What does an advertising legend such as McDonald's do when it decides to shift (at least temporarily) from the live-action world to a rendered wonderland to promote its famous Happy Meals? It calls the experts, Kompost via DUCK, to create unique fantasylands starring a memorable cast of plant, animal and human characters. Kompost's Director Oliver Conrad - the creative mind behind McDonald's buoyantly entertaining Spaceman Stu spot - teamed up with DUCK and Leo Burnett to deliver the two-spot campaign, which is an explosion of color, motion and sound.
Apple Tree is an animated celebration of life, following the birth of an apple tree from seedling to stick to multi-branched adult sprouting leaves high off the ground. The tree, set in a hilly, pastoral land, grows strong enough to support a young family of birds, who build their nest and hatch a trio of youngsters as the leaves fly off, snow falls, and spring, eventually, arrives. Set to the jolly notes of "I'm gonna be like an apple tree..." an apple grows and falls into the nest, morphing into a collection of apple slices and a jug of yogurt. Mother bird lifts these off the ground, where the nest transforms into a Happy Meal and the youngsters flutter around her.
Suzi Van Zoom is a faster-paced adventure, in which two parents are left to scramble after their adventurous daughter once they decide to strip the training wheels off her bike. As a catchy song bumps along in the background, the little one careens through a neighbor's house and into a zoo, where she sets a pack of animals loose. The ragged collection of giraffes, cheetahs, elephants, gazelles and penguins can only hurdle along with her parents as the youngster flies across the terrain, finally stopping to sate her growing appetite with a McDonald's Happy Meal.
"We really love projects in which the objective is to create something truly unique and timeless, and these two spots are clearly in that category," noted Conrad. "The most exciting projects you can possibly have are when agencies and clients are open to do something new, and this has been the case with Leo Burnett and McDonald's. They specifically asked that every piece - from these two to Spaceman Stu - has its own visual style - magic words to a creative production company. With this sort of creative freedom, we were able to find the link between painterly techniques and the dynamic nature of the piece in action paintings by Jackson Pollock."
Working with Autodesk Maya, The Foundry Nuke, Next Limit RealFlow, Adobe After Effects and Adobe Photoshop, Kompost EP Gian Klainguti gathered more than 30 artists from all over the world to work on the spots, each of which presented its unique creative challenge. Apple Tree, for example, presented the challenge of correctly rendering the character's fur, a notoriously time-consuming task, as the look is difficult to achieve straight out of the rendering engine. The studio rendered many different passes and composited them together in Nuke to really nail the desired look and feel.
The replication of nature and the changing of seasons in the spot also required special attention. "In the very first shot, great care had to be taken in the rigging for the growth of the tree from just a seed to a fully matured apple tree," stated Kompost's VFX Supervisor Kenneth Polonski. "The animation of hundreds of leaves doesn't just happen with the click of a button. The placement of every branch for each shot was very time consuming, and every detail of the tree had controls for growing, translating, moving and scaling. We also couldn't use the same tree for every single shot. To achieve the desired composition of each shot, extra main branches and, in most cases, entirely different tree models had to be used. Twigs, of which there were usually hundreds, also had to be re-positioned and animated."
Suzi Van Zoom was an entirely different technical feat, with the sheer number of characters presenting countless individual obligations for modeling, rigging, animation, texturing and shading. Another challenge was the geometry caching of the characters as they made their way out of animation and into the lighting and rendering stages. "We wrote a custom plug-in that allowed the animators to easily update each character's geometry caches so that they would easily translate to the rendering phase without having to change anything," continued Polonski. "This eliminated the numerous and very computationally heavy rigs that allow character animation, leaving us with a very smooth production pipeline. We also created style frames capturing the speed of the piece to make it to feel like hand-painted children's book illustrations, then added similar splashes and color trails to show the speed of Suzi and the other characters."
Aside from being a showcase of Kompost's technical adroitness, the project reinforced the studio's creative resources. "For Apple Tree, Leo Burnett came to Kompost with the idea of a family having a picnic beside the fully grown tree," said DUCK EP Mark Medernach. "From that, we developed the simple and sweet story of the bird family growing and enjoying the apple that comes with the leafy spring. This is the sort of creative interpretation and evolution that can only take place when you have a dedicated director like Oliver, who has the existing relationships and quality ideas to influence major agency creatives."