We Made The Chemical Brothers’ Salmon Dance

VFX supervisor Ben Cronin of Framestore CFC reveals the team effort involved in creating the video for the Chemical Brothers’ latest single

CR: Beatboxing and rapping fish… What were the challenges on this for you as VFX Supervisor?
BC: I was there to make sure everything from 3D was how the directors, Dom & Nic, wanted it, to have an overall opinion on the project and to lead the compositing team. Our main challenge was time: we had a total of ten weeks from go ahead to completion – which is very tight for the amount of animation and compositing required. The team worked seven days a week for ten weeks to get the job done. We went into this with an idea of how many minutes of CG fish we could create with the size of team we had. When we received the first edit we had the painful task of asking Tony (the editor) and Dom & Nic (directors) to trim down the amount of fish in the edit. We still ended up with three and a half minutes of fish and also realised that any fewer fish would make for a less engaging video. So Sarah (producer) went to work at finding a few more members to join our 3D team. In the end 22 people worked on this job at Framestore.

CR: How did you decide on the look of the main characters?
BC: We sourced reference examples of real fish. In fact, the London Aquarium let us have exclusive access to the fish we were interested in getting a good look at, primarily piranha, squirrel fish, seahorses, puffer fish and lion fish. Two of our 3D team, Simon French (lead technical director) and Alex (modeller/texture artist), spent time at the Aquarium taking high resolution photographs and video footage as reference for textures and movement. This material was vital to the success of the project. For Sammy, who is a squirrel fish, we also went to the fishmonger and bought fish that we then scanned for scales and textures. This is because we struggled to find any good reference for squirrel fish. So we scanned a red mullet chosen mainly because of its size and colour.

CR: OK, you’ve got great reference material, what next?
BC: Florent, one of the 3D animators, painted some great initial characters using the brief that these were to be real-looking fish tweaked just enough to make lip-synching and beatboxing viable. So, Fatlip is a piranha, Sammy a squirrel fish and Puffer is a cross between a puffer and a porcupine fish – two very similar fish but one had a beak and one had spines so we combined them. The 3D team then used Florent’s character designs to commence the modelling of the fish.

CR: Did the Chemical Brothers themselves want to approve the characters?
BC: I’ve only worked on two promos – both for the Chemical Brothers – and the approval process is a dream in comparison to commercials. The record company and the Chemical Brothers needed to see our work in progress once or twice I think but that’s very reasonable seeing as it’s their video. The fact that it was left up to Dom & Nic and Framestore CFC to produce the goods was so helpful to the project – we would never have been able to finish the film if it had had to go through another level of approval. Tom, one half of the Chemical Brothers, came into Framestore once to meet everyone working on the project, which was a real boost to the team.

CR: How many fish in total did you create and animate?
BC: I think there’s something like 360 hand-animated fish then 400 or so shoaling fish. These include our three main character fish, the lion fish, seahorses, angel fish, tans and one nondescript background fish.

CR: There’s so much movement in the 3D characters, fins flapping, lips rapping… Is everything done by hand, as it were?
BC: Henry van der Beek, a junior TD,  developed a dynamic script that really helped with our timing/schedule issues. Basically he wrote a programme that allowed the animators to take control over the feel of the fins and tail, ie, they could control how floppy or how stiff the fins were without hand animating every single subtlety in these details in all the characters.

CR: There must have been a lot of lip-synching to do – any shortcuts available there?
BC: Nope, the animation team did it all by hand as we didn’t do any motion capture for this. The team drew inspiration from beatbox artists for Puffer’s performance and hip hop performers for Fatlip’s. In the case of Fatlip, Nicklas (lead animator) told me that it’s the first time he’s lip-synched a character whilst not really understanding all of what’s said.

CR: So once the fish were created and animated they had to be composited into the live action edit?
BC: That’s right. Simon French and the team had already done an amazing job on the lighting – so when it came to compositing what we had created into the shots, it was a case of applying the correct depth of field and sitting the generated particles into the shot – which brought our 3D renders that extra 20% closer to realism. The backgrounds for the chorus set pieces were the biggest compositing challenge. We had shot tiled backgrounds which allowed us to find nearly any angle in the tank. For the lion fish sequence I built the backgrounds from stills of the castle and surrounding details to give it an other-worldly quality. Chris (compositor) transformed the shoaling sequence with a good dose of stunning “god rays” of light and did a great job on the sequence in which the tan fish jumps out of the tank, where we needed interaction with the water. Pedro, another of the compositors, did a great job too, particularly with the cat sequence right at the end of the promo. A great team effort.

The Salmon Dance facts
Directors: Dom & Nic
Producer: John Madsen
Production company: Factory Films
Post-production: Framestore CFC
VFX supervisor: Ben Cronin
Lead TD/3D supervisor: Simon French
Animation leads: Mike Mellor, Nicklas Andersson
Animators: Dale Newton, Sylvain Marc, Andrew Daffy, Florent de La Taille
TDs: Dan Seddon, Henry van der Beek, Paul Denhard, Ben Falcone, Alex Doyle, Diarmid Harrison-Murray
Junior TDs: Richard Coley, Jabed Khan, Peter Claes
Compositors: Chris Redding, Pedro Sabrosa, Darran Nicholson

Telecine: Dave Ludlam

Producer: Sarah Hiddlestone




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