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Framestore CFC Brings Hector to Life

"Hector's Life' is a delightful new 60-second spot for the Renault Espace. Created by French agency Publicis Conseil, with production companies Outsider (UK) and Bandits (France), the spot was directed by Dom and Nic. It first aired in France on Christmas Eve, 2004, and a UK airing is currently under consideration by Renault. Beautifully crafted and highly original, 'Hector's Life' features animation and effects by Framestore CFC.

At the start of the spot we find ourselves outside a waiting room at a European railway station. At the bottom of the waiting room doors we see a flat, paper figure Hector, in fact peep out and, after a second, slip through the space between the doors, out into the station. We follow Hector as he crosses the crowded station floor onto the platform. As he climbs down onto the rail track, a song strikes up 'Going Up the Country', Canned Heat's 1968 paean to the good life whose gentle, locomotive rhythm beautifully accents our paper hero's journey.

Hector hitches a ride on a freight train heading out of the city. As the train crosses a bridge in the countryside, Hector jumps off and, rolling himself into a protective ball, lands in the middle of ferny woodland. Through woods, cornfields and across rivers, he continues his trek, even briefly hitching a ride across a ploughed field on the back of a dung beetle.

Finally, he climbs to the top of some lichen-covered rocks and we see him smile for the first time as he sits and surveys the spectacular valley below him, the rising wind causing him to flutter gently. We then cut back to the waiting room in which we began, and the camera zooms in on a man reading a newspaper. The last shot of the story shows us the cartoon strip in the newspaper (entitled 'Hector's Life', naturally) from which our hero has excused himself, the frames empty save for the word balloons. The tagline - 'Isn't space the ultimate luxury?' - is superimposed, and we then see a shot of the Renault Espace.

The shoot, which took place in Italy over a week in late 2004, was supervised for Framestore CFC by Ben Cronin and Jake Mengers. Cronin recalls, "We shot the station material in Milan's Central Station a beautiful 19th century structure and its stockyards. During the exterior sequences, some of which we shot in the hills outside Rome, we were plagued by less than ideal weather conditions, some of which we were able to address in post. The bridge shots, for example, were brightened up by a combination of a pushed grade and some Inferno work. But the final whip-pan across the valley was actually created using a 360 degree sequence of stills we had sent to us from South Africa."

The challenge facing the animation team at Framestore CFC was to create a character who, while essentially 2D, was interacting in a 3D world. This required the construction of two separate rigs, a 2D one and a 3D one for moments when an element of depth was required. "We created a low-res version of Hector first," says Nicklas Andersson, Lead Animator on the project, "Which we used to try out walk cycles and other test elements for the creative team. We also shot some hand held camera footage outside our office and put him in it. The biggest challenge was that working in 2D denies you the sense of weight that you can more easily create in 3D. Altogether it took us about six weeks working in Maya to bring Hector to life."

One small detail likely to be lost on people focussing on Hector is that the beetle he rides on briefly is also a CG creation. The incredibly life-like creature was built, textured, rigged and animated in 2 weeks in Maya by Dean Robinson, using a real (and distinctly smelly) preserved beetle as a model.

Lighting is an essential element in making Hector and his journey believable, and Senior Technical Directors Simon Stoney and Jamie Isles worked hard to create the effects that would place him plausibly in situ. "We used the global illumination references that Jake (Mengers) had gathered on location for us," says Stoney, ?And they'd also place some cut-out paper figures in shots for us. The whole 2D/3D aspect of it made lighting it a real challenge we were basically doing two sets of renders for every shot."

With the prospect of cinema screenings for the spot, the team decided to shoot it all on film, the high resolution offering a more spectacular look on the big screen. Senior Colourist Steffan Perry created an original grade and transfer at HD, which was then played out and shot onto 35mm film at Framestore CFC's Video to Film facility. This was TK'd once more by Perry, the extra stage offering a further layer of grain to enhance the look of the spot.

'Hector's Life' is one of those commercials in which all of the elements come together perfectly nifty direction, charming animation, and just the right soundtrack to give you 60 seconds of pure pleasure.

Renault Espace: 'Hector's Life'
Agency Publicis Conseil
Creatives Bénédicte Potel / Thierry Lebec
Agency Producer Muriel Allegrini
Production Company Outsider (UK) / Bandits (France)
Directors Dom & Nic
Producer John Madsen

For Framestore CFC
VFX Supervisor Ben Cronin
Inferno Artists Ben Cronin, Darran Nicholson
3D Animators Nicklas Andersson, Dale Newton, Dean Robinson
TDs Jamie Isles, Simon Stoney
Render Assistance Alex Doyle
Telecine Colourist Steffan Perry
Post Producer Rebecca Barbour

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