Weeks ago, we quickied “Gladiator,” the first of an ongoing campaign for UPS, due to the staggered release dates of the remaining spots. While additional spots are headed our way, shelving “Circus” until then would be a FU to the craft and creativity gods.
Corrugated cardboard, next to clay or pixels, is one of my favorite materials. Its seemingly innocuous appearance can transform into patterns and volumetric structures with a few simple folds, slots and slices. Any shop that manages to infuse human spirit into corrugated cardboard gets major cred from me. In “Gladiator” and “Circus,” Psyop does just this, transforming a bland brand of brown and a non-aesthetic material into a land of lions, elephants, and acrobats.
The charm of hinged puppet characters is met by the team’s technical muscle, layering golden light and atmospheric debris to turn a dull, trash material into treasure.
Psyop sheds some light on their process:
The brief from agency was to make worlds out of cardboard that felt simultaneously epic and handmade. We were also given the task of creating characters and environments that looked truly hand crafted with the caveat that everything must always be made of cardboard. We worked collaboratively on a series of scripts in order to finesse the story and craft these worlds.
One challenge we faced was creating a fully cardboard world that could feasibly have been created in a sound stage by stop motion animators. Each character had to be broken apart and looked at from the standpoint that if we were to create this in reality, how would they be built to allow the animators to have the full range of motion required.
We didn’t want the characters to look “CG”, so we tried to not cheat by using tricks in 3D. This forced us to approach character setup with some additional boundaries that in some ways made setup easier, but in others forced to us to become more like mechanical engineers and really focus on the details of believable mechanics.
The geometry we created was also another challenge. 99.9% of the corrugation you see is modeled. We really focused on keeping the details in the model and to not rely on texturing tricks. This posed a challenge for our machines and our modelers. Without running on x64 machines and operating systems we wouldn’t have been able to approach the project this way.
Even still, we pushed Maya to the limits on what it can handle in a scene at once due to our geometry polygon counts being so high. It also pushed how much corrugation our modelers were able to handle before cracking mentally. Giving our geometry a “messed up” look without going too far was also a challenge. If we kept the geometry too clean, it ended up looking too CG.
Psyop Creative Director, Eben Mears, kept referencing lasagna noodles whenever he saw corrugation that was too clean in dailies. On the other hand, if we pushed it too far our cardboard ended up looking like it came out of the garbage so we had to walk a fine line between the two. By keeping these details in the model, we didn’t have to worry about getting nice details in model close-ups, shadow effects, or textural detail in lighting and shading. What we saw is what we were going to get in render, and that allowed us a lot more creativity up front.
As with most projects, the hardest part was fitting an epic tale into 25 seconds. All of the scripts read like short films and we worked hard to tell these stories in a visually powerful way but within a tight time frame. Beyond this, the design of the worlds and characters in each spot was intense.
It’s an interesting struggle to design everything out of cardboard and make it look and feel “real”. Our use of corrugation and texture, plus the thought that went into the rigging of the characters was an epic struggle in and of itself.