Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

How Chocolate Tribe Struck the Balance between Hyper-Real and Emotive to Highlight Sustainability in South Africa

Post Production
Johannesburg, South Africa
The animation and VFX studios’ Co- founder Rob van den Bragt and Executive Technical Director Tiaan Franken came together to tell LBB’s Zoe Antonov about the incredible process of creating the hyper-real creatures, while still keeping them emotive and developing their characters within the commercial.

South African retailer Checkers teamed up with Chocolate Tribe to create their newest campaign featuring an animated orangutan, polar bear, polar bear cub and two turtles. The campaign carries Checker’s message promoting planet sustainability and utilises the fully CG creatures to capture the emotional bonds they form with people who take care of their common home – planet Earth – through a variety of everyday sustainable choices.

Fully anatomically accurate in their design, as well as incredibly detailed, some of the CGI creatures have between 5 million and 10 million individual animated hair strands. Chocolate Tribe have flexed their creative muscles on the campaign through utilising Maya XGen for the fur simulation and Ziva Dynamics for muscle simulation.

The animation and VFX studios’ Co- founder Rob van den Bragt and Executive Technical Director Tiaan Franken came together to tell LBB’s Zoe Antonov about the incredible process of creating the hyper-real creatures, while still keeping them emotive and developing their characters within the commercial.  


LBB>  Tell us more about yourself and your relation to this project.


Tiaan> I'm Tiaan Franken, the executive technical director at Chocolate Tribe. My responsibilities on this production were to do the rigging and the technical setups on the characters. So, from muscle rigging with Ziva Dynamics, to setting up all the characters and making sure everything runs smoothly, including lighting, rendering, shading and fur. The fur was one of the biggest (and most interesting) challenges to create, especially because we wanted to ensure high levels of realism in actual shots, as well as the shading. So, the combination of the two, including muscle simulations, made us run for our money for a minute. But we threw all our years of experience and technical knowledge at it. And at the end, we were really chuffed with the end result.

Rob> I'm the executive creative director, visual effects supervisor at Chocolate Tribe. For me, it was going on set and supervising everything VFX wise and making sure that the director is happy with the look. I'm also co-founder of Chocolate Tribe. I have been doing this for quite some time, almost twenty-five years. But yeah, it was an amazing project for Chocolate Tribe to sink its teeth into. We were giddy doing this job, as we love creature work and the technical art of telling a story through animation.


LBB> Tell us more about the beginning of the project, the brief and the initial ideas surrounding it.

Rob> Initially, we were not sure on how far we needed to push the look of these creatures. You have a turtle, orangutan, polar bear, and a cub- so quite a lot of work and different technical needs. And some of our initial challenges were that of time and budget. The brief required us to make an amazing commercial that was technically and creatively captivating. Delivering the right message with the right tone.  As an artist you are always trying to make beautiful visuals and, in this instance, also embrace realism. Naturally, there will be a number of different hurdles as you go along in production. We had to do a bit of research and figure out the right approach to filming this commercial. And the right way to go about having the interactions between the people and the creatures. No small task. It is only when you get to the storyboard that you get a better idea of what needs doing. So, you begin to have a more detailed brief. Easy to visualize and get things into motion.

LBB> Once you got through the initial hurdle of narrowing it down, what were the messages that you aimed to convey through the film?

Rob> For us, as a studio we care about nature, we wanted to make sure the right message gets out there. We didn’t want to do a disservice to the product. So, as an artist -you want to make sure that the visuals are appealing and at the same time follow the brief. Sometimes when something is realistic, it often looks less appealing. And you have to find that balance between not cartoony or charming where it's all a little bit overly animated. You don't want to make it too cartoony because you lose the original, genuine feeling of the real animals.

However, the moment you have to humanise animals, the weird thing is- they become slightly less realistic.

Tiaan> Normally a turtle won’t have big googly eyes staring at you. So, we were taking creative licence in some cases, where we needed to put a bit more emphasis on the emotion, trying to connect with the audience, while keeping true to the detail and the texture of a real turtle.

I think that's the beauty of it, the more we went into studying these characters, the more we appreciated the nature of these creatures and the finer details they are specific to them.  And the detail that we needed to pay attention to was extensive. A great example is the fur. A polar bear is not naturally white, it's transparent, its skin is black underneath. So, the way you need to play with the shades and the textures requires you to be dynamic, for it to reflect correctly and mimic what it is like in real life. It’s not easy when you don’t have a local polar bear running around to shave and see what it looks like underneath!

We always do research before development, as much as we can to make sure we are capturing the essence of what makes a polar bear a polar bear. And same thing with orangutans and turtles. It was a fun project to work on because we love doing creature work. It's always been one of our passions, Rob and I. We like pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved in this space.

LBB> Tell us more about the history of Chocolate Tribe doing creature work. 


Tiaan> The key thing that makes us tick in creature work is whenever you get a challenge in VFX to mimic reality; the hardest form of craft is to make a creature or a human or whatever the case a replica of the real thing and bring it to life.

Before Checkers, we did a Showmax commercial that featured Muhammad Ali.  We had to make a photo replica of him. And you will be amazed how difficult it is to replicate a boxer because they gain and lose weight so rapidly before and after a fight. So, all the reference pictures we were using in that production were so different, which made it quite challenging.

Rob> It can be a wide-angle lens, so you can’t quite figure out the person’s face. Or one picture will be from a week ago, another from ten years ago. People’s physiognomy changes over time and a person may look totally different from their younger years to when they are a bit older.

Tiaan> Exactly. And I think that production really, showed how far we can push to replicate and match a human especially an icon like Muhammad Ali. He has such a big influence in the world, so we wanted to do justice to his facial expressions, essence, and attitude. So, in this case it really was about honouring a legend and we couldn’t mess it up!

Rob< In other productions we’ve done Krakens, we’ve done jellyfish, we've done birds, Lego animations. A lot of robots too! Dinosaur robots!

LBB> Looking at this project, what was the most challenging aspect of it? And what was equally the most fun part?

Rob> The most fun part is the hardest part because we love a challenge. We took this job on, purely because we love the challenge of pushing ourselves and that's what makes us tick.

If something has been done many times before, like we've done Lego commercials and Lego short films, and they look lovely. But we've done it so often that you kind of go “Yeah, it's another one.” There were many challenges in this project. Muscle simulation, balancing that reality versus that animated world. Conveying emotion but keeping it realistic.

When you’re in our industry, every job is so different. In one job you will be studying the Sahara Desert for whatever reason, because you're doing an Egyptian film about something. And then the next one, you're doing animals, so you're studying orangutans, and you just get so engrossed in it. I do think the challenge is obviously what we love but we also love the straddling of reality and fiction, that's what's so great about visual effects. When you can push the boundaries and say “Here's a plate. Now add something to it.”


LBB> What was the actual process like and how did you work with the references that you had for the animals?


Rob> You always want to start with reality.  Ideally, you don’t want to look at other people’s work, you want to start with the raw original footage of animals in their natural habitats.

I always say to people that with visual effects, there's always a filter. There’s the art director, the director, the agency, the clients, everybody will have an opinion about something that's “a bit strange.” But sometimes your life is stranger than fiction as they say and all these people have these filters who say, “That doesn't quite work. And that's a bit odd, or that little tick, and there's a little wiggle there, can we just move that out,” it's the same thing as with motion capture, the more you capture somebody's motion, and the more filters can apply to equalise things and make it smoother, you kind of lose that little bit of imperfection that life has.

So, we always want to start with ideally, live action plates of the actual animals. And then you add your layers of whatever is required to steer it a little bit away from one thing to get an expression, like the little turtle at the end, we had her look into the camera. You take liberties, but you want to base everything on reality. As the animals are coming into the scene, we keep it more realistic, and then they come out of that a little bit into a character where they connect with the audience on an emotional level.

Tiaan>I think the orangutan was the most interesting, because you think “Oh, it’s an orangutan,” but there are multiple species of orangutan. You can reference the Bornean orangutans, or the Samaritan orangutans, but they’re all quite different. That’s what is so interesting about these creatures and the way they exude character. Some of them have this disc around their faces, this is the one we ended up with, the Bornean one. But then others look very pale and don’t have a lot of hair, so they’re completely different.

At the beginning stages, when you see that variety, you start narrowing down the questions. The moment we got a very clear picture of our key reference frames, then we started modelling, sculpting and making the creatures. There are different levels of detail to be added to their faces and bodies because we do get up and close. Especially the shot of the hand when the orangutan holds the packet, those fine lines, details. There is almost human-like detail to their hands where they have been worn and torn. There’s so much small detail that people forget, you can’t just put a picture of a hand, because it won’t be the same. We went to quite a crazy length when it comes to the detail, and that’s what paid off.

Sure, we will obviously notice things that we can still improve on, there's always room for improvement. But that's the nature of VFX.

Then as we progress from having a model, being textured, things start moving.  Fine details are added. So, you get these one or two still frames, and you slowly see it coming alive and becoming a creature that could be real. And then we obviously go into the process where we start rigging the character. So, in general, these processes can happen in parallel. While guys are modelling, we can kind of get going on the rigging to a degree, meaning giving it the bones and the flesh, and so to say, the meat, the muscles, the tendons and all the stuff inside to make it real.

The rigging part is for me the fun part because you can see how the intricate details of the anatomy of these creatures have been put together, and how they function. You almost have more appreciation for nature again, and how the body is so amazingly in its imperfections. So, if you have a ripple effect on the shoulder or something like that, those intricate details might not be very visible to the common eye, however if not there, it almost feels very floaty.

After muscles, we go into rendering and lighting, we would try to match the set’s lighting environment. Finally, once you’re at that stage, you take it to compositing where there will be colour blending and making it fit better into that world.

Rob> I was more focused on the animation and obviously the final look. But for me, the main concern was what I mentioned earlier - about the behaviour of the creatures feeling plausible. I use the word plausible specifically because, this creature needs to be believable, it needs to live, it needs to feel realistic. But also, it still needs to meet clients’ expectations and if possible, even higher than those expectations.

So, it’s endeavouring to find that happy medium and ensure that motion, the way they move is right. When you look at polar bears, the mum generally stays a bit more real, she doesn't go into a character. The little cub is younger, so kept a bit cuter and more playful. We took a bit more liberty there.

LBB> Where do you think VFX in South Africa is headed? 

Rob> The industry is growing in South Africa as a whole. South Africa is establishing itself more and more as an animation and visual effects destination. We have quite a thriving film industry generally for overseas clients. A lot of it is service work in Johannesburg and Cape Town. We as a studio have established ourselves in Johannesburg and in Cape Town. More and more of the VFX effects work stays in South Africa to be done here, by the likes of Netflix and Disney. All the streaming partners are really starting to notice that South Africa has got quite a unique advantage.  We are a first world country and a third world country at the same time. Which has pros and cons. Huge pros are that we are in the same time zone and have fast internet.  There are minimal language barriers. While at the same time, we have competitive price cards. So, a bit more affordable, especially when it comes to VFX.

There are also a lot of talented people here who really are pushing the boundary and Chocolate Tribe is one such studio. To date, we have won a number of local and international awards in this industry. When we initially started seven/eight years ago, we were in a very small industry, where long form wasn't really a thing. It was mainly service work in Cape Town. It’s only in the last couple of years when VFX has taken off and we are sure this trend is continuing.

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