Method leaves no clues to "Spy" technique

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Mountain Dew's ode to the classic comic strip Spy vs. Spy can be a little unsettling to watch because its seamless blend of live action and CG elements leave viewers looking for clues to how the characters were brought to life. The pet project of BBDO/N.Y.executive creative director Bill Bruce is based on the Cold War cartoons best known for appearing in MAD Magazine, and directing team Traktor teamed up with VFX artists from Method Studios early on in the process to create the four visually inventive spots. Employing a variety of techniques set to a plunking score by Francois Blaignon, the spots genuinely look like a comic strip come to life, where it's possible for a hat to conceal a large spring and a hit from a mallet can fold a spy into an accordion. The black and white spies first take their slapstick battles off the page in "Helicopter" and "Hallway," in which the black spy is duped and clobbered while trying to drink a can of Mountain Dew. Though they appear in black and white on the screen, however, all of the work was completed on color film with monotone sets and costumes (except for the soft drink's can, of course) because of elements added in via blue screen. Gil Baron, 3-D technical supervisor on the spots, says that there were no rules when deciding when to use blue screen and when to employ techniques such as miniatures, puppets and CG. "It ended up being on a shot-by-shot basis," Baron says. "There were so many elements between the miniatures and the full-scale live action. The mandate was to make it look real, and that informed our decisions. When we couldn't do something, we went to CG. There was no gospel." Though there was no gospel, there was a bible-a book of the comic strips that served as a guide for every movement, gag and visual element. One of the key effects were the spies' facial expressions, translated onto 12 masks by modeler and puppeteer Stan Winston. Because the masks couldn't change expressions on their own, key moments were photographed during the 8-day L.A. soundstage shoot, and then Baron and CG creative director Laurent Ledrou used the masks' expressions to animate the transitions in Maya. In "Helicopter," the vehicle was mounted on a gimbal and shot on blue screen, with blades and trap door animated in CG. The spring and boxing glove were a combination of props and composited CG elements. The final look was achieved in Inferno in NTSC resolution. Making a negative of the composite, a new print was made using a chemical process that made whites stand out to emphasize contrast. It is so visually arresting, that some viewers have assumed that it was all done in-camera, and because it's hard to prove otherwise.
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