MPC spotlight for “The Boy and the Piano”

Part 1- Introduction
MPC is an Academy Award-winning creative studio.
A world leader in visual storytelling, with studios in nine cities globally, MPC specializes in creative production, VFX, design, immersive media and technology inspired content.

MPC studios in London, New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Paris and Bangalore focus on advertising.

Recent award-winning work includes:
VFX BreakDown of "The Boy and The Piano"

Part 2- "The Boy and The Piano" Production
Abdelrahman Kubisi has been working at MPC on this John Lewis' advertisement, "The Boy and The Piano", and he accepted to bring a spotlight on its production:

I was asked to make a digital double of Elton John, in his younger age (in his 20s, 30s and 40s), which we were not able to get a digital scan for, and it was difficult to find actors who looked like Elton in that age, that could do what was asked of them in terms of acting or playing the piano.
So we decided to go with the Digital Double solution.

The real challenge in this production was to make a realistic human digital double, while staying away from the uncanny valley effect as much as possible, which as many people know, it’s very difficult!
This was the most impressive part for me while working on this production, we had a small team with less than 10 artists all in all working on the whole production!
And we were able to finish the whole commercial in less than 3 months.
The commercial didn't only have the digital double part, it had some other tricky CG challenges like the stadium and crowd scenes, a lot of tricky facial animation (hand animated faceshapes to achieve the expressions and singing parts), and also a lot of 2D and compositing work.
And as for Elton's Digi Double, I had to make two variations in different age stages, with different displacement details, and I had to make textures, and animation faceshapes too.

The intention behind this production was to deliver John Lewis' touching idea about the importance of a gift and how much it can change your life!

Final image from the advertisement, featuring Elton John's digit-double
Once the team decided to go for this solution, I was assigned to work on sculpting a likeness of younger Elton, wrap my sculpt on a model that we can use for animation (with correct topology and UVs), detail the skin to make our model hyperrealistic (this is where the TexturingXYZ textures were really helpful to achieve such results!), and also I was asked to make several FACS faceshapes, make the textures, and also groom the eyebrows, since we only wanted to replace the face area.
I think making the faceshapes and to match young Elton's expressions and lipsync was a bit of a challenge, but for that I would thank the talented animation team for analyzing everything and tell me what exactly they need, which made my job so much easier!

Part 3- Workflow and Techniques
 Close-up on the double-digit lips

The workflow when it comes to modeling was pretty straight forward.
First I had to make a likeness sculpt without worrying about the technical side at all (Thanks to my colleague Silvia Bartoli for starting on this before I joined MPC!), then I had to take this sculpt to further details and wrap it on an in-house basemesh we use at MPC that has the correct toplogy and UVs we need for animation.
Then I just adjust my topology and UVs slightly to make it match the Elton's sculpt.

After that I start the skin detailing part, which I always start with hand sculpting (to match the primary and secondary skin details of young Elton), then I use TexturingXYZ textures to get the tertiary and micro details.

It would take me forever, and would never look as realistic if I sculpt those by hand!

Close-up on the double-digit lips

After we were happy with the sculpt, the model, and the displacement details.
I started to work alongside our talented CG Supervisor Jessie Amadio, who was responsible for the Lookdev part, I start to make the textures ( Color, Displacement, Specular and SSS), and to supply her with any kind of textures or masks she would need to achieve the realistic skin shading we were after.

Also I had to groom the brows because we needed that for the face.
After we felt like we got some nice results for a still frame, I started to make the faceshapes for the animation, and I had to review them almost one by one with our talented rigger Maximilian Mallmann and the talented animators Chris Welsby and David Bryan, whom brought young Elton to life!

As I said before, it would take me ages to sculpt such fine and realistic details by hand, and it won't look as realistic and crisp in the end!...
I think it's not smart to waste time sculpting something that you can get faster and better using textures like TexturingXYZ... And for matching details in a likeness, I feel like you only need to match the secondary ( maybe a bit of the tertiary!) details, but other than that, just generic skin details will be ok.

In the end in production it's all about time, as time is very expensive.

I just follow the basic tutorial found on this page:
  • Compile all my secondary, tertiary and micro textures in one PSD file in Photoshop,
  • Then bring it to Mari,
  • Paint it all together,
  • Then export them one by one through channels, nothing fancy!
I only use the very basic method when using the XYZ textures, I'm not the most technical artist as you can see!

But I would suggest some tips when you paint xyz textures in Mari:
  • For example, I always try to use a saturated color as a Base layer beneath my XYZ projection, so I can see the areas left unpainted in Mari.
  • Another thing I try to do is to add a "select channel" layer on top of my layers stack in Mari, and select my Tertiary details channel, which is Green, and this way it's easier to see the scale of the pores while painting, and try to match that scale all over the face regions. 

Q: What was your typical/representative day at MPC Advertising, while working on “The Boy and the Piano”? Did it bring something special to live and share as a team, to work on this project?

A: The first part of the question is very difficult to answer, as it was different everyday.
Some days I would be working closely with our Lookdev artist, making changes in textures and painting masks.
Other days I would be working with Rigging and Animation, making faceshapes, and sliding edge loops around!
Other days I would just have some feedback from our supervisor to fix things related to likeness in the sculpt itself.
But to be honest, that made the job so much more fun and not boring at all.

Of course us being a small team, sitting in one room, helping each other to get the best results possible, made us appreciate the team spirit and the comradery filling this tiny room through the whole project, and showed us how much we can achieve just by sitting together and helping each other out.
Q: Would you like to add something else?

A: I just want to thank our producer Philip Whalley for making everything possible for us, any textures or resources I was asking for, was always available thanks to him.
Also I want to thank our Head of CG Anthony Bloor, who was the backbone of the whole project, he is the one who assembled the team, supported us all the time, solved any technical or artistic problem we would face, and over-saw the whole project from an initial idea, to a fully finished commercial.
This commercial wouldn't have seen the light without his supervision.
From everyone at Texturingxyz, we would like to thanks Abdelrahman and everyone involved in this article.