Brown Bag’s adventures in 3D

25 Mar 2004

Any actor will tell you that an Oscar nomination can be a great career boost, but the same principle applies if you’re a small Dublin-based animation studio.

The academy award nomination garnered by the cartoon Give Up Yer Aul Sins, helped Brown Bag Films, the Irish company responsible, to land a contract to produce a series of adverts for a Middle East soft drinks firm. The deal, in turn, led to more awards success: the commercials won a Phenix Award for a 3D advert — the Middle East’s premier advertising awards and the equivalent to the Cannes Lions.

In total, Brown Bag created four commercials based on the character Jean Luc, the Lebanese answer to Ali G, who goes on a series of travels after drinking different flavours of Pampa Juice, a leading fruit juice drink brand in Lebanon. Once the advertiser had committed to using animation, the horizons suddenly became broader. Jean Luc could now ‘visit’ Africa or Brazil without having to be brought to those actual places.

The process was mostly virtual — the only real element in the commercials is the actor playing Jean Luc. Think not so much of Jar-Jar Binks, but more Who Framed Roger Rabbit and you come close to the idea. Footage of the actor was shot against a green-screen background, so he was visiting locations and talking to characters that he couldn’t see and that only exist inside a computer. “We were taking a completely CG [computer-generated] environment and putting a real person in it,” explains Darragh O’Connell of Brown Bag Films, who directed the commercials.

The combination of 3D character animation and live action was a first for Brown Bag, which had mostly specialised in 2D animation to date. “We had to convince them that we could do it, even though we weren’t entirely convinced ourselves,” O’Connell jokes. He acknowledges the assistance of Screen Scene, the Irish post-production specialists, in helping to make the leap of faith in understanding and meeting the challenges set by working in 3D.

Although the animated environment was not intended to be photo-real, it still had to have a “magical look” to it, O’Connell points out. This meant having to take account of elements such as lighting and texture to make it look as if the real and virtual elements in the shot all occupied the same space.

The live action footage was shot in Beirut over a two-day period using a local crew, then digitised and a locked-off edit was decided on. Brown Bag used mostly off-the-shelf digital content creation packages such as Discreet 3D Studio Max and Adobe AfterEffects to produce the commercials. All the footage was keyed and composited with the background plates and the CG characters in Discreet Flame post-production software to put the final touches to the ads.

Animation is an expensive business, as Brown Bag doesn’t have the luxury of hiring equipment such as live-action film companies can. Also the drawn-out nature of the work means that it has to buy hardware, creating high overheads. Cleverly though, the company supplements its 11 full-time staff based at the Dublin office with 15 freelancers who can work from home as required. “With the internet, people can work from anywhere,” O’Connell comments.

All the same, the pipeline is filling up nicely and the company plans to produce three more Pampa Juice commercials this year. Other projects on the slate include a series for the Nickelodeon channel and another for S4C in Wales.

By Gordon Smith

Pictured is a shot from a commercial made by Brown Bag about Jean Luc, a character who is the Lebanese answer to Ali G