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August 2014
Issue: June 1, 2011

Cover Story: Building a better bug for Off

By: Randi Altman

MONTREAL — For SC Johnson’s newest Off product, Technicolor Creative Services Montreal was tasked with creating not one, but three distinct mosquitoes who prey on a couple camping in the woods.

The agency, Draft FCB Chicago, once again called on TCS Montreal (www.technicolor.com), who modeled, textured and animated the mosquitoes that had appeared in previous Off campaigns. But this wasn’t a slam dunk for the studio; TCS decided to push the envelope a bit in order to renew the contract. The result was some angry bugs with strong personalities who buzz around in the new Man Out Of Tent spot.

VFX supervisor/creative director Andre Ü Montambeault (pictured below) was on set during the live-action shoot, which took place in Santiago, Chile. Below he explains the process.

POST: How early did the agency get you involved?

ANDRE Ü MONTAMBEAULT: “From the beginning of agency copy. It’s fun to be involved that early — we had the opportunity to develop the characters. This is a new Off product from SC Johnson, so it was not the same mosquitoes from the previous campaign. They wanted to renew the visual approach to those beasts. They wanted them be meaner and scary in a way. Because we were involved very soon, we had the opportunity to make some look-and-feel tests that we presented to the agency creatives back in Chicago. A week or more before we even thought about shooting the commercial, we already had the look and feel of the mosquitoes in hand.”

POST: How much research of mosquitoes did you do?

MONTAMBEAULT: “The team here looked at references on the Web. It’s the best tool for finding textures and animation references. The main model we ended up with is a unique mosquito, because it’s a merger of many worldwide mosquitoes — so the wings are from one kind and the eyes are from another. The mosquito has an armored body; it’s not really a soft and hairy body like a usual mosquito. We had to make it meaner.”

POST: Did you do previs?

MONTAMBEAULT: “It was a Chicago agency with Dallas production house (Directorz), a Santiago, Chile production house (Procine), and a Montreal post production house, so it really was a worldwide effort. So we wanted to make sure that everyone had a real understanding of what we were about to do.

“The use of an animatic and previs was very important, and it’s something we did early on in the process. Usually we send the client a turntable of models to show them how things will react to light, how they will look, and how they move. We went a little further — we actually did a full five-second animation of a mosquito flying around, coming up to the screen and flying back into position, just to see how the legs, wings and the light would react on the bug. When Chicago-based editor Steve Morrison saw that animation test, he decided to cut it into his timeline. When it came back to us with the final edit it actually had a scene from the animatic test.”

POST: What tools were used for previs and beyond?

MONTAMBEAULT: “We used Autodesk Softimage for previs, and the models and animation were also Softimage. Compositing was on The Foundry’s Nuke. We also used Pixologic Z-Brush for modeling and texturing on top of what was done in Softimage.

“By doing the previs in Softimage, we were already a step ahead of being ready to render the final scenes. After that is the texture and lighting and composition, but because we did the previs and look development on the actual model, we were already good to go.”

POST: You were on set, can you describe the shoot?

MONTAMBEAULT: “It was shot in Santiago, Chile. The set up was a very cool plantation of 200-year-old sequoia trees that were all aligned from east to west. In the morning we were shooting with the sun rising up. In the afternoon we had to move the set around from east to west, and we had the sun coming down; it was a perfect match for the lighting. 

“The most we did for set design was the addition of light over the mosquitoes and the integration of the morning fog, haze and the depth of field that you can see in the ad. That was the extra work we did, along with the mosquitoes and the interaction with the light.”

POST: How did you accomplish that?

MONTAMBEAULT: “It was a good mix,  from Softimage to Nuke with some live elements — a 50-50 job. We had to render new light to integrate the mosquito accordingly to the shoot. It helped with me being on the set because we had the opportunity to take some high-res HDR pictures with our reflective ball. That helped a lot with catching the light directions and applying them into the software afterward.”

POST: What other things did you accomplish by being on set?

MONTAMBEAULT: “Because we had opportunity to be involved so early, the production houses shared a lot of information with us, like the type of camera they used and the lens kits, and by doing the animatic we had that in respect of the actual production. 

“That is an advantage of getting involved early. You know what they are going to do, where they are going to go and what they are going to shoot because the location scout showed us pictures. By me being in Santiago, I not only had the opportunity of being the VFX supervisor, but with my crew back in Montreal we were refining the model and the mosquitoes that we presented, we were trimming them based on their comments and the clients’ comments. Not only was I presenting those new mosquitoes and look and feel, not only was I VFX-ing this as well, with the help of the script, I was taking good notes of cameras and lens information, so we have no surprises back home.”

POST: This was a digital shoot?

MONTAMBEAULT: “Yes, they shot with the Arri Alexa camera, and we had a good data wrangler. He was the first person — after director Jeff Bednarz — I made friends with because with the Alexa there is a lot of data from the set that is useful to the whole post process. So we wanted to make sure that data would go through the edit, color correction and back to our place.”

POST: Was there one particular part of the project that was more challenging than the rest?

MONTAMBEAULT: “There is one shot where the mosquitoes attack the guy leaving the tent, and they hit an invisible barrier so they don’t touch the actor. On set we had done about seven angles to make sure this barrier of Off was clear to the viewer that it protects people. That was the biggest challenge, not only the animation, but the integration because you suddenly have realization of size. We are cheating in the spot, we are seeing some big mosquitoes; you couldn’t film this with a camera. It’s magic and it’s all fun, but suddenly we are brought back to reality and back into the product itself. That single point where we match fiction to reality was our biggest challenge, and that is the shot we had been working on the most.”

POST: While there was a lot of focus on the main mosquito, you actually created a family, correct?

MONTAMBEAULT: “We had to give personality to each mosquito in a very few seconds. The previous campaigns had one mosquito repeated a thousand times. This time we wanted to add a little drama to it and apply characters to three different mosquitoes. There was Scout, the lead mosquito, followed by Crazy with the smaller eyes who was nervous on screen, and then there was Mohawk… the big monster guy. The challenge was to play with it in a dramatic curve so they have [an] equal amount of screen time, and understand that [it’s] a family of mosquitoes.”