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AFCG Archives: Special Effects
Starburst - Lifeguard
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Agency: Grey Advertising
Director: Rob Lopes
Production: The Lopes Picture Company
Visual Effects: Black Logic
Date: 1997

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This was one of those rare projects that makes it all worth while.

A technically challenging production that brought together miniatures, CGI, live action, green-screen, rig removal, and layer upon layer of subtle compositing effects. Much credit goes to Michel Suissa, (director of visual effects), and the digital artists at Black Logic for bringing all these elements together and adding the creative details that made this spot such a success.

To make a short story (30 seconds) shorter... a bored lifeguard assigned to the "seniors" pool pops a Starburst and enters his underwater Atlantis fantasy of mermaids, nymphs and schools of fruit fish.

The challenge for AFCG was to create and animate multiple groups of fruit to move and behave like schools of fish. The obvious first step in achieving the effect was to create detailed 3D databases, texture maps and lighting techniques that made individual pieces of fruit look real in the live action environments. We relied heavily on reference plates of each fruit, and adapted some of those plates to be used as texture maps.

Once we had the individual fruit looking real and visually integrated into each scene we then concentrated on animating the "schools" of fruit. This effect was achieved procedurally with complex layering of particle systems in Houdini. Once we had the general motion of a "school" set up we then applied individual motion characteristics to each fruit based on how fast they were moving and in which direction. As much as a school appears to move "as one" it will not look natural unless every individual is doing something unique.

The next step was to have the schools of fruit interact with the actors. This was achieved by creating "spheres-of-influence" around the actors bodies within Houdini. If a particle, (fruit), entered the sphere it would "react" by swimming quickly away or around the actor. This is clearly shown in the first two frames where the mermaid is swimming through, and parting, the school of lemons and strawberries.

Even with all this effort to procedurally make the schools move naturally and every fruit look unique, we still found it necessary to go in by hand and animate many individual fruit to add more character. This is why you'll see some individual fruit stop, turn around, and move in the opposite direction of the school, or others that come directly up to the camera, then quickly swim away.

Finally, the CG schools of fruit were composited together with all the other elements of the scene. AFCG supplied Black Logic with alpha channels and depth maps of each CG layer. This made it possible to add depth cueing to the schools of fruit to account for the diminishing visibililty of objects underwater as their distance from the viewer increases.