Interview with SHED on the IGA commercial Christian
VFX and animation studio SHED has been working with Sid Lee for a couple of years on the creative campaign for Canadian supermarket chain IGA. The latest collaboration is Christian, in which two of the three IGA ambassadors - Stefano Faita and Christian Bégin - are seen exploring Québec and its produce. This allowed SHED to create several beautiful outdoor environments as well as further develop the 3D character animation of the campaign. We spoke with SHED co-founder/VFX supervisor Sylvain Lebeau (SLY) and 3D artist Jean-Sebastien Guillemette (JS).
Can you tell us about the history behind SHED?
SLY: SHED was founded nine years ago and was a merger between two companies. At that time we were only three 3D artists. In our first year of existence, we won a CREA award for best visual effects in a commercial. It captured a lot of attention and we started to grow slowly and make good friends in agencies. It’s one of the best places to work in town. We have a very relaxed and laid back artist-oriented environment. We also have a boutique approach in the sense that the directors and creatives sit down with the artists themselves to discuss, brainstorm and share ideas. This is something I often hear that it is very appreciated.
As for me, I’ve been doing 3D since I was 15 years old and started on 3D Studio R3 on DOS. I gave the 3D Studio Max courses at Icari here in Montreal for three years when I was 20. This is the time I remember seeing the first Arnold renders from Pepeland with the little character opening the door, and the military statue sitting on a desk with a laser gun. I've waited more than a decade to put my hands on it.
My main job is to supervise onset shoots and also do look dev, shader and lighting setups. I also do compositing work and was a lecturer last year for the compositing basics courses on Animation Mentor.
What was the size of the team that worked on the IGA spot Christian?
SLY: Since the 3D department employs 16 artists and the workload on such a commercial is pretty big, you can be sure that 100% of the 3D artists touched this project. Also, the challenge for us sometimes is to keep an IGA project up and running and at the same time do many other smaller projects. We normally work on three to four projects at the same time and I remember hitting our record mark at 17 simultaneous projects.
Which software tools did you use?
JS: We used a mix of Maya, Softimage, ZBrush and Mudbox for modeling. Animation was done in Softimage and the textures in MARI. Hair was groomed with Yeti and simulated with Maya's nHair. We assembled and rendered all of it in Maya and Arnold.
Why did you use Arnold for this project?
SLY: We adopted Arnold a while back now. It is the only renderer we use. This will be even more true when it’s going to be released for Cinema 4D as the mograph guys just can't wait to start using it. I can already hear the trumpets of war for the renderfarm sharing! It was also the renderer we used back when we started to work on this campaign. I personally don't think any other renderer could make it happen and achieve this level of quality in the time we have to produce the spot. We always use Arnold's IPR for look dev because it helps us iterate our shading and lighting way faster.
What were the biggest challenges?
JS: Our biggest challenge was definitely the number of different environments. We had to create in a rather short period of time fully-fledged environments that were seen only for a couple of seconds but needed to be highly detailed. Each set also had to be quite different to visually demonstrate that the characters were travelling all around the province of Québec.
The beauty of using Arnold is that the approach for rendering so many trees is easy and obvious. We used a simple instance scattering technique, in most cases using Maya nParticle emitters. Arnold then took care of the rest and rendered the tens of thousands of high-res trees without using much memory. It was easy to setup and easy to render, which helped us go through a few iterations of mountain styles and end up with what we really liked.
Can you tell us a little bit about the shading work?
JS: We didn't have to write any custom shaders, they were all 'out of the box' shaders. The trees were meant to be in-between realistic- and cartoon-looking. In the end, we rendered them without displacement so the trunks aren't that detailed, but all the leaves are modelled (instead of 2D sprites) and use SSS in their shading. We used a lot of SSS, it is essential for most things that are alive (or used to be alive ;-)). We used it profusely on the characters, the food that is presented throughout the ad and even in the foliage of the thousands of trees in the background!
I would say the skin was the most difficult to shade. We had a look in place already, from the previous spots, and we had to match that look with the new skin shader introduced in a recent version.
How big is your render farm and what were your render times?
JS: We use about 30 machines, a mix of render farm and desktop computers. Most of the frames took between one and three hours, depending on how many characters and backgrounds there were. We probably could have rendered faster, but we didn't lose much time optimizing. As noted earlier, no matter where our assets are in the scene (foreground or background) we don't optimize them, we just render the high-resolution mesh. Our motto is that the machine time is way cheaper than the artist time (it's also more fun to just make the shot more beautiful instead of losing time cheating it) and Arnold helps us a lot in this regard. It really is predictable.
Have you tried the latest Arnold 4.2 core?
JS: We switched to 4.2 just after this project was released. We didn't dare make a software switch in the middle of a big production. We are now using it and the switch was flawless (so we could have switched after all). Arnold 4.2 does feel faster! Can't wait to show you our next project rendered with it.