The Outpost bring Netherlands department store mascot to life through a study of emotion and behaviour
To feel a real connection with someone, we need to be able to read their emotions. But how do we do this? Many studies have shown that the eyebrows play a vital role in communication; knotting together in anger, raising high in surprise and drooping low in sadness. Artists often exaggerate these features to help better convey the emotions of their characters. So what happens when the eyebrows are taken away?
This was the challenge faced by Dutch animation and VFX studio, The Outpost, who were tasked with translating 2D sketches of Robbiii the robot into an animated 3D character for department store, Bijenkorf’s festive ad.
In a futuristic adaptation of the story of Pinocchio, a skilled Japanese craftsmen representing Geppetto is adding the final touches to his intricate robot creation, Robbiii. As he closes the hatchet on Robbiii’s glowing heart, he instantly comes to life. Tilting his head and smiling at his creator. Robbiii processes his surroundings, spotting a framed picture of Geppetto’s late wife on the table. Wanting to cheer his companion up, Robbiii deftly disappears before returning with a party of festive characters, bringing the lively spirit of Christmas right into Geppetto’s workshop.
“Using a prototype of the robot as a base, we were brought in by New Amsterdam Film Company to create the CG version of Robbiii,” says Rick Franssen, VFX producer at The Outpost. “De Bijenkorf wanted to draw upon the emotion and feeling of Christmas, featuring their mascot, Robbiii who was sold in store as a plush toy.”
“To create a believable character we added in details such as little screws at his joints and the hatchet with the beating heart that was actually made by someone in the art department and used on set. We had to build the CG around it,” he explains.
“His quirky little movements and tilt of the head when he’s thinking helped us give Robbiii cute characteristics to make viewers instantly like him,” adds technical director, Koen de Mol.
But making Robbiii an endearing robot was not as straightforward as it first sounds. “With only LED eyes and a mouth, Robbii had very little emotional cues to give away. You can usually read someone’s expression through their eyebrows but he doesn’t have any,” Rick points out. “To get past this barrier, we needed Robbiii to be able to express himself through his eyes so we spent some time researching different eye shapes and which emotions they portray. We looked to well-loved Disney robots for inspiration, including Wall-E’s girlfriend, EVE and Big Hero 6. They’re brilliant examples of how to bring inanimate objects to life.”
To do Bijenkorf’s mascot proud, every detail had to be considered, right down to whether Robbiii should be made out of brushed or non-brushed steel. “There was a lot of research into different metals and we also needed to decide whether he should be a bit scratched up or in perfect condition. Considering the precision that many Japanese craftsmen pride themselves on, we decided to opt for a super clean and meticulous look,” Koen explains.
Art director Olivier Ballast adds: “We needed to be very subtle in our design choices to not make Robbiii look too harsh and unbalanced. It can quickly happen when materials such as scratches in the metals and details in the model’s shapes are too exaggerated.”
Whilst Robbiii had all the charm and likeability on-screen, off-screen he was a little different…
Olivier reveals: “In the Netherlands we have a water bottle called Dopper that’s made out of brushed steel - just like Robbiii. So at the shoot we used a Dopper bottle for the camera’s reference. It was really helpful having that on set to see how the material looked in different surroundings and how we could closely recreate the effect on the material in 3D.”
On top of this, a wire frame model covered in tracking markers was used to help the actors know where to look and to unify everyone’s line of sight when looking at Robbiii. “The main challenge was getting the scale of the robot consistent throughout so that as you transition through different shots, Robbiii’s size is believable. He can’t be two metres tall in one scene and only a metre in the next. This sort of thing has to be handled shot-by-shout so it takes time to do,” says Rick.
For Koen, it was the dystopian city skyline: “The director had a vision of a futuristic Asian city inspired by Blade Runner which isn’t the typical cosy Christmas setting. So we had to walk a very narrow line between the futuristic theme and the Christmas theme. We achieved this by using the dystopian skyline in the background and introducing some Parisian-inspired houses in the foreground that add character. Behind every window there is a group of people celebrating Christmas.”
The project was not only enjoyable but a great success, as Rick puts it: “A really smooth ride. The communication between all the teams was amazing and everyone worked really well together, from the art department to the set dressers and wardrobe.”
He adds: “Bijenkorf’s stores across the globe were designed in the feeling of this commercial and in Rotterdam they created a whole in-store experience based on Robbiii the robot.”
“It probably sounds a little cheesy,” begins Olivier, “but seeing it all come together was a true joy to witness. Trying to evoke emotion and storytell through pixels is no easy task. Robbiii is completely made by the creative hands in our studio, and watching him look, move and interact with the real environment after weeks of hard work was very cool indeed.”