Hinge Digital’s Creatures Bring Carrington College to Life

Published on Thursday, 27 September 2012

Hinge Digital created and animated distinctive forest creatures to populate a broad Hinge-digital-carrington1
multimedia campaign promoting Carrington’s courses with humour and style.


Hinge Digital animation and VFX studio recently worked with agency BVK to create a series of advertisements for Carrington College, which is located at campuses across the western US. The integrated campaign includes two mixed animated and live-action broadcast spots, as well as three online outtakes, twitter, 24 print ads, billboards, toys and other formats, which all include original character designs by Hinge Digital’s team of artists. ‘Carrington College Squirrel’, the first 30-second campaign promo, introduces new Carrington bird mascots, Goldie and Blue, and has aired on television, followed by a live-action spot in September.

Driving the Story

Directed by Hinge Digital’s Alex Tysowsky, a 30-person crew worked on the campaign from concepting and storyboards to character design and modelling, animation, VFX and editing, completing the project in less than three months. The main challenges involved making the characters stand out without dialog and adapting design elements to ensure they would work across all facets of the campaign.

“The initial promo introduces the bird mascots for the first time without dialog, so the animation really had to drive the story, bring the characters to life and carry the entire campaign that followed,” said Alex Tysowsky. “Adding to the challenge, we had to design the characters to work graphically across multiple platforms.”

From the start, they were aware that the project required a quick turnaround. VFX Supervisor Michael Kuehn said, “To meet the deadlines, we had to deliver the first half of the models and rigs into the hands of the animators as quickly as possible. From there, we were able to identify exactly what the rigs would need for the performance and avoid spending time on abilities that wouldn’t be used in the piece.”  

They took care to assemble a strong team. Hinge Digital’s artists bring combined experience from years spent working for companies such as Disney, Sony, Laika and Double Negative. Their expertise gave them an edge for the designing and building the models, taking original 2D design concepts and realizing them in 3D for the different platforms and deliverables.


“Going into this project, we knew we’d be executing our models in 3D. We had to ensure that we didn't cheat too much in the 2D design process. If you fall in love with a 2D drawing that has too many 2D cheats, you can’t actually execute it in 3D, and get into trouble. We also had to ensure that the client understood how the 2D would translate into 3D,” said Michael. By keeping this idea as a priority at all times, executing clean, crisp models that appealed to the client was a relatively smooth process, while working within the original timeline. Maya and ZBrush were their tools for modelling. Maya was used for 3D animation and Nuke for compositing.

Animal Mannerisms
During character development they pursued a couple of different directions, pulling reference from YouTube, style examples and tests to reveal their personalities. “From the beginning, BVK and Carrington regarded Pixar’s ‘For the Birds’ as a benchmark,” said Alex. “In other words they were leaning toward a feature quality animation style, but expressed that they didn’t want the birds to look entirely photoreal. At the same time, they wanted them to have certain photorealistic qualities. In the end we were able to deliver some great mannerisms that mirror those of actual animals.

“For example, knowing that the birds would eventually have to realistically interact with humans in the live action spots, we steered clear of a Tex Avery over-the-top, squash and stretch animation style. There was a certain credibility and physicality to how they needed to look and behave. The birds had to fit into a full CG world, as well as a live action environment. Also, the client made it clear from the start that they wanted the squirrel to be very expressive. They wanted his facial expressions to resonate with the student demographic – conveying the fears and obstacles students might be facing and the excitement that overcoming those challenges can bring.”


They created a set of style frames and look explorations on the characters and environments to gain a sense of just how photoreal the client wanted the world and characters to look, aiming to bridge the gap between a photorealistic world and cuddly, soft, cartoony characters. Michael said, “Finding that sweet spot took some time. We completed iterations and paintings to show the client. One of them in particular, hit the mark. It was Disneyesque and contained natural and realistic qualities, but with a beautiful spin on it. That key art really guided the rest of the piece.”  

Hinge Digital decided the quickest way to clearly define the look and feel they had in mind, was to show the client something that already exists. They felt Blue Sky’s ‘Rio’ had the right amount of realism while still maintaining a cartoony appealing style when the animals moved and interacted with each other.

Cinema Style
In the 30-sec ‘Carrington College Squirrel’ promo, the cinematography and camera effects form a performance in themselves - using slow motion, depth of field, extreme close-ups - plus a very long shot from the ground up through the tree tops at the climactic moment.

“The pinnacle of the whole piece is when the squirrel jumps from one branch to the other. To heighten the moment, we chose to utilize slow-motion. The pay off shot is where the squirrel flies towards camera, and the audience sees him realize that he is going to make it. We really wanted to capitalize on that,” said Alex.


Michael also said, “In the storyboard phase, we figured out most of the slow motion shots and our targeted areas of focus. With such a short timeline, the 2D storyboarding process was a way to figure out staging, composition and camera. In the end, it’s really about getting the clients to commit to the storyboard. From there it’s a fairly seamless transition to 3D.”  

To develop textures suited to the client’s chosen look, they shot footage and stills on scouting trips, looked through piles of reference and drew on previous experience.  However, everything was heavily manipulated in Photoshop, Mari and Nuke to make sure nothing was completely photorealistic. This approach let them bring out nuances and subtleties they couldn’t have achieved creating the materials from scratch.

Tactile Textures
The team has been using Mari for two years now and find it has saved a lot of time. “The real beauty of Mari is being able to work truly on the 3D surfaces. It’s also pleasant for the artist to use, offering a tactile approach. You’re painting in the round on a 3D object, so you don’t have to flatten the object and guess where things are,” Michael explained.

“headus UVLayout, which is compatible with Mari, allows you to unwrap surfaces like you would a present. You’re peeling wrapping paper off, then drawing on it and reapplying it to the surface of the box. It's a step you’d take to lay out the shape that wrapping paper should have, and then you paint the pattern on that wrapping paper in Mari.


“The characters required some proprietary plug-ins to give them a wide range of motion. The wings and the feathers were the greatest challenge from a technical standpoint. For hair and feathers, we used Shave and A Haircut, as well as Maya Hair, and developed custom approaches to how we did the wings – utilizing fur and hair systems to generate feathers. While these looks didn’t necessarily require propriety plug-ins, they required a proprietary technique.”  

Painterly Effects
The very realistic water in a stream rushing past the tree where the squirrels are perched was based on footage of real water enhanced in specific ways. Colour and saturation were added in the composite, boosting the highlights in the image to give the water additional sparkle. The artists also added moss to the rocks to better integrate it with the environment. Alex noted, “It was actually the only true live action element in the piece. However, we didn’t want to take the audience outside of the animated world we’d created, which is why we stylized the water as we did. It blended in well with all of the other shots.”

All of the lighting was done in Maya and the rendering in mental ray. The spots involved a heavy load of render passes and integration in compositing to create the painterly effects, depth of field, blooming and other effects that give the images a dreamlike quality.

This campaign represented a big project for Hinge Digital. Monitoring and communications between departments, artists and production were handled with Shotgun, Revolver and Tweak RV. They ran dailies through Shotgun and Revolver, and all artists accessed their work through Shotgun to support collaboration. RV was particularly useful because they were working with high resolution HD and 2K files. Having a good playback tool that could manage the footage and play it back smoothly enabled them to judge the animation and colour accurately.   www.hingedigital.com