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Ad Characters: Does Photo Real Make Us Feel?

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At Moving Picture Company, high levels of believability and realism are the keys to forging emotional connections with digitally-created creatures, from the upcoming Lion King to award winning brand icons
Ad Characters: Does Photo Real Make Us Feel?
Why do we love film and TV characters as we do? From monsters like Godzilla, to fluffy heroes like Simba, we can watch and share their stories over and over again. 

Even within the confines of TV ads, our hearts and minds can be swept away. It’s no wonder Samsung’s optimistic ostrich in the 'Do What You Can’t' campaign was an awards show favourite. It’s no coincidence that John Lewis’ Monty the Penguin generated record sales, views and shares for the department store, or that over 22,000 Buster the Boxer plush toys sold out in the first two hours after the eponymous holiday ad was released. 

And we didn’t even blink when we heard that France 3’s TV first promos starring 'Les Marmottes' reached more than 10 million viewers on social media in two months, or that Volkswagen’s confident little ram, 'Bam,' led the VW T-Roc to become the most test-driven model in the automaker’s line up. 

These days, more often than not, lovable and relatable creatures and characters such as these are being made or enhanced using visual effects. And one thing in common about all of the ads mentioned above is that they were created at the Moving Picture Company (MPC). 

What is it about creatures and characters that really sway our decision-making process and our brand loyalty? For the answer, we may need to look inside ourselves. Michael Gregory, creative director at MPC’s LA studio believes icons have been invaluable for brands because characters, creatures and myths have filled people’s imaginations since the beginning of humankind. 

“We live in landscapes of make-believe,” Gregory observes. “Monstrous forms started to appear on the walls of caves around 25,000 years ago. Ancient civilisations like the Greeks gave us Medusa, Cyclops, the Minotaur and Poseidon. In the not-so-distant past, Hollywood brought us E.T., King Kong and Chewbacca. Characters are the individuals we follow on the journey of every story. For brands, a great character or creature emotionally engages your audience, like they’ve done for thousands of years.”

When it comes to characters that ‘move’ people, MPC’s John Lewis holiday creations are standout examples. On a different note, it’s most recent efforts for the brand, the extraordinary recreation of Sir Elton John’s younger selves in “The Boy and the Piano,” represents its ability to recreate beloved characters from the real world, enveloping them in visual narratives that serve as powerful metaphors on the human condition. The spot certainly moved advertising’s top creatives – they just gave it the top award for visual effects at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.

And no mention of cherished characters and creatures would be complete without acknowledging the fevered reaction to the remake of 'The Lion King,' also produced at MPC Film. Within hours of being released, its official trailer was the second most-viewed coming attraction of all time, racking up over 224 million global views in 24 hours. The media described fans as ‘losing their minds’ in anticipation. 


Popular acclaim for CG animals is common in advertising as well. Take France 3’s 'Les Marmottes' furry little marmots, created by Mikros-MPC in Paris. “This is a great illustration of how audiences can be deeply associated with photo-real, CG characters,” explains Benoît Holl, head of studio at Mikros-MPC. “After two years of enormous success, France 3 decided to replace them. But their fans had a strong reaction, requesting they be brought back via social media posts, petitions and letters.” 

MPC is so committed to creatures and characters, they have a dedicated team of artists assigned to the task. Fabian Frank, head of creature development at MPC’s London studio, has led the charge on MPC’s most ambitious brand characters, including Sir Elton and VW’s adorable 'Bam.'


“Today’s audiences are consistently exposed to high standards of VFX in feature films and TV series,” says Frank. “People acclimatise quickly, and commercials have to hit the same level of quality to be effective. Having our dedicated team, backed by an integrated pool of talent and resources across MPC globally, means we can execute these characters to a feature film standard.”

David Bryan, animation director at MPC’s London studio, points out that since every creature has a unique anatomy, it’s easy to see why the studio’s decades of CG experience and library full of R&D are such important assets. “Most creatures require extensive study to fully understand how they move and behave,” he observes. “So our feature film experience is a key reason we can deliver cinematic-quality creatures within the timeframe of a commercial project.” For example, much of the research that went into making the Academy Award-winning CG animals in 'The Jungle Book' has guided the process of creating photo-real fur, skin, bone and muscles on creatures developed for ads.

The results speak for themselves: the super-realistic Panthera Onca that struts its stuff with Eva Green in Jaguar’s 'Breed Apart' campaign, France 3’s 'Les Marmottes' and the VW’s 'Bam' have all reaped the benefits.

This ability to create truly believable photo-real fur is due largely to Furtility, MPC’s proprietary tool - developed in 2005 for the movie '10,000 BC.' The film required mighty woolly mammoths, with digital fur that was several meters in length. This was achieved thanks to MPC’s underlying pipeline and Furtility’s geometric data representation. 

Just as important is the ability to replicate the human form in a photo-real environment. Again, MPC relies on its feature chops when working in the commercials space. Technology developed at MPC Film for 'Blade Runner 2049,' in which the replicant character ‘Rachael’ was transported from the original 1982 film to the updated sequel, was tapped to build the younger versions of Sir Elton for 'The Boy and the Piano.' Indeed, the development of this spot was by far the most challenging MPC has ever created for a commercial. 


“What made this so complex is that it had to be perfect,” explains Bryan, suggesting that if the effects looked fake or contrived, it could jeopardise the audience’s ability to connect with the story emotionally. “And to make it even more difficult, we had to apply Elton John’s own unique visual style and imperfections, on top of a performance that had to look as realistic as possible.” 

Frank says constantly pushing for excellence is what keeps photo-real work effective for brands: “Since CG creatures and characters in commercials have to be done to the highest standards, we’re always trying to move the bar higher. We aim to increase efficiency and improve results, so we can give clients characters and creatures that will resonate with audiences.”

As advertising deals with its current era of content fatigue, we’ve not entirely lost the ability to connect with creatures and characters. To keep them engaging, however, the artists at MPC fervently believe they need to move us, and not just emotionally, but visually as well, eliciting that cinematic ‘wow!’ factor generated by the best blockbusters. Need proof? Look no farther than the immediate reaction to “The Lion King” remake and you’ll see what we mean.



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Genres: Animation, Visual VFX, People, Storytelling, Musical, Drama

MPC Global, Thu, 11 Jul 2019 15:59:20 GMT