Making Bold Moves (Tech Trends Feature)1 Apr, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong
Defying gravity to showcase the Ford Edge.
You won't expect to come across too many daredevils along the rolling hills and placid lakes of Bloomfield, Michigan—a place where churches outnumber post offices and police stations. So why did J. Walter Thompson, Ford's advertising agency, come here to make a commercial involving a gravity-defying stunt for the new 2007 Ford Edge? Because they'd heard that the talents they needed could be found at Armstrong White (www.armstrong-white.com), a local creative firm credited with pushing a Toyota FJ Cruiser's undercarriage across numerous rugged terrains to prove its maneuverability as well as racing three Chevy Cobalts at high speed to showcase their supercharged engines. Who better than this group of people to drive the Ford Edge on two wheels along the Golden Gate Bridge's suspension cable (figure 1)?
Figure 1. The new Ford Edge climbs the suspension cable of the Golden Gate Bridge in the latest online commercial. The physics-defying stunt is made possible by accurate manufacturing data from Ford, Autodesk 3ds Max and other digital tools.
To accomplish this ambitious driving feat in the real world, Armstrong White would violate numerous ordinances of the Bay Area transit authorities, not to mention the established laws of physics. But Armstrong White's domain is the digital world, a place in which physics is much more cooperative. The firm's 3D artists went to work to recreate the San Francisco cityscape with its famous landmark based on an assortment of public data. Later, they would navigate a 3D model of the Ford Edge through this virtual terrain.
An Industry in Transformation
Mark DeRidder, the CGI (computer-generated imagery) animation director of Armstrong White, graduated from the College of Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan, in 2003. With six years of experience in both 3ds Max and Maya and numerous published reels, he's a seasoned 3D artist in this young industry.
Merging Aesthetics and Engineering
According to Media Daily News, John Felice, general marketing manager of the Ford brand, said that his firm would continue to spend heavily in marketing investment but would be "placing more bets on emerging technol ogy" ("Ford Boosts Media Budget, Emphasizes Digital In Revitalization Plan," http://publications.mediapost.com).
In an interview with Pixel Corps, a guild of professional digital artisans, DeRidder's colleague Bruce Spike, Armstrong White's senior compositor, remarked that "Digital Domain has been hired to do the Ford Edge commercial spot (due in November). You'd be surprised to know how many [cars] are not photographs" ("3D and Compositing for the Ford Edge Launch," http://mderidder.com/pcx1.htm).
By migrating to digital assets, automakers sidestep the bloated film production budgets and the associated logistical headaches. Furthermore, by using the same CAD data from manufacturing in commercial productions, they're able to develop their ad campaigns before physical prototypes are available.
Breaking Down the Ford Edge "Bold Moves" Campaign
Cleaning up Source Data
When he entered the industry, "Rarely would we get the raw [Dassault Systemes] CATIA data [from the client]," DeRidder remembered. "We were usually given a first-round tessellated model [a faceted representation that serves as an approximation of the shape] that is rather junky and bare. It's a bulk file that usually contains all sorts of E-class and C-class surfaces. It takes a lot of work to strip those out to leave behind only A-class surfaces [characterized by a high level of geometric continuity suitable for engineering, manufacturing, simulation and rendering] . . . things are getting better now."
In the Ford Edge project, Digital Image Studios (www.dimage.com), another rendering firm, cleaned up the model and provided the data to Armstrong White in a state ready for import to 3ds Max for surfacing.
There were seven animators involved in this project, DeRidder said, with three working on it full-time. To manage the collaborative workflow, Armstrong White relied on 3ds Max's Xref (external referencing) system, which keeps track of file dependency to let multiple animators work on parts of the same master file.
"A lot of the time, [the auto-maker] is still designing the car as we are developing the commercial," said DeRidder. During the course of this project, Ford modified its design several times, he noted. "Generally, if the basic geometry remains the same, we can just swap out the referenced file. It's not a problem," he added.
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"The [clients'] art directors usually want the scene to be photorealistic, but sales and marketing wants the car to pop," observed DeRidder. The ideal look—the one that satisfies both the art directors' critical eyes and the marketers' promotional needs—lies somewhere between realism and emphatic exuberance. In auto advertisements, the desired outcome often is a glamorized vehicle (achieved through saturated colors) zooming through photorealistic environments.
"One of the greatest challenges was 3D motion blur," said DeRidder. "It's easy to simulate the motion of an object moving in a straight line, but anytime you have a radial distortion, an arc-form distortion, to get that right, you have to do lots of calculation." Though the radial effect is barely noticeable and lasts merely seconds in the final film, the distortion is essential in adding realism to the scene where the Ford Edge barrels through the tunnel leading to the bridge.
To achieve the illusion, the animators generated a vector pass that indicates the direction in which the object is traveling. They used RealSmart Motion Blur, a plug-in from RE:Vision Effects, to complete the touch. With built-in algorithms to track every pixel from one frame to the next, the application offers an easy way to create the desired amount of blur. The product is compatible with programs such as Autodesk Combustion, Adobe After Effects and Apple Shake.
A particularly complex segment of the tunnel scene involves dissolving the exterior of the Ford Edge to reveal the undercarriage (figure 2). For this portion, Armstrong White as able to use the CAD model of the undercarriage, supplied by Ford and then processed by Digital Image Studios.
Figure 2. The complex tunnel scene involves revealing the undercarriage of the vehicle, visible through the car's transparent body.
Kenneth Wong is a former editor of Cadence magazine. As a freelance writer, he explores innovative usage of technology and its implications. E-mail him at Kennethwongsf at earthlink.net.