This article also appears in the current issue of IF (#146, April-May 2012). The print article incorrectly reported that Framestore was responsible for the for the animation and shading of the polar bears, when the work was actually completed by Animal Logic. The error has been corrected.

An audience of more than 111 million American football fanatics is enough to inspire great VFX work. For director David Scott and his team at Australian VFX house Animal Logic that work involved creating realistic CGI polar bears in three Coca-Cola spots (Catch, Superstition and Arghh) that aired at this year’s Superbowl.

“I think the difference between these spots to how the polar bears had been seen before was that in a lot of the older commercials, it was sort of centred around family, so you’d have a polar bear family doing what they do – whereas this was quite specifically targeting people at home watching the Superbowl,” New Zealand-born Scott says.

“So it meant they had to be very relatable and approachable and because of the live nature of it as well… they’re just like us watching the game – that dictated a large part of how the bears would be designed.”

Their look was important – the team wanted the big bears to also have large upper bodies to mimic the US footballers. But they also had to be cuddly and not vicious.

“If you go to the zoo or you look at BBC footage, they’re actually pretty shaggy and pretty dirty so the trick was to really find a balance that meets people’s expectations of what a polar bear is versus a real polar bear,” Scott explains. “So we spent a lot of time basically making the fur ultra shiny and very huggable and cute you know – that was a very big consideration.”

Fur systems built upon from previous Animal Logic feature films – such as Happy Feet and Sucker Punch – assisted the team. Initially, the three scripts were about the bears sitting on the couch watching the NFL’s big game. The Animal Logic team submitted a treatment which covered the design process – basically the look and the style of not only the bears but the environments.

As part of that treatment, Scott suggested covering the commercials much like how the Superbowl was actually shot – swoop in over the action, shoot from the sidelines and employ ultra-slow motion shots.

“Before we got too far into storyboarding, we just thought ‘it’s really all about the bears, it’s about the character’ – the bears are not really realistic but they have to be charming and endearing and carry all these qualities of being relatable, so we put the focus number one on designing the bear,” Scott says. “Then we did a few keyframes of the environment – because it was also very important to Coke and [advertising agency] Wieden that we had to make the environments sort of epic and very magical as well."

The storyboarding process then began and the team put together animatics for all three spots. “That’s really great to help you work out the basic timing, the basic choreography, and all that sort of stuff – temp music, temp sound,” Scott says.

Because of the very specific timing of the gags, the team spent longer on storyboards for the Superstition clip. But for the minute-long Catch spot – clearly the most complicated of the three – pre-vis was entered into early to see how the timing worked and for camera placement and movement.

Animal Logic completed the animation and shading of the bears employing shaders originally developed for Happy Feet, which have since been refined.

“The ice and snow shaders are just a really good level of control for the texture artists so they can compose cracks and air bubbles and stuff like that throughout the depth of the ice,” CG supervisor Feargal Stewart says. “And these are just things they can do with texture maps and then the shader takes care of the depth and the subsurface and all those beautiful shading qualities.”

Scott adds: “There was some amazing shading work done on the start of it – just the way that the eyes reflect the light and the sparkles on the eyes. One thing that was very key in terms of the shading and effects work especially was just how these bears actually slip and slide on the ice, because the story point of Catch is it’s sort of accidental football – the bears don’t set out to play a football game, but it happens because one of the bears tried to catch the bottle and he accidentally slips and slides.

“We went through quite a few reiterations on that because the ice was too deep – it kind of looked like watery sludge. And if it was too thin it didn’t really have an impact so it was a lot of great development happened there.”

Stewart says the biggest challenge for the team – which was based in LA for the final stages because of the intensive review process – was the scarves. “The scarf had a basic animation rig which meant that it moved around with the bear properly and then on top of that the animators could then control and offset and make the scarf flop over the shoulder or flop down or wherever it needed to go to look good for the shot.”

Because the Superbowl spots needed to reference the game itself between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots, the pipeline had to accommodate last-minute additions.

“We set up a pipeline there which was based on colour grading scarves and coming up with the process, and the months leading up to that we would actually produce a way to be able to change the colour but do it completely in post after everything had been rendered,” Scott says.

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