Star Wars Brisk Sabers

Project Background

This project was my the first professional project since leaving Architecture in early 2009. It was the largest, highest profile, and certainly the most complex project to date for me.

One of the initial complexity was the client relations. I worked for Aatma Stuido who was working with Mekanism.  Mekanism was organizing and producing the ad campaign with Brisk Ice Tea and Lucas Films for the promotion of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 3D.  In the end my approval process was the following; my supervisors at Aatma Studio, the Art Director for Mekanism, PepsiCo who owns Brisk, and finally Lucas Films.

The commercial aired in multiple venues.  It aired on number of major cable networks.  Notable Cartoon Network, G4, and MTV. It was shown in hundreds of theaters across the country and got international coverage too.  Notable a version in French which can be found here.  Finally, we got a few press releases; one was in the New York Times.

My Contribution

Initially, I was brought on for a two week contract.  Due to my work ethic, the quality, and variety of skills my contract was extended by about two months; nearly the entire duration of the project.

As the environment artist I was initially tasked with creating just the sets, but my role expanded a number of times. By the end of the project I had; designed/modeled the sets, modeled the props, textured the props, did texture/sculpting work for Darth Maul's close up, blocked in the lighting for each shots, blocked in the camera movements, and blocked in tea spill animation.

Production, Process, Tools

The entire project was Maya centric, but I did use Zbrush and Mudbox both for sculpting and texture painting.  Photoshop was used for some texture work too.

First, I was asked to mock up some spaces that felt like Star Wars: Episode One.  In order to give context for the characters to help further story and timing development. These rough sets used quick collage textures from Episode One stills. It worked quite well giving the context to work out camera cuts, framing, size of the sets, and props placement.

The set designs were going to be done by Mekanism. As the production progressed this got delayed. With the tight schedule and knowing further discussions about characters, lighting, timing ect would be needed once a more final set was used we knew we needed to get started modeling.

The set design then became my responsibility too.  I was given loose guidelines based on rough sets. Shortly after I started to design and model we had first draft ready for review.

Incredibly, they went over so well that we never vetted them in-depth. I brought this and asked if we had feedback from the clients. My supervisor later that week said all the clients were happy. Over the next few weeks I made small design changes. Usually, to accommodate character animations, additional gags, or camera changes. For the most part my original designs stayed intact.   

The internal set production was an interesting gymnastics exercise. All the sets were built in one file, grouped, and then key'd on and off depending for there cameras. This caused an issue that I did not know about until after the animation team had adjusted for it. At some point the floor got moved up just a little. Each set had sub-groups that let me modularity to snapped together. One of these subs sets was the floor and at some point I forgot to freeze transformations they got raised.  Since it was modular set and used in the other sets the problem propagated.  It was not a huge issue because the height was the same.  It did make me feel very Junior and could and should have been eliminated.

Another production trial was referencing the sets into the animators files. We tried exporting individual files from my master file based on what each animator needed. This became a file management nightmare and caused more problems then benefits.  We transitioned to one master export that had the set groups keyed on/off based per shot. I became responsible for keeping track of this and coordinating with the animator. This worked much better, because everyone only needed to keep track of one file and more eyes could see discrepancies if the appeared.

My texture work was mainly for all the prop and Maul's teeth/face. I hoped to texture a lot of the sets too.  I was glad did procedural textures in the end. There were just to many little things to tighten up at the end.  So having specific textures for each set pieces,; even with the modular construction, wasn't possible.

Some of the specific texture work I enjoyed the most was; Yoda's cane, Darth Maul's lightsaber, Maul's teeth, and the Brisk vending machine. As a Star Wars fan Yoda's cane and Mauls lightsaber were fun because of the iconic value.  Artistically, Mauls teeth and the vending machine were the most engaging.

Maul's teeth were created with Mudbox. This let me hand paint quite easily with out having to tessellate to much. Getting the right look took a while, but by painting them we got a very close representation of his teeth from the film. Not to mention being extremely fun.

The painting was done first giving me a great framework to sculpt on.  Originally, we didn't plan to sculpt the teeth, but after an initial render tests decided the authenticity would be amplified with some sculpting. When I did the sculpting I felt like a twisted dentist ruining a perfectly good pair of teeth. In an existential way it was disturbing.

The vending machine got some Star Wars love too. The money slot has the "galactic standard credit" logo on it.  There is also some tongue and check jokes on the "do not rock" label regarding droids.

This production was the first that I experienced work getting cut too. Since my role finished before the final renders I had some ideas of what it would look like, but did not see the final until our launch party.

When I saw the final result there were some differences. One major one for me was all the little lights and diodes I put in the backgrounds were gone. The plan was to have bokeh's spots created from these in the piping areas.  I had spent a long time giving the different panels different light schemes.  Unfortunately, the upper level clients felt this was to distracting and they were removed.

Another, change happened to the two aforementioned texture. The teeth were modified a little. When I created them I was told to make them as nasty as Maul's teeth from the film, which I feel I did. One of the clients decided, after seeing the renders, that it could send a mixed message about their drink. So the brownish/yellow plaque was toned down. Honestly, I can not blame them. That could ave been a bad PR issue. The final one was the vending machine. Originally it was suppose to look like an old office machine that had been in the bowls of some Star Wars "office." Again, after seeing the renders they decided that was actually not the message the wanted. Ultimately, they were minor changes; a few layers turned off in Photoshop.

Final Thoughts

For my re-introduction back to the work force this was a fantastic project to work on. Seeing a small team create all of this in such a short time was amazing. I also got to meet some incredible talented people. Having a team of proactive people made a huge difference. There were a number of times when our supervisor would come to say we needed to figuring out how to integrate X & Y.  Unbeknownst to him we had already done it. I love what I do, but seeing others passion about there work is great.  One of my favorite things was watching the animators act out each characters movements to get the feeling, weight, timing, ect. With some of Maul's actions during the development this was hilarious!

Having the different levels of client relations was an excellent experience too. We had times where approval was granted on nearly every front but a client would ask for changes. This usually meant scrap a lot of work and redevelop. This instilled a flexible and never getting married to specific ideas. Fortunately, this didn't happen to me often, but increase stress levels in the room could be felt at times. Luckly, we had strong leadership and a couple of times the new direction changes just did not make sense us. Our bosses sensed we all felt strongly about it and fought for what we felt was best for the project. This only twice at the most, but it felt good knowing they had our backs and gave us a sense of larger ownership in the project.

I am very grateful Aatma Studio took brought me on.  Working with the Star Wars IP was incredible and for this geek a dream gig.  Since finishing this piece with Aatma I have been done more freelance with them and thoroughly enjoy working for them. Thanks for reading.  If you have any questions please feel free to ask.  

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