Five nights of filming on a New York City street, a VFX studio willing to take a leap into the unknown, a young start-up director with a time lapse camera rig he built himself, all for an unforgettable spot.
The latest project from animation-expert-turned director Doug Purver paired him once again with conceptual design, animation and VFX studio SUSPECT, and it's a project they designed to push their own limits-and the industry's. With SUSPECT involved in every step of post-production, Purver and the team created a slow-motion narrative that's both fluid and arresting. In the spec spot, a pair of photo-real New Balance 509 sneakers jogs in super slo-mo along a high speed, time-lapsed streetscape, leaving bursts of beautiful flowers and other plant life that is in stark contrast to the gritty, New York City cobble stone street.
"We started with the idea of green power, of promoting a shoe company that's committed to the environment and social responsibility," said Purver, who was part of SHOOT magazine's New Directors Showcase in 2009. "New Balance is very forward thinking, and they were the perfect brand for the spot." Although SUSPECT ECD Tim Crean was initially very enticed by the concept "we had real concerns about pulling off something like this. It was very ambitious, on many levels, to say the least." Undeterred, Purver set out with his camera rig and Canon 5D to come up with a proof of concept test. "The test footage Doug came back with was stunning." says Crean. "After seeing that, we couldn't pull the trigger fast enough."
The spot was created from the last of Purver's several two-hour long time lapse takes; the camera rig that he custom built captured a three-second exposure every seven seconds while panning over the nighttime street, and caught quick streaks of light from passing cars. He wanted all of the footage to come from one perfect take, and on the eighth try, he was satisfied.
Then, the project moved into SUSPECT's New York studio. The team went for a lightly-stylized photo-real look that required meticulous post-production and compositing. The SUSPECT team photographed an actual pair of 509 sneakers from every angle, giving them ample reference and true texture maps to create a high resolution 3D model with photo real textures.
The shoe was then put into motion with a highly detailed rig, which had almost as much control as a full CG character might. "A lot of attention was paid to how the shoe naturally ripples and flexes. There were slight differences between how each of the different materials react with one another. We made sure to create the control we needed to showcase those subtleties," said SUSPECT CG Supervisor Steve Burger. "We wanted every motion of the CG running shoes articulated properly, down to the laces." They did the same with the stargazer lilies, daisies, ivy and blades of grass.
The difficulty of animating all of the CG was second only to texturing, lighting and rendering it all realistically. "With gorgeous plants and flora like this, its easy to go overboard with hues and saturation," commented Lighting TD Andrew Cohen. "Doug was adamant about shading the colorful plant life realistically within the context of the gritty, urban street scene. We even animated the lighting to properly interact with the intermittent, streaking taxi lights. It was intense." TD Dave White added "Doug even brought each kind of plant on location and photographed it in the natural light of the environment to use as a lighting guide. He was singular in his drive to maintain photorealism."
As CG plant growth was getting underway, SUSPECT lead flame artist John Geehreng wrangled with the daunting task of match moving the entire, one-shot, 45 sec spot. "None of the spectacular artistry being crafted in our CG dept would matter if it didn't track properly to the camera motion. So there was just a little bit of pressure." quipped Geehreng. What initially seemed a minor task quickly revealed itself to be a monumental challenge. "In spite of all the detail and resolution we had in the footage, not much stays still at night on a bustling New York City street for two hours, let alone two minutes!" Geehreng had to contend with car traffic, pedestrians and light flaring into camera from headlights just to name a few obstacles. "It took several days and placing hundreds of manual tracks, but we got a rock solid camera solve in the end."
"The intensity of the detail work was the biggest challenge," Purver said. "These guys were challenging and pushing the limit, doing some of their most creative work ever. It was hard but worth it. The animation mixed with this style of time-lapse looks like nothing else out there."
"Doug had a unique vision for Running Green and right from the start we were very intrigued about utilizing his custom built time-lapse rig which was the perfect vehicle for this spot," said SUSPECT co-founder and EP Rob Appelblatt. "Our team was super passionate about the concept and collaborating with Doug again as a Director. We put a tremendous amount of work into the piece and I think it really showcases our innovation and attention to fine detail."