Framestore NY, the North American branch of Europe's largest visual effects and animation company, recently completed work on "The Greatest Gift," a spot celebrating over seventy years of Christmas with Coca-Cola. Replete with magical imagery and a truly resplendent Santa Claus, the 60-second spot visits and revisits an ever-changing village and a little girl growing into adulthood. The brainchild of ad agency Mother London, the spot was directed by Kerry Conran of production company Looking Glass. Framestore NY contributed extensive 2D and 3D animation on the project, particularly to the small, snow-covered town, and the large, bright-eyed Santa Claus.
"Initially, our main job was to imbue Santa Claus with some seriously augmented Christmas spirit," says David Hulin, Framestore's VFX Supervisor on the spot. "Our Santa exists somewhere between fantasy and reality. He is this huge presence as he strides through the little town, but it is only this little girl, and eventually her family, who can see him. Pretty quickly, however, everybody realized that we could help the production in many other ways. We ended up designing and building every single element in CG, including all the buildings, vehicles, and props in the toy and real villages, as well as the falling and ground snow in every scene. We also completed recreated Santa's face."
The spot opens over rooftops covered with softly falling snow. Beneath a full moon and on the streets of a warm-looking and bustling little town, Santa suddenly materializes on the 1930's era streets. He approaches a toy store window, where an impeccably dressed little girl gazes longingly at a miniature town inside the store window. Turning to greet Santa, he hands the lucky young girl a bottle of Coca-Cola, before disappearing into the little toy town.
As decades pass, Santa continues to walk unnoticed through the snowy streets of the little town, eventually meeting up (in 1954) with the same girl, now a young woman, as she ice skates. Handing her two bottles of Coke, she bumps into her future husband. Skipping smoothly through the years and into the 21st Century, we see Santa approach the same toy store window, only to have someone tap him on the shoulder. Our young woman is now a mother to a teenager, and this time they both hand a still-smiling Santa a Coke.
Across the Years
The small village setting is actually based on a popular tourist attraction in the Netherlands. Madurodam, a strikingly intricate miniature village, is essentially a minute replica of old Amsterdam on a 1:25 scale. For previsualization purposes, Framestore performed a Lidar scan of the tiny village that resulted in 50 3D models that had to be pieced together. Not only was the Framestore team charged with recreating the village in 3D, but in no less than five different eras and lighting setups. A big job by any standard.
"It was definitely a lot of work to do in just two months," admits Murray Butler, Lead Flame Artist at Framestore. "We created the whole spot in HD and at full 12-bit resolution, so this was a little like undertaking 60 seconds of film work in a couple of months. We literally modeled everything in all these versions of the village, so it was pretty intense. But it was such an amazing project, that it was all worthwhile. We had the opportunity to create the whole look, from beginning to end."
More than that, however, no less than 50 modeled buildings, 250 props, and nine vehicles were covered in CG snow, all created using Autodesk Maya. All the falling snow was also created in CG, together with the stunning shot of the ice skating rink. Stunning matte paintings were also created for almost every shot using Autodesk Flame.
In order to get the proper look for each era represented, the Framestore team performed extensive color grading, also using Flame: the 1930's are evoked through warm, orange-like skin tones and heavily saturated reds. The 1950's scenes convey a more vibrant look, with brighter highlights and more cyan in the backgrounds.
In recreating the face of Santa Claus, Framestore was charged with the task of making actor Ken Howard (The White Shadow) resemble the character in the old Coca-Cola ads painted by artist Haddon Sunblom. In order to give Howard's face the proper look, Framestore did a complete scan of his head, then created a CG model. The model was then manipulated to augment the cheeks, nose, lips, and eyes, all of which were then brought into Flame for further magical enhancement.
"The CG guys completely renovated Santa," says Hulin. "In every shot, he was fattened up and slowed down, so that he looked a bit bigger. We did a lot of clean up work on his suit, and on his hat to make it more visible. There was a lot of invisible effects work just to make him stand out a bit more and look more magical. we ended cleaning up a lot of the lighting and his skin texture. Keeping him looking consistently good from every angle was a challenge. It was pretty intense."
Recreating Howard's face also removed the effects of a long working day, restoring the spirited vibrancy one would expect from Santa Claus,
"It's not easy to look chipper after working for fifteen straight hours," says Butler. "Ken did a great job, but anybody would start to look tired after such a long day. Santa, on the other hand, has to look picture perfect; as if he just stepped from a storybook. So, we were able to use a combination of 2D and 3D to sort of revive him. We're very happy with the results."
Agency: Mother London
Agency Producer: Richard Firminger
Creative Director: Robert Saville
Art Director: Cecila Dufils
Copywriter: Markus Bjurman
Production Company: Looking Glass
Director: Kerry Conran
Executive Producer: June Guterman
Editor: Erik Jessens
DP: Eric Adkins
Post Production: Framestore NY
Producer: Satoko Iinuma
VFX supervisor: David Hulin and Eric Pascarelli
Lead Flame artist/Colourist: Murray Butler
Flame artist: Mindy Dubin, Pedro Sabrosa
Flame assists: Maryanne Lauric, Chris Coleman, Talia Marash
CG artists: David Hulin, Andy Walker, Jenny Bischel, Seth Gollub, Theo Jones, Szymon Weglarski, Jon Parker, Spencer Lueders, Irene Kim, Andy Ortiz, Jim Hundertmark, Hungkit Ma, Joon Lee, Jon Dorfman, Laurence Peguy, Michael Borhi, Daren Horley, Mark Tudor-Williams
Matte painter: Nathan Hughes
Framestore CFC: https://www.dexigner.com/directory/detail/8520