The fantastic Journey of Wool

London studio Neon mixes live action and CG in this finely spun yarn.

By Steve Jarratt

The world-famous Woolmark logo adorns quality woolen products, assuring that it's 100% pure wool. As a part of its ongoing promotional activity, The Woolmark Company asked Neon, a boutique studio in London, to make a short film describing the different stages of the wool production process, from sheep to suit.

The brief for 'Lost and Found' was simple but challenging, says Tom Bridges, managing director of Neon. "Woolmark wanted us to describe the process of wool production in an entertaining way. How we did that was up to us and, after some thought, we came up with the idea of showing the process from the perspective of a piece of wool. We won the pitch in January, and then spent a couple of months refining the script. Woolmark gave us an entirely free hand with the look and feel."

The first step was to undertake research, gathering relevant reference material and planning the spot. "Storyboarding and script development took two months, off and on," comments Tom. "We had a very clear idea of the style from an early point: we wanted to create shots that were photo-realistic – yet visually and physically impossible. Our film 'Macro' was a starting point for a lot of what we were trying to do."

Macro was a winter R&D project in which the Neon team set out to make a short film featuring a skateboarder, with the challenge of mixing live action flawlessly with photo-realistic CG. The shot features impossible camera angles with lots of super slow motion and extreme depth of field, and allowed Neon to "develop a process that would allow us to create these shots with a small team of artists – instead of the usual small army." It's clear that the Macro project laid the foundations for the Woolmark spot, with both films sharing the same design DNA. Watch the R&D film 'Macro' here.

‘Lost and Found’ begins with a live-action shot of a sheep being sheared, at which point a tuft of wool floats off and begins its journey. The strands were created using Maya's nHair system and then animated using a combination of simulation and keyframing.

As the strand floats through the manufacturing process, it's wafted through a mill, riding on the warm air from a coffee cup. This shot is typical of the project, incorporating a CG cup with simulated steam set against a live-action background. "We used as many real elements as we could," explains Tom. "All the shots were tracked, and we used a lot of projection mapping."

For the live action, the crew shot footage in Biella in northern Italy, Australia and Huddersfield in the UK. "Getting all of this material to seamlessly intercut, and with our fully CGI set pieces, took a lot of finessing."

To get the shots looking right, the crew relied on HDRIs taken on location in conjunction with Cinema 4D's native lights. "All the depth of field was in-camera," adds Tom. "Cinema 4D's Physical Renderer worked really well here to get the look we were after."

While most of the shots incorporate real-world elements, there are a few sequences that are entirely CG. One such segment features a close-up of a tailor's hand as he chalks the woven material ready to be made into a suit. Although it looks photo-realistic, the hand, chalk and material are all CG: "We created the mesh using photogrammetry, using a lot of stills. Cinema 4D was used for animation and texturing, and we used its particle system to create the lumps of chalk as they came off."

Final output was handled using the Deadline Render Management System from Thinkbox Software, which Tom says integrates really well with Cinema 4D. "We tried to keep the passes quite simple," he says. "A main beauty pass with some technical passes: depth, object IDs and so on."

With the sequence rendered, final compositing took place in The Foundry's Nuke, with Adobe After Effects employed for a few elements. The post work added "lots of lens flares and general beauty work," states Tom. "We added a lot of dust and particles to try and give the CG more of a natural look."

The finished spot runs to 2 minutes, 43 seconds, and was output at 2K resolution. Neon began the project in earnest in April of 2014, and delivered at the end of August. "Different numbers of people at different times worked on the project," Tom comments, "but the team ranged from two to five people. We use mostly iMacs and Mac Pros for the workstations, and have a 144-core render farm on site."

The quality of the final film is a testament to both Neon's ingenuity in seamlessly combining CG and live action elements, but also to Cinema 4D's Physical Renderer, which is clearly capable of producing wonderfully photo-realistic imagery.

Tom's final comment is aimed at anyone wanting to improve their Cinema 4D work: "Make bold strokes," he advises, "and be ruthless about throwing away what doesn't work. Far better to fail early, than to spend ages finessing something that's never going to fit."

Steve Jarratt is a long-time CG enthusiast and technology journalist based in the UK.

Watch the Making Of movie here:

Neon's Website:

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