Crafting quality CG at scale

With recent times calling for a rise in online shopping, brands need to develop a digital retail experience that’s just as tactile and informative as the real thing. With this comes a need for a constant stream of product imagery that can be flexibly applied across consumer touchpoints – from packaging to social media posts, product-in-use videos and commercials.

The challenge

For companies like Philips with over 450 innovative products and services, this typically meant a new photoshoot of every new shaver or toothbrush upgrade. But with some of the innovative devices now having up to 60 color combinations and with an ever-growing list of deliverables for various channels and markets, regular photo shoots were becoming a time-consuming and expensive process.

The solution

In 2014, Philips brought on Ambassadors as a VFX partner as they transitioned from photographing their products towards creating fully computer-generated images (CGI). CGI meant the creative possibilities of showcasing Philips’ innovative technology features were endless – whether that meant a mid-commercial product explosion or an extreme close-up of product features. With fewer photoshoots meaning cost cuts and digital renders allowing for greater consistency across content formats and countries, it was a promising next step for the innovation-led brand.

Crafting the shot

Understandably, integrating CG products into live-action scenes demands very high-quality visual effects to effortlessly blend in. At the start of the partnership with Philips, Ambassadors’ key focus was to leverage the visual effects artists’ skills to craft an utterly realistic and quality result. With this approach, we were able to master the artistry required to allow the CG shots to blend in seamlessly and reflect the sleek innovation of the Philips brand.

CG replacement for live-action

For the first time, Philips was also able to replace products in not only stills but films too. Ambassadors would film a stand-in device, which could then be replaced by a perfect digital replica of any Philips product. Swapping out color and product models was easier, and consumers could see exactly how their preferred color combination and model may look in real life.

This is the stuff that no one gets excited about, but we got excited about it. When we saw it as a technical innovation challenge, it became something completely different.

Halbo van der Klaauw Founding Partner, Ambassadors

Tracking, processing and automation

Production was shifted from live-action to CG for production efficiencies, so Ambassadors’ next big challenge was to improve tracking, process, and automation. How could we figure out new tools and ways of working to simplify the overall process, so our CG artists could instead spend time and energy on those final craft touches that make a shot sing?

“This is the stuff that no one gets excited about, but we got excited about it,” says Halbo van der Klaauw, founding partner of Ambassadors. “When we saw it as a technical innovation challenge, it became something completely different.” If we could achieve a pipeline of automation, we could reduce human error across each stage of the process and ensure realistic CG at scale.

Base lighting templates

One essential step in achieving automation was through the development of base lighting templates. In the same way as when you've set up a practical photoshoot for a product, once you have the whole studio, lights and camera set up, you can easily quickly swap them out for a second version of the product. We only had to get these lighting templates right initially, and then just keep them ready to go for future products.

Even for shoots months or years apart, there was no need to reinvent the wheel. With an already set-up base digital ‘shoot’ environment, Ambassadors’ visual effects artists were able to significantly improve consistency in lighting.

We used to spend half of our time in the creative setups of every shot or image, and then the other half applying those things to 10 other variations of the same product. Now, we can spend 90% of our time polishing the very first lighting setup, and then only 10% of the time to adjust the other 10 variations. This both improves the final output quality and keeps costs low.

Sil Bulterman Visual Effects Supervisor, Ambassadors

Color matching

Color blindness aside, the way humans look at color is entirely subjective. As such, subjectively eye-matching colors and surfaces on digital renders of devices were causing significant delays in the production pipeline. However, it wasn’t really common practice for consumer goods manufacturers to use professional color scanners and lightboxes that the automotive industry had been using for years. With Ambassadors’ consultation, the Philips brand team led the way in installing an Xrite visual lightbox and color scanner to automate the process and reduce human miscommunication.

The result

After six years of ongoing collaboration, Philips and Ambassadors are achieving high quality at high volumes with automation.

CGI product imagery means that Philips can now shift towards an online retail experience where shoppers can select the exact model and color combination they want, then see that same device in use in a how-to video or shot of a bathroom. Visuals are consistent and relevant, and better yet, the production pipeline is becoming more automated every year with new tools to interpret factory data, minimize repetitive manual labor, and develop solutions for sticking points.

The future of CGI product imagery

Every project and every year of Ambassadors and Philips’ partnership sees new challenges and new solutions. So is a future of automated CG imagery production possible?

“This doesn’t all happen from magic," says Will Jeffers. "No project is ever quite the same, and we’re always going to need a strong human component on both Philips and Ambassadors’ side both for product management and the artistry needed to really bring these shots to life in a way an automatic set-up can’t. But if we can reduce the number of clicks needed, then down the track, that’s going to save you 100 hours. It’s all about marginal gains and constant learning to see those long-term production efficiencies matched with creative, high-quality output.”

For Ambassadors, the shift from artistry in crafting that final shot to crafting an automated production pipeline has been a surprisingly creative one. “Creating and improving pipelines is problem-solving, and that is by nature a creative endeavor,” adds Sil.