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Real-World Solutions To create a new ident for UKTV's W Channel, design and animation studio Ink & Giants was tasked with creating a quartet of photorealistic locations.

W is the flagship channel of the UKTV network, and has been in operation since 2008 when it was launched as Watch. The channel has had several incarnations over the years with various logo changes, and the latest rebrand dropped the Watch name in favour of the single letter W. The channel logos, idents and presentations were all conceived and produced by London design specialists, Art&Graft. However, following the rebrand, UKTV commissioned Ink & Giants to create an additional ident for the channel.

“This particular ident aims to take the viewers on a continuous journey through a mixture of diverse scenarios, each happening in different locations,” explains Peter Dobes, the managing director of Ink & Giants. “It’s almost like globetrotting – transporting you to any place you can imagine through a portal in the form of a diamond. The most important part of the creative for us was to really nail the experience and emotion that each scenario needs to express – tranquillity, danger, nostalgia and mystery.”

For the sequence, in which the camera seamlessly passes from one scenario to the next, the team initially considered using camera projection mapping to bring existing photos to life. The idea was to use high-resolution imagery of different locations projected onto stand-in geometry in Cinema 4D. The addition of some visual effects and tweaks in compositing should sell the shot – however, it didn't quite pan out that way.

“We weren’t getting the look and quality that we wanted,” admits Dobes. “The pixels we’d project onto a 3D object like a road would start stretching out as we moved forward. We found this projection mapping technique works better with a subtle sideways movement.”

With the original plan shelved, the team decided to go all-in on building the real-world scenes entirely using CG elements. “This would make the sequence work well with the existing idents, which were live-action. Plus, we’d have full control of all the elements in each scenario. For a small studio like us, creating a near-photoreal look with this level of detail was probably the biggest challenge on this project.”

New goal established, they set about creating four realistic locations: a placid lake; a gritty night-time alley scene; a sunny seaside pier; and a snowy forest plus mysterious abandoned car. With a four-person team and just one-and-a-half months to complete the 20-second sequence, there was a lot to do, and Dobes is full of praise for their app of choice: “Cinema 4D in general made it possible to build the scenes very quickly. We used a lot of the deformers and MoGraph cloners to model and animate the environment, and for rendering we opted for Octane Render. The combination of these two tools was just incredibly powerful.”

The lake scene was relatively simple, employing a graded photo of mountains placed in the distance plus tree placards, textured with an alpha channel, and arranged in 3D space. “We had a library of plants, bushes and trees – quite a few from the good old Cinema 4D content library,” confesses Dobes. “But cards are still very useful for objects far enough in the distance. Rendering vegetation is quite performance-heavy so we had to optimise the scene where we could.” The lake itself is a displaced plane, but it took a bit of development to get it looking just right, which came down to finding the correct reflection settings.

From the lake we move to the city at night, the trickiest scene of the four. “The dark alley has the most detail in it so it needed a lot of attention. But also the lighting of that scene was problematic; using small but very bright light sources gave us a lot of noise. Octane is great for big soft lights with soft shadows, but to get a realistic-looking spot light effect was a bit difficult.”

To save time the team used a combination of stock models and custom-made objects. “Production times usually don’t allow for modelling everything from scratch these days,” remarks Dobes. As well as physical models, the team used displacement mapping to create details like the cobbled street. Displacement is one of Octane’s strengths, which it does on-the-fly with very little rendering overhead.

Our journey then takes us to a quiet seaside pier in the late afternoon, with birds drifting lazily overhead and touch of lens fare. “The pier scene was our proof-of-concept shot. We tried mapping a very similar photo onto some simple geometry, but after two steps forward with the camera it just didn’t hold up. So we decided to re-create it.”

Dobes explains how they looked at a lot of reference images for texturing and modelling details. “The decking is a very repetitive structure so was easy to make with a MoGraph cloner, but to add realism we had to introduce all kinds of imperfections and misalignments. The other key to realism was the wear and tear you get on outdoor structures, especially by the sea. We used a lot of high-res grunge textures and layered in the Octane Dirt Shader to mix them.”

He suggests that if you want to achieve a photoreal look, you shouldn’t be afraid to add imperfections. “Real life isn’t perfect, so go and make things uneven and add more dirt into your textures and scenes!”

The pier set was lit with a combination of area lights and a HDRI. Like the other scenes in the project, the sky is a high-res stock image.

The final location is a Nordic-noir scene of a deserted car in a snow-covered forest. Again the vegetation was a mixture of pre-built tree models plus placards for the low-lying bushes and plants. The snow was added in Adobe After Effects using Red Giant Particular, which provided an extra layer of control. Dobes says that the composite was made more complex by having to mix in layers of fog and lots of separate grading adjustment layers to sculpt the picture details.

The final element that ties the four locations together is the diamond ‘W’ logo. In Cinema 4D this was just a simple plane object that was used as a mask during the compositing stage.

The quality and realism of the final sequence is a testament to the hard work of the team, and the power of the tools at their disposal. “Cinema 4D has the most supportive community, sharing knowledge and resources,” says Dobes. “But there wasn’t one specific tool that stood out; Cinema 4D in general was just great to work in.”

All images courtesy of Ink & Giants.

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Steve JarrattCG Enthusiast/Tech Journalist – United Kingdom