Our recently completed multi-spot campaign for Valero Energy Corporation features some high-octane 3D animation and visual FX. In addition to shooting all the live-action and providing editorial, the post production required building a photo-realistic 3D modeled, textured, rigged and animated F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet like the ones used by the Blue Angels of the US Navy.
One of the first major challenges was rigging the aircraft to move realistically in the air. Yaw, pitch and roll become complex maneuvers when trying to manipulate a 3D model aircraft through a space that is relatively 10 – 100 – 1000 times larger.
Once the aircraft were modeled and rigged, the first step was to audition good live action cloud footage to use as backgrounds for our aerial shots. We had to find footage that matched the tone of our spot and that matched the direction and choreography we needed for each shot. We often had to try and color grade many different sources to make everything feel similar. After shots were chosen and processed we were able to start animating our 3D jets.
Visual FX progression of 3D animated F-18’s flying in formation over the cloud deck.
Final rendered and color-graded CGI shot as F-18’s break away from “camera” chase plane!
Based on the lighting in the cloud shots we had chosen, we constructed high dynamic range images and reflection maps to help light the planes realistically. We had to pull lighting information from cloud formations to try and understand things like sun direction and color temperature, as well as shadow information. Once the light rigs were constructed, we could drop our 3D planes into the scenes and they would naturally feel like they were part of the environment.
Anatomy of a visual FX shot showing progression from live-action plate, sky replacement and rotoscoped ground crew, to wireframe composition of F-18 and openGL shaded view.
Lighting was rendered in Autodesk Softimage XSI using Mental Ray and a combination of physical sun and sky data as well as our own HDRI, Final Gathering, and global illumination light setups. Using a proper linear workflow, we were able to get the compositors the most latitude with which to perform final color grade, cloud compositing and visual FX in post.
Finished rendered scene with environment lighting as F-18 undergoes preflight, control surface and systems checks.
On the shots of the plane taking off, we decided we didn’t want to use any stock selections. Trying to recreate the entire airport in 3D would not be as realistic as shooting accurate live-action plates.
Instead, we chose a local airport and researched photos of it with google earth. Knowing the orientation of the runway, the sun direction, and relevant distances, we were able to map out a plan of where and how to shoot a take off and runway taxi shot. We wanted to be sure to move the camera accurately as a plane would as it moves from 30 – 300 MPH. Once we had calculated the take off speeds and distances, we booked the airport and shot the plates on our RED Epic camera.
3D computer generated F-18 Hornet taking off from live-action runway plate shot. Note the atmospheric heat distortion visual FX from the afterburners.
In post, matching the live-action airport plates up to our rigged F-18 was now trivial. Because we had measured and done our homework, we simply plugged in the distances and numbers we had already chosen days before and the shot lined up nearly perfectly. With only a few details to iron out, we were able to exactly match the angle, FOV, and camera move perfectly and our plane dropped right into the scene. As part of the F-18 rig, we completely setup the landing gear to function accurately. This was done so that when the plane actually lifted off the ground, we’d get visual confirmation when the wheels and suspension dropped down and started to retract up under the plane.
For the cockpit shots, backgrounds and environments were completely synthetic. Our F-18 model featured a fully detailed interior so we were able to use it to place our pilot inside a true F-18 cockpit. This also made it easy to be sure the wings, flaps and tail surfaces were all placed accurately according to how they’d look from inside a real F-18 cockpit.
Wireframe view in Softimage XSI of fighter pilot in the cockpit, showing inverse-kinematics rigging, subdivided poly model and hardware shading.
Our pilot was modeled and textured inside Softimage XSI and once we combined him with a proper helmet, he was rigged to be able to move inside the cockpit. His entire upper body was rigged for full articulation but since we agreed we’d never see the underside of his body, we didn’t put any rigging in for it. We also rigged his entire helmet and face mask to accurately reflect his movement in the cockpit so the hoses and buckles would move realistically as he moved his head around. For this we used a variety of simple spline rigs and implicit shape deformers inside the enveloped model. It ended up being a fairly simple yet physically accurate solution.
Fully rendered final frame from the cockpit view of pilot. Cockpit glass reflections, atmosphere depth-cueing, image-based lighting, ambient occlusion and carefully textured materials really amp the realism.
Backgrounds for the cockpit shots were generated from a variety of aerial photography and maps. Horizons and skies were created with photos and color gradients in Photoshop. Visual FX such as passing through clouds and other atmospheric effects were created in After Effects and served to help layer the shot for additional realism.
HDRI and Mental Ray’s physical sun and sky shaders were again used to help light the pilot inside the canopy. We processed a variety of reflection and canopy distortion passes as well to correctly bend the light and reflections passing through. Sub surface scattering and architectural shaders rounded out the skin and helmet materials respectively.
This challenging project is a perfect example of the tight integration required between production and post, in order to pull off shots of this complexity. We are proud to have been entrusted to handle all aspects of production, design, visual FX and finishing for this terrific campaign.
Client: Valero Energy Corporation
Director: Murray Breit
Production Manager: Fernando Cano
Director of Photography/Colorist: Zach Nasits
Senior Editor: Jeff Chesnut
Visual FX: Martin Jaeger, Jeremy Kenisky, Rudy Martinez, Joseph Schaertl
Animation Director: Troy Davis
3D modeling/Animation: Jeremy Kenisky
Technical Direction: Jeremy Kenisky
Production Coordinator: Alycia Phair