In our Behind the Moving Image series, we share the latest and greatest behind the scenes look at how our VFX geniuses bring to life some of our most iconic work. Check out BTS for Xbox ‘Us Dreamers’, Arm & Hammer ‘Once Upon A Time’, Technicolor ‘Masters of Colour’, Starburst ‘Turaffe and Carl’, O2 ‘Bubl’, Frangi ‘Goddess’, Vittel ‘Biodiversity’ and most recently France Television ‘Sumo’.

This week we’re taking a look back to when our artists made Sir Elton John look young again for John Lewis & Partners’ 2018 ‘The Boy and the Piano’ Christmas advert.

Over the years’, Christmas advertisements for John Lewis & Partners have a history of doing extra special things. For its 2018 advert the department store partnered with ad agency adam&eve/DDB to deliver a commercial that revisits Sir Elton John’s life story back to the point where he was given his first piano, courtesy of visual effects.

That aspect of the commercial meant there needed to be shots of a younger Elton, a task that would involve combining multiple techniques – including a digital replica of the performer made by our artists – to bring that story to the small screen.

The result is a beautiful advert – not to mention an incredible technical feat; one recognised by the 17th Annual VES Awards, which awarded it a trophy for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Commercial.

CREATIVE APPROACH

Anthony Bloor, Creative Director of CG, explains…

This ad is perhaps one of the most anticipated and scrutinized ads of the year in UK. We had a huge challenge on our hands to pull this off. It was the fine details that went into every element of this project – from all parties involved – that made it into an incredible piece of craft. We faced a hugely technical exercise in VFX. We needed to use all the tricks available to us to create an end product we could be proud of.

BREAKDOWN

Creating a convincing human face in CG has long been a challenge that very few want to undertake – the problem being that audiences are incredibly sensitive to picking up the subliminal details of a face. To take this on with such a recognisable person was therefore a fascinating thing to attempt – particularly so when our colleagues at MPC Film had achieved one of the most convincing CG humans to date in Blade Runner 2049.

Using the very latest software and a large collection of photographic and film references, our artists were able to recreate models of Sir Elton John, throughout his life, in extreme detail. During the shoot, actors were made up with specialist prosthetics to create a base for the team to work with. The team then performed scans of the actors, photographing their skin and making busts of each person.

By completing these preparatory stages we were able to create a very accurate model of Sir Elton for each stage of his life. Following that, it was necessary for us to build a complex animation rig to create the facial muscles and bone structure that would support the fine details of the skin above it. A digitally-created human skin is currently one of the most difficult things to execute correctly in post production.

Whilst creating Sir Elton’s younger selves was probably one of the most intricate parts of the post production, there was also a huge task at hand to re-create each of the iconic venues the musician is playing in and how each era panned to the next.

Every single shot did have ample original reference material. But we couldn’t just copy an existing picture and recreate it. We created a fully digital set extension for the red piano tour in the beginning and for the stadium. In fact, more than 40,000 digital extras were needed to fill the stadium alone.

On some occasions, completing the shot involved extending the footage: from creating concert halls and extending airplanes, to constructing enormous crowds at baseball stadiums. Every transition between scenes was carefully choreographed with meticulous planning prior to the shoot, and then stitched back together in compositing. Mood, lighting and the time of day of each environment was also incredibly important. This was not only for seamless transition but to provoke the different levels of excitement and emotion to be found at each venue. Travelling from intimate gigs to full stadiums and school recitals, each required careful consideration of the mood in the room.

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