How to brand a product that doesn't yet exist: 5 pro tips

VFX studio Brewster Parsons reveals how they branded a new generation of ships before they'd actually been built.

At a VIP media event in New York City last April, Royal Caribbean International introduced the world to its spectacular new generation of Quantum-class cruise ships. As shown in a cinematic short film and visually breathtaking photographic imagery, the first-in-its-class Quantum of the Seas cruise ship will offer 16 decks' worth of game-changing 'firsts at sea' to a total of 4,180 guests.

Even though the actual Quantum of the Seas was still under construction and not set to sail until the autumn this year, Royal Caribbean wanted travel agents and travellers to start getting excited about the new ship as soon as possible.

To achieve that, it turned to media and marketing services company Mindshare to create the groundbreaking short Experience Quantum of the Seas. The resulting eight-minute HD film stars many Hollywood celebrities, and thanks to Brewster Parsons' VFX studio, the same 3D animation and VFX approach pioneered by James Cameron for Avatar.

Here, Brewster Parsons VFX supervisor Andrew Eksner and VFX producer Alex Thiesen detail five things that went right to fulfil the brand's ambitions for a momentous project that helped them get people around the world excited to book their vacations of the future.

01. Great partners, working relationships and a clear plan

Soon after our briefing with Royal Caribbean and Mindshare's David Lang, we began to conceptually walk through an unbuilt ship and set up shots that would showcase all the most exciting features of the new ship.

Because it wasn't yet built, we were in constant contact with Royal Caribbean's design team and as it got closer to the April VIP media event, we were able to tailor the script and initial renders to include the best aspects they had to offer and figure out how best to present them in the context of our story.

Many of those features – such as the new skydiving experience, the North Star engineering marvel, and the large variety of staterooms – were very challenging to envision effectively. Fortunately, our relationships with the client and the agency couldn’t have been better.

02. Sophisticated high-tech production approach

On soundstages in Hollywood and New York, we shot with actors using RED ONE and Arri Alexa digital camera systems and using CAD data, VFX artistry and our main 3D software tools, we were able to create the ship, ocean and environment, and marry everything together seamlessly to show the ship at sea and present its key features in extraordinary detail.

One reason the result looks so real is due to our use of the Previzion pre- visualisation system from Lightcraft Technology, which allowed everyone on the green screen set see what the inside of the ship would look like just by looking up at a monitor. Previzion not only let us do all of our real-time virtual set rendering and tracking, but by using the tracking data we'd gathered, we could build seamless set extensions for all of the practical set pieces.

"We wanted to add people into the computer-generated ship. We shot people on stage, tracked the camera in real-time and used that data to create matching, fully computer-generated backgrounds," says Eksner

03. Combining hybrid and off-the-shelf solutions to maximise workflows

Knowing that one big challenge would be coordinating the large team of artists working on modelling, lighting, animation, look development and compositing – all of which would happen simultaneously – we developed some new Python tools in-house to handle scene building and publishing.

Compositing and finishing were all done in Flame and Flare using the same EXR-based linear workflow. We always rendered a basic set of mattes and passes into the EXR channels, but we also insisted that the beauty render should be good enough to comp on, so we generally just comped on top of beauty renders using the additional channels to clean up rendering artefacts and bring out extra details.

Also, one of the reasons we chose to use the Alexa and RED ONE camera systems on the set is because the footage is always a pleasure to work with, which makes pulling keys and maintaining skintone a joy.

The team shot live action footage of actors on green screen, which was then taken into post and comped into CG scenes. The final result accomplished, the scene shows real people playing in a lifelike CG room

04. Streamlined workflow and new lighting solutions

As other core facets of the pipeline, our lighting TDs developed lighting environments in mental ray for Maya. With mental ray's render proxies, we were able to instance-in thousands of pieces of furniture without creating huge scene files, and that was a major timesaver in the project.

Water was the biggest question mark for all of us – we all wanted to avoid huge simulations. We ended up primarily using a shader-based solution, using the Houdini Ocean Toolkit as our foundation, which also streamlined our pipeline.

With the goal of avoiding huge simulations, the Brewster Parsons team used a shader-based solution for water with Houdini Ocean Toolkit

05. An interesting story, very well told

On 16 April, 2013 the real-life royalty of Royal Caribbean lined up to tell the public about Quantum of the Seas, in order to ignite a global media response and inspire the imaginations of future customers – and the world responded.

Royal Caribbean Cruises chairman and CEO Richard D Fain and Royal Caribbean International president and CEO Adam Goldstein joined forces with celebrity spokespeople to tout the new ships, and our cinematic content and imagery did the rest.

Lessons learned

As a result of this collaboration with Mindshare Entertainment and Royal Caribbean's promotional expertise, Quantum of the Seas is expected to sell out well before it sets sail from the New York area in autumn 2014 for its maiden voyage.

If that happens, it's sure to stem from the buzz generated through wide television coverage and feature stories in the likes of Conde Nast Traveler, Yahoo Travel and Fodors, all of which featured Brewster Parsons' content. Importantly, the project also earned the attention of Adweek's editors, who called it a "star- studded eight-minute commercial".

Back before our assignment began, one very daunting problem we faced was knowing that the ship we were supposed to present to the world did not yet exist. In fact, some portions of the ship had not yet even been fully designed, so we had to work with the client to get creative licence for those areas, especially in terms of decor.

Many features – like the variety of staterooms – were challenging to envision effectively, due to the film being made as the ship was being fitted

We worked together to handle these aspects of design in the spirit of the ship's look and feel, and we knew that our expertise with sophisticated production, animation and visual effects approaches would see us through, as long as we could get what we needed from our clients. Fortunately, the information flow was optimal, and because of this many people are very excited about booking a cruise on the Quantum of the Seas.

For our part, we are thrilled to have helped fulfil Royal Caribbean’s overall goal to 'wow' their future guests.

This article originally appeared in 3D World issue 176.

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