A 2D/3D Mashup at 2K and 24p
How Nailgun* Developed a New Workflow for Four Mercury Cinema Spots
Watch the spots and listen to the audio commentary to hear Waldron and van der Wilden talk about refining the visual style, then read the article to get a picture of the workflow.
Watch the spots …
The idea was to create a lifestyle spot that would suggest a colorful, evocative environment for the Mercury Milan and Mercury Mariner Hybrid. And the message had to be conveyed in roughly eight to 10 seconds, before the appearance of an end tag directing viewers to a special URL (
The first surprise of the project came when 3D models of the cars involved showed up on Nailgun*’s doorstep as gigantic CAD files – insanely detailed but way too complicated to be useful in a 3D VFX pipeline. “We said, Ã¢Â€Â˜This is a little big – do you have anything less heavy?’ And they said, Ã¢Â€Â˜Oh, we use this every day!’” recalls Waldron.
“But they’re not moving it,” says van der Wilden. “They’re just plopping it into a space and having a look at it.” Fortunately, Nailgun* knew a freelance artist who had previous experience working with CAD data, so he was hired to strip out unnecessary triangles, engine data, and other internal materials that would never be seen by the virtual camera. In the end, the model was reduced from about 200,000 polygons to just 20,000, and most of the exterior of the car was rebuilt from scratch. “It’s pretty much de rigeur,” says van der Wilden. “That’s the basic workpath, always, when you work with CADs. It was amazing – just the polygon counts in the tires, with all the treads, were off the charts.”
Nailgun had done car spots before, including a Toyota Scion job that required traditional rotoscoping to put live-action car footage into a virtual world, but this was the first time it really had to deal with a full-on mix of 2D After Effects and 3D Maya materials. “We were six or seven 3D artists and a couple of compositors, and when we were first awarded the job, we decided to really nail down how we were going to go from Maya to After Effects,” van der Wilden explains. “There are a couple of quirks. If you want to work in Maya, you have to set the camera to millimeters, which translates into much more space inside your After Effects composition when you’re placing other objects. This was a mix of a photorealistic 3D car, other graphic elements created in Maya, and a sprinkling of 2D elements, so we had to make sure those 2D elements lived in the proper space in After Effects first and foremost.
“After that, we worked on how we wanted the camera to move in space with the arrows and cars. Once we were happy with that, the data was handed to the other 3D artists, so they could start working with their data in that space. How it works with After Effects is, you bake the camera and anumber of nodes you want to translate [in Maya] and send that to After Effects. And then you can bake another set of nodes and share that back in After Effects. It really worked great.”
The spots were the first cinema spots Nailgun* had done, so it was an induction into the world of 2K and 24p. If anything, van der Wilden says 24p was a “blessing in disguise,” because it meant six fewer frames had to be rendered for every second of footage. Aspect ratios were a bit of a hassle, since early tests in Detroit-area theaters proved that the projected area of a film frame was going to be different from venue to venue. The project was finished at 1.85:1, providing a sort of safe area at the top and bottom of the frame but a 2.35:1 viewing area (actually closer to 2.39:1 after the theatrical tests) was meant to be projected. “I created a layover grid for everyone to work from,” says van der Wilden. “Just like when we do our “two-way” HD projects – meaning they want the graphics to be center-justified safe because they’re going to cut the pillars off on the side for SD – I just created an overlay for the artists to work with. The most important action had to live inside the grid, but we wanted the rest filled. In case they wanted 4×3, they’d have the ability to do some pan and scan. And then of course our title safe area was a little farther in-frame, just to make sure the URL was visible everywhere.”
The biggest boon to the rendering farm came when Nailgun* invested in a high-end Mac workstation running the new dual-core processors from Intel. It yielded a 300 to 400 percent increase in render speed over the systems that had previously been in use. “We render on a number of boxes, but that one blows right by everything else,” van der Wilden says. “I’m not sure why, except that they are the newest Intel processors, and the pipeline on that side is incredibly clean. Granted, we’re rendering in the terminal window, so we’re doing command-line renders with no graphics overhead.” He cites Gridiron’s Nucleo Pro rendering system as a great way to maximize your use of multi-processor machines.
Tweaking render times has become critically important to Nailgun* as it enters a new world of 3D animation. “The more we get involved with 3D, the more we start to go backwards in terms of render time,” Waldron says. “This type of render might take 15 to 20 minutes if it’s After Effects-based, and now it’s an hour because it’s Maya. Adding more 3D is great creatively, but it always puts more and more pressure on the render side. We’re always trying to figure out ways to better the rendering process.”
Nailgun is also moving further into the realm of live-action production, including some recent promo work for Sundance Channel’s One Punk Under God series, and the HD transition is, of course, a big concern. “If anything, we’re constantly questioning any new client walking in proposing a job to make sure they’re not going to midstream us and say, Ã¢Â€Â˜Oh, by the way, we need an HD version,’” says van der Wilden. “We’ve had that experience, and it’s very difficult. Most of the clients are doing 1080i, and that’s six times the size of an SD frame.”
“They’ll say, Ã¢Â€Â˜In three months we might need HD, but we’ll worry about that in three months,’” Waldron says. “And I say, Ã¢Â€Â˜You might want to worry about that now.’”