Perfectly Synced Domino-ception
Where does the live-action stop and the 3D animation begin?
After weeks of practice, hours of precision placement and some magnificent camera work we were able to pull this off! Colorbleed directed and produced this baby over the course of 6 weeks.
In line with the established ‘world of screens’ concept, this commercial was the obvious next step. The challenge at hand; perfectly synchronize on-screen performance with falling domino phones. This film isn’t just the next step, but also the next level.
You’re entering a World of Screens
In May 2018, Anomaly launched their creative platform for T-Mobile called “A World of Screens”. From that moment on, all T-Mobile advertising, from TVCs to OOH, from social media to banners, had to feature lots and lots of screens. For the end of the year, Anomaly was tasked to develop a special sales campaign, that deserved it’s own distinguishable style. Anomaly wanted to put the emphasis on the emergency of subscribing to Unlimited by showing the hero, rushing throughout thousands of phones, falling like dominoes, to get to the final destination: a T-Mobile store, set in a hyper-realistic environment. The campaign would be the perfect occasion to extend the World of Screens into a hyper-realistic “sales campaign” environment.
We became digital domino craftsmen
We designed an elaborate setup of rows upon rows of smartphones, all falling and connecting like dominos. On the screens the hero would preform a sequence of actions shots, all perfectly in sync with the falling domino rows. The smartphone domino setup would be CG, and the action on the screens needed to be Live-Action. We wanted to make it so that all the action would seem as if it was set-up by hand by actual people, and the end result shot in camera for real.
“We set out to create the most exciting ride, leaving the audience wondering how it could have been realised by people on set with timing the beats.”
A major part of this production was making a believable world. Together with Anomaly we designed a digital studio warehouse as a shooting location, complete with all the objects and details you’d expect in an actual studio where people live/work. We took special care to make it all as believable as possible, with details like cables taped to the ground and little mistakes and imperfections like blemishes on objects and creases in fabric.
We timed the camera with the dominos in such a way that a real cameraman could move with a real-life speed over the same set. Once we had that straight we shot our own “fake cameraman” against greenscreen to capture the reflections of a cameraman walking with a camera in the computer-generated content – you can see him in the laptop’s screen reflection. Additionally we used tha same cameraman stand-in to cast believable shadows over the domino action as we move around.
Previz is key
Before shooting the complex shots we did a thorough timed previsualization of the action, including height and camera distance to actor information overlays. This included timing the actor’s actions as well as the camera. We used this to time the acting on set as we drove with a Russian Arm through Rotterdam city center and acted out the same camera motions as we did in previz (to match the camera motion in the CG domino world)
CG Production / Realization
We built a custom tool in Houdini that would allow us to direct the domino trail simulation easily. Connected with Houdini Engine another artist would then be able to quickly adapt the previz/animation in Maya, even in very late stages. A great feature was that the artist could stay on a specific frame and change the path to directly see where the dominos would be falling on that frame. This really allowed for quick decision making and a lot of simple iterations.
Additionally we did a custom setup that would allow different frame offsets for the footage per phone and make them appear static (like a hold) when we were about to pass the fallen phones with the camera. This was done to get the audience focus where we wanted them too. In Houdini we built a tool that would offset the UVs over UDIM tiles.
The footage wasn’t just displayed on the phones but projected from a specific angle to tweak and direct the readability from the camera’s point of view. This was prevized in Maya and then we transferred Maya’s `place2DTexture` offsets and camera projections to Houdini nodes to perform the final tweaks (on holds and frame randomizations) there for total control.
Shooting the action
From the start we knew this would become a technical live-action shoot as we needed to synchronize camera movements closely with our timed previz as we followed our moving actor. Knowing this made our live action partner, Gardner Gallops, an easy choice as they know how to handle this and really aid in setting up a strategic shoot.
Founded in 2017, Gardner Gallops is the collaboration of producers Bastiaan Mast and Marcel van der Velden, with over 10 years of experience in creative production.
Erwin Steen as D.O.P. is specialized in filming vehicles in motion. The camera techniques used for his automotive productions corresponded with what we needed to shoot our cycling hero through the city.
Actor/dancer Rogier Komproe -already known from a previous campaign- was cast as the Hero. His role would be to go on a mad bicycle rush though Rotterdam, doing some stunts and end up at a T-Mobile store.
The Russian Arm system was chosen because of the ability to move our camera very fluently around our moving biker. Controlling this camera while moving at high speed is very easy, ensuring safety for crew and actors while making it easy to match the movements needed for our CG world.
Everything coming together
After weeks of preparation, pre-visualization, and shooting of footage… all the materials: CG & live-action fit together. After lots of compositing, some tweaking, some special trickery, and final colorgrading for TV, we delivered our TVC to our agency and client, just in time for the holidays.
“'Have they done it for real?’, ’How did they do it?’ are reactions we wanted people to have when seeing the film. Achieving right amount of imperfection in the newly created CGI world required a good collaboration. Thanks to tireless team we ended up with the film that not only makes people wonder about how it is made, but entertains them from the first to the very last second.”