on a roll

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To address the tragic plight of AIDS victims in Africa, Medecins Sans Frontieres and agency Duval Guillaume turned to Belgium-based visual effects studio Grid to provide animation for their "Human Ball" spot. Co-owner/creative producer Frank De Wulf discusses the challenges of melding state of the art CG techniques with a powerful humanitarian message.

Did you have complete creative freedom in coming up with the distinctive look of the animation?

The director did refer to a certain video which had a specific look and design, but that was just a guideline, an impression. We took it much further. It was a pretty short deadline, and as the film is completely computer-generated it was easy to get carried away and try to do the impossible, because there's no footage as starting point. We did use real live footage and photos for reference, but they never became an actual part of the film. No traditional 2-D animation was used, only CG. The characters were partly motion-captured, partly character-animated.

How did you come up with the visual style of the human figures and the backgrounds?

The software itself tends to create a "low polygon" look. Our in-house art director did some tests that were very well-received by the client and director, so this was the starting point. The backgrounds are mostly high-resolution textures and shading techniques, which create an amazing result. It's not super-realistic, but it works very well with the look of the characters, which is the basis of the overall design of the spot. The biggest challenge was having all the different techniques come together for each shot and delivering it all on time-we were changing shots hours before delivery.

Why do you think this visual style works for carrying out the spot's underlying message?

Because it's never "over the top." We believed firmly in the message of the spot and were very careful not to get carried away and create typical "Hollywood blockbuster" shots. We actually dimmed a lot of the effects because we felt they were too much. After all, this is not a PlayStation spot.

Would it have been as effective in live action?

I think it might have been easier to fall into the trap of Hollywood-style shots, because of the realism, and therefore the need for "realistic" effects. We do love blockbuster movie effects, but in this case they would have been misplaced. Using a full CG technique gave us an oversight of all the shots and a constant feel of where we were going.

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