Northwest Airlines Ad Takes Flight

“Transformations,” a commercial for Northwest Airlines, appears to be almost completely computer-generated (CG), but its director, veteran digital-effects supervisor Arman Matin of RhinoFX, tapped cinematographer Bill Bennett, ASC to create real-world lighting and looks that could be blended with CG work in a subtle way. “We wanted to take every single scenario and see how it worked on a film plate,” says Matin. “We knew that would be the heart and soul of the spot.”

The commercial unfolds as a single shot of a simple stage set. To convey the comforts and amenities of Northwest Airlines business class, furniture representing a series of rooms — an office, a living room, a dining room and a bedroom — morph gracefully from one to another, and ultimately transform into two Northwest Airlines business-class seats. But unlike traditional morphs, in which shapes generally change in a free-flowing way and matter disappears when necessary, every object in the spot folds and reshapes in ways that almost seem plausible in the real world. Moreover, rather than a chair changing to a chair, or a table to table, pieces of furniture come apart and blend with parts from other objects — for example, a chair might become half of a table.

The only real objects in the final spot are the stage, some fabrics and the business-class seats, but Bennett’s live-action footage proved to be a valuable resource for the artists who modeled, textured and animated the CG objects. And because Bennett’s set lighting was captured in stills that could be imported into the 3-D programs used to create the rest of the set dressing and props, the CG lighting was also derived directly from the real world.

At the same time that the objects are changing, so is the lighting. “It evolves from morning to midday to evening to night, slowly shifting in terms of brightness, direction and color,” explains Bennett. “We wanted it to look real, but we wanted the lighting to be very stylish.” During the two-day live-action shoot, the cinematographer automated the lights on set using a Gazelle motion-control system from Paws Systems of New York. A computer card from Kuper Controls made it possible for the motion-control system’s computer to access the dimmer pack directly, bypassing the dimmer board and giving Bennett the ability to set 100 levels of intensity in his lights. Even though one environment was shot at a time, each take lasted the full length of the spot to make sure that there wouldn’t be a bump caused by interrupting a lighting transition.

At the left of the set was a 20K gelled with 1⁄2 CTS going through a 12'x12' Light Grid, a warm source that contrasted with the ambient lighting — 4K and 8K Mole Softlights gelled with 1⁄2 CTB with long egg crates on the front, mounted overhead and pointing straight down — which suggested cool skylight. Knowing that CG lamps would appear in the frame at various points, Bennett switched his fixtures on and off to create the illusion of light coming from the virtual units. In the final shot of the business-class seats, an airplane fuselage and a line of windows materializes. That fuselage never actually existed in the real world, but because light had to flow through the virtual windows, Bennett created a series of apertures that would break up the light in the proper way, then used Source Four Lekos to create the light itself.

As he lit the practical sets, Bennett also was creating the lighting that would be used in the CG world. Although virtual lights can be used to fake the look of practical lighting, most effects artists agree that image-based lighting, which extracts lighting and reflection information from still photos and provides them to a 3-D package (such as Alias|Wavefront Maya), looks more realistic. On “Transformations,” the stills for the image-based lighting were taken by Jon Meyer of GrafixGear, who used a high-dynamic-range panoramic still camera called the SpheroCam HDR. As it pivots around its motorized base, the Spherocam HDR records a 26-stop range of brightness, which enables the camera to represent all levels of luminosity in an environment without any clipping of values at the high or low end of the spectrum. The resultant image, a 32-bit floating-point TIFF, is accompanied by a MakeLight file, a text document that contains the coordinates of all the physical lights, as well as information on their attributes. “It’s a description of all the characteristics that a photographer uses to define light: intensity, diffuseness, specularity and color,” says Meyer. “That file is basically a way of defining image-based lighting. That’s what makes this camera unique.”

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.