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Sun 12 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Animation with teeth

One production house in Kuwait bucks the trend with its cutting-edge animation and cinematic-style commercials.

One production house in Kuwait bucks the trend with its cutting-edge animation and cinematic-style commercials.

Kuwait has rarely ever got a mention in TV production circles but one small company in the Gulf country hopes to change that this year with the stunning visual effects and CGI it has brought to the local commercial scene. Led by Kuwaiti national, Abdullah Boushahri, Beyond Dreams recently produced two unconventional commercials for Bayan Dental, a Kuwaiti company that offers specialised dental services including the much sought-after Hollywood smile.

Instead of producing the commercial with well-known stars as is the custom with most such advertisements, the production house decided to look to the animal world for inspiration. The result was a shark and a crocodile, both modelled entirely by Beyond Dreams and its Miami-based animation partner, Studio Sync.

The shark commercial tries to tell a small story in the classic tradition of a thriller and is reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's Jaws. It's a short and frightening encounter that a beachgoer has with a Great White shark and ends with a scientific fact about the shark's teeth. Boushahri admits his inspiration comes from Spielberg's movie.

"If you're using an unconventional character in a commercial, there's not enough time to tell a new story. It's easier to start on a concept that everybody is familiar with and then, take it further. I grew up watching Jaws and it was the movie that inspired me to become a filmmaker. This commercial was sort of a celebration of the classic while also being rooted in a scientific fact," he explains.

"The crocodile is much more unconventional because you have it seated in a dentist's office and waiting its turn to be treated. But there again, you could argue that the beast sitting beside a hot chick in the dentist's office is reminiscent of the Beauty and the Beast approach. We wanted to add an element of humour to the whole thing."

What is important, however, is the fact that this kind of animation is new to the Kuwaiti production scene. Both the shark and the crocodile were modelled from scratch on Maya based on still and moving pictures of the animals in their natural environments.

"After being presented with the project idea, we sketched out the character and gathered as much reference material as we could on it," explains Boushahri.

"Let's take the case of the shark. One of the most important aspects was the shark's body mechanics. Though we know the shark swims, there is subtle detail in every action it undertakes that gives it its uniqueness. Knowing how a shark acts in a relaxed state is just as important to know as how it acts when locked onto a prey. This information would be essential, not only for modelling but rigging, texturing and animation."Boushahri says the shark's anatomy is pretty well documented so modelling was pretty straightforward. Besides proportioning the body appropriately, the modeller had to pay close attention to the jaw region.

"We needed every movement of the shark to be genuine. When modelling was completed, the texture artists as well as the rigger were able to start working on the shark model."

The texture artist applied a variety of maps. Some of these maps had to do with sub dermal skin colours as well as epidermal," explains Boushahri.

One of many challenges the artist faced, according to Boushahri, was figuring out how much light the shark's skin lets through. "Even though a certain look had already been determined for the shark, the artist was given room to modify and adjust the textures, check the lighting and so on. Though we had founded our work on a real world creature, the professional eye of an artist was required to elaborate on such details to make the shark more believable."

The rigger set up the skeleton and animation functionality. Besides defining the articulation of the shark, making sure the animator was comfortable with the shark rig was a priority. After the rig was complete, the animator, working closely with the director, took over and gave the shark its character through motion.

"When the art director was happy with the combined results of all departments, the rendering of the project began," explains Boushahri.

Hollywood's famed cinematographer Peter Zuccarini, who is well known for shooting underwater sequences for movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Terminator Salvation filmed the underwater cinematography for these commercials.

"Zuccarini is one of the best in the world for underwater filming so we went with him," explains Boushahri. "We went to Key Largo in Florida, USA, to shoot the underwater sequences. We went about 45 min off shore. We choose this particular spot for because the water here is crystal clear and blue. We shot some empty plates so that we could incorporate our created images into those shots later."

A lot of work needed to be done to ensure the shark looked real. Everything from compositing, animating and lighting required a lot of attention to detail. "It took ten quad core PCs over fifteen hours to render out the raw frames for just the shark commercial. Once that was done, the compositor was able to combine and colour correct the sequences to form the finished product. Anyone who looks at the final result will not know that this was not a real shark. It's as real as it could possibly get. We used Maya for modelling, Fusion for final stage compositing and Final Cut Pro for editing. We followed a similar procedure for the crocodile," explains Boushahri.Three weeks was too short to execute four animation projects but Boushahri feels that having in place a proper workflow has helped Beyond Dreams and its partners meet the deadline. "We have a workflow in place that allows everyone on the network to log in and work on their part of the project without wasting time."

Even as one views the commercials, one sees a distinctive cinematic approach in them. This is not surprising as Boushahri is a schooled filmmaker but his approach has helped his commercials stand apart from the rest of the ads in the local market.

"We are trying to raise the value of production here. I did not want to do a run-of-the-mill kind of ad. These commercials make people sit up and look at them; some are reminded of Jaws. At the same time, these ads were based on scientific facts so they were not just ads for the sake of them."

However, Boushahri is also a smart businessman, who has tried to address local requirements by looking beyond his own borders for skills and expertise that his country is not particularly renowned for. "We are able to provide our clients with a combination of international expertise with a local flavour. I understand the Arab community and its needs very well. At the same time, having studied abroad, I have seen exceptionally high quality of work and want to bring that quality to the Arab world. Our team in Kuwait plans the pre-production and production, but most of my animation experts are concentrated in Miami. I try to take the best of both worlds to meet out local needs," he explains.

All of the commercials were shot on 35 mm film but have been transferred to HD for future use. "The resolution is much better when we convert to HD and then downgrade to SD. This makes the images more crisp and gives them more clarity as well," explains Boushahri.

The work that Beyond Dreams has done has not gone unnoticed in the local market. In the last two months, production work has been pouring in, and the company, which currently has five people in Kuwait hopes to expand its workforce to at least 15 in the coming months.

More importantly, Boushahri, who has directed a full-length, award-winning feature film titled Losing Ahmad in the past, hopes to use his new-found fame in the commercial world to attract investors to his first love - film production.

Already, one Kuwaiti company has promised to invest US $5 million in the company to help grow two departments - one that offers production services, and the other that handles film production. "We are not just talking about local films here but also co-producing Hollywood films," clarifies Boushahri. "We want to get into the thick of action and co-produce Hollywood films. We are already looking at co-producing an independent film titled Holler, which needs a budget of about US $7 million. We are studying the script and seeing how feasible it is to produce this film."

Through these initiatives and business ventures, Beyond Dreams hopes to vitalise the very young and barely-existent film and TV production industry in Kuwait.

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