Man-eating sharks turn cuddly in a new campaign for La Quinta. Filmworkers and Churchill Studio provided the inspired CG magic for Swim in which a businessman is dropped into a dive tank filled with blood-thirsty sea creatures. The campaign was conceived by DDB Chicago, and directed by David McNally of CoMPANY Films.

The man finds himself underwater after giving a business pitch, made with the aid of La Quinta’s faster Wi-Fi service, to a roomful of skeptical executives. They open a trap door beneath his feet to see if he’s ready to “swim with the sharks.” Turns out, he is. The man cavorts playfully with the ravenous creatures, even clasping one in an affectionate bear hug.

Although they look remarkably real, the sharks are a hundred percent CG, produced by Filmworkers visual effects boutique Churchill Studios. Rob Churchill acted as Visual Effects Supervisor on the set during production and in post, overseeing a team of animators and compositors at Filmworkers in Chicago.

Live action elements were shot by McNally and CoMPANY Films at a vacant office building in Los Angeles and in a large dive tank located outside the city. The actor playing the businessman was aided in the tank by a pair of off-camera professional divers.

In preparation for the shoot, Churchill created an animated previsualization of the swimming sections. McNally and his production team used it as a planning tool. “We blocked out all the action in the tank so that we could work as efficiently as possible on the shoot day,” McNally explains. “Even though the actor was an excellent swimmer, we knew he would tire quickly. We needed to know what camera lenses we were going to use, what distance we would be from the subject, etc.”

Collaborating remotely over a direct internet connection, McNally worked with Churchill and his animation team to choreograph both the actor’s performance and the movement of the CG sharks. “It’s uncanny how close the previsualization was to the finished spot,” the director says. “For pretty much anything we wanted to do, Rob and his team had a solution. That gave us the flexibility we needed to get the very best performance.”

“We had fun experimenting with different shark and diver routines,” adds Churchill. “There are certain keys to animating for realism in a character.  One is the illusion of weight, the other is doing your homework, researching your subject before you ever sit down to animate inside the computer.” 

The final results are stunning and, as the commercial proceeds, the sharks turn playful.  “You see it in the way they tilt their heads or nod at the guy as they swim past,” Churchill notes.  “There’s a version of the spot where the sharks and diver perform a synchronized swim routine.  They become his playful underwater buddies.”

Senior Art Director Daniel Pernikoff led a look development team that helped make the underwater scenes appear unified and visually compelling.  “We isolated the diver and replaced the original water with CG water that we could stylize,” he explains.  “This gave us complete control to sculpt the scene with schools of fish, bubbles, suspended particulate, and light play that shimmers through the water.”

Along with Swim, the campaign includes several 15-second sequels that will air exclusively on Hulu. Those spots continue the man’s adventure with his toothy friends. Churchill wishes there were even more. “Working on this campaign was a ton of fun.”

Filmworkers is located at 232 E. Ohio St. Penthouse, Chicago, IL 60611. For more information, call (312) 664-9333 or visit