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Monty the CG penguin is the star of John Lewis’ Christmas campaign for 2014, following the heartwarming story of a boy named Sam and his imaginary friend.
Directed by Blink’s Dougal Wilson and conceived by adam&eveDDB, the MPC VFX team spent over five months lovingly crafting Monty, then integrating him into the real-life environment; casting the distinctive Adelie penguin for their overtly expressive mannerisms.
Check out the behind the scenes here
Studying detailed reference footage alongside director Dougal, the 3D team built an initial model using ZBrush, a digital form of clay. Once Monty had his skeleton and muscle system in place, a number of motion tests were carried out, determining his movement style and adding distinctive character quirks along the way.
VFX Supervisor and CG Lead Diarmid Harrison Murray said, “The John Lewis Christmas ad is one of the most talked about campaigns of the year, so the stakes were high to create a CG character the viewers would relate to and ultimately engage with throughout the film. We’d spent several months working with Dougal and playing around with Monty’s look - it sounds strange but after all that time you start to form a sort of strange relationship with a CG character. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the agency team met ‘Monty’ at MPC and were just as taken with him.”
There was a big focus on the interaction between Sam and Monty, and seamlessly compositing him into the shot footage was the biggest challenge for the 2D team. To create the lake scene crew wetsuited up and got into Victoria Park lake, using stand-in plastic penguin shapes to create the perfect amount of splash impact. Many of the splashes were then re-created in CG to ensure the interaction was flawless.
Key for the team was conveying Monty’s emotions, without giving him human characteristics. Lead animator Tim van Hussen explains, “The face isn’t the only place to convey emotion, so with Monty we also focused strongly on his physical performance. Most animated creatures portray emotions by eliciting behaviour we recognize from real life, so the flapping of the wings when meeting his new friend for the first time is taken from when real penguins are reunited after months apart during breeding season.”
Subtle eye and beak movements also help convey what Monty is feeling, not to mention the context and sentimental soundtrack of John Lennon’s song ‘Real Love’, performed by Tom Odell.
In addition to creating Monty, the team extended sets, added subtle effects including frosty breath and snow plus created a number of matte painted environments. As Sam points excitedly out the window at the first winters snow, the scene outside is a built up image of matte painting with additional CG to animate the snow.
The short sledging scene was shot in mid-summer in three separate locations; the wide shot in a park to shoot enough fake snow, Sam against green screen for his close-up and a separate park location for the loved up couple. Monty and all the elements were crafted together during compositing in the studio.
Jean-Clément Soret completed the grade on the 35mm film, helping to emphasise the relevant seasons as the spot moves through the year.
MPC provided Monty assets for the wider campaign, including outdoor billboards, posters and 6-sheets for a tube station takeover.
MPC also teamed up with 4Creative for the teaser campaign that ran on Channel 4 in the lead up to the spots release. Working with Director Neil Gorringe, the team played with perceptions to reveal the number 4 in the Christmas lights of London’s Oxford Street, before switching to Monty watching from an iconic London bus.
Watch it in the second tab above.