The first scene of Sea, the new Smirnoff spot created by J Walter Thompson and directed by Daniel Kleinman, sets the tone perfectly for one of the most spectacular commercials to hit our screens in a long time. Reminiscent of Close Encounters-era Spielberg, Sea presents the viewer with a series of brief shots and tableaux both bizarre and awe-inspiring. The spot’s breathtaking post production was created by Framestore CFC.
A Russian fishing trawler trudges through a foggy, mill-pond flat sea. A work-stained fisherman on a break takes a last swig of his drink and reflexively crushes the can and hurls it into the sea. He turns and starts to walk away when the can flies back out of the water, hitting him. He peers into a now roiling ocean, and sees mysterious objects glittering and moving beneath the surface.
To the accompaniment of a brooding Kalinka-esque soundtrack, we move from the trawler to the sight of countless coins unearthing themselves from the seabed, flying out of the water and showering down onto beaches. As the scale of the events we are witnessing notches up, we see aircraft lifting themselves out of the water, joined by shipping containers and ancient monumental statuary, all of them spinning into the sky and crashing into shoreline heaps of deep-sea detritus.
As the spot reaches its climax, enormous sea vessels – including a gigantic modern battleship – are ejected from the sea. The camera then pans across and traverses a newly cleansed, unbelievably crystalline ocean, and the words ‘Extraordinary Purification’ appear over the shot. As we dip down below the surface and skim over the laundered sea floor, the words ‘Ten Times Filtered’ and ‘Triple Distilled’ follow, with ‘Clearly Smirnoff’ flashing up as we reach a bottle of Smirnoff.
With Daniel Kleinman in the director’s seat, his long time Framestore CFC associate, William Bartlett, was the natural choice for VFX Supervisor on Sea. “The shoot took place over a couple of weeks in February 2007,” recalls Bartlett, “Mostly on the Coromandel Peninsula, close by Auckland, New Zealand. It’s a great area for this sort of project, where you’re trying to give the impression of numerous global locations – it’s like a Hollywood lot for the world.” Further shooting also took place in the UK, most obviously for the shots of the White Cliffs of Dover.
The 3D team, led by Dan Seddon, had already started work on the numerous models that would be needed, including the battleship, Spitfires, a Lancaster bomber, Spanish galleons, a Viking longship, and countless other bits and pieces. “Because a lot of the animation was basically static objects spinning around,” Bartlett continues, “For a lot of it we set up the cameras in Flame, pre-vizzed lots of things in there and then exported the set-up to 3D.
This was done on even very complex shots, such as the end one, where we go past the cliff and then dive under water to where the bottle lies. For that one we had a live action plate of the cliff, which we tracked. We then made a rough model and re-projected the live action footage onto that in order to change the camera move. We made all the bits for the undersea section out of helicopter footage taken over beaches at low tide projected onto a rocky surface. We rendered all that and gave it to 3D in the set-up, so that they knew where the sea was supposed to be. They then created the sea surface through which our stuff could be refracted, as well as adding any 3D model elements such as the battleship. This was then put back into Flame, where I reassembled it. It was a very complicated process, but the result is beautifully clean and – funnily enough – quite simple looking.”
As is often the case, the fact that Framestore CFC works on many projects in multiple media came in handy – this time on a sequence set on and by a North Sea oil rig. “The rig itself was a 2D collage I created using plausible elements I’d shot in Auckland Harbour using a still cam – which was very economical, as well as neatly side-stepping possible permissions issues. But despite having had two goes at it,” recalls Bartlett ruefully, “Too clement weather meant that I couldn’t capture sea activity that was as fierce looking as we wanted. Luckily for us, we’d worked on some beautiful and dramatic rough high seas for Superman Returns last year.”
Dan Seddon takes up the story. “We restored the Houdini-based system that was used on Superman to do the sea,” he says, “Initially thinking we’d just pick it up and run with it. But it was quite a complex system – and a little unwieldy for the quick turnaround our shots demanded. So we ended up using their methodology, but in a simplified form involving tools sourced off the internet to give us the waves. I’m really pleased to say that our work – created within a commercial’s punishing schedule – can stand comparison with the Superman shots.”
It was an interesting job for 3D,” Seddon continues, “Because it was a mixture of everything: traditional VFX stuff – sea, splashes, large volumes of stuff raining out of the air; a strong lighting component; modelling; and a little animation. One of the things I liked most about Sea is that it was a real opportunity for team members to develop the broad skill base that helps makes us such an industry powerhouse.”
And one of the things Will Bartlett is obviously tickled about on Sea was the serendipitous chance it gave him to smuggle one of his own holiday snaps into a sequence. “The shot where the ancient human statue is rising from the sea wasn’t quite working,” he laughs, “The background needed to be overtly Hellenic, to complement the statue, and what we had just didn’t say ‘Greece’. Then I remembered a still I’d taken with a little digital camera on holiday a couple of years ago. It turned out to have perfect looking combination of architecture, trees and clouds – how lucky is that?”
Credits for Sea
General Creative Directors Jonathan Budds, Anita Davis
Copywriter Adam Griffin
Art Director Rob Spicer
Agency Producer Sarah Patterson
Production Company Rattling Stick
Director Daniel Kleinman
Producer Johnnie Frankel
For Framestore CFC
VFX Supervisor William Bartlett
VFX CG Supervisor Dan Seddon
Technical Directors David Mellor, Guillaume Fradin, Alex Doyle, Michelle Fabbro, Daniel Stern
Modelling Kate Hood, Mary Swinnerton.
Animators Dale Newton
Junior TD Paul Jones, Jabed Khan
Matte Painters Paul Chandler, Sam Osborne
Inferno Artists William Bartlett, Marcelo Pasquillino
Roto Artists Savneet Nagi, Laura Ingram
Telecine Colourist Matt Turner
VFX Producer Scott Griffin