Bubbles at the double? No Trouble!

Speech Bubbles, the new Vodafone spot that’s just started airing on UK television and cinema screens, uses digital magic to represent in 3D an idea drawn from 2D comics. The speech bubble is a way of showing peoples’ conversations, in the form of gigantic, wobbly word balloons that pop up and float around people who are using their mobile phones. The spot shows a variety of people going about their day, singly and in groups, talking on the phone, with each of them sporting their own set of bubbles. The bubbles even vary according to the characteristics of the conversation taking place. The spot was created by Jason Berry and Ben Short at J Walter Thompson, and directed by Walter Stern for Academy. The beautiful bubbles are courtesy of Framestore CFC.

Shooting for Speech Bubbles took place over a week in Buenos Aires, with Supervising Technical Director Jake Mengers attending for Framestore CFC, working closely with Stern, Berry and Short. Mengers had already done some preparatory work before flying to Buenos Aires, having shot a large amount of potential reference material at Pirate Studios. He and TD James Healy took high-speed shots of both bubbles and ‘space goo’ (the latter also filmed whilst being blown up ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® a process described by Mengers as “great fun”). The director and creatives reviewed this material with Mengers during the evenings in Buenos Aires, and several of these mini-movies proving to be key reference points for the 3D team.

Of the look they were after, Mengers says, “There was a strong ‘anti-reference’ note, which was that they emphatically didn’t want it to look like balloons. I pushed more for a sub-surface scattering, which gives the bubbles a translucent look. When the light hits it, it holds a certain amount of light, and it gives a different feel about the volume and what’s ‘inside’ it, – it’s a much richer look than a simple ‘balloon’ would have.”

Mengers and a small team worked on the bubbles intensively over a five-week period. Because the look was an evolving aspect of the process ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® one that required a high level of feedback from the production team ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® an adaptor was needed for Maya that would enable the animators to see their work on the screen without having to render it. Samy Ben Rabah in the company’s Software Tools Group had already created a noise deformer plug-in, and he adapted it for use on Speech Bubbles. It took the process of getting deformation on the surface away from the rendering side to an earlier stage in the process. In addition, there’s actually a dynamic hair system inside the bubbles (developed by James Healy) so that a character could be tracked and the bubbles would be invisibly tethered to them.

Of the look that they came up with, Mengers says, “The idea was that a word was a fist-sized thing travelling through the bubble, so each word in a sentence would create a fist-sized volume, which is why they expanded and had that movement to it. The production team wanted variants on this theme that would illustrate the different emotional content of each conversation. Each actor had been told to imagine different conversations ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® with friends, with family, business deals etc. ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® so that they’d present a variety of body languages.”

Compositing for the spot was handled chiefly by Inferno Artist Alex Thomas. “Jake’s experience proved invaluable in gathering the shoot material I needed,” he says, “As I started work on the plates, Jake and his team were delivering low-res, non-textured versions of the bubbles, so we could start to try things out. (Creatives) Ben and Jason’s vision was a strikingly original one, but it also meant that realising it was a little trickier, as there was nothing it was supposed to be ‘like’. Basically, we had to inch our way towards the final look, with Walter, Ben and Jason working very closely with our team. But I think it was worth it ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® it looks fantastic.”

The Telecine was by Matt Turner, who says, “They were after a warm, rich, cinematic look. I created something that was not overly contrasty, and I swung the greens around to a more summery, olive tone. With such an effects-heavy spot, a final DCP helped smooth everything out at the end of the post process.”
Speech Bubbles
Agency JWT
Creative Director Steve Dunn
Creatives Jason Berry, Ben Short
Producer Sarah Patterson

Production Company Academy
Director Walter Stern
Producer Mark Whittow Williams

For Framestore CFC
VFX Supervisor/Senior TD Jake Mengers
TD Simon French
Lead Animator Dale Newton
Animators Paul Denchard, James Healy, Dean Robinson
Lead Inferno Artist Alex Thomas
Inferno Artists Christophe Allender, Marcelo Pasqualino
Telecine Matt Turner
Producer Abby Orchard

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