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Taking Flight - SEHSUCHT Hits the Skies with IWC

To honour the pioneers of flight, luxury brand IWC created the exclusive Pilot’s Watch Series. In close collaboration with Jung von Matt, Sehsucht was given the opportunity to create a film which captures the courage and the spirit of these legends of the sky. The circumstances dictated that the live action must be shot in Switzerland during October and the plane sequences needed to be generated with complex CGI. Curious to know more about Sehsucht's rendering challenges in this spot, we interviewed 3D lead artist Dan Jahnel.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and Sehsucht?

Sehsucht started in 2000 as a small boutique design and animation studio in Hamburg and has since then branched out into high end VFX for commercials whilst also servicing our clients as a fully fledged film production company by means of our very own roster of directors. This setup allows us to take on entire productions and add our input on all creative levels. Since 2009 we also have smaller dependance in Berlin.

I myself joined Sehsucht in 2010 after starting my career in London where I worked for several years at Glassworks and The Mill as a senior 3D artist. On this project I was the on set VFX supervisor and 3D lead artist. My main focus as an artist nowadays lies in lighting and look development.

SEHSUCHT Director's Cut

What’s the production story behind this ad?

The film introduces the 2016 Pilot's Watch collection by Swiss luxury watch manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen. It was first shown at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie watch show in Geneva on January 20th.

Sehsucht and in-house director Ole Peters were invited by advertising agency Jung von Matt Alster to pitch for the film's production and postproduction. After having been awarded the project we started storyboarding to that point rough visual ideas of the film. Parallel to this process we were working out what elements we would be shooting during the 3 day shoot in Switzerland and what elements would need to be created in CG. The location for the shoot was fixed and had to be in Switzerland as the prototypes of the watches were not allowed to leave the country plus we had access to one of four remaining JU-52 planes that are still in active service at the Airforce Center Duebendorf close to Zurich. All closeup cockpit action could also be shot at the adjoining museum where a German Messerschmidt stood in for the British Spitfire airplane we were using in the film. For the F-14 cockpit they had a flight simulator of a F/A-18 that we could use. The four planes that appear in the film (JU-52, P-38, F-14, Spitfire) correspond to engravings on the back of the watches.

What was the size of the team that worked on this project?

The average team size was about 5-6 people in 3D for a duration of 3 months and 2 people in comp for a duration of 2 months. Parallel to the main film, which in the long version comes to over 3 minutes and over 50 VFX shots, we were also working on 8 product films of the new watches that added another 40 full CG shots into the mix.

Why did you use Arnold for this project?

We have been using Arnold in Softimage exclusively for over 5 years now and it is our primary rendering weapon of choice. Every large scale project we do here depends on the extreme reliability/scalability and general awesomeness of the lighting quality of Arnold. Our entire pipeline is built around Arnold and will continue so in the future. 

Was it difficult to transition to Arnold at Sehsucht?

Definitely not. Coming from the default renderer that ships with Softimage it was a blessing to finally be able to just throw anything at the render engine whilst getting results that were both visually superior and technically easier to achieve. Creativity in lighting and shading has since then taken over again, and technical problems moved into the background as they should.

What were the main rendering challenges?

We knew from the beginning that the chrome look of the planes was going to be a pain, not because it is especially complicated to render chrome but because we would constantly need full 360-degree spherical environments up in the air. There was nowhere to hide as many of the airplane parts pretty much acted like flying spherical mirrors. The clean chrome look had to tie into a print campaign that was already on its way so we couldn't go too dirty and used, even though it would have helped to sell the material a bit more.

Red Bull actually has a large arsenal of chrome airplanes such as the P-38 for their flight shows so this was our reference regarding the look. To further complicate the chrome issue, we quickly realised it would be impossible to recreate all the amazing real world details of cloud formations in CG, so we would also have to rely on matte paintings for the very background of most shots. As these were added in comp, and most certainly weren't 360 environments, we ended up using a skydome light with a physical sky shader for our CG environment plus reflected our CG clouds in the planes, which wasn't perfect, but you could get away with it in all the fast flying action. The shots where all 4 planes fly together were a little heavier in regards to geometry but not really a challenge for Arnold. We rendered DOF and motion blur straight in 3D, apart from the propeller motion blur that was an animated texture on a grid.

How did you model and render the clouds?

The first step in creating the clouds were really rough modelled polygonal shapes(1) of clouds. We built some 20 different shapes that would act as hero clouds for foreground and mid ground placement. The geometry was then loaded into Houdini, where the polygonal representation was converted to a volumetric representation(2). Once the volume was defined and exported as OpenVDB we again converted the volume back to a polygonal object(4) that was to be used in the lighting scene to position the volumes. The shading of the volumes(5) was an Arnold volume collector with some noises layered up to create additional detail, mainly on the edges of the volumes (blue and green areas on image (3)). We rendered with a volume ray depth of 2 or 3 to get nice scattering inside the cloud. To speed things up, secondary bounces in the volumes were not visible in other rays apart from the camera ray. To fill the massive spaces up in the sky we also built some generic cloud carpets that we placed in the mid and background. The contrails(6) of the F-14 use small particle volumes and are generated inside Softimage.

What version of Arnold did you use?

SItoA 3.10.0 running Arnold Core The current project is running but we started the IWC project back in October 2015. Since we work on fast paced commercials work, we can afford to always start a project on the most recent version of Arnold. Our pipeline can handle Arnold versions per project, so it's easy to upgrade.

Did you have to write any custom shaders?

There was no custom shader development from our side on this project, we mainly use shaders that ship natively with Arnold plus some additional 3rd party shaders like AL shaders or OBQ shaders. I will mention though that we would love to see some more development of shaders, mainly a revamped standard shader from Solid Angle. As a small company, it's very difficult to maintain your own shader code, so we heavily rely on factory shaders.

How big was your render farm and what were your render times?

Our render farm runs 30 licenses of Arnold. In peak times though we tend to scale up and add another 20 as we have some older hardware we can utilise. For this project, as we were not only rendering the main film but also the product films plus other projects, we rented additional licenses from Solid Angle for maybe a month or so. The ability to rent licenses on short notice is fantastic for us.

Render times varied a lot, as the shots were so different. I would guess most frames rendered in between 0.5 and 2 hours on dual Intel Xeon E5-2650 2,0 GHz machines. Airplanes and clouds were rendered as separate passes, which helped us keep the render times down. The cloud pass also often didn't require a full HD render, due to the general lack of detail in clouds in combination with motion blur, so we mainly rendered the planes full res and full quality.