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A Little Girl’s VFX Adventure Across Sand, Sea and Forest


Behind the scenes with Blacksmith on award winning Zillow spot, The Journey

A Little Girl’s VFX Adventure Across Sand, Sea and Forest

Following the story of a little girl as she lets go of the past and moves forward onto new adventures, Zillow’s The Journey is an imagination fuelled, visually rich spot full of fantastical creatures and challenging environments that represent a child’s feelings as they move home.

To find out how this little girl’s adventure was brought to life, LBB speaks to Blacksmith producer Ashley Goodwin, CG artist Olivier Varteressian and compositors Robert Bruce and Yebin Ahn.

LBB> What was the brief from the client and what was your initial reaction to it? 

Robert Bruce> We were all very excited by the initial client brief. We were asked to visualise an environment that encapsulates a child’s fears and inhibitions when dealing with the stress of a family move. It was a wonderful opportunity to visualise a magically heightened world.

Olivier Varteressian> The script offered to create so many possibilities and a very unique feel - something surreal that would take us out of the physical world onto a dreamy journey.

LBB> Ashley, can you tell us a bit about the production process? What were the challenges on set and how did you overcome them? 

Ashley Goodwin> Sadly, because of Covid, the inability to travel from the US to Prague combined with the limit on the number of people allowed on set made attending the shoot in person not possible for me, but I wish I could have been there! I regret not being able to witness Martin and the Epoch team bring this to life on the shoot. 

One fun Covid related challenge was getting our shoot supervisor, Sam Hencher, from his home in Berlin to set. We had to have a friend of his drive him across the border into Prague. It felt like a spy movie at times. We had to creatively solve as opposed to supervising remotely, which sadly has become more common. The VFX for this project was too complicated to have someone remote. Between the creature suit augmentation and having to augment or completely create the environment in some places, it would have been impossible to manage without Sam physically there. He is a classical painter as well as a VFX artist, so he would spend evenings sketching and painting with director Martin de Thurah in the hotel and coming up with concept art when they weren’t rolling. The shoot was really a creative endeavor. 

LBB> There must have been so many moving parts in creating these imaginative scenes. How many different elements did you need to handle?

Robert> It was quite a juggle. Each shot required environment matte painting, CG foliage and landscape, dust, dirt and rock simulations from FX, and animated CG character head and limb replacements. The project required a great deal of communication and project management.

LBB> Yebin, Robert and Olivier, what was the process for the CG characters like and how did you land on the final style?

Robert> The costumes created for the characters were a crucial reference for lighting and how the fur moved, and provided proper contact shadowing and spatial context for the scene. As we began to model the costumes, we also began making the characters more emotional and more alive with expressive eyes and articulated faces. Each needed to have its own personality as well. Jupitus (the big guy) is more sad, while Anika (the smaller one) is a bit of a worrier. They had to embody the emotions of the young girl on her journey.

Yebin Ahn> We had a design for Jupitus and Anika from the concept sketches and had real life suits built for them. But CG was definitely needed to help make them feel alive and expressive. I think it was finding a good balance between making them a little uncanny, but also friendly and a bit goofy like children’s doodles. Olivier did an amazing job on making Jupitus and Annika in CG!

Olivier> Starting the project, the idea was that those characters will be a real life version of the girls favourite toys. Actors were shot in a suit and we then replaced the heads in CG in post production, giving us the ability to bring more emotion to the characters by controlling the way the eyes, eyebrows and facial features move.

LBB> What was your favourite or most enjoyable moment during this project?

Robert> We needed to add handwritten text to the moving boxes in the first few scenes.  I couldn’t quite get it to look like a child had written it. My son, who is 10, wrote “clothing”, “toys” and “misc” on a piece of paper and I tracked it in. It was perfect, and his first VFX credit. It may seem small but seeing it in the spot always makes me smile.

Yebin> I really enjoyed seeing the environment and characters come to life as the work progressed. Testing out early VFX concept frames was also fun. I got to explore lots of different assets and environments with my creative input. 

Olivier> Conceptualising the design of some of the environments, framing the shots.

Ashley> The first call we did with Martin was brilliant. I remember walking away from that call thinking, “this is going to be wild and weird and I’m here for it”. We all walked away and began the process of collecting reference, concepting and sketching forests, mushrooms and strange rock formations... watching references from films and compositing those references into other films as proof of concept. It’s something you don’t often get to do in advertising, but we were able to have a lot of fun in this dreaming stage of pre-production while the suits were being fabricated.

LBB> What’s your favourite scene and why?

Robert> My favourite scene to work on was the foreset area. It was completely transformed, with oversized CG foliage, ominous lighting and dense fog, but we managed to stay true to the integrity of the photography. That is when VFX is at its best.

Yebin> I like the scene where they are on the boat. It’s a classic beginning of an adventure. You might feel a little unfamiliar with Jupitus and Anika at the start of the spot. But soon enough they assure you that they are there to be companions, to go through whatever hardship comes in the girl’s way. There is also the high tide shot, which is just a simply well composited, beautiful shot.

The forest sequence is another favourite scene of mine. The environment is full of surreal creatures and plants. I love seeing the characters stepping deeper into their mysterious journey, and trying to anticipate what kind of adventure awaits them.

Olivier> My favourite scenes are the wide ocean shots because of their simplicity in terms of composition and lighting but also their ability to capture the mood of the spot.

Ashley> The scene where the characters are riding a massive CG ocean wave as Jupitus shouts “HOLD ON!” is consistently the most delightful part for me. It really encapsulates the process from beginning to end for our team. Although there are other moments in the film that are equally delightful, because I remember all the iterations before we got to the final one, that moment on the wave is so reminiscent of Tom and Charlotte steering the boat of Blacksmith and even though this project, with a three week schedule, seemed so intimidating at first, we all ‘held on’ and trusted the process, and look what we were able to accomplish! Not to mention the water sim in these scenes are very impressive. Life imitates art, you know?

LBB> What scene was the most technically difficult to achieve?

Robert> The closeup character enhancements were technically challenging. The animated characters were match-moved, but we wanted to maintain certain parts of the practical costume.  Detailed rotoscoping, tracking, animation techniques were required to ensure the blend was realistic.

Yebin> The valley shot with daturas was definitely the most technically challenging scene for me. It was one of the few shots that was shot exactly the same as some of our earlier concept work, so I had an idea of what the final picture would be like from early on. But it was a journey of constant problem solving to achieve the final result. The main challenges included 3D tracking and reprojecting the valley to make enough room for the characters, and close-up CG compositing. Forced focus shift was used to accentuate the CG daturas, so a lens breathing effect needed to be implemented accordingly. Digital matte painting work was done to change the background environment and enhance the winter season. The characters were composited from blue screen footage without much reference and their shadows had to be completely rebuilt. It might not look like it, but it is no exaggeration to say that almost everything in the shot was touched or rebuilt besides the camera movement.

Olivier> The most difficult scenes were probably the oceans shots as water sims are not necessarily the easiest thing to do.

LBB> What was your reaction when watching the final film?

Robert> Every shot of the 60 second spot was an environment change, most shots required CG characters, and nearly every shot had FX simulations. We did this all in a tight timeline, and during the pandemic. I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish, but I was not surprised. We had a terrific team.

Yebin> I felt like I went through a journey with the main character. But for me, it was the journey of finishing the project. It’s always nice to see the team's hard work put together as a final product. The girl reminded me a bit of my younger self too, as I have also experienced the uncertainties and fears of moving from a house for the first time ever.

Olivier> Pretty happy about the final film because it felt as though everything was part of the same world - the imagination of the little girl -  even though every sequence was different in terms of environment. 

Ashley> When I watch the film I feel lucky. I can’t believe our team got to create this glorious homage to the confusion and melancholy of moving and growing up. It’s so weird but amazing, full of adventure, just like the brain of a kid. I feel so grateful to have been given the opportunity to work with such incredible creative minds not only at Blacksmith, but at Fig, Epoch, Rock Paper Scissors and Ballad. And what about Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead with the composition!? I mean... this spot is the highlight of my career so far, bar none, and I feel so humbled every time I watch it. 

LBB> The spot won AICP’s Best in Show as well as awards for Compositing & Visual Effects and CGI. How does it feel to receive such high praise for this piece / what were your reactions?

Robert> I am very happy for our team and for the whole Blacksmith family.  

Yebin> I feel so proud of the project! I knew the project was going to win something big as it’s such a well crafted piece. But I did not expect it to win all the categories we were nominated for at AICP. It immediately became a dance party for everyone. Getting recognised for our hard work makes me once again appreciate working as a member of Blacksmith’s tight team of strongly talented individuals. It’s well deserved.

Olivier> Receiving this award gives a sense of pride for the work that we achieve as a team. What led to this success is the effort that everyone who worked on this project put on. Those projects are challenging because you start from pretty much a blank canvas and have to come up with artistic and technical solutions.

Knowing that you can count on every person involved on the project to have an opinion and participate in the creative process is giving you the peace of mind you need to work serenely in order to achieve the best result. So again teamwork is the only way to make those projects happen successfully. 

Ashley> I tend to think that Charlotte’s intuition is always right, so when she got the scripts and said “this one will win awards”, we all believed her and so we went for it. When it actually did, I wasn’t surprised - the team worked their tails off and we’re more than grateful for the recognition. The night we won Best of Show we partied just as hard as we had worked.

LBB> In your personal opinion, what led to the success of this ad?

Robert> We worked on Zillow during the height of the pandemic.  Some were in the office, and some remote. This project couldn’t have been achieved in such a short time without excellent communication between every member of the Blacksmith team, Fig and Zillow.

Yebin> Imaginative visuals with an emotional story that people sympathize with. The latter definitely played an important role. It’s not uncommon to find nicely art directed spots. It’s just a much harder job to also create something that people care about on a personal level and actually connect emotionally, especially in ads. Zillow ‘The Journey’ accomplished both. 

Ashley> Martin’s creative ambition, coupled with Tom’s leadership, the whole Blacksmith team’s ability to quickly concept, re-concept, and execute well, and the trust of the agency that we would nail it in such a short schedule, led to The Journey’s success. Not to imply that the whole thing went off without a hitch, there were plenty of challenging moments, but the project wouldn’t have gone as well without the trust that we had in each other’s abilities.
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Genres: Visual VFX

Categories: Real Estate, Estate agents

Blacksmith, Thu, 09 Dec 2021 12:21:00 GMT