A Flood of Plastic in 3D

Method & Madness on the making of Greenpeace’s Wasteminster: A Downing Street Disaster.
By Helena Corvin-Swahn

Wasteminster: A Downing Street Disaster is a two-minute animated satire with a serious message about what would happen if the 1.8 million kilograms of plastic waste exported by the United Kingdom every day was dumped on Downing Street. Instead. Blending meticulously crafted environments with a tight narrative and political theatre, the campaign spot for Greenpeace was directed by Jorik Dozy and Sil Van Der Woerd of Studio Birthplace in collaboration with CGI partner Method & Madness (MNM).

Meant to raise awareness of the fact that less than 10 percent of the UK’s recycling is actually recycled in the UK, the video was made using 3ds Max, ZBrush, Maya, Substance Painter, tyFlow and Redshift. To help make clear the magnitude of the problem, the team created a digital replica of Downing Street using satellite imagery and a library of reference photographs. MNM mainly relied on tyflow to show what 1.8 million kilograms of moving plastic waste would look like.

Attracting 6 million views in the five days after it was released, Wasteminster: A Downing Street Disaster has made headlines around the world. We talked with Method & Madness EP & Founder Tan Wen Hao and CG Director Alex Scollay about the complex project, which was handled remotely due to the pandemic.

Describe Method & Madness.

Wenhao: We are a creative production studio headquartered in Singapore. We’re hyperfocused on commercials executed through CG & film, and our ideal projects involve collaboration from creating the director’s treatment all the way through production to post production and final delivery. Wasteminster really exemplifies our approach and we’re now looking to build on that success.

We are Method & Madness because of how we approach CG & film projects. Method refers to how we apply both traditional and cutting-edge tools and techniques to original concepts to retain a natural touch. Madness is about retaining the creativity that CG often loses through its technical process, which we’ve dubbed ‘creative friction.’ We embrace new tech, like virtual camera production, as well as Unreal to solve various challenges.

Tell us about your background and roles in the Wasteminster project.

Wenhao: I started as a CG artist myself and have been running my CG studio for over 15 years. I’ve worked on projects for clients, such as Apple, Razer, Sephora and Lenovo, as well as most of the creative agencies, including Ogilvy and TBWA. Before founding MNM, I started an advertising agency that could develop ideas, as well as produce them. That’s now our parent company.

My focus has always been about developing good ideas while also having the knowledge and experience to ensure what we sign off on can stay true during production. Craft is extremely important to us, and we believe that developing creativity and production together helps retain, compliment and elevate creative ideas. It’s like having an engineer and designer working together and constantly pushing each other.

This project was a lot about reading the room and the artists, knowing when to step in or leave the artists to it and let things run. Alex is to us like a Navy Seal; the way he troubleshoots and problem solves is not a straight line, and that is one of his strengths. I coordinated the other artists and navigated the team through this ambitious project, assigning work based on anticipated challenges.

Scollay: I’m originally from New Zealand, but started my career in Australia where I worked in VFX for Animal Logic in Sydney, before moving to Los Angeles to work on features. A few years later I moved to New York where I freelanced in advertising and TV before moving to ILM Singapore. I liked what Wen Hao wanted to do with MNM, so I joined the team three years ago.

I’ve worked on blockbuster films, like Alice in Wonderland, Superman Returns, Star Wars, Ready Player One, as well as commercials. My role as CG director is to use all of that experience to achieve the same cinematic quality with a smaller setup and more agile team. For Wasteminster, I briefed the artists, directed the tech and creative and worked with the team and Jorik Dozy to find the best approach to the different challenges.

How did Method & Madness get this project?

Scollay: We’ve worked with Studio Birthplace on previous projects, and Jorik and I worked together at ILM Singapore. Around the time I left ILM, Jorik was signed as a director at Park Village, and he continued to use me for CG. Park Village co-produced Wasteminster and represented the directors.

Today, MNM works with Studio Birthplace as an R&D department, and we did a short experimental animation visualizing waste plastic a year ago. So, when Wasteminster came along, we were chosen as the CG lead on the project, delivering all aspects, from modeling to final renders.

Walk us through your workflow for Wasteminster.

Scollay: We developed a seamless workflow system that allowed us to work remotely with our artists, so we could actively exchange over 2.4 terabytes of data, using a decentralized mesh network. Jorik is based in Singapore, so we worked closely, and the process was very fluid.

We would often play around with the virtual set, so it was a very collaborative project, like jamming with friends. I handled the type flow, simulations, modeling the trash and designing the pipeline. I built most of the assets for the previous R&D project with Studio Birthplace, which informed the trash in Wasteminster. So this time, with a larger crew, I briefed and directed them in terms of tech and creative. The crew handled building the Downing Street buildings and all of the characters, shading and modeling.

How does Redshift fit into your workflow?

Wenhao: Redshift lets us visualize shots quickly and jump between look dev and filming, which helps us break that assembly-line process and work more responsively to get the right look and feel for the shot. We also do extensive planning through previz to lock down the creative and technical approaches at the outset.

Scollay: Working on big Hollywood feature films, you realize that CG isn’t always as fun as it could be. The speed and ease of Redshift just brings the fun and creativity back. And Redshift was essential because of how well it integrates with tyFlow and how it worked with the transparency of the plastic. For example, it has added hooks for Redshift integration that support the poly count and can generate massive renders. Redshift was able to render giant piles of plastic so fast that it was a real game changer for us. The look was also more artistic.

Talk about how you created that enormous amount of plastic trash.

Scollay: Greenpeace and Studio Birthplace researched the most common items that make up plastic waste and came up with 150 different things, mostly household items, including plastic shopping bags, pieces of Styrofoam, Coca-Cola bottles, detergent bottles, snack food bags, take-away food containers and coffee cups.

In most cases, we bought existing 3D models and cleaned them up to get them looking right for our project. We made crushed or damaged versions of many items to add to the realism and visual variety. In some cases, like for the plastic bags, we procedurally generated about 50 different versions using 3ds Max. After modeling, the first major challenge was to get the plastic to look realistic. That took quite a bit of time to R&D and Redshift was invaluable to get the transparency right.

Describe how you created the Downing Street replica and mannequins.

Scollay: We carefully studied Google satellite imagery to build an exact digital replica of Downing Street, especially Number 10 and 11. Substance Painter was used for most of the texture work, except for the hero assets. Those needed a much higher resolution than the software could handle, so we approached that procedurally and traditionally, using Redshift’s curvature, AO and triplanar maps combined with Megascans textures.

Scollay: Our 3D modeler gathered reference images of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove and sculpted versions of them in ZBrush, followed by texturing in Substance Painter. The biggest challenge was to get the right likeness, and it took a few iterations to achieve the perfect balance of immediately recognizable features and awkward, inanimate mannequins. At the same time a carefully plotted previsualization was put together to understand the performance required of the plastic simulations.

What was involved in making and directing the mountain of trash?

Wenhao: Jorik developed a concept for representing numbers and statistics about trash, and Alex explored how to use tyflow to visualize that, building a whole pipeline that informed our approach to Wasteminster’s trash mountain.

Scollay: We built a custom VR camera rig based around the VCAT VR camera system developed by MARUI Plugin systems. That allowed us to attach an Oculus Rift VR headset to a professional camera mount so the directors could physically hand-operate a real camera in a virtual-reality set. The handheld feel of the camerawork lends a human perspective to the animation, allowing the viewer to feel part of the action, experiencing the flow of trash more organically and realistically.

Everyone wanted to be accurate in the amount of plastic represented, so we digitally replicated 1.8 million kilograms, or 67.7 million plastic waste items, into a CG simulation. I saw the trash as an actor, not as a simulation, and directed it on a shot-by-shot basis. We began by defining the actual size of the daily pile of plastic waste and combined 1,000 plastic items into a single, large ball.

I dropped 67,700 of those balls onto our digital Downing Street set, giving us a realistic representation of the actual daily volume of uncompressed waste. We used tyFlow for the particle simulations of the plastic waste to create the avalanche effect engulfing the politicians.

Next, we matched the intensity of the waste avalanche effect with the volume of the politicians’ speeches to bring to life the stark contrasts and irony between the environment’s reality and empty political promises. Final renders were touched up with various photographic techniques by our compositor.

What’s next for MNM?

Wenhao: To create more campaign commercials that stand out with seamless film and CG craft on a global level while retaining the soul of the idea. We intend to do that by continuously developing our workflow and pipeline to blend analog and digital worlds so more of our film production crew can be side by side with our 3D artists during production. We will continue to work closely with creative directors and producers at creative agencies globally to help them escalate their ideas to the point where they say ‘We can do that? You must be mad!’

Helena Corvin-Swahn is a freelance writer in the United Kingdom.