Creative Collaborators

Producing great CG images is a team effort  needing close collaboration between photographer, CGI house and agency creatives. We asked  some of the leading CG specialists for their  tips on how to get the best out of the process 

Taylor James

What do you see as essential for a good working relationship between a photographer and a CGI house?

An understanding of how the CGI process can help a photographer is essential. Just as importantly, the CGI house must respect the photographer’s experience and be flexible to accommodate creative changes that are necessary to achieve the best creative result. It’s a complex balance and we have spent a long time building relationships with photographers to educate them about how CGI can help plan their shoots. We always like it when photographers get hands-on at the CGI planning stage using their knowledge to direct our CGI artists. Often, we have photographers remotely directing us via screen-share, looking at our 3D in real-time as we move props and talent around. We can then show them how exterior locations are going to look at different times of day with our virtual sunlight rig which can be set for any location, date and time in the world. We also overlay crops and copy with logos in our pre-vis, here we make sure that we can accommodate all the layouts required and make sure the space under text is visually clean enough.

What’s the ideal process from the CGI house’s point of view?

It’s advantageous to pre-plan everything, to know exactly what’s needed and make sure the client will be happy with the vision before the shoot even happens. By undertaking a digital recce we can create a 3D model of the scene in correct scale and confirm a camera position that matches the concept sketches. We can verify all the above before going on set with a large crew and incurring the necessary costs while this work is carried out on location. By working with a virtual set, we can quickly reposition any CGI item that needs to be integrated and make sure that the size and perspective are correct without distortion on the product. The team can plan this all down to the millimetre and degree and can help photographers lay out their scene on set exactly as developed in 3D. We believe it’s imperative for good CGI/photography integration to have everything shot in correct perspective and ensure processes aren’t cheated, this adds that extra bit of realism to aid the illusion. We always recommend having an HDRI (High Dynamic Range Image) of the location recorded – we can use this for lighting and reflections and this adds a huge amount of realism helping bed the CGI into the photography. They do take a little bit of time to prepare and shoot but without a good HDRI it can be very difficult to match the CGI with the photograph’s natural reflections.

Cast study: Vertu campaign

Taylor James worked with photographer Kristian Schuller and agency CHI on this Vertu campaign. Technical director David Wortley was involved from the beginning, visiting the locations, taking measurements and photos that could then be used to rebuild the location in CGI. “It was technically challenging to oversee and we had to factor the time into the shoots, helping the photographer understand the limitations of not being able to change everything for every shot,” he says. With so many elements, sets had to be broken down piece by piece, taking photos with and without lights, moving large items to ensure there was enough material to address any changes.


Mark Grosvenor – MD Creative Services at Smoke & Mirrors

What do you see as essential for a good working relationship between a photographer and a CGI house?

I think there are several vital ingredients:

Ability: If you’re not up to scratch with a good reputation and great portfolio it’s a non-starter.

Trust: It’s imperative the photographer knows you have his or her back. Sometimes, especially on larger projects where there is big client involvement, it’s important for the photographer to know that we’re working for them. Even if someone else is paying the bill we always run everything through the photographer and make sure that nothing goes anywhere without their specific say-so. This also helps them to leave us to deal directly with the advertising agency if they’re busy on their next job without worrying.

Technical understanding: With CGI especially it’s important to establish a technical understanding of how each other works. Some photographers like to be involved in shooting their own HDR imagery but others prefer us to take care of it. We need to understand the basics of how they approach their particular lighting set up so we can mimic those conditions. Some photographers can work with grey shaded renders for positional and scale but others need full colour high resolution. Each photographer often has a particular approach which we need to fully understand.

Availability: We’re working when they need us to. It’s important to remember that photographers completely immerse themselves in their projects and quite often lose the sense of whether it’s day or night or the weekend. You need to be there for them (within reason!)

What’s the ideal process from the CGI house’s point of view?

Brief/Pre-production meeting: We definitely need to be in it. We want to hear the client’s brief, the creative team’s ideas, the account director’s worries. We literally can’t have too much information – which hopefully means that we cover all bases.

The shoot: It’s invaluable for the CG artist to get a feel for what’s coming by visiting the shoot. Quite often a simple sketch of the lighting layout, some camera data and a chat can give us a great starting point.

Creative development: Unless it’s a bog standard production job we’ll need time to research and develop a solution. That piece of software that makes the difference, that render set-up which makes it believable. This all helps make the actual process much more streamlined, less painful – and cost effective.

Approval stages: The best projects have suitable approval stages that allow everyone to input and make changes without ruining the timing plan and exhausting the budget. Preferrably these approval stages happen at the major process junctions – geometry build, texture development, lighting design, camera positions, test renders, final renders, final grade. It is unfortunately quite common for the process to get as far as high renders before the client has seen anything – meaning taking several steps backwards to move a single step forward.

Render passes: We want as much in the render as possible but we also want flexibility to move objects, change colours, increase texture detail etc within Photoshop rather than going back to full resolution renders each time.

Photoshop: Leave some time to grade and finish the image. Rarely does a render go out unretouched.

Case Study: Shave our rain forest

Would Paddy Power really chop down acres of Brazilian rainforest just to write a message of support for the England football team at the World Cup? Agency Lucky Generals asked Smoke & Mirrors to create an image that would be convincing enough to outrage social media: which it duly did. Here’s how it was done:

Brief: Using stock imagery of landscape, shave ‘C’mon England’ in the rainforest. Create three various angles for plausibility. Add realistic grade and aircraft detail. Create reveal ad with pay-off copyline.

Initial observations: Copious stock searching failed to identify suitable images at the angles required so the decision was made to create the picture using CG.

Stage 1: Research Google Maps to find suitable terrain close to Manaus, site of England’s first World Cup game.

Stage 2: Re-create the geometry of the area, including river systems and topography so that anyone searching the co-ordinates would find the area to be a perfect match.

Stage 3: Research trees common to the area and generate CGI versions with photo realistic textures. Populate area with 2.7 million trees. Add rivers.

Stage 4: Position copyline on landscape and develop deforestation textures.

Stage 5: Choose camera angles and test render with 5D camera metadata at 1000m and daylight settings for correct time of day/year.

Stage 6: Render full-size. Grade to suit. Add aircraft cabin detail, glass reflections for each angle.

Stage 7: Release on social media and stand well back….

Stage 8: Finally, the reveal…


Bertie Bollans – Senior retoucher, Stanley’s Post

What do you see as essential for a good working relationship between a photographer and a CGI house?

I see a good working relationship as something that develops organically. You naturally gravitate to people with which you share an aesthetic view. You also need to be able to communicate freely. As retouchers we are there to facilitate the photographer’s vision, but if we don’t bring something to the table as well then I don’t feel we’ve done our job. The best jobs for me are the ones where you feel you’ve really crafted it together, not just ‘comp object A onto background B’. I like being free to say ‘Here’s what you asked for, and here’s another completely different version. What do you think?’

What’s the ideal process from the CGI house’s point of view?

Ideally it would be great to just work with one photographer and/or art director all the time to make the most beautiful images (I’ve worked most closely with photographer John Higginson), but working in advertising there is always a product to be served. So if it is a photographer-led job then the best process is to work closely with them to get it to a point they are happy with and then move on to the next stage with the designer or art director at the advertising agency to hone it into what the final ad needs to be. But throughout the process, it is important that the photographer continues to be involved and informed.


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Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency