Sami Healy on empathizing with beverages in Escape the Ordinary


Sami Healy on empathizing with beverages in Escape the Ordinary

Escape the Ordinary is an animated ad, by Hornet, for Tractor Beverage Co. In the ad, an empty cup of ice fantasizes about frollicking in an orchard. The screen cuts back to the cup’s reality — a bleak cityscape with only a handful of monolithic beverage options. Before succumbing to the pressure of choosing one of these drinks, the cup escapes above the smog clouds and flies to an idyllic countryside. The ad ends with the cup happily filled with a Tractor beverage.

For what is ostensibly a commercial for organic fizzy drinks, Escape the Ordinary is highly evocative. The contrast between the country and cityscapes is immediately palpable, immediately instilling a longing to leave the oppressive world of concrete for dirt roads and sunshine. The character design also deserves a mention. Our hero is a semi-translucent cup containing semi-translucent ice cubes. The cup emotes entirely through ‘body’ language and the facial expressions on its ice cubes. The personalities of the other characters, mainly soda bottles, are distinguished instantly.

We had the chance to sit down with Sami Healy (Hornet’s cel animation team lead) to discuss the unusual artistry behind Escape the Ordinary.

Hornet’s 90-second ad for Tractor Brewing Co., a certified organic beverage made with fruits, roots, sugar and spice.

How would you describe your role in this project and what did a typical day in production look like for you?

Sami Healy: In production I worked as a storyboard artist, and then once we got into animation, I was a co-Cel animation lead on this job. That meant I was working very closely with the director and the team, not only animating but giving feedback notes on how the animation was going. It also includes preparing files before the team joins.

What did the planning stage of this project look like?

Sami Healy: When we were storyboarding, we were trying to plan out the layout. Our director used 3D software to map out the buildings, and to make sure we had things consistent when we were figuring out shots. And that really helped going into storyboarding, but also with design. That was something that really helped us make sure that we knew where we were in the city. But also, we made sure that those buildings weren’t getting mixed up between shots. 

And then once we had approval on design and story, we were really focusing on the characters – mainly for our hero cup, because that cup is in every shot. So we wanted to make sure that how that cup was emoting was making sense and staying within the design language that we put together, but was also evocative enough and consistent throughout the shot. 

Also, when we’re preparing for a job, we do spend some time R&Ding the cleanup process. So we spent about a week on R&D for this one. One of our artists jumped into Harmony and really figured out how we would translate this design of the cup into Harmony, and what kind of techniques we would use to make sure that we were following the design as closely as we could but also making sure that we were doing that in a way that the animators could work with easily. 

It couldn’t be too complex, but it needed to be as close as possible. So that was really nice – the versatility of Harmony is really valuable to us. It really lets us cater our pipeline and our workflow to any animation style or any sort of design. I’d say on pretty much every job we schedule time to make sure that we are translating this into Harmony in the best way that’s possible for us, whether it’s a graphic style or more painterly.

In a past job we had with Huggies, where it is very textural, in Photoshop they were using a lot of different brushes and textures for that. But we were able to make custom brushes there and then bring those sections into Harmony. It’s really great. This one was more graphic, but there was kind of a mix in the style. So we were able to do that.

Behind-the-scenes footage from the Escape the Ordinary ad provided by Hornet.

How was the production process on Escape the Ordinary?

Sami Healy: It was longer than most of our commercials that come in since this story was lengthier. Along with that, there were a lot of characters. So in that sense it was longer than our usual productions. But something that was so great about it was there were so many chances to work on character animation. 

So in this process we were able to dig in to that and some more traditional, hand-drawn, expressive ways of animating that are rarely used these days.  

The character design really stands out in the ad – you don’t see relatable glasses of ice very often! What did the character design process look like?

Sami Healy: We were really trying to focus on designing for animation – so taking these characters and making sure that they would really work when we were moving them. There was some back and forth on trying to think about the future, how they would move, and not just look good still.

That was a big focus for us, and wanting to feel something for this cup. So rounding out the corners, making sure that he’s not too sharp. And then what would the limbs even look like? There was a lot of tailoring in that way. How is this appealing, but also how are you going to feel for it?

Multiplane background process shot provided by Hornet.

While watching it, I realized I’ve never felt bad for a cup before.

Sami Healy: I know! Our designers really hit the mark on that. And it was so fun that the faces were on the ices cubes rather than just on the cup. That was something unexpected about it but it’s so fun. I had a lot of fun seeing how people were handling that in the animation. 

Giving the character multiple faces was an interesting choice. You don’t think about it while watching, but it is odd.

Sami Healy: Yeah, that is interesting, watching it back. That is something that you don’t really think about. I guess normally, the face would be on the cup. 

The main character is a semi-transparent glass of ice. How did you achieve that effect?

Sami Healy: That was a conversation between the animators and the compositors. We had to collaborate and make sure we knew what we actually needed to give the compositors. So we brought them on early in the planning phase so we could sort that out.

At one point, the animators were exporting eleven separate layers for just the single cup to make sure that the compositors had enough to work with, so they could put the effects on to achieve the same look. The limbs were separated, whether they were in front or behind the cup, those were separate layers, our lines, highlights… Most of it was just separated out because, if we were to give it flat, they wouldn’t be able to mess with the transparency of the cup. It would be too complicated. 

So giving the compositors that control in the end is what really helped us out. But not every character really needed to have all those layers. It was mainly just the main cup in most of the mid and closeup shots. Especially with the ice cubes – there were transparency differences between the actual cup and the ice cubes, so the cubes were separated as well. Their lines, highlights, fills, and everything. 

And then sometimes, depending on the shot, we would have to add in some more layers. Or we’d reduce how much we were exporting. It was kind of on a shot-by-shot basis, to figure out how to actually separate this cup for the compositors. 

Pose and expression exploration sketches provided by Hornet.

What were the most challenging or most interesting aspects of production?

Sami Healy: Just figuring out how we were going to do this in Harmony was a very interesting challenge for our team. And going through it in a way that is easy to use for anyone that comes on and opens up the setups that we had – which was a combination of using pegs and deformers but also hand-drawn cleanups. So figuring that out, and that R&D process, was really interesting for our team.

There was so much to work with in the story, so many ways that could have gone. It’s not every job that we get to have a character like this. So while that was really exciting, it was a challenge. There’s so many things that you can do within Harmony. So picking out what will work the best was a really fun challenge.

And figuring out certain things – how can we make something procedural, versus what should we do manually? That was a good thing we figured out but it also helped us moving forward. I think a lot of the stuff that we figured out in Harmony on Tractor is going to help us on other jobs.

Sometimes on jobs we’ll have a fully-rigged piece. A job that was had was Capital One, where it was completely rigged. You get into moving around the pieces, and using the deformers and everything. So figuring out on this one that we could use a little bit of both was the most interesting. 

And then seeing how we could create a template for our team, and tailor it to the shot, was really fun. Being able to combine these techniques. And Harmony is so robust that you don’t have to do things one way every time. 

We figured out that we could go off and do these other techniques that maybe we’ve never even tried before. The way that the software expands on tools and techniques that anyone can use is really good for us. It really helps us in the long run. 

That’s the best part for me: seeing how we can evolve by the sort of job that comes in.

Process shot from Escape the Ordinary provided by Hornet, comparing storyboards, rough layout and the final scene.

The backgrounds in Escape the Ordinary are very evocative. 

Sami Healy: Similar to the handling of the characters, we kept the ideas in mind of, “What are you trying to evoke to the audience? What is our character going through on the inside?” And then fitting it – this cup has a very distinct look, and all the other characters are stylized in a way that we wanted to keep consistent with the background as well. 

We wanted to make sure they felt like they were in the world. That was very important. Even when this cup is in an environment that it maybe wouldn’t want to be in, it still fits in it. It doesn’t stick out in a way that you don’t think that it’s definitely a part of this world. 

How would you describe the reaction to the ad so far?

Sami Healy: It’s been well-received. I think this kind of a story, and this more traditional animation look, is not always in every commercial you see. Getting the chance to work on that and for people to see that has been a lot of fun. 

As you were saying – “I didn’t know I could feel for this cup” – I think it has been maybe a surprising feeling that people have had. So that’s been great. 

  • Interested in seeing more refreshing ads from Hornet? Check in on the studio on Instagram, LinkedIn or TikTok.
  • Ready to jump into your next project? Artists can download a 21-day trial of Harmony Premium.

The post Sami Healy on empathizing with beverages in Escape the Ordinary appeared first on Toon Boom Animation.