Liberty’s “The Answer” is a 60-second commercial directed by Adrian De Sa Garces showing the history of Sandton City, a high-end shopping and office complex located near Johannesburg, South Africa. The site started as a farmer’s field in 1978, and was built up over the decades to become ‘the richest square mile in Africa’. I served as Visual Effects Supervisor for Digital Domain 3.0. The spot was produced by Velocity Films in collaboration with FoxP2.
It was a very challenging and complex piece of animation, since the camera had to smoothly move through 40 years of time lapse construction in reverse. Rather than mimic pure time lapse, where lighting and weather can change dramatically from frame-to-frame, Adrian wanted the spot to have a smooth evolution through two day/night cycles and four seasons.
Our first challenge was modeling. The scale of the site is huge, close to a square kilometer, and there was very little online reference (many of the buildings were so new that they were just open pits on Google Street View). Traditional survey wouldn’t suffice, so we tried a photogrammetric approach. We built a miniature city out of apple boxes in the DD parking lot and walked around it with a still camera, pretending we were a helicopter, then fed the photos into Agisoft. Once we found the right combination of lens and camera path, we arranged for a helicopter flight during the Johannesburg shoot. I shot the site from the air on a Canon 5D, and the crew back in LA obtained an excellent proxy of the location from an Agisoft reconstruction.
Then, using the proxy as a measurement guide, we had to make deconstructible models of each building, complete with an internal construction prop kit. The prop kit consisted of dozens of unique models, many of which had internal animation. We were able to create a few rigging tools to assist with decimation and time-lapse animation (where everything is on a step-curve), but most of the animation ended up being created the old-fashioned way, with manual keys.
We made heavy use of vray proxies, especially for cars and trees, as there were many thousands of models in each layer and little time for optimization.
Normally in a continuous camera spot, you can build in cut points such as flying through clouds or wiping the frame with foreground objects. This spot provided only one such point (the tree), but even then we had to see the background evolve, so the choreography with so many dense animated assets on screen at once proved to be quite tricky. Fortunately, we had Scott Meadows, DD’s Previs Supervisor, on the job for animation, and the entire crew pitched in to saturate the sequence with animated micro-details.
Another fun challenge was the evolving lighting and weather. Our CG Supervisor, Greg Teegarden, built a time-lapsing sky in Terragen, and one of the coolest features was the ability to render an HDR of the same sequence, which was used to light the Vray buildings, so lighting integration was a snap. You get some terrific scattering and color temperature effects in Terragen, especially at magic hour, so we cheated the sun to rush through night and mid-day, but hang out longer during sunrise and sunset.
The reverse-growing tree provided a unique opportunity to deploy some cool new tech from the developers at SpeedTree. They provided us with a beta version for animated growth, and worked closely with us to add the controls needed to massage timing on individual branches and leaves. The resulting animated asset was one of our most complex, with a 55 Gigabyte alembic file generated on each version.
Lastly, even though the ending plate we shot on a farm outside Johannesburg was lovely, it had to be almost completely rebuilt in Nuke to match a historical photo of the original site. The only practical portion remaining was a patch of grass with our three guys and their car, with the rest being replaced with matte paintings and CG trees.
The most rewarding aspect of the job was being able to work with the amazing production crew at Velocity Films and collaborate on a truly unique concept with Adrian and the team at FoxP2.