By Andrew Jenkinson, vStream
Part of the Australian shopping centre group with investment interests in 124 shopping centres worldwide, Westfield wanted to create something unique and innovative for its Christmas Grottos. Having heard of the success of vStream’s Aviva Stadium 3D Experience and the UK Blade Award, Westfield UK Marketing Manager Kevin Smith invited us to join a multi-agency pitch for the tender.
Key points of the brief included:
• The creation of a 7-minute 3D animation with ‘Pixar’ production values.
• The creation of an engaging and original story and character concept.
• Interactivity and the option for a 4D element.
• Contribution towards a significant increase in turnover for Christmas.
A number of international companies were invited to pitch, with a clear timeline of selection in late August, and final delivery in November – a 3 month turnaround!
With a tight turnaround time and the knowledge that there was extremely stiff competition, vStream co-founder Niall O’Driscoll and I quickly assembled our technical and creative teams with the brief to devise something that had never been done before, and that only we could do.
The result was a 5D Christmas animation called ‘Elbow Saves Christmas’ written and directed by Niall. The 5D animation would tell the tale of Elbow the Elf, who saves Christmas from his nemesis, the fallen elf, Fumble, who has turned bad and stolen all the presents from Santa’s workshop. Visitors to the respective grottos would be immersed in a stereoscopic 3D cinema experience which incorporates a fourth dimension of wind, lights and elf dust, triggered through a bespoke software solution.
Pushing the boundaries even further, the fifth dimension was the proposed personalisation of the experience, with each child in the audience starring in the film. Their pictures were to be displayed throughout the story as an integral part of the narrative, as participants watch Elbow saving Santa’s presents from Fumble. One of the main challenges from a concept and scripting point-of-view was to create a narrative that was engaging but also allowed for multiple opportunities for the personalisation of a 50-strong audience.
We presented the concepts to Westfield by way of a hand-drawn storybook, and on the 24th of August we were awarded the six-figure contract which would see us install the 5D experience in the Westfield London Centre and the newly-opened Westfield Stratford City – the largest shopping centre in Europe.
From the minute the contract was awarded, the clock began to tick. The normal turnaround for a project of this scale is six months, so with only a matter of 12 weeks to deliver, the pressure was on. Additionally, while vStream had developed the world’s first personalised 3D experience for Aviva, a patented platform that we intended to build upon, this project required personalisation for 50 audience members at the same time. The technical challenges that this posed were significant. The Aviva Experience was a point-of-view, single-user experience – the creation of something personalised to a mass audience had never been tried before.
A timeline was drawn up with weekly client reviews and signoffs, with each week forming a crucial building block in the project. Each Friday, our Senior Producer, Geraldine Collins, would collate an update with designs, pre-vis animations, and character and environment sketches. The client then had 48 hours to sign off and respond with changes. Working to such a tight schedule had its obvious drawbacks, but it also focussed both the team and the client on making quick, insightful decisions. Kevin and his team were extremely organised, and without fail we would have a response on Monday morning, allowing us to progress to the next phase. The planning of the project was broken into two main areas: animation and software development.
The seven-minute animation, which was developed to a Pixar standard by our animation team was led by our Head of 3D, James Kelly, formerly of Sony Games. The animation process had to be vigorously streamlined to enable the company to deliver the seven-minute film in a three-month time period. There were a lot of late nights and weekends put in, but we wanted to ensure this project lived up to what our audience were used to experiencing in the cinema with big-budget 3D animated movies. The fact that we added the extra dimensions complicated the process significantly, so tight integration with the animation team and the development team was imperative. The whole piece had to work together as one seamless entity, which is a lot harder than it sounds.
James led a team of five full-time animators on the project, which consisted of 14 scenes with over 120 shots. Each shot had to be modelled, textured, animated and rendered, and since the movie was in 3D, each process had to be done twice, once for each eye. We wanted to make the film look magical, as the audience members were going to be experts in 3D animation, even though their ages ranged from three to ten. Getting the perfect balance of cute elves and magical Christmas effects was never going to be easy, but we seemed to strike a chord with the target audience – each week all of the children of vStream staff were consulted on the characters and design elements, and once they were happy we knew we were on to a winner.
The differentiators of Elbow Saves Christmas from all other 3D animations were the technical elements: a personalised 3D video player, a data capture iPad application and control of fourth dimension elements. Within a very tight time frame, our Lead Developer and his team had to ensure the delivery of truly world-leading technology. Creating the application using a platform traditionally employed for high-end computer gaming development enabled the team to build a system which performed extremely complex calculations and graphical rendering on a relatively low-spec PC.
The client wanted to utilise equipment that could be easily maintained and did not cost the earth, so we built something that communicated directly with the components of the machine, as opposed to using Flash or a similar, memory intensive platform. Luckily, since it had never been done before, we have successfully filed a patent for this approach, which will give us a continued competitive edge in this market.
The Elbow saves Christmas experience was launched to the public on Friday 19th November and runs until Christmas Eve Saturday 24th of December. Looking forward to the public launch, Myf Ryan, Marketing General Manager for Westfield stated “Westfield is always looking for new and innovative events and we are delighted to have the world’s first 5D Christmas animation in both Westfield London and Westfield Stratford City.”
It has been an amazing journey from concept through animation to final delivery. Westfield will be using our patent-pending technology and we could not have a better client or project to launch it! We hope Elbow the Elf will have many more adventures – while creating an offline physical experience for consumers was the original brief, we are constantly focused on ROI, and delivering real, traceable results to clients. To this end, each visitor to a Westfield grotto is given the option to receive a follow-on piece of marketing, in the form of a second personalised video, this time in 2D, and delivered via the web.
Indeed, with social media being such a vital part of the marketing mix, we wanted to ensure that the 5D experience had reach beyond the two current centres, so we have devised a platform for viral dissemination of the content through a completion mechanic on Facebook.
2012 is set to be a big year for personalised multi-dimensional experiences. The Westfield project allowed us to increase our team significantly and generate export income. We are on the lookout for Irish brands to invest in experiences of this type, but we see the real potential of this as an international play. We are already in further talks with Westfield about future exploitation of the technology for them, and are already in negotiations with major international brands, including F1 teams, Premiership football clubs, music arenas, US sports clubs and international visitor centres to bring our patented technology to life internationally.
vStream’s trailer for Elbow Saves Christmas 5D Experience.
Andrew Jenkinson is the Technical Director of vStream. Based in the heart of Dublin, vStream is a leading digital content marketing company. Its facilities include a software lab, a graphic design and animation centre, a 3D cinema, a greenscreen and bluescreen high-definition video studio, and full post production and editing suites.