The pioneering in-house agency is liberating its production pipeline with a tool that puts CG imagery and animation in the hands of its designers, Specsavers creative technologist Helen Arnold and 3Dctrl co-founder Ben Cyzer tell Laura Swinton
Specsavers is known for being one of the pioneers of in-house creativity - the Guernsey-based optician brand has had an in-house creative function since 1988. Although many huge contemporary brands are only now starting to get their own internal agencies up and running, Specsavers was seen as an anomaly over the past few decades as it put out brand campaigns of comic genius and cheeky responsive next-day print ads with its immortal ‘Should Have Gone to Specsavers’ line.
And the current team at the full-service shop are continuing to prove that that pioneering reputation is well-deserved. They’ve been experimenting and testing ways to give their creatives, designers and local markets even greater control over their content and assets. In particular, they’ve been working with Artificial Artists and their virtual production studio 3Dctrl and have found a way to bring 3D content creation and animation in house, allowing them the control and flexibility they need to meet the ever-evolving and growing demands for digital content.
The journey started when creative technologist Helen Arnold and the team at the in-house agency were reviewing what the brand was doing online and, more specifically, how the frames looked. During the process, they pinpointed an area of frustration - the inflexibility of their CG assets.
“We spend a lot of money on making our product look good and doing all this work and we would always end up with stuff that is great CGI but we can’t unlock it,” explains Helen. “We can’t do anything with it. We either didn’t have the programmes in-house or enough of a skill set to do that.”
And so Specsavers started talking to Artificial Artists about their platform 3Dctrl. It’s the brainchild of ex-MPC-ers Ben Cyzer and Tim Phillips. While the pair had spent many years working on high end, beautifully crafted commercials designed for TV and cinema screen, they realised that the traditional VFX workflow wasn’t working for brands that needed flexibility and responsiveness. The slog of having to go and ask a huge post house to rummage around in their digital assets and tweak an animation for a cheeky responsive social post just didn’t fit with clients’ needs.
“I guess the idea came from the fact that while we were working with lots of brands and agencies, the work we were doing was admirable and very high end. When we needed to create a lot of content at scale, the processes in place at traditional visual effects studios were only really built for one approach, which is TV or film, and it was cost- and time-prohibitive for brands to use us for content at scale,” says Ben. “So we wanted to develop a system and a tool that would enable brands, essentially, to create content at scale inhouse for digital channels. Not for TV necessarily, not for broadcast but for e-commerce, social media, digital advertising, and just give them more control over 3D animation.”
And so 3Dctrl was born. The basic idea is that Ben and Tim’s team can create digital 3D replicas of products and various other assets, load them into the platform and allow an agency or brand’s designers or creators to manipulate the CG assets.
From Helen’s perspective, it’s given the Spescavers team better control over their augmented reality try-on tool, making the process of feeding new frames into it more efficient and smoother. Moreover, it’s also opened up a plethora of creative possibilities.
“There’s this other layer where we can actually start playing with the frames and creating our own assets and our own advertising in a way that we’ve never been able to do before,” says Helen. “We’ve only just scratched the surface. But it really has started to make a massive difference in the way we advertise. It’s been brilliant.”
The virtual production tool has been particularly useful when it comes to Specsavers ecommerce, which has been especially important to the brand throughout the pandemic. As luck would have it, Specsavers and 3Dctrl had started laying the foundations of the virtual studio just prior to Covid-19 hitting. As lockdowns hit what had started as an exploratory project became a desperately needed solution, allowing them to tweak online imagery for social media and ecommerce platforms as needed, as well as creating animations for digital display advertising.
But even outside of the context of Covid-19, it’s been a boon for Specsavers’ growing international presence too, allowing them to tailor 3D content for different platforms and markets.
“It’s huge and we’ve only just scratched the surface,” says Helen. “We can bring in any single frame we want, crop it or scale it for anything we need. It means we can share that globally across our network. We're in lots of different countries now, not just the UK but Australia, New Zealand, the Nordics and now Canada. We can create an animation that we think works for display, test it and send it out. It means that we’re not duplicating the same thing and as not every frame is sold globally, we’re not wasting a huge amount of time and resources. It’s only going to get bigger.”
Specsavers is continuing to experiment and push the platform and both Ben and Helen say that there’s a symbiotic relationship as 3Dctrl is developing in response to the in-house agency’s needs. The partnership began with a three-month pilot, where Specsavers gave 3Dctrl their trickiest specs to model (that would be the transparent rims), and ever since they’ve been pushing and playing.
“Every time we do something new, they’re always striving to do it better. So each time we’re learning something. We’ve had a huge amount of frame launches and we’re always launching new brands, and that means we have to learn about a different material or something that we’ve not tried before,” says Helen.
When it comes to other issues that can trip up content production generally, for example the need to reduce carbon footprint or supply chain problems with new models, Ben reckons that the virtual photography studio does away with the need for travel, lighting setups, photographers and plenty of spare samples. He says that with one client, a shoe brand, they were able to create content despite samples not being ready - and the brand was able to use that content to sell into retail. For now, they’re focusing mainly on product imagery and see most immediate potential in sectors like fashion, electronics and automotive.
More broadly, Specsavers and 3Dctrl’s partnership fits into two trends sweeping across the industry. One is clients and agencies’ need for platforms that allow them to take control of their assets in order to create responsive and personalised content. And the other is the lively umbrella of virtual production, which encompasses everything from these virtual photography studios to in-camera VFX and is up-ending traditional production pipelines.
“We very firmly believe that real time 3D as a technology is the future of content creation,” says Ben. “It’s already had a huge impact on industries beyond advertising. Obviously, gaming, but equally visualisation within architecture, or the automotive industry. Tim and I predicted that real-time 3D was starting to hit a quality that could rival traditional 3D in traditional visual effects. That’s why we wanted to adopt this technology and apply it to the advertising market. In tandem to what we’re doing, which is really a cloud-based virtual production system, the same technology is impacting live-action production. It’s a very exciting time and it’s the same technology that is going to spearhead what everyone is referring to as the metaverse. Once you can display such quality 3D instantly, you know the possibilities are almost endless.”
And while Specsavers may have an advantage with its extensive experience of in-house creativity and content production, Helen reckons these sorts of tools and platforms could be a boon for any in-house creative set up or indeed agency.
“The way that the tool works means that creatives can create their best work without that barrier. Without simplifying too much, it’s the way you’d use Photoshop or any piece of software. It’s just another way for us to showcase our product. It could be used for anything and across the industry,” says Helen. “There’s a really big barrier to entry at the moment with 3D and this gives you the opportunity to do more things in a way that we wouldn’t necessarily get to do.”