How The New Chemical Bros Promo Was Made
Directors Dom&Nic and The Mill's Dave Fleet and Suraj Harrington-Odedra discuss bringing Wide Open to life.
Earlier this week British electro giants The Chemical Brothers released another in a long list of visually stunning promos.
The video, called Wide Open, helmed by long time collaborators, Dom&Nic, combines the emotive choreography of Wayne McGregor, the hypnotic and elegant dance moves of Sonoya Mizuno and the VFX trickery of The Mill.
Below Dom&Nic and The Mill's Dave Fleet and Suraj ‘Sid’ Harrington-Odedra, reveal the challenges in bringing the striking video to life.
Head of 3D & co-3D lead artist, Dave Fleet [left] co-3D lead artist, Suraj ‘Sid’ Harrington-Odedra.
How did the idea for the promo come about?
Dom: It always starts with the music and what that inspires in terms of an idea. It’s a beautiful track but has a melancholy tone to it and we wanted the video to reflect that.
So we started thinking about the idea of losing someone but losing them through change. We have a history of making videos for The Chemical Brothers that are based around people seeing the world in a psychologically distorted way so the idea of a dance piece in which the dancer sees herself change and become a 3D printed mesh felt like a good way to capture the emotion of the song.
From the start we wanted to collaborate with Wayne McGregor for the choreography and The Mill for the VFX and make something more akin to a dance film or art project if you like. It was vital to us that we used just one take with no cuts to keep it authentic and pure.
The Chemical Brothers videos we’ve made have often had a single hero character undergoing a crazy psychological idea [see Believe, from 2005, below], it’s a theme in most of the videos we’ve done for them. We liked the idea that this could be ‘for real' or could be a hallucination or an out-of-body experience, it’s up to the viewer to decide.
We wanted the audience to think about what she feels in the film, the sense of touch was important to get across and for the viewer to become deeply involved in her story as it unfolds. The idea of a one-take continuous shot gives the film an intimate and engaging quality, the dance and the idea slowly draw the viewer in.
We wanted to stay wide and observe the dance then move around and get in close to see details of hands and also make use of the textures on the floor and the pillars in the location. The details and final look of the idea developed as we talked to Wayne about how the dancer could express the themes of the idea in movement. The location also helped give the film a gritty real life reality context and the sound design at the opening and ending gives the viewer another sense of a real life real time event.
Was there much discussion around what the design of the replaced body parts should be?
Dom: We always intended it to look like a 3D printed plastic mesh but the exact shape and density of the mesh was something that we did lots of test with. We also explored different colours but white felt and looked right.
Nic: There was a lot of discussion about the style and colour of the mesh, should it be more like computer polygons or more organic or more random? Should it be a stronger colour or pure white? In the end it was an existing computer generated mesh pattern that we then tweaked specifically to our own requirements so it’s completely original and specific to Sonoya for the video.
How difficult was the VFX process – has anything like this been done before in promos – and how long did the VFX element take?
Dom: The VFX was very challenging and required a lot of thought prior to taking it on. For a seemingly simple and pure idea The Mill had to employ a huge number of techniques. We are not sure but it could be the longest single shot of full body tracking ever done. Every frame of her movement was hand tracked by eye using just a handful of witness cameras, most of which didn't trigger on the take we used!
We wanted to shoot with Steadicam and no cuts so a big initial challenge was creating a clean background plate so the whole location had to be scanned and rebuilt in 3D, but the real challenge was the amount of animation.
Harrington-Odedra: Cleaning Sonoya out of the backplate traditionally, by hand painting each frame, would have been very time consuming indeed. We looked into ways of achieving this automatically and developed a custom tool that was able to automatically erase a given section of a live-action plate. This clean plate pass ended up being a great starting point for the overall cleanup.
In addition, we used the high-end cloth simulator, Marvelous Designer, a first for The Mill, which was originally developed for the fashion industry to provide ultra-realistic garment creation and simulation. This software allowed us to create a full-CG takeover for the end portion of the video, wherein Sonoya and her clothing are entirely rendered in 3D.
The Wide Open team
How close was the collaboration between the different teams on the shoot?
Dom: We started talks with Wayne a few weeks before we shot and then spent a full day of rehearsals with him and Sonoya, blocking out the choreography and camera-move in the location prior to the shoot.
On the day, we finessed this with Rick Woollard, the Steadicam operator. The idea was that the animators would match the dancer’s movement exactly, so in theory Wayne's work was done once the shoot was over but he stayed involved to the end and was able to spot small subtleties in the weight or her head or the brittleness of her fingers that needed animation improvement.
Digital Render of Sonoya
Nic: We worked with them separately in pre-production but it all came together on the day with a lot of collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas.
Fleet: In Dom&Nic’s original treatment they wrote “We see this film as an authentic art project and collaboration”. I couldn't think of a better way to describe it. Dom&Nic and their producer John were very much a part of our team at The Mill, their enthusiasm and excitement for what we were doing really pushed us to keep going.
We also received useful animation notes from the choreographer Wayne McGregor throughout the project, providing us with invaluable details on the weight of the head, foot planting and even commented on the subtle shapes of her fingers.
What are the challenges of directing something that relies so heavily on VFX?
Dom: You need to have a clear vision of what you want the end result to be. You also need to have a good understanding of the techniques involved and their strengths and imitations. You need enough knowledge to know what's possible and how it could look, but you also need to trust the artists that you are working with to know ultimately how to get you there. There are also lots of creative and practical challenges, for example choosing locations that will work both aesthetically for the film and make the VFX achievable.
Nic: We had to be able to watch the film without any FX and still be drawn into it and enjoy watching it. The VFX takes it to another level but the basic performance and Sonoya’s dance is highly watchable without the VFX.
Fleet: This project featured the longest shot we have ever tracked, new procedural modelling techniques, human body-scanning, motion-capture, an extremely complex rig, animated lighting, cutting-edge cloth simulation and a huge amount of cleanup work, which all made for an extremely complex blend.
Full Body Scanning
Not only did we have to paint out whole parts of her body to reveal a clean background, but also create clean parts of her own body for when her limbs occluded parts of herself (for instance, when she puts her mesh hands in front of her real face).
Mirror Rendering Cleanup
Arm Removal and CG Clothing
4D scanning was ruled out pretty quickly as it couldn’t provide the accuracy and fidelity that we needed. Even though Sonoya is an incredible dancer, we obviously couldn't expect every take to be identical, which made a motion-capture solution somewhat limited.
However, we figured that if we were to use a portable motion-capture suit and get Sonoya to run through the choreography a few times on the day, then at least we’d have some animation to start with.
The set was scanned using Lidar technology to give us an accurate 3D model of the entire environment, enabling us to track the camera as closely as possible.
Lidar Scanning of the Environment
3D Body Roto
We also enlisted the help of Ivo Slivkov from Timeaware, a company that specialises in remote motion-capture. He flew in especially for the shoot to capture the dance. The mo-cap suit allowed Sonoya to perform her dance whilst we captured her movements in real-time with sensors.
Motion Capture Suit
Even with Ivo’s help, the rest was good old-fashioned 3D animation, and a lot of it. We also paired with Peanut FX, a company that specialises in this kind of work. Peanut helped us mount 11 ‘witness’ GoPro cameras around the set to record Sonoya’s performance from every angle, matching Sonoya’s position on all 6,798 frames. This meant we could then provide as much reference for the animation team as possible.
What are the benefits of having collaborated with The Chemical Brothers previously?
Dom: The benefits, apart from their inspiring brilliant music, is that they really allow us a lot of freedom to make the film how we see it. They trust us to make something that they will hopefully love as much as we do.
Nic: The Chemical Brothers will be clear if they like an idea, they rarely ask for any changes, and once we are given the go-ahead they leave us alone and trust us to deliver something special.
- Visual Effects The Mill London
- Director DOM&NIC
- Head of 3D & Co 3D Lead Artist Dave Fleet
- Co 3D Lead Artist Suraj ‘Sid’ Harrington-Odedra
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