Could John Lewis's 'Buster the Boxer' Be the Last of the Real Ad Animals?

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"Never work with children and animals" is long-established showbiz (and ad business) lore. But with CGI providing advertisers with opportunities as never before, could the days of having to work with real animals -- unpredictable, smelly and potentially also cruel -- soon be over?

John Lewis' 2016 Christmas spot features a bunch of animals -- specifically a boxer dog, called Buster, two foxes, a badger, a hedgehog and a squirrel -- bouncing on a trampoline. But, although many ordinary viewers may not realize it, only the dog is a real-life animal, and even then, most of what we see is his digital double.

MPC, the post-production company responsible for the incredible creatures in the latest film version of "The Jungle Book," created the animals. To develop "Buster," reference footage was shot of Biff, a real Boxer dog, before crafting the texture, from the wrinkles to the hair direction, of the digital animal.

While the real Biff/Buster does appear, the dog's expressions in the ad -- including his ingeniously rendered look of pure jealousy when he sees the other animals bouncing on the trampoline -- are all honed digitally.

All the other animals were entirely rendered in CGI. If that weren't enough of a challenge, the digital artists had to mimic how these animals would appear on a trampoline (no real animals were filmed bouncing on trampolines to make the ad). MPC developed bespoke software to perfect the animals' skin sliding so that every jump, twist and bounce was rendered in an authentic fashion.

Another U.K. holiday spot, for Waitrose, features a robin making an epic journey across mountains and the sea to come home to a little girl's garden for Christmas. The robin, too, was entirely CGI. Creative agency Adam&Eve/DDB and VFX house The Mill worked with a robin behavioral expert to sharpen the bird's movements, body language and appearance and to make sure the script fitted real robin behavior.

One of the key challenges to making the robin look as realistic as possible was its feathers, which are notoriously difficult to craft in CG. The Mill used a feature tool that allowed it to create accurate feather simulations, down to the micro details such as how many barbs a feather has, how soft they feel and how each feather reacts to the light.

The opportunities offered to advertisers by such technology are clearly huge. But are we really moving into an era where real animals are no longer needed? "Today we are producing work that only a few years ago would not have been possible, and looking to the future it's likely we'll see animals doing more and more in their stories due to the opportunities within CG creature work across both film and multiple other platforms," said MPC's CG supervisor Fabian Frank.

However, according to Jonathan Westley, head of 2D at the Mill, "It really depends on the script and what involvement the story needs from the animals. There are some instances when real animals really do work better -- for example the Temptations Treats Christmas ad, where real cats wreck a festive scene. If you can get the animals to do the thing you want, it is always better."

Meanwhile, Mr. Westley adds, some clients are put off when they the discover the time and money involved in creating a realistic-looking creature. "There is a misconception that it is easy to do."

But there are ethical questions over using animals in advertising. The Mill is one of a number of agencies that have signed PETA's "98% Human" pledge to stop the use of primates as actors. In an ad in 2014 for energy firm SSE, it created an orangutan entirely in CGI and seamless composited it into a live action environment.

For the Waitrose robin spot, even "casting" a model robin proved tricky as no robins are kept in captivity in the UK. Eventually one particular robin was selected from footage for the basic look, but reference footage had to be taken from hundred of other shots. The Mill also found there to be almost no footage of robins in flight. Plus the bird needed to get wet and snowy, said Adam Droy, head of 3D. "When you see that in a script it is certainly a challenge."

Making animals look as realistic as possible is certainly the goal -- The Mill's Mr. Droy says it is very wary of giving "human" type expressions to animals for this reason. "You want the audience to be drawn into the story, not commenting on the CGI."

However, if done correctly, the payoffs can be huge. "Buster the Boxer" is already John Lewis's most-shared Christmas ad of all time, with over 1.1 million shares and 53.5 million social media views -- and it's only mid-November.

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