Framestore creates stunning CG underwater environment


Framestore Pictures director Murray Butler, and Framestore VFX supervisor Grant Walker delivered a visual underwater masterpiece with a hard-hitting environmental message.

Made up of three complex-CG environments, based on low-res footage of a reef in its early growth stage and working with leading coral biologist Professor David Smith, the 90-second film follows the journey of a tropical Chromis fish from tragedy to hope as it weaves through an area of the Indo-Pacific, passing over a devastated coral reef and on towards a healthy reef bed, which serves as a bittersweet reminder of what’s at stake. In the final act, we see the Chromis encounter Hope Reef, a man-made coral reef, carefully planted to spell out the word H-O-P-E. 

Framestore worked alongside advertising agency AMV BBDO and Mars Incorporated cat food brand SHEBA on the project. The SHEBA brand’s mission is to support vital reef-growing projects and this endeavor marks the start of the world’s largest coral reef restoration program. The final reveal of the HOPE reef was based on drone footage from the actual location, but showcases what the reef will look like in five years when the coral has fully re-grown.  

Due to the pandemic, filming Hope Reef in real life was out of the question, and that’s where Framestore’s experience and elegant solution came in. When Framestore pitched to work on the project, it was clear to AMV BBDO and Mars Incorporated that they were uniquely placed to showcase an underwater ecosystem on an unprecedented scale. This initiative was underpinned by the know-how of Walker and Framestore’s CG supervisor, Hernan Llano, who also happened to study biology at university before becoming a VFX artist. Alongside the creation and animation of the photoreal schools of fish seen teeming in the verdant coral, the team proved they could actually grow corals in real time for the scenes and keep them stable. 

“The coral was something that we talked about extensively in the early pitch meetings. We knew we could demonstrate stylized time-lapsed growing sequences, which is something that I hadn’t seen anyone do before, especially at scale and with the amount of scientific detail we could create at Framestore. I knew we had a unique proposition,” says Walker. 

Working collaboratively, Framestore Pictures’ Butler and Framestore’s VFX team got to work on the creative vision for the piece and the intense task of bringing the campaign to life technically and narratively. The whole team discussed early on that it was important to them that they captured the balance between the environmental message and the stunning visuals, so they worked in tandem to realize this.  

Although there are plenty of ways to create geometry that grows in coral shapes, the team needed to replicate specific species using SideFX’s Houdini. Everything they meticulously created in CG and then added to the reef environment, including the Chromis fish, grouper, and all the other marine life encountered in the film, including the mosses and sediment, had to be approved by specially appointed scientist Professor David Smith, before being green-lit for the spot. “Nature is extremely complex, and we can’t fully replicate its behavior, so we needed to come up with smart approximations and develop very specific setups that will give us similar shapes and textures to how corals look when they are fully grown, and how they look through their growing process,” says Llano. 

“This is about growing coral reefs and restoring the ocean — and my goal was to show viewers what that looks like in a way that they can’t possibly see, even when filming nature in a time-lapse,” says Walker. “With this campaign, we were able to lift the lid on nature and take everything away that would hinder the spectacle of watching it evolve, and in my mind, this is exactly what CG should be used for.” 

The biggest challenge that the team faced was being able to display and render all the geometry, including the huge amount of polygons, points, and assets. In one shot alone, the team had over eight million individual assets. “Almost everything in the ocean scenes is procedurally generated by our artists using Houdini,” says Walker. “We could create multiple versions of the same asset, so we built, reseeded, and grew as many iterations of the same coral as we wanted, but in unique structures, and that’s how we ended up building such a huge landscape with very few duplicate assets.” 

Remarkably, everything in the scene was alive and moved in time with a velocity field, a simulation system that Framestore’s VFX team also created in Houdini. If a large species of CG fish swam through the middle of it, the velocity field would react, sending a ripple effect out, and just like in real life, this would cause everything in the scene to act appropriately. For efficiency, all the look dev, including the blue of the sea, the volumetric lighting of the sun rays peeking through the ocean, the foggy haze in the distance, and details like the particulate plankton glimmering across the ocean, was done in the Nuke compositing tool. 

“How colour reacts within a body of water was the key. Grant and the team strived to ensure the foreground action was a true colour balance, with colours fading the farther we travelled away from the lens,” says Framestore’s colourist, Steffan Perry. “I helped further this principle in the grade. We also wanted to try to ensure the sunlight hitting the top of the water had separation as we travelled lower to the seabed.”  

Directed by Murray Butler, a seasoned director with a background in both live-action and CG, the film needed to be powerful enough to create a call-to-action — especially as the reef and accompanying campaign has been designed to inspire people to take action to restore coral reefs. “We have a marvelous strength within our VFX team at Framestore to create really powerful images that no one else can, and for me, this project was about how I could leverage our talent and represent it in the best way, whilst telling this compelling story,” says Butler. 

Butler worked closely with Walker to study how to make the underwater cameras feel natural and ensure that the fish and corals were behaving naturally within the camera shots. Butler adds, “It’s important to have the discipline not to make a move that feels like a fake CG movie. We spent a lot of time taking anything out that was behaving differently to real life. For example, if a certain species wouldn’t naturally drift that far up from a coral into view, it was removed from the shot.” 

The environmental aspect was a real motivator for the whole team. “It gave everyone an extra impetus to really push the envelope of what’s possible with the technology, and we’re all really proud of what we’ve achieved, but as a director to be able to have that much level of detail in every frame was jaw-dropping,” says Butler. “The VFX team worked immensely hard to create that level of quality.” 

The kind of attention to detail that the whole team put into each element of this campaign is a masterclass in CG, and the ground-breaking VFX work is a joy to behold. Using the coordinates shown in the closing titles you can explore Hope Reef on Google Maps for yourself, which makes this project all the more inspiring. 

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