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NUKE and MARI deliver brilliant slight-of-hand in the amazing "Honda Hands" spot

Honda has a long history of innovation in engineering, from designing gas engines and robotics to automobiles, bikes, and beyond. Helping to capture and showcase the imaginative spirit of this motor maker's creative engineers became a very hands-on project for the VFX team at Analog Studio, who used the power of NUKE and MARI to aid in taming the tricky tech side of production on the amazing "Honda Hands" promo video.

The original concept for this phenomenal video idea came from Wieden & Kennedy, and the project was developed by Nexus Productions with directing by Smith & Foulkes. With more than 9.4 million views on YouTube to date and growing, the "Honda Hands" spot is enchanting viewers in droves. The captivating spot hones-in on a pair of hands that manipulate pint-sized models of famous Honda products, magically transforming them from one form to another as they spring to life on the screen.

The creative direction for the project was spearheaded by Nexus Productions, which handled the modeling and conceptual design for the piece. To pull off the challenging feats needed to make the complex transitions in the video as seamless as possible, London-based Analog Studio was called in as a partner to help execute the technical side of this the stunning project. Having done excellent VFX work on commercials, web content, film, and music videos for lots of clients including Nike, Blackberry, and Ford, this project fell perfectly within the team's skillset.

"The idea was to showcase 65 years of Honda inventions through the eyes of this super engineer," says Analog's compositing supervisor Fabio Zaveti. "So you would see his hands taking a nut, manipulating it and transforming it into a bike, and then transforming the bike into a scooter, and then a scooter into a car, and so on and so forth."

In originally putting the pitch together to get the gig, the time constraints and the challenges of getting the right positioning spurred Analog to opt for a hybrid approach using basic physical models to work off from rather than going fully CG.

"Our solution was to actually have live action hands but with some props in the hand model's hands, which gives you a lot of things for free," Zaveti explains. "You get the real contact shadows, you get the real pressure on the fingers, and above all you get something real to track on, because this is a big object tracking job."

© 2013 Honda | Wieden & Kennedy | Smith & Foulkes. All Rights Reserved.

"It [NUKE] knows its place and lets you do your thing, whatever that is. It's respectful and un-patronizing, and that makes it an honest product and a joy to use."

Putting concepts to the test

With the rough plans of how to make it work all figured out, Analog had to put some quick pipeline tests together to prove the concept would work. The team sealed the deal using NUKE to showcase how these ideas would take shape on the screen.

The first proof of concept test used studio director Mike Merron's hands manipulating a Rubix Cube with a 3D car projected in its place. This took only half a day to complete, and it proved the team could successfully track an object even though points were constantly occluded by the fingers.

From there, they put together a more complicated choreographed test using roto, morphing, cleanup, and comping with the live hands and roughly modeled foam as a guide. This short clip showed the transformation of a simple nut into to a bike, a scooter, and then a car with the hands manipulating through each transition. "From the 2D point of view, this was a great test because I had to go through all of the tasks involved," says Zaveti. "It's basically the final job from my point of view."

A ton of roto was involved, which was expected, since any portions of the hands that were in front of the props needed to be rotoed and put back on top of the CG. This also required a lot of cleanup too, since the physical props had to be taken away and large portions of the hands had to be rebuilt whenever you could see through the window of a car or a bike.

NUKE 7's completely redesigned SplineWarp tool was invaluable for morphing the hands from position to position in order to hide the inevitable transition cuts. "[It] made this job possible, really," he says. 

In one experiment, the team morphed a hand and the object in the hand, then tracked on top of it to see if they could do have better consistency across the morph when transitioning from the scooter to the car. "It worked. That's how good SplineWarp is," says Zaveti. "I had to go into a lot of detail within a simple object that he had in his hands, so I had to morph all of the corners to make it look like an actual 3D rotation, and it worked perfectly."

It took four days to complete this more elaborate test, but the team nailed it, which landed them the job. Applying this same approach to the full production, they completed around 3,000 frames featuring more than 25 Honda models totaling transforming across almost two minutes in the final edit.

Working with NUKE

"Most of the purely creative aspect of the job was out of our hands, but you still can be 'technically creative,' and we had to figure out a lot of little procedures to avoid being overwhelmed by the size of the job," Zaveti explains.

Working in NUKE helped preserve the team's sanity when managing the intense volume of moving pieces in the production. "When even every cut of the edit is a visual effect, and the edit itself touches two minutes, you know you're in for a storm," he says. "I loved to be able to keep all the pieces together in NUKE, and to be able to produce a sequence every night scattered with updates until it eventually grew into the final piece."

This isn't about any particular technique the team developed, he notes, as every individual task was fairly straightforward. Rather, it's about how NUKE helped them manage the data and the sheer volume of tasks without going crazy.

"We built a pipeline exactly for what our need was, and I don't think we could have done it in any other way: there were so many things to update every day, I couldn't let the comp phase become the bottleneck of the production," he says. "Instead it was flexible, gave us confidence and allowed us to respond quickly to the client comments and additions."

Zaveti also appreciates the way NUKE balances between functionality and accessibility without meddling too much in the creative process like some programs. "It doesn't really do much to try and interpret what is it that you're trying to do," he says. "It knows its place and lets you do your thing, whatever that is. It's respectful and un-patronizing, and that makes it an honest product and a joy to use."

© 2013 Honda | Wieden & Kennedy | Smith & Foulkes. All Rights Reserved.

"I loved to be able to keep all the pieces together in NUKE, and to be able to produce a sequence every night scattered with updates until it eventually grew into the final piece."

MARI in the shadows

The team put MARI to good use for adding important finishing touches needed to complete the visual wizardry in Honda Hands. It was particularly helpful in working with the large number of high resolution assets and casting shadows and reflections on the vehicles and the hands, says Merron.

After laser scanning the model's hands from elbows to fingertips using an Artec 3D scanner, they re-topoligized the model and were able to camera match the hand to the reference source photography in Maya. From there, they exported the hand and camera positions in FBX and projected the photos from the corresponding camera within MARI. This allowed for plenty of overlap for creating seamless textures at a very high resolution.

"Working with such high resolutions images directly onto a dense and detailed mesh was a huge time saver," says Merron. "It meant we could focus on the areas of detail and from the point of view of the main camera. In some cases we used animated mesh within MARI so we could paint through and check for areas stretching between the fingers."

Looking ahead

The Foundry's award-winning product are a staple in Analog Studio's pipeline, says Zaveti, and they'll continue to be a crucial component in upcoming productions.

"NUKE is always involved in any project we do, as it's at the center of our pipeline," he notes, adding he's particularly excited about NUKE 8. "We keep looking at HIERO as it becomes more and more powerful and relevant, and we're testing that too internally with good results. MARI is already part of the family, and I'm curious about FLIX, we'd love to have the right job and develop an idea with it."

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