Cars are one of the most influential consumer products of our time. And by extension, perhaps the most influential designs we’ll ever come into contact with. They reflect the zeitgeist of society at a given time, as well as drive it forward.
The pointy, rocket-shaped cars of the 50s and the 60s, reflected an optimistic time when we were dreaming of space travel and the world was looking toward the skies. And Giugiaro’s design for the original VW Golf created an entirely new class of travel that remains with us to this day.
Representing cars accurately in the CG world is a magical and complex endeavour
Every compound curve or bodyline on a car has been thought about and anguished over by car designers and engineers. They serve an aesthetic purpose as well as a functional one in many cases. But they also serve to give a car its personality.
Our job as VFX artists is not only to recreate all the nuanced details accurately but to find the emotional connection with the car.
Through CG modelling and shading and the subtle (or bold) application of light and shadow, we endeavour to make each creation dazzle the senses – and reveal the soul of the machine.
The case for CGI
Before we had the sophisticated technology and computers that we have today, car commercials were obviously created using real cars. But there were a few drawbacks that limited the creative freedom of directors.
The forces of gravity and the laws of physics really limited just how outrageous we could be. It was difficult to find new and fresh approaches to shooting the same pieces of rolling metal. Vehicles and drivers could not be put in situations that were physically dangerous. A car could only be driven so fast or ramped so high off the ground without destroying it.
Of course, there was no way to see the skeleton, or framework of the car, or change its colour, or shape while it was speeding along. Or fly in one end of the car and out the other. All of these are now considered pretty basic and ordinary functions in the world of CG.
Nowadays we’re literally borrowing shots from the big Hollywood blockbusters. If we want a car to behave like a fighter jet and break the sound barrier while buzzing the flight control tower, we have the ability to do so. Virtually, of course.
Shooting real cars is still widely done in the film industry, and we suggest that the best results are a combination of live action and CGI
Because of the high production values that we are used to seeing, top-end live-action shoots call for a great deal of postproduction work following the actual shoot.
Inevitably, there will be multiple touch-ups and fixes needing to be done. Shiny bits will need to be added where needed, or glints painted in to accentuate the lines of the vehicle. Skies might need to be enhanced or replaced. Reflections of the camera, crew and unwanted elements from the environment will need to be removed. Often the footage is cropped, reframed, or otherwise manipulated in some way to get the best composition. In the modern ecosystem, with modern expectations of visual quality, there simply just is no getting away from it.
CGI is used to augment the production process in cases where stand-in cars or even fibreglass models are used and then replaced with computer-generated hero vehicles. Reasons for this approach might be that the car in question has not yet been officially launched at the time of the shooting, or embargoed for some reason, and cannot be seen in public areas. Or if there’s only a single prototype that’s far too valuable to risk giving to a film crew.
With CG, anything’s possible. We can show a car forming itself from a million deconstructed parts and coalescing around the driver as they drive. Or morphing into the Batmobile. Heck, you can set the action on the moon, if you choose to do so.
A car might speed backwards out of the back of a moving truck, or descend from a helicopter, or drive out of the sea onto a beach (now where have we seen that before).
Modern rendering engines (like Unreal) allow directors to blend CG cars into live-action plates in real-time, which as you can imagine, has really changed what’s possible “on set.” On top of that, we can add lens flare, change shutter angles, focus, depth of field, and even lenses – all on the fly. We can simulate camera-shake, motion blur and other real-world anomalies that add to the verisimilitude of the shot. The idea is that a director can explore multiple different creative choices as they work.
Finally, CG cars have the potential to look as real, or hyper-real, as we want them to. Often, part of our job is to add little imperfections and dirt to the CG models in order to make them fit into the environment. These decisions are made collectively by the director of the shoot, the client, and with input from us.
The rise of virtual cars
As we have said a few paragraphs ago, the best work is when live-action and CG come together.
Mapping CG cars onto live-action plates still offers great results where specific cityscapes or environments are concerned. And there are certain parts of the car that are still difficult to achieve – the wheels, for example, can be tricky.
One of the more interesting developments we’ve seen in recent times is called the Blackbird. It was developed by The Mill and has been described as a “motion capture for cars.” It’s really a specially built, drivable frame with wheels that clever VFX artists can “skin” with any car you can imagine.
It has an adjustable wheelbase, adjustable suspension and adjustable width, which means it can take on the exact proportions of any car its operators desire and behave on the ground in the way the real version of the car would do. Oh, and of course, you can install whatever rims and tyres you need to complete the look.
A 360-degree camera on top of the rig captures the environment to be mapped back onto the car as reflections and shadows, and we believe it even has a LiDAR scanner which can scan the environment and recreate it in 3D as a reference for wizards, like us, who put the final film together.
On-set virtual production a.k.a. Volume Technology
The flip side to using virtual cars is to use a relatively new technological approach known as Volume Technology.
Here the live action is shot against a giant 360-degree, seamless soundstage made of LED panels that display the story world around the actors as they act. Hence the name “volume,” since the whole structure is an enormous volume in which the movie is shot.
The advantage of this technology is that the process is more immersive for the actors, directors and crew, with the action and environments being captured in camera, rather than being composited in later.
This approach is useful for many reasons, but perhaps one that follows on from a previous thought in this article is that of secrecy. An unreleased model can be shot without the danger of being seen by unwanted eyes.
Where does Dazzle Pictures fit into all of this?
Our role in the car film ecosystem exists on a scale from full-blown consultant to VFX supplier, getting involved as early as possible, or as late as needed. This obviously depends on the job at hand.
We may work with a director who has a very clear idea of what they want and what’s possible (or not) in the world of high-end VFX. In which case we are there to deliver on that vision.
Or we may be brought in from the beginning to help develop a storyline, based on what we feel is possible given a determined budget, timeline, and technology.
Our job is the same no matter where we fit into the process – and that's to use our skillset, experience, and know-how to offer creative solutions that deliver high-end results and the magic our clients have come to expect from us.
On one of our projects for Mercedes-Benz, we were closely cooperating with the production company and the director to produce an entire commercial for the G-Class SUV. One of the conversations that we had with our client was how to visualise the colour of the vehicle in the video space. They even sent us actual paint swatches.
In the end, we created a stylized interpretation of the car, including the magical decision of just what level of realism was ultimately needed.
The commercial can be found here.
Here’s a bit of trivia – there is even a pasta designed by Giugiaro, the Marille. Its shape is reminiscent of the cross-section of a car door rubber sealing gasket.
Finally, we thought we’d end with some interesting facts that we found on the Interwebs about car advertising.
The most expensive car commercial of all time was Chrysler’s 2011 “Imported from Detroit” Superbowl ad, featuring Eminem, and is reported to have cost some $12 million.
The world's first-ever car ad was apparently for a horseless carriage made by the Winton Motor Carriage Company, all the way back in 1898.
Honda’s 2003 ad, The Cog, owns the record for the highest number of takes, at 606; see it here.
The weirdest car ad featuring Grace Jones was this one for Citroën.
One of the first ads for an electric car, for Nissan’s leaf; check it out here.