Alice Filmes’ Felipe Mansur, Fernanda Laignier and Wal Tamagno tell Addison Capper about the unique challenge of placing the King inside a Fiat spot
Fiat considers its Strada pickup truck as somewhat of an icon. Which is why for a campaign for the relaunch of the model in Brazil, Leo Burnett Tailor Made brought back to life one of the most iconic figures of all time. To the tune of 'Blue Suede Shoes', the spot follows Elvis Presley as he takes a Strada for a spin complete with Elvis impersonators, several samurais and a drive through the desert.
To fully replicate The King’s mannerisms and appearance, Leo Burnett enlisted the talents of Alice Filmes and Nash VFX. They recruited one of the world's best Elvis impersonators, Dean Z from Missouri, before painstakingly replacing his face with a full CGI likeness. It was a process that involved all manner of hurdles along the way.
To find out more about them, LBB's Addison Capper chatted with director Felipe Mansur, and executive producers Fernanda Laignier and Wal Tamagno.
LBB> What was the script like for this project and why was it something that you were keen to get involved in?
Felipe> The first reaction when reading the script was a mix of euphoria alongside a great sense of responsibility, for bringing back to life one of the most important rock icons in history interacting with a car that is top of sales and an icon itself in its category in the Brazilian market. It’s a very important product for FCA Fiat in the business landscape.
From the very beginning, the script already had a very fun structure - an Elvis Presley with a 2020 twist to draw a parallel with the innovations of the updated Strada model to be relaunched. It was the perfect environment to create good storytelling where all the elements of the narrative should level up to two great icons. With all of that combined, any director would like to get involved in this project, so there wasn’t much of a doubt, really. It was actually a privilege to be chosen to help Leo Burnett TM and FCA Fiat get this project off the ground.
LBB> You had to bring back Elvis! What were your thoughts on this at the beginning?
Felipe> That was the biggest challenge of all. Despite all the technology developed in the world for this kind of work, during conversations with our VFX and post production partners in the pitching stage of the process, we identified some limitations. For example, we couldn’t have Elvis himself to get good photometry and we also didn’t have high definition quality Elvis imagery available to make use of for the wide shots. We decided to start from scratch and build an Elvis 3D model without being able to use much of the current technology available for this kind of process, so we had to find an Elvis look-alike and replace his face. It was really a big challenge. After all the technical paths for VFX and post were set, we were faced with the infinity of Elvis that we could portray. After a lot of research going through his full career and countless conversations with the creative team at Leo Burnett TM, we realised that 1968 Elvis would be the most suitable one to tell our story.
LBB> You cast Dean Z for the ad, before using CGI to replace his face. What was that casting process like? Was it always the plan to work with Dean or were other Elvis impersonators in the running?
Fernanda> To fulfill all aspects that were needed for the VFX and post production teams to work, we would need a body double that matched the Elvis that we wanted to portray. With the 1968 Elvis in mind, we started to look for someone that had the combination of Elvis body language, his music, his dancing skills, a similar body shape and image resemblance. It was a two months research that took us through many countries, and eventually we got to the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest, which is a huge annual contest with many preliminary rounds all over the US. The grand final takes place in Graceland, Memphis, the actual crib of the King. Dean won the contest and held the title of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist in 2013. After going through many highly talented Elvis tribute artists, we narrowed it down to a couple of options and decided to audition Dean for the part.
LBB> Given that Dean is an Elvis impersonator, how did you work with him? Did he require much direction or was it more about letting him do what he does?
Felipe> As soon as his audition started, we knew it had to be him. He is a full time Elvis tribute artist and performs all over the globe with his Elvis concert; his first time ever impersonating Elvis happened when he was three years old, so he really knows all there is to know about the character. That was a valuable asset, to have a source of endless Elvis knowledge at reach all the time, someone we could consult for accuracy throughout the project.
We portrayed a 2020 Elvis, so all the non-regular Elvis things that are in the film had to be Elvis-like and to have Deanʼs take on these actions was great. Before he went on set for the first time we had a meeting to go through the entire storyboard. I explained to him all scenes, all actions, all that had to be done, and on set, yes, I directed him scene by scene. After his first moves, we were sure that it couldn’t have not been anyone else but him to come on board with us.
LBB> When it came to replacing Deanʼs face for Elvis, how did you pull this off? What was involved in the CGI phase?
Felipe> There is no doubt that the biggest challenge was to recreate a realistic Elvis face in 3D. Along with VFX and post production teams, which involved professionals from Brazil and abroad, we did a very detailed, oriented piece of work. First, we analysed hundreds of images of Elvis trying to map every little trace of his anatomy and expressions. Once we started the production process, we realised that any small adjustments could bring great changes in the result, from the camera angle that we used to shoot, to lighting, anything would impact the result. Each face was discussed for hours and hours and divided by regions. First, we would just discuss mouth details, then other parts of the face, like the eyes. Suddenly, someone would say: ‘And that little mark on the forehead, isn’t it strange?’ The adjustments were made frame by frame, with a very unusual level of detail and a gigantic complexity. It was truly an opportunity to get out of our comfort zone and a potent learning experience.
LBB> What was the production like? Tell us about the shoot! I hear it was a big one.
Wal> The entire project was extremely challenging. First of all it was about the relaunch of Strada, a product that hadn’t connected to its audience for quite a while; the new Strada model was top secret and it was kept hidden throughout the entire process. Then, to bring Elvis back to life was already a big responsibility in itself, but anything involving his name raises the bar to a whole new level of excellence, so all elements of the film had to keep up with the Elvis universe and narrative. To put together the perfect environment to accommodate all of the project's creative aspects combined with all VFX/post production needs to assure the best on-screen Elvis, without letting the film become too stiff was also one of our biggest challenges. We had a two-month pitching process, followed by two months of pre-production, six shoot days and, due to the Covid pandemic, our post production stage extended to almost six months. During the entire process, we had over a thousand people involved, with more than 200 people on set everyday. For a project this big, having the proper time for pre-production and development is key, so we can get to the set fully prepared for what we had to shoot on that day. Any film is an equation of distinct elements that must fall into place throughout the management and creative processes, but this project had a very particular balance between all departments, everything was equally important for the final result and all details mattered.
We put a lot of effort in controlling all the elements that were under our umbrella, and although sometimes things get out of our hands, relying on the full team involved in this production was key to handle all setbacks and create a harmonious environment throughout shooting and also during the post/VFX stages.
LBB> As mentioned, there's a lot of CGI and VFX involved - how did this impact the actual shoot?
Wal> Every film focused in VFX/post production needs special attention. As Felipe mentioned, the visual effects team joined the project at an early stage. Regarding Elvis, after a lot of research and meetings we decided to prepare Dean exactly as our character would be, with real hair and makeup to serve as a reference for the light and texture that would be reproduced for the 3D model. After this characterisation stage, which took an average of three hours a day, we had tracking points on his face so that it was possible for the VFX team to fix the 3D model in front of all camera and character movements on the scene. After wrapping each Elvis sequence, the post production team needed the full set for themselves for about 30 minutes when they would capture HDR files, textures and frames to help afterwards in composition. Considering the number of Elvis scenes we have in the film, it took a lot of daily time out of the shooting schedule for this technical part. Other effects, like set extension, Elvis statue and the entry of the car at the show, were made by a second post production team that worked in parallel with the 3D team. It was a very intricate, logistic setup that involved the whole team to make decisions.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Felipe> It was a complex project in all of its aspects, and we knew that from the very first glimpse at the script. During both production and post/VFX we found ourselves amidst and facing big challenges. But to overcome the setbacks during the production stage of the whole process was easier as we relied on our prior production expertise, which is vast. As for the VFX stage of the process, we were face-to-face (literally and metaphorically) with a process that was not only very complex, but also that we had no prior expertise in: building a human face fully in 3D without the possibility to resort to all currently available technology due to the lack of high quality Elvis image, not getting a proper photometry done, or not having the ideal time to develop everything nor the ideal budget.
Initially we assumed that the biggest challenge for the VFX would be to build a 3D model that looked identically like Elvis. That was our pursuit, and although it took the team a while to get there, we did it; it looked like the biggest challenge of all had been overcome at that point. But after having an identical Elvis 3D model, we moved on to applying that model to the scenes, and that’s when we stepped onto something that we did not anticipate: once we started to apply the Elvis 3D model at each scene, we realised that there was a big difference from the isolated 3D model on the computer, and how it looked when applied to the scenes. At each framing with a different lens or lighting condition, the 3D model would look differently, would behave differently, which makes total sense: when you see pictures of a person in different angles, lights and lenses, that comes across, it is not all homogeneous for any human figure. No one looks exactly the same in every angle and every light, we change according to the environment and its conditions.
Of course that getting the 3D model tight was an initial milestone, but that wasn’t all of the task, and it was very tricky once we realised that. To overcome this setback we had to custom adjust the model scene-by-scene, based upon Elvis photo material that we’d previously researched. That was a whole new stage of the process that we had to face and learn as we moved forward and struggled with the deadline amidst a global pandemic.