Dancing on Mars – fxguide 1

Dancing on Mars – fxguide

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DDB Voltage for their client Volkswagen created a campaign spot to promote the new Polo Launch: Mars Ballet.  The spot for Volkswagen’s new Polo was created as a digital-first campaign, together with their strategic partners at Google. The script was designed for a maximum of user’s attention and that still allows for creating unskippable shorter edits for paid media.

According to Felix Genzmer, Executive Creative Director of Digital, the main USP of the new Polo is the amount of tech built-in which is unusual for a car of its size. The campaign underlined this proposition with the creative question: “Who says you can’t.” To communicate the message, they created the story of a little girl who wants to become an astronaut and a ballerina. Through match cuts, the spot shows that her dream came true when she performs as an adult astronaut ballerina on the red soil of Mars. “Who said you cannot become an Astronaut Ballerina? The thump-stopping power of these powerful and zeitgeisty images of an astronaut dancing on mars guaranteed not only unskippable paid media assets, but the film also has one of the highest click-rate amongst all recent Volkswagen social assets,” he posted. The spot went live in December of 2021 and in the first two weeks, without any media spend, the video got an organic reach of over 700,000 views.

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Harvest VFX Sup. Lars Wemmje (L) with Sofia Ponta (R) on set.
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Dancer : Casia Vengoechea

To make the spot the team turned to Director Lukas Tielke and the VFX team at Harvest Digital Agriculture in Hamburg. The director cast Casia Vengoechea as the adult dancer.  She is a freelance dancer, choreographer, and movement director from Staten Island, New York. The CNDY production team shot her on a sound stage in Germany. The visual effects supervisor and lead compositor on the project was Lars Wemmje.

Lars never considered doing the project as a virtual LED stage, preferring to shoot high-quality green screen and carefully composite in both the environment and key props such as the dancer’s curved glass visor. Lars is a highly experienced Nuke compositor, having previously worked in the UK and at the Foundry as a product designer.

To reconstruct the set and astronaut’s helmet, both photos and images from the moving camera were fed into Agisoft for photogrammetry reconstruction. Dancing on Mars – fxguide 4

Dancing on Mars – fxguide 5Dancing on Mars – fxguide 6Dancing on Mars – fxguide 7The primary footage was shot with a fluid techno crane and the tracking was accomplished with KeenTools GeoTracker utilizing the reconstructed geo. Lars is a huge fan of the plugin for the Foundry’s Nuke. They used GeoTracker to solve for both the camera moves and most importantly the geometry tracking of the helmet. The helmet required very accurate tracking to add the visor in the important close-up shots of Casia Vengoechea.

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For the background, the team wanted to be accurate to Mars so Head of 3D, Florian Schwab, accessed ultra high-quality HiRise DTM from NASA, a rather exotic file format. HiRISE DTM is a 32-bit .IMG format. It is not a disk image file. The .IMG is a Planetary Data System (PDS) standard raster file format used primarily by NASA to store and distribute solar, lunar, and planetary imagery data. NASA provides free access to PDS formatted imagery data, but it is not a common VFX format.

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To access the files the team at Harvest Digital Agriculture converted the files using Blender 2.8 to fbx/obj files which were very dense, and extremely high-res-mesh files. These meshes were used as a reference to model custom, the Martian landscape, and produce models that were later assembled into a larger set in Maya. This approach let the team freely place mountains, craters, and valleys, where it suited the story the best, and work with the DOP and director for the right blocking and framing.

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This Mars-based environment was the midground and background behind the dancer in every shot for the final piece. The team established two key master shots, one near and the other far. These two exemplary shots were meticulously developed and then served as the blueprint for the rest of the piece as they covered the spectrum of shots the director wanted to film. All the remaining shots were derived from these master shots.

Dust to sell the environment

Dancing on Mars – fxguide 17To add to the base Martian landscape the team then sort to add a subtle, faint fine dust wind effect. To simulate and create the dust the team used Houdini and add some much-needed motion to all of the shots. In Houdini, they created a large pyro-sim. The fluid sim followed a vector field generated from the terrain map and provided a set of blowing turbulent hazy swirls of dust from right to left across the frame.
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