A Tree Grows in Old Mexico
The metaphor of a single seed from which grows the mighty oak, symbolizes the humble beginnings and 100 year rise to prominence of the international business conglomerate Grupo Salinas in a recently completed :30 for Filmmates Mexico City.
Director Manuel Bierjerman envisioned a time-lapse progression from a vintage, undeveloped landscape, to a fully formed modern Mexican city park spanning 100 years of history. With an ethereal feel and a palette inspired by the famous Mexican artist Doc Atl, the spot is set in motion by a young girl nurturing a seedling. The sapling grows and a city develops… Driven by the economic opportunity created by the young company, then known as Salinas y Rocha. As the evolution brings us to the present day, the girl again appears at the site of the now towering oak, this time as the elderly matriarch. Along with her, generations of offspring symbolize the growing family of companies under the Grupo Salinas brand.
Principle photography of the little girl, the family and actors portraying company employees, was filmed in Mexico City in green screen under the supervision of our Animation Director Troy Davis. Aside from these few live-action elements, the entire spot was realized by Geomedia artists completely in CG. As if the prospect of animating a growing tree weren’t daunting enough, our animators also had to create and choreograph thousands of CG characters, animate a city evolving over 100 years, create a CG landscape with mountains and sky… and ultimately have all the CG elements come together to match the live-action footage, in one continuous shot… All in 30 seconds!
During pre-pro meetings I suggested we investigate a specialized software package for the creation of our tree. I’d heard of a tool with the curious name “Xfrog” from German software developer Greenworks in Berlin. The software was originally developed for the SGI platform and it’s name is an acronym which stands for X-windows based Finite Recursive Object Generator. We tested the software and consulted with the original developer in Duisburg, Timm Dapper. The software is available as a stand-alone but was also available as a plugin to one of our workhorse 3D packages Cinema 4D. Early tests were encouraging. The tool had extensive control, including such esoteric parameters as “branch deviation, tropism and phyllotaxis“… What fun! We decided to proceed with Xfrog for the design and animation of our tree. As I had gone and opened my big mouth to suggest it, I was given the task!
It’s projects like this that have made me pre-maturely gray! Animation parameters that seemed perfectly capable during early testing, quickly fell apart when pushed to the extent required to grow a tree from sapling to full maturity. The interrelatedness of control parameters was particularly frustrating. Just when we were having success with one parameter, another would be wrecked or cause anomalies in the motion or the generation of subsequent branching. It all went around in a seemingly infinite loop of madness for nearly a month! Finally after lots of brute force keyframing, I wrangled the thing into submission and we had our hero tree. In spite of the difficulties with Xfrog, it is brilliant software and I shudder to think of having to pull off such a complex task in a conventional 3D package. Camera data, exported from XSI in .fbx format, was imported into C4D to match final camera animation. Beauty, shadow and ground passes were rendered for later compositing into the final scene underway in XSI.
All the while I was trying to avert insanity over the tree animation, Troy had his hands full trying to fit over 2500 3D characters through the pipeline! The director called for crowds of “employees” to encircle the tree while the (virtual) camera cranes overhead. In the final shot the employees turn over cards forming the logos of the various companies under the Grupo Salinas corporate umbrella. In a final card flip the Grupo Salinas logo is formed.
To accomplish the effect, a library of digital characters were modeled and rigged in XSI. Walk cycles and a card lift sequence were animated for each character. Troy then wrote a custom script which would arbitrarily select from this library and place the characters in a radiating position around the tree. Random seed values were incorporated into the script in order to position characters in natural distances and angles relative to one another. Scripting also controlled the timing of the characters as they walked and lifted their cards overhead. The animation of the cards and the parsing of the shared texture map of logos was also choreographed via custom scripts. The complexity of executing the scripts (not to mention writing them!) as well as the shear volume of geometry involved, made for extremely slow going during this phase. Extensive optimization of the scene as well as delicate settings within XSI to optimize the Mental Ray renderer, were required before the scene would render without choking!
The time-lapse evolution of the city skyline was also modeled, animated and rendered within XSI. The client supplied photo references of period architecture and descriptions of the early Salinas y Rocha building and it’s various incarnations to the present day. Geomedia 3D whiz kid extraordinaire, Jeremy Kenisky, painstakingly modeled and animated each building as it is “built” from the ground up. Jeremy also created the sequence of the original SyR store as it undergoes a dramatic transformation between its intermediate forms and it’s familiar current day modern architecture and signage.
Another complex piece of the puzzle involved the natural environment in which the entire spot takes place. The director wanted to see an empty vista stretching to a horizon defined by foothills and distant mountains. As the city evolves the natural landscape transforms into a manicured city park. He imagined clouds passing rapidly overhead to further enhance the stylized passage of time. Early in the project we considered stock photography and time-lapse cloud video but we could not find the perfect combination of perspective or point of view. The single camera pull out and overhead move also presented problems with this approach. We would have to somehow do the environment in 3D.
Like a dumb ass I once again stuck my foot in my mouth and suggested we consider yet another unfamiliar software package to get the job done. Vue Infinite from e-on software turned out to be just the ticket. The software has amazing tools for creating natural landscapes and photo-realistic atmospheres but it’s unorthodox user interface and approach took some getting used to. The biggest problem (besides the horrendous render times) was getting camera data from XSI into our Vue scene. The beta version of Vue we were using had no native XSI support. We finally discovered a circuitous route through various 3D packages to convert the data into something Vue would recognize. The final rendered landscape matched seamlessly.
The live action plates and final rendered CG output from the disparate software packages, were composited in After Effects. Keying, color correction and extensive FX work were also performed to blend all the elements and impart the soft atmospheric feel and painterly palette the director called for.
The spot was an enormous technical and artistic challenge for the Geomedia team and I’m humbled by their show of skill and tenacity over the long hours required to see the project to completion… Having the director declare that the finished spot surpassed the vision even he had in his own minds eye, makes it all worth it.