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The World Cup is well underway and that means sports advertising. One of the best spots we've seen so far is Passion PicturesThe Last Game for Nike, a five-and-a-half-minute, CG animation showing the best players in the world facing off against a team of clones. This was Passion's first major production using Arnold, and we talked to Head of CG, Jason Nicholas and Light & Rendering Lead, Christian Mills to find out more about its development.

"We were approached back in October and asked to pitch on the project", begins Nicholas. "It was clear from the offset that the creatives wanted something very different from a conventional sports brand campaign. After being awarded, our Director, Jon Saunders, together with VFX Supervisor Neil Riley, CG Supervisor Cesar Nunes and the rest of the team began working with the creatives at W+K on the script, firming up ideas they wanted to get across in the film and designing the characters."

"We spent a long time on the preproduction process. The characters initially started out as caricatures which went through several revisions before moving in to CG. Once in 3D we had the painstaking process of getting the right balance of character, realism and charm. Alongside the modelling we did test animation to understand more about the characters: how to bring our their personality, and how the modelling played a part in this."

"One thing you don't realise up front is that you're used to seeing some of these people on billboards and in print, often from certain angles, so what works as a 2D caricature is much more difficult to get right in 3D. For instance, we found our early Ronaldo model worked great when viewed head-on, but when you shifted the camera to a different angle suddenly it looked nothing like him! That took a lot of refinement and testing to get the characterisation just right from all angles."

The team spent weeks making sure the characterisation for all the players was just right.

With the character builds underway, the team moved into setting up the shading for the characters. This process took about two months with three artists doing the majority of the shading for the assets. The team took the time to ensure that the shading between all the assets was consistent. "We knew from the beginning that we had lots of different environments," says Mills. "In the past, even on jobs where there were similar environments, we spent a lot of time adjusting the assets in the shots. With the number of shots we had on this job in the timeframe, I don't think we could have kept an eye on multiple Rooneys."

To ensure that the assets would look the same in any given environment, they were constantly checked in four qualifying lighting setups--sunlit, low-light, neutral and studio--to make sure that the shading would behave correctly and render efficiently. From there, they could be tested in eight further shot-specific lighting environments that represented the lighting setups for the actual environments, before being rolled out into shots. "Arnold's simplicity and predictability was a huge help in this part of the process - and it made problem solving much easier too," says Nicholas.

By constantly checking each character under a series of qualifying light rigs, Passion could ensure that everything would sit together properly when lighting shots

The shot-lighting setup made heavy use of Arnold's stand-ins in Softimage to manage the high scene complexity for the characters and environments. Fluid sims were done in Houdini, then exported to Softimage as stand-ins using an early version of the Houdini to Arnold plugin, HtoA, for which Solid Angle engineer Frederic Servant provided on-site support. Crowds were simulated using CrowdFX and rendered as full geometry. Despite this high geometric complexity, render times were only 10 minutes a frame on average.

Crowds were simulated in CrowdFX and despite using full geometry, render times stayed low at only 10 minutes per frame

For most shots, Mills and the lighting team used around five light sources, including skydome lights for environment illumination, a key, rim and an extra light or two for shaping the characters and adding visual interest. The longest renders were one hour per frame for the extremely complex temple environment, and the team found Arnold's simplicity and predictability invaluable in planning their renders. "That was the biggest thing for me: that we knew what to expect, there were no surprises, like 'why did the render time suddenly blow up?'" says Nicholas. "It keeps you calm," Mills agrees. "You could change settings or add another character and you knew what to expect so you weren't rushing to get something on the farm just in case it was going to be very long. You could take your time and make sure you got it looking right before setting off the render."

Shot lighting time was also very quick. "For setting up your lights and getting it to look nice, about a day on average," remembers Mills. "The shaders are very artist-friendly and there's a good balance of available parameters which makes it easy to understand what you're working with. Keeping it simple allows you greater clarity and you can get a better result quicker."

"We were getting first passes really quickly," adds Nicholas. "And once in comp we found we needed to tweak renders much less than usual. Because we were getting such consistent output from the renderer, most of the work in comp was grading, balancing and pushing the focus in some areas. It wasn't the usual technical fixes you have to do in other renderers, fixing hair, fixing eyes and all that. It was creative tweaks."

As for the future, Nicholas can't say what they’re up to next with Arnold, just that they're looking forward to seeing how it performs on a wide range of projects. So are we!

Arnold's out-of-the-box realism and Passion's careful approach to shading meant it was quick an easy to light characters in a wide variety of different environments

For the full credit list, please see AdWeek's article.