Imaginary Forces (IF) recently teamed up with WPP Agencies (Grey and Mediacom) and SK-II STUDIO to produce a short film for global prestige skincare brand SK-II’s groundbreaking anthology series ‘VS’ — a collection of six animated films based on the life experiences of six Olympic athletes to inspire every woman that they have the power to #CHANGEDESTINY.
Directed by IF Creative Director Alan Williams, ‘VS Rules’ features three-time World Junior Champion surfer Mahina Maeda. Merging animation and live-action to create a dreamlike world, the film dives into Maeda’s multicultural heritage as the daughter of two Japanese immigrants growing up in Hawaii’s North Shore. Torn between expectations for how she should behave, she must choose to follow the rules, or make her own.
Each unique film in the eclectic ‘VS’ series incorporates a “kaiju” (“strange beast” in Japanese) representing the inner demon each athlete must defeat to define what beauty means to them.
IF embarked on the project in the scripting phase, collaborating closely with WPP Agencies (Grey and Mediacom), which they developed around interviews with Maeda. Visually, they sought to strike a balance between ancient and modern art, finding inspiration in the works of fine artist Ikenaga Yasunari. Enlisting storyboard artist Tyler Gibb, the team blocked out the scripts with a range of shots — from wide to extreme close-ups — that would capture Maeda’s frustration with not fitting in, her longing to follow her dreams, and her fear of the “kaiju.”
“All of these expressions and action cues began on paper before we translated them into motion,” says Williams. “A glossy 3D look would have robbed the humanity of Ikenaga’s aesthetic, so we hand-animated Maeda’s expressions. Cel animation, however, was not an option for the detail required of the kimonos and yukatas our characters wore, so we modeled those assets in 3D, then rendered and composited them to mimic the look and feel of Ikenaga’s work.”
IF headed to Tahiti to shoot Maeda surfing for both the live-action and animated surf sequences. With color and light playing a significant role in the visual tone of the film, they shot at dusk and dawn, with a combination of lenses to capture beautiful golden reflections on the ocean water.
“The shoot was nothing short of awesome,” says Renee Robson, IF Executive Producer of Live Action. “Mahina’s artful athleticism and our team’s agility and resourcefulness to get those intimate shots during the surfing scenes with crews on camera boats/jet-skis was incredibly exhilarating. Of course, we had to also showcase the location in all of its glory with our drone camera. Plus, not wanting to miss any opportunity, we brought in our underwater cinematographer to grab those gorgeous underwater shots of our athlete. The content truly speaks for itself on this one!”
“The longer lenses with a shallow depth of field maximized the magical realism,” adds Williams. “Because this warm palette was used throughout our golden Byobu (Japanese folding) walls in the CG castle, the live-action and animation transitioned smoothly. The caustic light and rippling distortions of the ocean provided incredible transitions in and out of the animated world by using underwater cameras.”
IF brought along photographer Matt Holyoak for the Tahiti shoot, who photographed Maeda in her kimono, yukata, and wetsuit. Yasunari used these photos as a reference to paint a portrait of Maeda, which IF used as its golden standard of reference throughout the process. Designer/illustrator Ella Lee created all of the portraits of both Maeda and the Yamato Nadeshiko spirits seen within the film, which cel animator Jahmad Rollins brought to life by carefully analyzing everything from physical movements to dialect.
Brooklyn-based motion-capture studio Silverspoon took the surfing footage of Maeda and directed actors to mimic her surfing movements and applied the performance data to Maeda’s 3D model for IF to modify.
IF Editor Jeremiah Shuff created a sound map composed of dozens of naturalistic and oceanic sounds for music production company Eclectic to build on. Two contrasting soundscapes accompany the animated portion of the film: within the castle and outside the castle.
“We wanted to amplify the zen-like naturalism of the materials within the castle — creaking wooden floors, the breeze softly shaking the Byobu, the fluttering of cherry blossoms — yet soft and safe, like a cocoon,” says Williams. “Outside the walls, the towering ‘kaiju’ wave is deafening — wild and untethered.”
Eclectic also scored the film with thematic and emotionally potent tracks inspired by a lengthy list of song references IF provided.
IF also created ‘VS Machines,’ a tribute film to Japan’s first-ever Olympic Badminton Doubles Gold Medalists Misaki Matsutom and Ayaka Takahashi. In a robotic dystopian future, their shared human connection empowers them to break free from their machine-like programming and cold, joyless perfection.
“I’m thrilled that SK-II approached us for both of these films, giving us an opportunity to create really innovative storytelling with a powerful message,” concludes Williams. “This is the kind of work I love to make and I’m incredibly proud of the results. Most of all, we tried our best to be authentic — to honor Japanese tradition and culture and tell Mahina’s story in a beautiful way.”
Mahina ‘VS Rules’
Lead Creative Unit: WPP Agencies (Grey and Mediacom)
Executive Creative Director: Leo Savage
Executive Creative Strategy Director: Danni Mohammed
Executive Creative Business Director: Siddika Dehlvi
Executive Creative Producer: San Takashima
Integration Lead: Nathan Wilson
Creative Strategist & Copywriter: Katie Mulligan
Executive Account Director: Yukiko Ochiai
Creative Directors: Ashley Chen, Ken Mitani, Sudhir Pasumarty
Produced by Imaginary Forces
Director: Alan Williams
Producers: Jon Hassell and Christine Hernandez
Writers: Leo Savage and Alan Williams
Story: Leo Savage
For Imaginary Forces:
Executive Creative Director: Peter Frankfurt
Managing Director: Chip Houghton
Creative Director: Alan Williams
Executive Producer: Jon Hassell
Producer: Christine Hernandez
Imaginary Forces Design, Animation and Development
Art Director / CG Lead: Jake Ferguson
Lead Animation, Character Design: Henry Chang
Lead Cel Animator: Jahmad Rollins
Lead Designer: Ella Lee
Editors: Jeremiah Shuff and Lexi Gundalvson
CG Technical Direction: Meng-Yang Lu
CG Modeling : Kent Floris
CG Environment Design, Render and Compositing: Jake Ferguson, Isaac Taracks, Kiyoon Nam, Henry Chang, Ned Piyadarakorn, John Dougherty
VFX Animation: Russ Gautier
Storyboards: Tyler Gibb
Title Design and Illustration: DaAe Kim
Additional Design and Motion Testing by Yifan Hu
Pitch Producer: Aleen Kim
Production Coordinator: Tucker Reese
Researcher and Translator: Sakuya Mio
Portrait of Mahina Maeda painted by Ikenaga Yasunari
Motion Capture Animation Produced in association with Silver Spoons Animation:
Managing Director: Dan Pack
Motion Capture Director: Peter Collazo
Character Rigging: Lee Wolland
Key Character Animation: Matthew Persons
For IF Live Production:
Director: Alan Williams
Producer: Adam Lawson
Director of Photography: Dallas Sterling
Camera Operator: Zach Voytas
Underwater Photography: Don King
1st Assistant Director: Travis Gold
Production Manager: Ashley Krick
Filmed on location in Tahiti in association with Tim McKenna Photography and Filmin’ Tahiti Productions
Production Managed by Tim McKenna & Stephanie McKenna
Surf Ambassador: Raimana
Composers: Robin Stout & Liam Westbrook
Music Producer: Simon Elms
Sound Design: Bark Soho
Sound Mix: Bark Soho
Sound Designer: James Benn