Chocolate Tribe is no stranger to crafting photoreal characters and creatures. The multi-award-winning, South Africa-based studio specializes in visual effects and animation for high-end feature film, episodic content, and advertising.
Tasked with helping to promote the launch of Showmax Pro, a sports streaming service, Chocolate Tribe’s talented team didn’t pull any punches.
The brief? Creating a feature film-quality rendering of a well-known sports hero for a commercial production within a limited timeframe. The challenge? Said hero was the very recognizable boxer Muhammad Ali.
With no access to any 3D scans of Ali, the team had to rely solely on old photographs and footage.
“We understood that to achieve a photorealistic representation, we needed to pay close attention to every detail – from the contours of Ali’s face to the shape of his muscles and the way he stood,” shared Rob van den Bragt, VFX and animation supervisor at Chocolate Tribe. “We carefully examined all available resources, including photographs and videos, to gain a better understanding of Ali’s physical attributes and characteristics.”
“We understood that to achieve a photorealistic representation, we needed to pay close attention to every detail.” – Rob van den Bragt
Continue reading for more from our interview with the Chocolate Tribe team.
What were your initial thoughts when you received the creative brief for the commercial?
Chocolate Tribe (CT): The desired creative was a one-minute ad with a photorealistic montage of Ali during his prime, set in various CGI environments, intercut with live-action body-double shots.
Our primary focus was on being able to deliver the level of quality we desired within the given timeframe [because] it was a commercial project and, at the time, a majority of us were having to work remotely.
What are the constraints of producing photoreal digital characters for commercials?
CT: Pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in visual effects and animation is what defines us, regardless of timeline. The hyperfidelity required for any CGI human takes time, even with the arrival of AI and GPT4. The movement, the details, and the integration take time, which is something that – with commercial timeframes and budget – is not easily achieved. Needless to say, we pushed hard to get it to where we wanted it to be.
Quite the daunting task when the photoreal character you’re having to bring back to life is someone as recognizable as Muhammad Ali.
CT: Yes! To truly capture the essence of a legendary figure like Ali, we needed to pay close attention to every detail, from the way he moved and spoke to the subtle nuances of his facial expressions.
We had to be meticulous in our approach and ensure that every aspect of our digital recreation was as accurate and authentic as possible. The fact that his facial features changed over the years was one of our biggest challenges, as sticking to a master reference for consistency was nearly impossible. Even using old photographs for reference, we had to take into account what kind of lenses were used. For example, wide and long lenses change the appearance of someone’s face tremendously.
Getting started with the creation process, what did you have in your toolbox?
CT: Our plan to achieve that photoreal look was to feature a mix of a real boxer and fully CGI shots. We needed to ensure that the fast, live action, close-up shots sat correctly within the edit, which was 80% CGI.
For this project, we utilized a range of industry-standard software, including Unity’s Ziva for muscle and skin simulations.
Talk us through your creation pipeline.
CT: The creation pipeline for this project began by carefully selecting our hero reference images of Ali. Once we had locked down the best possible references, we began digitally sculpting and matching the features to ensure that our digital version of Ali was as accurate and true to life as possible.
Meanwhile, the animation department worked closely with the director Adrian de sa Garces from Egg Films on the animation blocking and previs.
After the initial sculpting phase was complete, we moved on to retopologizing the mesh for rigging. This allowed us to begin laying out the UVs and applying textures and shading to the model. We worked at incredibly high resolutions to ensure that the final product would be able to stand up to close scrutiny without losing any of its detail.
The live action part of the shoot happened around this stage. These shots would cover the close-ups in one of the three locations for the ad shoot. The other two locations, which were the large video wall and boxing ring hall sets, would be fully CGI. The 3D sets were being created, similar to Ali, with a great attention to detail to allow the camera to see a lot of subtle details.
Throughout the process, we went through many iterations to refine and improve the realism of the character and 3D sets. We played around with various renderers and eventually settled on one that delivered great results at acceptable render speeds.
At what point did you start to come close to the mark of reality?
CT: When it came to using a combination of motion capture and Ziva for the simulations. In the rigging department, we created two separate rig setups: one for motion-capture sessions and animation, and the other for Ziva simulations.
We used the mocap rig to capture movements and performance, and then the motion capture and animation-rig data were transferred to the Ziva rig, which applied the muscle and skin simulations to the sculpted body geometry.
Once the motion capture was approved, using postvis and techvis, we moved on to the layout and placement of the performance into a digital set. This was followed by the lighting and rendering phase, where we carefully crafted and refined the visuals until we achieved the desired level of realism and detail.
Overall, the creation pipeline for this project was complex and demanding, allowing us to constantly iterate and refine our work until we achieved the desired results.
Achieving realism needs a combination of subtle detail, imperfections, and weight. Subtle detail and imperfections come mostly from modeling, texturing, layout, lighting, and mocap, but the weight mocap often struggles to capture. This is where Ziva comes in and adds that last bit of realism needed.
“It’s impressive how easy it was to integrate Ziva into our pipeline, and its ability to turn around simulations faster than any other product on the market that we’ve used. This made it an indispensable tool for us. We were thrilled with the results that we were able to achieve, and we couldn’t have done it without Ziva.” – Tiaan Franken, executive technical director at Chocolate Tribe
How did Ziva help you achieve the level of realism required for this project?
CT: With Ziva, we were able to achieve that level of detail and realism that we were striving for. The software allowed us to create complex muscle and skin simulations that closely matched the movements and actions of the real-life boxer. This was a crucial element in making the digital Ali look as convincing and authentic as possible.
Every muscle bulge, shoulder deformation, and secondary weight shifts on the body, and skin wrinkles translate beautifully. This added the extra weight to our character, which grounded him even more.
One of the great advantages of Ziva is its speed and efficiency in producing high-quality simulations. This allowed us to work within the tight production schedule and still deliver a product that met the client's expectations.
What problems did Ziva help you solve?
CT: Ziva is an incredible tool for achieving realistic deformation on a character. Instead of relying solely on traditional methods, such as skin clusters and blend shapes, Ziva’s muscle and tissue simulation allows for more natural and accurate deformations. This meant less post-deformation correction and a more efficient workflow overall. It truly revolutionized the way we now approach character rigging and simulation.
What is that new approach?
CT: We are now able to streamline our workflow and achieve more efficient and effective results. The traditional process of rigging and correcting deformations was time consuming and required a team of artists to work on multiple stages of the production. However, Ziva’s muscle and skin simulation tools allowed us to reduce the amount of time spent on corrections after animation, and enabled us to make multiple iterations without losing time.
As a result, we were able to keep the animation rig light and fast. We spent less time on perfecting the final deformations and ensuring that they were realistic and believable. Ziva has truly revolutionized the way we approach skin deformations on commercial VFX productions. We have since adopted Ziva at Chocolate Tribe on all our commercial and long form creature and character projects.
Discover how Ziva can bring your characters to life with sophisticated simulation and deformation, machine learning, and real-time character creation. You can also sign up for Unity’s beta program to start using Ziva Face Trainer to produce VFX-quality deformations and achieve complex, believable facial animations.
Showmax “Game Changers”
Production House: Egg Films
Director: Adrian de sa Garces
Visual Effects / Post Production: Chocolate Tribe
VFX & Animation Supervisor: Rob van den Bragt
Executive Technical Director: Tiaan Franken
Executive Producer / Legal: Nosipho Maketo-van den Bragt
Producer: Corlia Ohlson de Fine
Lead Compositor: Jean du Plessis
Compositor: Johan Wentzel, Jannes Hendrikz
3D Artists: Brett Sinclair, Sam Visser, Jesse Sumares, Orlando Camina, Jay Sheldon, Roche Staats, Jandre van Heerden, Wesley Matthews
Motion Capture On-Set Supervision: Rob van den Bragt, Tiaan Franken
Live Shoot On-Set Supervision: Stuart Wilson
Colour Grading: Nic Apostoli