Behind the Work: AT&T A Whole New World

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Last week at Cannes, AT&T's Esther Lee debuted "A Whole New World," a new 3D spot out of BBDO, New York and directed by Psyop. The latter has demonstrated its prowess at creating cute characters in fanciful worlds before, as evident in its whimsical work for Coca-Cola "Happiness Factory." This time, however, its universe expanded with a challenge to depict underwater alien creatures busting out into a new world, and literally, another dimension. Psyop co-directors Eben Mears and Jon Saunders and producer Nancy Nina Hwang discuss the biggest hurdles of their latest challenge.

What did BBDO, New York task you with? What was the brief-was the original intention to always create this spot in 3D?
Eben Mears: The best spots we make are usually the ones that are the most creatively and technically challenging. AT&T New World is a perfect example of this. BBDO us brought us a brilliant script about alien creatures living in an underwater world—a metaphor for what happens when you expand your boundaries and embrace discovery. They asked us to design the world and the characters and develop the story around them.

Jon Saunders: The fundamental premise of the script was that all these fish lived off one food source, glowing orange berries, so we decided that all the inhabitants of this world should be hyper-evolved berry battlers, and we embarked on an exercise inspired by Darwin's theories of evolution. We designed nearly a 100 characters, whittled these down to our top 10 and then crafted a story around their specific abilities. It was an incredibly fun process and the creative freedom and collaboration that BBDO gave allowed us to create a truly unique world.

What was step one? Did you decide to do 3D during production, or in post? Can you explain your decision to do so?
Saunders: The decision to do the spot in 3D came quite early, once everyone had seen our style frames and creative vision, and realized the possibilities and how well the piece would work in stereo. The technology is obviously still evolving, and there is no one "correct" technique, but for this spot we wanted to do everything from scratch, giving us complete creative control on the "amount" and use of 3D. So, we did a 3D previz, along side our 2D previz, and then rendered two separate cameras directly out of our CG software and composited them together, effectively like shooting with two cameras. The creative, storytelling ability we had, and the result, was totally worth it.

Can you break down the stages of production after that? How long did the whole production take, versus how long it would have taken if you had done in 2D?
Nancy Hwang: We had around 8 weeks of production time to deliver the 2D version and an additional 3 weeks to deliver the full 3D version - not a lot of time for such a complex spot, and decisions and approvals had to be made very quickly.

Since the decision to deliver this spot stereoscopically happened up front, we adapted our pipeline early on to allow for integration that would work between the 2D and 3D versions.

During previz, we ran parallel paths, checking cameras and framing stereoscopically, ensuring that we were pushing our content for maximum depth, taking advantage of 3D where appropriate for the story.

Animation was done in 2D, but in the final phase - compositing - we also ran additional tests to understand the strength of how certain elements and composite techniques would hold up stereoscopically.

Can you describe the main challenges of the project in terms of 3D?
Mears: One word—rendering. You literally have to render twice as much data and composite two full spots, one for each eye, which have to match perfectly. There are a couple of packages out there that make this a bit easier, but we chose to develop a pipeline with our existing packages, spending a great deal of time creating efficiencies in rendering and compositing. Previz was therefore vital, and were able to do most of our adjustments on camera depth in the previz stage, with minimal rendering.

Psyop CEO Justin Booth-Clibborn demos the AT&T spot in 3D at Cannes.
Psyop CEO Justin Booth-Clibborn demos the AT&T spot in 3D at Cannes.

Saunders: One of the big challenges was designing the depth of each shot so it would ultimately work both in 2d and 3d versions, as the two mediums end up being quite different in many levels. For instance, the last shot, a huge vista of berries receding off to the horizon, started as almost all matte painting, and to give it depth, we recreated many more of the trees than we originally thought we needed to and came up with a nice 2d displacement technique. It took a ton of head scratching but in the end it became one of the most dimensional shots in the 3D film.

Had you had any previous experience in 3D before?
Mears: Yes. Like most people, we have been excited by the creative possibilities of the emerging technology and this year had started to run tests and look at the different techniques. We rebuilt old spots we had finished as R&D projects, and as a showcase for our clients, and we also looked at some 2D to 3D conversions, working with Legend pictures in LA.

Creativity's Ann Diaz and Teressa Iezzi get ready to experience the magic of AT&T in 3D
Creativity's Ann Diaz and Teressa Iezzi get ready to experience the magic of AT&T in 3D

How does the 3D production process for animation compare to that of live action —harder, easier? Why?
Mears: We haven't shot in 3D, with 2 cameras, but I understand it is pretty time consuming, costly and complicated on set, as well as with the image capture, organizing and editing. We have re-created a post effect version, which does the trick but has some flaws, but the success of it really depends on the type of footage. For a live action piece though, the back half of the post process would really be much the same, depending on how much VFX work you do in post.

What did you learn from the overall process? If you had to do again, would you do anything differently?
Mears: Here at Psyop we try and learn and push ourselves on every project, whether it's with technique, design and/or animation. Starting with a great script, and an agency team at BBDO who truly believes in collaboration and mutual respect in each others' expertise, this project gave us the opportunity to push beyond what we have done in all those phases and we put a heavy burden on ourselves to realize the spot's full potential. A lot of development came from our production team of some of the best CG artists in the industry as well as a group of amazing compositors. The team was constantly going above and beyond in every area, developing the designs given to them as well as pushing the story and the concept as far as possible. The result is a very sophisticated, cinematic film, which we are extremely proud of, so I'm not sure we would have done that much differently – maybe tried to get more sleep!

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