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'Speech Bubbles' uses digital magic

'Speech Bubbles', the new Vodafone spot that's just started airing on UK television and cinema screens, uses digital magic to represent in 3D an idea drawn from 2D comics.
The speech bubble is a way of showing peoples' conversations, in the form of gigantic, wobbly word balloons that pop up and float around people who are using their mobile phones. The spot shows a variety of people going about their day, singly and in groups, talking on the phone, with each of them sporting their own set of bubbles. The bubbles even vary according to the characteristics of the conversation taking place. The spot was created by Jason Berry and Ben Short at J Walter Thompson, and directed by Walter Stern for Academy. The beautiful bubbles are courtesy of Framestore CFC.
Shooting for 'Speech Bubbles' took place over a week in Buenos Aires, with Supervising Technical Director Jake Mengers attending for Framestore CFC, working closely with Stern, Berry and Short. Mengers had already done some preparatory work before flying to Buenos Aires, having shot a large amount of potential reference material at Pirate Studios. He and TD James Healy took high-speed shots of both bubbles and 'space goo' (the latter also filmed whilst being blown up – a process described by Mengers as "great fun"). The director and creatives reviewed this material with Mengers during the evenings in Buenos Aires, and several of these mini-movies proving to be key reference points for the 3D team.
Of the look they were after, Mengers said: "There was a strong 'anti-reference' note, which was that they emphatically didn't want it to look like balloons. I pushed more for a sub-surface scattering, which gives the bubbles a translucent look. When the light hits it, it holds a certain amount of light, and it gives a different feel about the volume and what's 'inside' it, - it's a much richer look than a simple 'balloon' would have."
Mengers and a small team worked on the bubbles intensively over a five-week period. Because the look was an evolving aspect of the process – one that required a high level of feedback from the production team – an adaptor was needed for Maya that would enable the animators to see their work on the screen without having to render it. Samy Ben Rabah in the company's Software Tools Group had already created a noise deformer plug-in, and he adapted it for use on 'Speech Bubbles'. It took the process of getting deformation on the surface away from the rendering side to an earlier stage in the process.
In addition, there's actually a dynamic hair system inside the bubbles (developed by James Healy) so that a character could be tracked and the bubbles would be invisibly tethered to them.
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