Tips and insights from the creators of the world’s best fake creatures.
You might have noticed that advertising likes animals. They’re cute, fun and universally liked by people of all creeds, cultures and classes. Animal ideas are easy to sell to clients and they seem to do the job.
But while they’re great on paper, working with animals is problematic. Some of them are dangerous, with big pointy teeth and a taste for human flesh. Most of them are quite uncooperative. Every producer has a repertoire of nightmare stories about the lengths they had to go to getting animals to behave in just the right ways.
And often creatives want them to act in ways that are literally impossible. Talking, laughing, moonwalking. Talk about unrealistic expectations.
On top of that, we live in enlightened times. We’re more aware than ever that film sets aren’t always the kindest places for some animals. “It’s become very unfashionable to have real animals in your ad,” says director Ben Liam Jones, who recently directed a commercial for Center Parcs featuring a family of CG bears. “Brands are shit scared about being associated with animal cruelty.” And they’re right to be. In this age of transparency corporations need to be more ethically conscious than ever.
Thankfully, there’s a solution to all of these problems in the magic of computer-generated imagery. And it’s more of an option than ever. Much can be learnt from the key points in the history of CG critters, so we tried to identify those defining examples on the timeline.
A Brief History
Faking creatures on film goes back to the days of model making and stop-frame animation, the most iconic examples being The Wizard of Oz, whose flying monkeys scare today’s iPad-native kids almost 80 years on and Jason and the Argonauts – probably the most iconic example of stop-motion monster wrangling. “There’s a rich texture to Jason and the Argonauts that you’d never get if you did it in CG now,” says Darren O’Kelly, Managing Director at The Mill. “That is part of what makes that a great film.”
It seems Jurassic Park is an emotional touchstone for everyone involved in CGI. As the first time CG creatures had been used extensively, it was astounding how believable those dinosaurs were in 1993, despite its huge feature film budget. It was a jump into the unknown – a truly groundbreaking moment. In fact, they almost did it all in stop-frame animation, but changed their minds. “There are early tests of almost identical scenes but using stop-frame animation,” enthuses Neil Davies, Executive Creative Director at The Mill. “But they took the risk. Someone said ‘let’s just see what we can do in CG’ and they did amazingly.”
Building on Jurassic Park’s experimentation, which amounted to just a few minutes of CG over the whole film, Framestore took on the task around five years later of creating three hours of wall-to-wall CG beasts for 1999’s Walking With Dinosaurs. “That was a breakthrough in terms of the practicality of doing something on that scale that before had been the reserve of feature films,” says William Bartlett, ECD at Framestore. “And I think that’s true of a lot of things. Feature films have the bigger budgets and can go to much further extremes.”
Around this time the big breakthroughs in fur hit the CG world. Pixar’s Monsters Inc. was something of a gamechanger in 2001. But most CG was still firmly stuck in the fantastical – we weren’t seeing bears or cats just yet, just cuddly characters in kids’ films.
It would be a few years still before advertising would meet CG creatures. Early work that stands out is Danny Kleinman’s oddball 2005 spot for Guinness, noitulovE, which integrated some Framestore-made CG animals with older model-making and stop-motion techniques to win the Film Grand Prix in Cannes. That was followed closely by Noam Murro’s ad for Sure, Go Wild, which integrated CG into live action in a way that was very ahead of its time.
Progress towards photo-real animals continued to be made, with the shock factor of polar bears falling from the sky in Plane Stupid’s 2009 climate activism film setting a new bar for convincing realism, while Passion Pictures unleashed the unforgettable meerkats on the world and in 2010 Tron: Legacy took impressive steps across the Uncanny Valley of CG humans. The Life of Pi gave us an animal that, for many people, passed as real, at least until you considered how uninsurable shooting a tiger on a small boat would have been.
But between 2013 and 2014 something clicked and everything fell into place to flood the advertising world with CG animals. First Direct’s Platypus and Little Frill commercials struck the delicate balance of creating talking animals that didn’t look cartoony. Helmed by Dom & Nic backed by MPC wizardry, they reached the level of physical realism that made a straight-talking photo-real platypus a viable brand mascot.
2014 also brought another piece of breakthrough creature work from Framestore and Danny Kleinman, the remarkable resurrection of Audrey Hepburn for Galaxy – a new high-water mark for believable fake humans, unnerving as it was for some.
The Mill were busy at this time too, working to deliver the realism ad agencies had been waiting for, using their incredible chimpanzee for PETA as a proof of concept and building on that to create Maya – the SSE orang-utan that set a new bar for believable CG creatures.
“The orang-utan really took things on to a new level,” remember Dom & Nic. Having recently worked on CG animals of their own, they appreciated the challenges the ape must have presented for director Frederic Planchon. “We may often think something is really well done but also know it’s CG. This was the first occasion we remember where people in the industry debated whether they had used a real orang-utan for some of the close ups.”
Finally, rounding off an incredible year for CG animals, Dougal Wilson and MPC served up the most emotionally potent example of all – Monty the Penguin. We’d finally reached the point where a sympathetic, even loveable, CG animal was possible.
The standards were set. Animation experts with a critical eye could pick holes, but by 2014 agencies knew that with the right idea, budget and talent, they could convince audiences to believe a CG animal was real. Amusingly, some people were hoodwinked by the Three pony.
“For a while we were not allowed to say anything about the ponies,” remembers Tim van Hussen, a 3D Animator at MPC. “They had a pony trainer talking about teaching them to moonwalk.”
By the time we reached SSE’s orang-utan, practically everyone not in filmmaking assumed she was real. “I’m convinced my mother would assume it’s real,” says William. “It wouldn’t cross her mind to think about it.”
What it Takes
That’s awesome, but advertisers shouldn’t get preoccupied with whether or not they can use CG animals; they should first stop to think if they should. Even the CG nerds stress that it should only be used as a last resort.
“As much as we would like to talk people into giving us work, we’re also mindful of what’s practical and cost effective,” says William. “We can’t get a lot of work in the long run if we constantly advise our clients to do things which don’t make sense. Most people give their honest opinion and that quite often is ‘don’t do that in post. Shoot it.’”
As Dom & Nic put it, real animals are still best “in all instances where it’s possible for a real animal to give the performance you require as a director without causing any harm or distress to that animal.” They might be difficult to work with, but living creatures provide delightful surprises on set that might be just the random touch script need to achieve brilliance. Great directing feeds off that kind of serendipity.
“You reach that point where why would we not just eventually shoot everything in CG,” suggests Diarmid Harrison-Murray, Creative Director of 3D at MPC. “But when you’ve built it all yourself, nothing is going to bring emotion that surprises you. If you film stuff there are emergent phenomena that you didn’t know were going to come out.”
Processing power, software and techniques obviously form the basis from which these jumps forward were made, but in the two decades between Jurassic Park and the orang-utan a gradual process of learning took place, where the world’s post-production leaders built up the knowledge and skills needed to unleash the power of today’s technology.
“I love when people start getting out the counters in case study videos,” says Tim, illustrating the point, “as if people care how many brushes Michelangelo used. That kind of technical detail that is totally irrelevant to the creative effort and the critical eye that people applied – the teamwork, the late hours, the drive.”
Making something look believable takes technique. When Frederic Planchon, director on SSE, asked Neil what he could do to make Maya look her best, his answer was to make it as difficult as possible for the CG team to get her into the scene. Nobody would shoot a real animal with a locked off camera, constantly in focus, not moving very much. “That ends up looking weird and sterile,” says Neil. “You’re losing all the cinematography and direction.” As a director, Ben appreciates this. “You need to show off on a couple of shots to show how good the CG is. A few amazing shots and you’ll buy the rest of it.”
None of this work was made in a vacuum. Every piece of CG animation draws on the lessons learned from previous jobs. Some artists, like Diarmid, have spent years specialising in birds. Apparently Jon Favreau referenced some of MPC’s commercial bird work when creating creatures for the new Jungle Book movie. The Mill’s orang-utan probably played its part there too. Considering budgetary and time constraints, it’s impressive the impact that commercial CG is having on Hollywood. But everything is interrelated.
It’s hard to overstate the role that attention to detail plays in all this. The range of topics CG artists have to learn about is extraordinary. Imagine having to replicate the physics of how a primate’s fur reacts to gravity, wind and light all at once.
And it’s not just perfectionism. That level of scrutiny is vital. “The human eye is incredibly sophisticated,” says Darren. “You know instinctively whether it’s right or wrong. I watched a CG squirrel that had been created recently and on the surface it looked like a squirrel. But when it moved it looked like a CG squirrel. Because all the attention to detail that goes into building it from the inside out was not done to the same degree.”
These creatures are built with full skeletal and muscular systems these days to make sure they move in a believable way. Artists on each of these flagship jobs spent weeks, even months learning things like how penguins’ bodies stretch when they jump, making them look like completely different animals.
“They’ve got a crazy long neck, which to a biologist is really interesting,” says Diarmid. “To us it makes things difficult because there are approximations we have to make to try and build their shape.”
Neil remembers how the guys modelling, rigging and animating for SSE were immersed in anatomy books, even pictures of dissected apes, so they could understand how the muscle structure works.
“What’s crazy about what we do here is we’ve now got 10 or more people upstairs that know more than anybody should know about orang-utans,” says Darren.
Once you’ve nailed the realism, a director can decide how to use artistic licence to make a compelling film. References are a rich source inspiration for directors and thanks to YouTube, trips to the zoo are no longer the only way to get these.
On Ben’s recent work for Center Parcs this was a tough balance. Bears are killers, but they had to look friendly. He had to watch about 20 bear documentaries to find the movements he needed to humanise them. “I realised they can convey a lot of emotion. They just do it in a very different way to an orang-utan. Their body posture, their noses are wet and they breathe heavily and there are natural things they do that I can nick to make a sad point or whatever. So it was real but we took some of the movements associated with bears and applied human emotions. We had to adjust sizes as well, because some of them, like the brown bear are ten feet tall. I think it’s a balance for us.”
Dougal Wilson watched endless archive BBC wildlife footage to make Monty, finding moments when real penguins looked most human. But it’s a risk to take that sort of anthropomorphising too far. “We had very strict creative guidelines not to stray into Happy Feet with it,” says Diarmid.
All of these aspects are important to create a great CG animal in an ad, but the single most important factor is time – something all too scarce in the ad industry.
Simon French, Head of Integrated Advertising at Framestore, puts it very clearly: “How good something looks is a factor of the time you spend on it. The thing that enables something to be great is painstaking time and commitment. Whereas sometimes you have to produce and ad in two months instead of ten months and it might have the same goal. Inevitably that ad done in two won’t look as good.”
London is the global centre for post-production. Artists at the VFX houses here come from all over the world and the skills they’ve built up over decades of experience is mind blowing. The resources are there to bring to life any creature you can dream up. It looks like we’re stuck with singing cats and dancing ponies for the foreseeable future.