How'd They Do That Spot?

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The Michelin Man, known in Europe as Bibendum (Latin for "Drinks up obstacles," we're told), or Mr. Bib, is going on his second century. Moreover, he's French. "The French are very religious about their advertising; Michelin literally has a bible on Mr. Bib," says Leslie Ekker, visual effects supervisor at Digital Domain in Venice, Calif., and he should know. Digital Domain had the honneur, so to speak, of revamping the Michelin Man to such a degree it might be compared to turning Poppin' Fresh into a croissant. Mr. Bib is not a 2-D white blob anymore; he's a 3-D white blob, which is actually a guy in a suit with a CG head. The new Mr. Bib makes his startling appearance in three spots from Campbell-Ewald, directed by Omaha Pictures' David McNally. While the spots themselves are nothing to write home about - Mr. Bib has an anxiety attack every time one of his beloved tires leaves the factory and what have you - the fact that he's now a veritable action figure made for one hell of an intriguing project. "It's a bit scary in a way," says Ekker. "You don't want to mess with somebody's love. There's a lot riding on it," he adds with an unintentional pun. "They never really animated him at all till last year, when they did an all-CG Bib to celebrate their 100th anniversary. It was done at a shop in Europe and it was a disaster. Michelin became very gun shy about it."

In the extensive production design phase it was decided Mr. Bib should look "more fit and agile, less overinflated," explains Ekker. "Selecting the proportions was very tricky; he can't look anything like the Doughboy. There was talk of doing it all CG, but then it becomes an exercise in the recreation of reality rather than the capturing of reality. A rule I live by is, if you can get it live, you should get it live. We lose business this way, but we gain trust, hence we gain business. Using a live suit will give us a photo-real character that can shake hands with an actor, pick something up and set it down. We originally planned to replace the features only, but realized eventually it would be much more successful to replace the entire head. So we turned the suit head into a tracking object with adhesive dots on it."

The head is animated in Maya and rendered in Lightwave. The suit was made by Bill Bryan at L.A.'s famed MastersFX. It's fabricated from flat sheets of foam, and Bryan, incidentally was the man behind and in the wonderful Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man getup, from Ghostbusters. But he wasn't in this suit. "He's too small," says Ekker. "We needed a guy between 6-0 and 6-4."

More spots are expected, of course. The new Mr. Bib could run for 100 years. OK, now he moves; will he ever talk? "He never has spoken, to my knowledge," says Ekker. "Who he is and how he feels about things - Michelin's not willing to go there. I doubt he'll ever speak. This is already a stretch for them, and they're very nervous about it. But right now, they're delighted."

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