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Creating a Flamin’ Hot Super Bowl Ad with Spicy Snacks and Even Spicer VFX

Behind the Work 342 Add to collection

LBB’s Ben Conway goes behind the scenes on Frito Lays’ Flamin’ Hot Super Bowl Spots with Untold studios and Goodby Silverstein & Partners

Creating a Flamin’ Hot Super Bowl Ad with Spicy Snacks and Even Spicer VFX

An ‘80s Salt-N-Pepa banger, characterful CG animals and some seriously hot snacks - what isn’t there to love about Cheetos’ spot from Super Bowl LVI? Creating an acapella rendition of the absolute bop that is Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Push It’, Untold Studios’ CG creatures wheeze, splutter and pant to the iconic track’s rhythm, resulting in a fun and memorable ad from this year’s big game. 

The spot aired during the Super Bowl to significant positive response online and, for the eagle-eyed viewers out there - or should that be eagle-eared - there were, a couple of sneaky celebrity voice-over cameos to listen out for. Directed by Tom Kuntz and featuring the vocal talents of rapper Megan Thee Stallion, alongside singer-songwriter Charlie Puth appearing as a beat-boxing fox, this spicy, musical spot had a little something for everyone.

To get a glimpse behind the nine months yes… that’s a nine-month-long creative process that built up to the 30 seconds of precious Super Bowl screen time, LBB’s Ben Conway spoke with Goodby Silverstein & Partners’ senior copywriter Pedro Furtado and senior art director Fabio Santoro. And to gain an insight into the wonderfully detailed and lively cast of VFX creatures, he also spoke with Untold Studios’ creative director Ben Cronin, who shared some behind the scenes secrets of their three months of modelling, animating, compositing and more to bring this ad - and its featured creatures - to life. 

LBB> Firstly, how exciting is it to work on a Super Bowl spot? What is the Super Bowl season for you like in general?

Pedro and Fabio> Super exciting. We’ve been privileged to work on Super Bowl spots for the last three years, and it’s always a lot of fun but also an insane amount of work. It’s sort of a marathon. The fact that millions of people will be not only watching but genuinely paying attention to the commercials adds a lot of extra pressure to it. But that’s probably what makes it so exciting. 

Ben> Few projects get you buzzing like a Super Bowl spot. I don’t think I have worked on a Super Bowl spot before, at least not one that I can remember! Some of the bigger UK Christmas spots I’ve worked on had my adrenaline pumping. They have added pressure because the local anticipation and expectation is so high. But I love working on high profile spots for that very reason. 

Untold is still pretty young and our expectations are high. Every day we are gunning for the biggest and best work out there. And with that creative drive, we always end up pretty busy all year!

LBB> Where did the initial creative spark for the spot come from? And when did Untold Studios get involved?

Pedro and Fabio> It started with the basic premise of someone dropping some chips on a jungle and a bunch of wild animals finding them. We then thought it would be funny if those animals started making sounds that slowly built into a famous song. When we showed this idea to the CDs, they were like, “The song needs to be Push It,” which made perfect sense. 

We got briefed in May, so that’s what, nine months? The best part of the process was by far watching it come to life through the hands of our partners from Untold Studios. We had weekly meetings that covered every tiny detail, like the most natural way for a sloth to hold a Doritos chip or what a bear’s butt looks like when it’s twerking. They were highly recommended by Tom Kuntz - the director - who had worked with them on previous projects. When we saw their reel, we were simply blown away by all they’ve done. We hope people have as much fun watching it as we had making it. And, by the end of it, we hope they can ask themselves, “What the hell did I just watch?”. 

Ben> We have a long-standing and fruitful relationship with Tom Kuntz. He’s one of the best directors in the world and for the last two years, we have worked on a series of fantastic VFX projects with him. Tom sent this script to us after we completed the Avanti Trains spot for him. He knew we were the team to take it on, he said: “Just do your thing.” We knew we could get some really funny, natural expressions from the cast of animals and we worked up concepts to help everyone visualise what we could do before we won the job. The schedule was tight, so we worked with Tom and the agency to hone the number of animals and shots to get the maximum out of the time we had.

LBB> Which of the animals were you most looking forward to doing the creature VFX for and why? Were there any that you haven’t worked with before? Or one that poses some interesting challenges?

Ben> The whole team were wondering what the sloth would bring to the party. The script was giving it the most airtime and it had more of a story to tell with facial expression than the other animals. It’s an unusual looking animal to say the least, without fur it is pretty terrifying. Its anatomy is not best suited for walking on all fours so there is a certain awkwardness to the way it moves which we needed to be careful of. The script had a shot where it needed to move incredibly fast along the ground and up a tree. It was a big concern for us but once we had tried out a few solutions we could see that it was pretty funny even if it is wildly inaccurate!

We weren’t particularly concerned with any of the other animals apart from the time we had to craft them. We knew there was going to be complexity with a performing bird. That performance was going to push the rig and build and it was why that asset was being nuanced for most of the schedule.

LBB> How long did the project take overall? And how much collaboration and feedback did you have with the agency and client?

Ben> We saw the script in October and the job landed in the first week of November. So we had three months with the unhelpful interruption of Christmas and New Year in the middle of it. Pre-vising and post-vising to a very high standard helped inform the edit. This, in turn, got us a healthy head start with animation, although we were inevitably still animating some of the shots as close to the end as possible. It’s just too tempting to work more detail into it if you can.

We were reviewing with Tom and then the agency and client throughout. It was vital to keep everyone working to the same goal and highlight what needs feedback and what doesn’t. There was a great vibe with everyone on the project. Respect for everyone's part in the process goes a long way to a smooth ride and the best possible finished spot.

LBB> Could you walk us through the process of doing creature VFX for one of the animals in this spot? 

Ben> It's not easy to be brief and informative but I shall give it a go! First, we do a tonne of research so that we can present to the director and the agency a curated selection of options for each animal. In this case, there were different sloth, buffalo, fox, deer species to choose from and within those species the look could change depending on the season. 

Once we’ve landed on the perfect reference we get started on modelling using anatomy research.  Rigging this model then starts with a considered understanding of the breadth of the performance and that always has some to and fro with animation to craft the controls. We animate using an approximate model that represents the true volume of the animal rather than its underlying skin. And the animation team uses the moving research we sourced to inform and inspire but much of it comes from the skill of our animation team.

Everything on this project overlapped a little more than normal so we started the groom (building/designing the hair) on all the animals at pretty much the same time. Then texturing and lookdev bring the underlying skin and features to life. We also have the CFX team working on the underlying muscle, skin and fur dynamics. Our bear came to life when this was dialled in, it gives it weight and movement that sells the speed of the spicy reaction and gives us the jelly when it twerks. 

During all that, our lighting team are setting up the lighting environments for each shot and once they get the asset in the scene they can start shaping the lighting to get the most out of the animation. Our compositing team has been beavering away this whole time prepping the shots and finishing the hidden 2D work. 

Now they get the first round of renders the whole team can start crafting the shots together. With every team nuancing their work to perfection.

Pedro and Fabio> We literally saw those creatures evolve from weird hairless clay beasts to ultra-realistic jungle animals (BTW, a hairless sloth is quite a bizarre creature). But just to watch this process unfold before our eyes was super impressive.

LBB> The spot uses the song ‘Push it’ and features two high-profile music artists - why was this song chosen and why were Megan Thee Stallion and Charlie Puth’s voices used?

Pedro and Fabio> We looked at various songs, but ‘Push it’ felt just right for many different reasons. It’s not only a very catchy ‘80s song, but it made perfect sense for the animals to eat a spicy snack and react by going “Ahh,” “Ishhh,” and “Push it.” Going with Megan and Charlie was a no-brainer in terms of celebrities. Megan is a synonym for spicy, and she truly loves the product. Charlie was also the best possible fit for a fox that can beatbox. 

LBB> How does incorporating music and more anthropomorphic elements like dancing, talking and singing affect the VFX process? 

Ben> I think a lot of us take great pride in creating animal assets that are utterly believable. They look and behave just as real animals do. And we always bring up how you can create a narrative and drama with genuine wildlife footage. However, an ad doesn’t have the time or Sir Attenborough’s VO. Much of the time, we are asked to get something more out of them. Don’t break it - just ’Push it’ a little. It can be more challenging and, for that reason, more interesting. I certainly think that if you can hit the sweet spot with the anthropomorphic performance it will be all the more memorable. If you go too far it will be utterly forgettable.

LBB> The sloth’s smirk at the end and the fox’s beatboxing is very human-like, but without looking out of place - how do you strike that balance?

Ben> That smirk is a moment in the script where everyone had a different performance expectation. It can be tricky to align everyone but when you have the animation talent that can land a great performance, whatever the brief, then it makes life easier. It's our job to make sure that within those iterations we never push the facial pose too far. Less can be more and the tone of the humour is vital. This spot had a clear comedy arc that starts utterly natural, moves on to facial expressions and movement that sit comfortably in the realms of what is possible but then quickly descends into the hilariously absurd. It was very important to move the slider of funny at the right moment.

LBB> Which element(s) of the spot and creature VFX are you most proud of?

Ben> Two of the stand-out shots for me are the appearance and the first two spicy reactions of the deer. That first closeup is on a long lens which already has us in familiar territory. We are used to seeing Deer photographed at a distance. The delicate animation, flawless asset and lighting make for a perfect shot.

The two deer shots where we get the spicy reaction in all its glory are supremely satisfying because we started with a very tricky brief to have the deer make the “iissshhh” sound. (The deer doesn’t have any top teeth so not particularly helpful in that regard). We went back to one of our first concepts that we’d used in our creative response to the agency. It nailed the expression we needed and was a bizarre but natural pose. The first time we animated this it made me laugh out loud. We knew it was a winner.

Pedro and Fabio> We love that it makes absolutely no sense to have a sloth, a fox, a deer, a bear, a crocodile, and buffaloes in the same environment. But Untold made them look so real that no one has questioned it. The animals look so real that you don’t expect them to act as they do on our spot. 

LBB> What was the most difficult challenge of the project and how did you overcome it?

Pedro and Fabio> Finding the perfect sound for each animal was probably the trickiest part. We wanted them to sound like the original music, but, at the same time, they had to feel like real animals. It took everyone a lot of time in the mix to get it right. 

Ben> Seven performing animals in three months was the challenge. We knew we have the artist to build any animal to the highest level but for that to happen the job has to be run efficiently. That gives all our artists space to be creative and not let the pressure be all-consuming. Our VFX supervisor, Tom Raynor is the master of efficiency and it makes such a huge difference to the whole team when they are working in tandem with overlapping tasks but having the headspace to give it their all.

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Untold Studios, Mon, 14 Feb 2022 17:09:55 GMT