How Chris Smith made a high-end TV commercial using a single Mac and powerful, affordable software

Bringing a commercial to life using the power of AMD's FirePro, the Mac Pro, Nuke, DaVinci Resolve and The Foundry's NUKE STUDIO.


The world of production has changed - it's a democratised world where anyone can get involved with off-the-shelf tools and software; an unprecedented era of freedom and creativity. Professionals using easy-to-access hardware and software get all the power of a high-spec facility setup in their own home.

Chris Smith of Sugar TV, a Santa Monica and Dallas-based studio focusing on high quality production and directorial projects, needed bleeding edge tools for his work on a commercial for HEB Grocery Stores. Using Apple's Mac Pro, with its dual AMD Fire-Pro GPU cards, alongside NUKE STUDIO and a host of other tools, like Resolve for colour correction and editing, Final Cut Pro X for offline editing, Logic Pro X for sound editing/mixing and MODO for 3D content creation, Smith has found those very tools.

Smith explains Sugar TV has been working on HEB’s Signs campaign for a number of years: "It centres around the visual metaphor of an HEB aisle sign hanging in various parts of the world,” he says, “To show how HEB goes to the source of the best products wherever they may be. Traditionally each Signs spot centers on one topic at a time and is usually finished out at various post houses.

"A few months ago, a few of us thought it would be very cool to tie a lot of the spots together in an anthemic way to encapsulate the broader idea. Since I had a clear idea of what I wanted it to be like, and a new Mac Pro – home to 12 cores, 64GB RAM and dual AMD FirePro D700 GPUs – itching to be challenged, I decided to take this edit on in my home office."

With a mere nine months under the Mac Pro's belt, Smith was able to tackle the entire project with little to no technical limitations, meaning creativity could come to the fore. “HEB is a modest company that really cares about their environment and people they work with,” he explains, “So we carried this philosophy into the making of the spot.”


The creative process

The production process begins months in advance, Smith says, with an agency writer getting to know the real farmers, growers, fishermen and other working professionals who would be featured in the commercial in order to get a first-hand story of what their life and work is like - something that can then be translated into advertising copy.

“The production team and myself carry that philosophy to the shooting process,” Smith says, “We don’t force ‘Hollywood’ onto these real people and places. We come in on a long pre-scout and get to know them personally and how their operation works then retroactively decide how to best tell the story.”

With all of this talent involved, it’s clear where Smith’s priorities as a director and content creator lie: “I personally believe you can never lose sight of human talent,” he says, “Just because you own a camera or a computer or a piece of software doesn’t always mean that you should be the person doing the creation. There are no hard and fast rules anymore. It’s up to each person to find their strengths and use them, but know when to bring in someone else.”

The only real concerns were ones of creativity and productivity. But even that was comfortable, thanks to a longstanding relationship, as Smith says: "What I do love is the history and shorthand we have with the agency creative team. This allows us to be very flexible and trust each other in creating things while reality may change around us."


Testing NUKE STUDIO

A simple understanding in place, all Sugar needed to do was get to filming (Smith also acted as the commercial's director). This, as with all productions, was a multi-faceted effort, but one made much more straightforward thanks to the combined power of the Mac Pro and the powerful AMD Dual Fire Pro cards, plus the beta version of The Foundry’s NUKE STUDIO that he put to the test on this spot.

NUKE STUDIO is a powerful tool for creatives, working both independently and as a team. It combines VFX, editorial and finishing in one application and is really designed to help people work on quick-turnaround projects in ways that simply haven’t been viable before. It allows users to conform, edit, colour-correct, add effects and offers 4K playback all in the same piece of software.

Using the Mac Pro with its dual AMD FirePro cards - alongside NUKE STUDIO - Smith got to work on producing the Signs Anthem spot. It needed to show workers from around Texas going about their jobs as farmers, fishermen and so on, while HEB’s aisle signs floated above them - a combination of real footage and seamless VFX was required.

Smith started working on the Signs Anthem spot in Final Cut Pro X, but once the edit was complete it was the seamlessly transferred over into the NUKE STUDIO app. In fact, the only reason it was done this way is because the beta period for NUKE didn’t start until the project was underway - it could have easily been edited in STUDIO. Other elements were all brought under one roof, with Alexa and Resolve files effortlessly.


Obliterating data in real time

The signs themselves were a big challenge, according to Smith: “I wanted to make those signs look more real than ever and also to 3D track them into the scene for the first time.”

A HEB sign was modelled in CINEMA 4D by Sebastien Florand, a friend of Smith, and imported into NUKE STUDIO. "All within the NUKE environment I could 3D track the shot, move the sign in place where it should be,” he explains. Then by using automatic render layers in AtomKraft - a bridge that allows you to utilise the 3Delight renderer through NUKE's node system - he was able to modify any layers as necessary.

"Once I had established AtomKraft inside of the NUKE workflow," Smith explains, "It became very efficient to just jump to the next shot, do a quick 3D track, hit my NUKE preset of adding in the model with attached materials and node graphs and start placing and adjusting with a new reflection/GI map.

"The thought of doing it the old way of jumping out to a separate 3D app and render passes back in suddenly started to seem cave-man like!"


The power of soft effects

NUKE STUDIO’s editing power is something Smith took good advantage of, even if it was a late addition to the production: "If I had joined the beta a little sooner I would have cut directly inside of NUKE STUDIO,” he says, “It has a nice feature set of edit tools. I know that feature list will grow in the future, but all the basics are there for me to make a cut I’m happy with. And with the HIERO backbone as part of the NUKE STUDIO DNA, it was effortless to bring in an XML from Resolve. Once you’re in NUKE, well, the world’s your oyster!"

Another way in which Smith's HEB project was helped by the combination of the Mac Pro and NUKE STUDIO was through the soft effects, as he explains: "The soft effects performed so well. I kept stacking and stacking them to see at what point it would break the system, but I never did find that point.

"If you ever reach the amount of soft effects that starts taxing the Mac Pro and the AMD FirePro cards then maybe that particular shot should be swapped out!"


Other software used by Smith included The Foundry's MODO, which was used to break up the sign model into different material groups as individual Alembic files. These could then be recreated inside NUKE with full material control, meaning – as Smith says: "No more moving data around once the sign is a NUKE preset build."

With all of this combined power at his fingertips, Smith was understandably impressed with his experience: "It was outstanding. It's so nice to hit render and have 12 blazing fast processors crunch your shot while you take a sip of tea or have dual AMD GPU cards obliterate data in real time.”

Another tool in Smith’s arsenal is Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve color correction and editing suite. Speaking of the power to the AMD GPU’s in his Mac Pro, he notes: “Using DaVinci Resolve - in the past I had to have an external PCI cage with several GPU cards to get okay performance in real time. Now it’s so simple. Simply running Resolve on a Mac Pro is like butter. I don’t even think about how many colour nodes I’m using, I simply stay in the creative moment and colour. I hit 24fps with green lights in a moment.”


Making the dream a reality

"Whether it be fast cutting in Final Cut Pro X or using GPU accelerated nodes in NUKE STUDIO, GPU based colouring in Resolve, or viewport interaction in 3D, the AMD cards in the Mac Pro let me do my favourite thing: forget I have limitations. Staying in a creative moment can be so fragile.

"To me that is the number one thing you have to protect when using hardware and software. Having NUKE STUDIO, where at any stage from the cut to the final node based composite, I’m using one major tool and running it on a machine that simply screams, allows me to just get things done. Less waiting and more doing."