Framestore was tasked not only with the creation of the lion-man and its cameo-making cub in the closing moments of the film, but environment and vehicle augmentation throughout to best showcase the sleek new S-Class. The dream-like state entered into by the lion, though set in theory in the brief, proved a creative challenge, prompting collaboration across the wider team as they sought the best possible visuals to pinpoint the vehicle’s key comfort features.

Hear our roar

Pre-production commenced in February 2017, up close and personal with a real-life creature: Artis, the reference lion. VFX Supervisor Simon French travelled to Heythrop Zoo to take reference material of the majestic feline, with Framestore’s Capture Lab on hand to capture a 360° photo scan of both head and body of the lion. The stills taken would prove crucial in achieving a believable, photoreal creature. A trip to Germany, too, gave the team the images they would need of the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class, kept tightly under wraps throughout the production of the spot.

Having received an edit from the job’s Madrid shoot in May, the team entered a 3.5 month post-production schedule in which to build, animate, render and composite the lion head into the film. Starting with the comprehensive and detailed reference images, Framestore got to work flexing its capabilities in creature work, using the brand new Houdini 16 fur system and the Mantra render engine to build the CG lion. Tracking information taken from the lion-shaped head mask worn by the actor on shoot, crafted in collaboration with Asylum SFX, would also prove crucial to the VFX artists’ work.

Mercedes King of the Jungle

For the animation team, the greatest challenge was in convincing audiences that a realistic lion head could sit seamlessly upon a human body. Having analysed in detail the ways in which a lion’s facial features move, Framestore’s artists sought to animate and replicate the creature’s head as normal, layering in just the right amount of the human actor’s performance to create a feasible fusion. Says Ross Burgess, Animation Supervisor: ‘There was some fantastic subtle humour and cool edge in the actor’s performance, which we didn’t want to lose. It was important to actualise those expressions and emotions, without losing the feel of a “real” lion.’

The lion’s cub, seen in the closing moments of the spot, was created using a mixture of 2D and 3D techniques. VFX Supervisor and 2D Lead Leonardo Costa led the team in integrating footage of a real cub lion into the scene, equipping the nine-year-old actress with a fur collar which would help to create a seamless join. The artists stabilised and keyed the cub footage, re-projecting onto a geometry in Nuke, using V-Ray to achieve real light interaction as the young lioness moves her head.

All a dream

The dream sequence, which was crucial in demonstrating the vehicle’s new comfort control functionality, tested Framestore’s asset to the max, with its mix of nuanced human actions and extreme macro close-ups. Narratively, the lion’s actions needed to portray a feel-good, sensual reaction to the car’s highly developed intuitive environment; Mercedes-Benz’ latest USP developed with MIT features such as light colour changes, scented ionisation and calming audio had to be demonstrated clearly, without feeling forced, or indeed too subjective for the campaign’s broad audience. Photographic elements shot on set - lens flares, water spray, fibre optics - were carefully manipulated and intercut with the lion’s close-up facial reactions to attain the careful balance of the final edit.

Setting

Framestore was also responsible for creating pristine, modern environments for the film, which would duly reflect the Mercedes-Benz brand. 2D clean-up was undertaken in the office, bathroom and street scenes, whilst two bespoke matte paintings were created: one wide cityscape, and another for the closing driveway shot.

For the new S-Class itself, CG proved key in answering how to shoot the new vehicle in public view. Due to the hot anticipation around the model’s release, various shots - such as those on Madrid’s famous Bridge of Toledo - were achieved only by physically covering the new features of the car, to be reconstructed and implemented later in post-production. Says Leonardo Costa of the solution, ‘As a passerby, there can be nothing quite like seeing a driver wearing a lion mask, covered in tracking markers and a Macbeth ColorChecker, driving a Mercedes-Benz S-Class through Madrid.’ Special attention was also paid to the silhouette of the car, which had been illuminated by light trucks in the exterior shots. Leonardo’s team took care to remove any hint of reflection of the set-up, in the knowledge that the lines of the new model would be key to the impact and beauty of the campaign.

An addition to the Framestore Zoo

Beauty was certainly achieved, in a job that spoke directly to Framestore’s deep-rooted ability to deliver nuanced, animal performance. Says Simon French of the work, ‘Our software and tools perpetually evolve, so in one regard we should expect better results than the last. What’s special in our [Framestore’s] case are the years of creature experience, in which the key skill is in identifying key animal characteristics and nuance and transposing those into an anthropomorphised performance that tells a story. Personally, I feel that this is the best-looking CG animal I’ve been involved in creating, to date.’ Adds Leonardo, ‘Our knowledge of deep compositing at Framestore has helped us greatly to achieve impressive quality with depth of field in our shots. Our approach and know-how gives us the flexibility to make quick fixes where necessary, without disrupting the overall process.’

The job also built on the established creative relationship between director Daniel Kleinman and Framestore. Says Simon, ‘Working with Danny again brought back memories of the work we did together on Galaxy/Dove ‘Chauffeur’. Many a review session was spent poring over the tiniest of details, in a face we were trying to match unquestioningly. Danny’s keen eye for detail ensured we never sat back and relaxed until our CG lion was virtually indistinguishable from the real Artis. Antoni, the creative agency, was also fully engaged in the creative process all the way through, and their confidence in the work we presented in the final weeks resulted in a smooth and successful delivery.’

Daniel Kleinman, Director:

‘Once again Framestore has delivered a little bit of magic for me. “Leon” is a character brought to life with nuanced, subtle animation, and realised with beautiful and credible CG. This was a complex and challenging commercial but, as ever, Framestore’s support and guidance through the post process made it a pleasure.’

Awards

  • Outstanding Visual Effects in a Commercial

    VES (Nominated)
  • Outstanding Animated Character in a Commercial

    VES (Nominated)