Neural rendering technology shows young Messi in Mastercard film

Mastercard's spot featuring a de-aged version of the football superstar begs the question: 'What's Priceless to You?'
Work May 19, 2022

As UEFA’s Champion’s Leagues men’s final approaches, Mastercard celebrates its sponsorship with a moving film featuring a de-aged version of football legend Lionel Messi.

In the film, Messi reflects on his voyage from Argentina to Spain in 2000 when he left home to launch his football career. In a decisive moment, past and present versions of himself meet: “I love football,” young Messi declares during the encounter, to which his future self replies, “I do too.”

In collaboration with director Peter Thwaites at The Corner Shop and agency McCann, our team of VFX specialists, led by Creative Director Matt Pascuzzi, utilized “neural rendering” technology, an AI-based technique, to craft teenage Messi. This spot marks the first time this proprietary VFX process has been used in a commercial – pioneered by The Mill’s VFX Supervisor, Thiago Porto.

Neural rendering is an entirely new VFX method using zero CGI, and instead, a synthetic Render is developed using artificial intelligence. This process involves feeding data to an AI Neural Network in the form of, thousands of references of young Messi. Numerous photo and video data of his likeness and movements were fed to the AI, with the addition of video captured of child actors with his likeness. The AI was then able to use this data to generate the final digital image (Synthetic Render) we see in the commercial. Once our VFX team created this Synthetic Render of Messi, it was passed on to our compositing team who integrated it into the live-action shots. Topping off the film is a colour grade by Mill colourist Mark Gethin.

“From the very first phone calls we had with director Peter Thwaites and the creative team at McCann, we knew we were going to have to push ourselves and this technology further than had been ever accomplished previously. We needed to get close enough to our subject so the audience can read all that lovely emotion, and have all that clarity and performance fidelity clearly visible. We also wanted to give Peter and DP Marcel Zyskind the freedom to frame and shoot this spot how they best saw fit to tell this story, so we were sometimes dealing with angles where this technology had never been used or tested before. It's such a rarity to be involved in a project of this nature where we get to challenge not only the technology but also ourselves as a team of artists, and work in such a positive and collaborative way with both production and agency every step of the way.”
-Matt Pascuzzi, Creative Director
“The beauty of this spot is that we were able to break through the limitations of neural rendering and convey premium emotional expression and realism in a synthetic human. AI-machine learning visual effects is still in its early stages in terms of high-end finishing. As the technology is refined and adapted to further push creative boundaries and enhance storytelling, the Young Lionel Messi crafted for this ad will be known as one of the first to accomplish high-quality synthetic human emotion that resonates with audiences.”
-Thiago Porto, VFX Supervisor

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