Psyop explains the studio’s work on the third animated film they created for Chick-fil-A’s annual holiday campaign.
For the past several years, Chick-fil-A’s annual holiday campaign has centered around animated shorts featuring Sam, a young girl who lives with her family in a town called Evergreen Hills. Directed by Psyop’s Marie Hyon, the latest two-minute film, “The Whoopsery,” finds Sam decorating a Christmas tree at her friend CeCe’s house.
When the two accidentally break a beloved ornament, they head to a magical bakery called The Whoopsery to try to fix it. Working in collaboration with Chick-fil-A’s agency—McCann—Psyop’s creative team used a mix of Maya, ZBrush, Houdini, Substance Painter, Nuke and more to tell a heart-warming story about finding joy in imperfection.
Psyop has produced a lot of ground-breaking work over two decades and has been completely cloud-based since 2021. Working with talented artists and clients around the world, the studio has offices in New York and Los Angeles.
Like many client stories, the Chick-fil-A holiday shorts begin with several iterations of the script. While the story may change entirely in the early stages, the focus is always on a specific theme. “Once the script is locked, we start drawing the sequence of shots and camera angles we need and cutting that together as a boardmatic,” explains Psyop’s CG Lead Briana Franceschini.
The possibilities seem endless at that point in the process, so the team creates an abundance of designs for props, pets, sets and visual effects. As they work, they consider the emotional depth of the characters, as well their motivations, backstories and relationships with one another. “Not everything makes it to the final picture, but that is one of my favorite stages to watch develop because it’s so organic and inspired,” says Franceschini.
Creating a World with ZBrush
All of the characters for “The Whoopsery,” as well as props and set pieces, were created with ZBrush. Character sculpts were based on 2D drawings with existing stylized proportions in mind. Over many rounds, artists on the team slowly refined the characters using a mix of paint-overs and direct 3D iterations.
“Sometimes a character’s personality and form doesn’t truly emerge until after we’ve already started the process,” she adds. “Luckily, we’re given a lot of creative liberty in terms of final designs, and ZBrush is a key part of making those quick, exploratory iterations. There's a natural transformation that happens when going from 2D element to 3D life that you can either fight or embrace.”
Knowing that animation and performance are an integral part of bringing the characters to life, the Psyop team relied on their lead animators to develop the unique mannerisms and physical personalities of the new hero characters. “Typically, for any organic elements that need sculpting, we start the base mesh in Maya, block the initial shapes in quickly and then immediately move over to ZBrush to explore the forms and proportions further,” Franceschini explains.
Once the primary forms are locked down, the team exports certain subtools as OBJs to Maya for retopologizing, particularly those that need to deform properly in a rig. When the cleanup is done, and some UVs have been created, they move back to ZBrush to sculpt secondary and tertiary details on the clean mesh.
“Of course, some elements need a different approach,” Franceschini continues. “Hair geo, for example, stays as a DynaMesh or ZRemeshed geometry since we later use a realistic hair pipeline with Yeti and Maya. But the sculpted hair is still useful for giving the animators a visual reference for the characters’ final silhouettes and to quell clients’ fears that the entire cast is bald.”
For a hand-sculpted look, the Psyop team also used ZBrush for the characters’ clothing, keeping wrinkles a little larger and looser, she says. “Our approach to detailing clothing in ZBrush depends solely on its structure and location on the body. Tighter-fitting or stiffer materials, like denim, for example, are not simulated later in the pipeline, so we're free to bake all of the higher resolution sculpted detail into the shaded asset utilizing displacement and bump maps baked out of ZBrush.”
The most complex and hardware-heavy set was The Whoopsery bakery itself. Every element was created to tie into the story. Part of the challenge for Psyop was the need to balance the effort spent on close-up elements versus those in the background.
“With a limited number of weeks to complete all the assets, we had to spend our time very carefully, a classic case of quality over quantity,” says Franceschini. “And the incredible detail our artists put into each set was part of the payoff for the massive amount of work that went into creating a nearly 360-degree working environment.”
Refining the Process
Like many studios, Psyop has adjusted their process during COVID, developing techniques for teams working remotely around the world. The studio relies heavily on Shotgrid, which serves as an organizational tool for notes and tracking. Shotgrid is also integrated with their 3D software for versioning and other pipeline applications. SyncSketch is used for team reviews.
Despite the challenges working with an entirely remote team, Franceschini is pleased with “The Whoopsery” and so was the client. “There are a lot of generalists working at Psyop with skills across modeling, look-dev, grooming, lighting and rendering, so we’ve been able to maintain quality and attention to detail even though we’re not together in the studio. I think that’s something Psyop has embraced as a whole.”
Paul Hellard is a writer in Melbourne, Australia.