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Just Like Us: Behind the Scenes of WWF’s Heart-Breaking Christmas Advert



All Mighty Pictures and Time Based Arts reveal the incredible craft behind seeing through the eyes of an elephant

Just Like Us: Behind the Scenes of WWF’s Heart-Breaking Christmas Advert
With animal sentience on the minds of the UK public, WWF’s emotive film about the lives of elephants provides a refreshing and proactive antidote to the consumerism of Christmas. 

The ingeniously presented CGI spot with live action integration was written and produced by All Mighty Pictures and flawlessly crafted by post production house, Time Based Arts. Through a photo realistic CG eye, we are transported to think and feel like a hunted African elephant. The magnificent beast and its herd experience a shockingly common and devastating attack from ivory poachers that plays out in the reflection of its eye.  

Looking to find out how the whole thing came to life, LBB sits down with Director and Producer team, Anthony Dickenson and Mark Harbour, Post Producer Chris Aliano, and Time Based Arts’ Co-founder James Allen. 

All Mighty Pictures had already collaborated with WWF on a number of major projects when they were approached to create an advert to raise awareness to the plight of elephants.

“WWF came to us wanting to make a powerful and hard-hitting film that would that would emotionally engage viewers,” explains Producer, Mark Harbour. “The stats are shocking. Around 55 elephants being killed by poachers a day. We thought that you can’t get much more emotive than viewing the illegal ivory trade through the eye of the animal that’s being poached. WWF were immediately on board with the idea.” 

An ambitious concept, All Mighty Pictures immediately consulted with Time Based Arts. Mark continues: “Initially, the concept was focused on the eye of the elephant and the play of events in the reflection but then as the idea developed, it just got bigger. Thankfully, Time Based Arts were up for the challenge.”

James Allen, Time Based Arts Co-founder explains: “We set about the original task of working on a macro framing of the elephant’s eye. As the idea grew and developed we collectively realised that to best tell the story it was important to see the whole animal and thereby understand the eye in context. This obviously provided us with a very real challenge. However, it matched our ambition as a company to complete full photo-real creature work. If you’re going to make the eye you might as well do the whole animal, right?! In the end it was very rewarding to solve both the close-up work with all the detail inherently needed, as well as bring to life the CGI for the wider shots of the head and full body.”

The live action footage that plays out in the reflection of the elephant’s eye was shot in South Africa. “The challenge was to tell the reflection story with as much clarity and emotion as possible whilst trying to work within our technical limitations,” says Anthony. “A reflection in an eye appears warped and curved so we had to shoot everything on a 12mm wide angle lens to recreate that look. It was interesting to stay locked to the one lens – although in some ways it simplifies the actual filming. It’s a difficult lens to create beautiful shots, especially of people. We also had an extensive testing period before we arrived on location to ensure we were approaching everything else in the right way, such as camera movement and height. We needed to know how much we could get away with and what would become confusing once in the reflection. So, we used an early CG eye render to map test footage on to. This answered most of our questions but I still ended up shooting variations once on location – just to be safe! The shoot in South Africa, with Farm Films, was really smooth. Everyone there was just as passionate about the cause as we all are and we got some great material."

Anthony shooting in South Africa 

Prosthetic ivory was used to capture this heart-breaking scene

With the cause at the heart of the filming, there was no way that the use of real animals or real ivory would be considered in the making of the film. “We got Time Based Arts to build everything to do with the elephants in CGI. We needed CGI that would be completely realistic to pull this off without detracting from the message at hand. We’ve known these guys a long time and we knew they could make it look amazing.”

To achieve the realism Chris tells us the team worked closely with the charity to ensure all aspects of the animations were authentic to the African elephants represented: “We worked with WWF to ensure that all our references were representative of the responses and natural behaviour of the animals,” Chris continues: “With this guidance, the artists aimed to get the animation as close as possible to the real distress an elephant would show.” 

One of the sophisticated elements of the spot is that the eye of the elephant reacts to match the emotion the animal feels when viewing the scene. Interestingly, the challenge for both All Mighty Pictures and Time Based Arts was to ensure that the shot footage would fit in the CG construct when it moved, but also to be sure that it would be legible in the reflection. Chris and James tell us the light had to be perfectly balanced to ensure one element didn’t overpower the other. 

Chris explains: “It was a complex challenge because we animated around the edit and there were lots of nuances in the animation that had to be reactive to those scenes. For example, when a scene transitioned from dark to light, the pupil had to dilate. Also, the shape of the eye would change with the emotional reaction; for example, when the elephant looks at the carcass, its eye droops and looks down.”

Ensuring an emotional impact added an additional layer of complexity for All Mighty Pictures, who had to scrutinise every scene to make it fit in the edit. Working with Ruth Hegarty at the Assembly Rooms on the edit, Anthony explains: “The edit was complex. We had to think about attuning the impact of the scene in the reflection, without distracting the viewer from the eye and vice versa. This is hard when you don’t have a finished eye and you don’t have a full understanding of what emotion will be conveyed by it’s movements. We worked really hard to find the right balance between the storytelling and the elephant’s emotion.”

The final significant component in elevating the emotion of the film was the music, from renowned composer Max Richter, and the sound design, crafted by Joe Wilkinson and Will Cohen at String and Tins. Mark says: “We were very fortunate that Max Richter allowed us to use his music. He’s a big supporter of the cause. Alongside that, the sound design was such an important layer. The elephant’s breathing, heartbeat and ‘rumble’ all bring the viewer even closer to the animal itself and adds another emotional level. String and Tins did an amazing job.” 

It’s clear when talking to Time Based Arts and All Mighty Pictures that the close-knit nature of the team and the huge combined level of experience meant the process was an incredibly smooth one. As big supporters of the cause, it’s obvious everyone has poured their heart and soul into the project. Recent coverage of the spot sets it out to be a huge success and it’s wonderful to see how proud the whole team are of the finished thing.

Mark adds, “It’s a real pleasure to work with a client who is so passionate. This passion filters from the top down into every element of the creative process. The fantastic thing about this project was that all the team - WWF, All Mighty, Time Based Arts, String and Tins and The Assembly Rooms – have regularly worked together, which meant we had a real trust in each other and the outcome. This allowed us to put all of our efforts into creating the best bit of work we could and we’re thrilled to see how successful it has been.”

Mark Harbour on shoot in South Africa 
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Genres: Storytelling, Music & Sound Design, Scenic, Action, Animation, Documentary, In-camera effects, People, Visual VFX

Categories: Corporate, Social and PSAs, Charity

Time Based Arts, Wed, 06 Dec 2017 17:20:40 GMT