot of sharing between our look development and texture teams, to make sure we were all on the same page and that each detail was brought out to its full potential.