Sea Level spins its wheels for Toyota

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Life eerily is put on hold in a new spot for Toyota's gas/electric hybrid Prius, through Saatchi & Saatchi/L.A., directed by Tarsem of With the help of Venice, Calif.-based effects shop Sea Level, various images from around the globe show the world at a paradoxically moving standstill. The :60 opens on what appears a traffic jam, yet unlike typical gridlock, the cars' wheels continue to spin in place. In London, a jogger, a dog walker, a businessman and a mother pushing a pram casually walk in place, as if ambling on invisible treadmills. On a Tokyo street corner, a woman on a scooter leans into a never-ending turn. "We've been moving, we just haven't been moving forward," goes the VO, as a silver Prius begins to weave through the static scene - the only object that advances throughout the entire spot.

"Every scene had its own challenges," explains Sea Level executive producer/visual effects supervisor Dan Connelly. "A pretty simple scene got difficult when we boomed up over a profile shot of the stationary cars. The problem was that all of those cars' spinning wheels were animated to look like they are moving. As the camera moves, the perspective shifts along with the shadows and the angles. It all had to be adjusted frame by frame."

Through previsualization tests, Sea Level principal/Inferno artist Ben Gibbs determined it was best to capture as much as possible in-camera. So rather than using greenscreens and extensive computer lighting effects to place pedestrians in a scene, the walkers were shot on treadmills flown out to the various locations. The treadmills were painted in neutral colors in order to streamline the mattes of the movers (who wore dark-soled shoes) when they were composited back into their environments. "Grounding the people's feet was the most important thing," Gibbs says. "So in most of the setups we opted for a strong key light with the sun placed somewhat behind them. That way the shadow fell forward and was more dramatic and convincing. At that point, we at least had all the elements photographed in the location at the same light levels. From there, we worked backward to perfect it by removing rigs and so on."

Throughout the commercial, the camera appears to slowly creep to the left, an effect that Gibbs actually added in post to locked-off camera shots. Ultimately, it aided in the spot's continuity as it moves between scenes of the various countries. "Ben brought the creatives in and threw that creep in," recounts Connelly. "Everybody immediately saw how it made the spot feel a hundred percent more universal."

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