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Issue: December 1, 2007

COVER STORY: 'FELIZ NAVIDAD'

By: Ken McGorry
MONTREAL — He's kindly, jolly and committed to the spirit of Christmas, but Coca-Cola Mexico's new CG Santa Claus is a far cry from Haddon Sundblom's classic paintings of a Coke-loving St. Nick.

Mexico is Coke's second-largest worldwide market and, of course, they're in business to sell soft drinks. But it's hard to beat the charm and flare that Montreal-based Buzz Image Group has infused into this new, all-CG spot currently running in Mexico. Produced for Mexican agency Z Publicidad, the :30, Sala de Juntas,features a new Santa and heralds a Christmas-themed promotional offer: four quaint, plastic toy homes, done up in snowy holiday style, made available to Coke customers who do the right thing with redeemable Coke bottle caps. Each toy home includes a featured character in residence: a reindeer, a penguin, Coke's classic polar bear and, the most classic of all, Santa himself waving outside his frosty-looking North Pole address.

Buzz, officially known as Groupe Image Buzz (www.buzzimage.com), actually does a lot of business creating CG and VFX for Mexican commercials, says VFX producer Ashlee Lynn Wismach. She moved to Buzz about a year ago from Riot in Santa Monica. Buzz employs a Mexican liaison, producer Francisco "Paco" Munoz, who helps with "cross continental" work such as this. "Munoz plays a big role in translation, and is the one who meets with the clients in Mexico, and produces on his end," says Wismach. He is based in Mexico, and travels for each project with the Mexican client to Montreal for meetings.

In the new Coke Mexico :30, the characters, who come with the four holiday homes, appear fully realized (well, not too fully), 3D-animated and Spanish-speaking — all with well defined personas. We see the characters meeting at a conference table in Santa's toy factory with the Jolly Old Elf presiding. The dialogue makes plain how Coke fans can get their own Christmas-themed toy homes and even create a light-up holiday village.

FACTORY WORK

One challenge for Buzz was to pitch —and then execute — not just the four talkative characters but the complexity of a working toy factory chugging away in the background. But taking on the responsibility of set design and creation had its benefits for CG artists — for one thing, they could completely control lighting and shading in a universe of their own creation. And it cost a lot less. 

"The agency avoided a huge production cost. This was a good bargaining tool for us as well as being able to do the set all in 3D. Makes everyone happy," Wismach says. "We requested doing everything in 3D because it's more fun for us — we want to do more 3D. And we would save having to go through a production house and do that whole production of the shoot. The background is immense: balloons [floating] with little baskets holding gifts, conveyor belts with gifts, a train going all around the factory." Sunlight filters into the scene through a large background window and illuminates a tall Christmas tree.

All told, 22 Buzz staffers touched the spot, 3D project lead Guillaume Mainville says, with seven to 10 at work at any one time. Sandra Germain was animation director on Sala de Junta. Buzz has a 50-plus animation department working on numerous projects at once and has about 40 seats of Softimage|XSI at its disposal.

CHARACTER

Since the Buzz team modeled the spot's four characters — all in XSI — after plastic toys, they could not stray far from their toy models, and they had a fairly easy time animating the stars. "They are very simple and they don't have too much texture," says Mainville. "It had to look like plastic stuff —generic material," says 3D animation lead David St-Amant. "There's some reflection, lighting and subsurface scattering, creating shadows between objects, but it was very simple shading."

For added detail "we had to do some Spanish lip-sync," St-Amant says, "and we had to do a bit of research to know how to pronounce every word." Lighting the polar bear was tricky, especially in the spot's shadowy corporate boardroom environment. "The bear is completely white," says Mainville. "It's really hard."

RENDERING AND NETWORKING

Oddly enough, despite the complexity of the Mexican Coke spot, "The render time was not so bad," says Mainville. "A big problem in rendering was the little tiny rail of the train. It was very tiny and it made noise so we had to render it double or three times the size of the real spot to get this tiny line. For the foreground [on the conference table], there was a lot of reflection."

The Buzz staff is very pleased with their proprietary browser-controlled internal networking set-up. It allows simultaneous collaboration. "We call it the Buzz Browser," says Mainville. "It thinks rather than making us think! All our files are on the same hard drive so everyone can see what everyone else is doing. When we are rendering we can use it to flip a sequence in an easier way than the classic Windows Explorer. That accelerates the process in reviewing stuff and sending out QuickTimes for approval."

In working with Z Publicidad, Wismach says they encountered "the best agency producer ever —Cristina Pina. It was such a great project because we had such flexibility and creative leeway. There's a whole long line of people that we need to make happy and it all went pretty smoothly."