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September 2014
Issue: September 1, 2006

AGENCY WORLD: BETTER THAN REAL

By: Ken McGorry
LONDON — It's not easy perching a new car atop a rocky crag or arctic glacier or jungle waterfall and making it look beautiful and impressive. That's why advertising folk don't do it much. Until now.

Burrows (www.burrows.info), Ford's UK-based design agency, has recently been exploiting new technology from ARTVPS that provides CG autos not only with convincing-looking reflections and shines, but with the actual 360-degree reflection of a location's real surroundings. That is, the reflections you see in the shiny new Ford are real — only the car is virtual.

This is new stuff, but Burrows has been promoting Fords for a long time. "Burrows has been working with Ford for almost 40 years and is Ford of Europe's agency for designing and producing collateral material, CGI and data and content management for their Website," says Burrows head of operations, Richard Wright. "We work with Ford family clients from Japan to Brazil."

CG Fords have already run in spots on TV here, Wright says. "We recently worked with YandR Toronto to create the Ford Freestyle TV ad featuring rendered images of the vehicles." But is a virtual car a tough sell to the automaker? Wright points out that his design agency also deals with conventional ad agencies and, for Ford's, the convincing was not about how real the CG car would look on TV. "The issues tend to be more about creative control as opposed to realism. They feel, incorrectly, that they will lose creative control. However, this is far from the case as their art directors still direct the image, but via our studio artists."

At SIGGRAPH, ARTVPS showed stills of sleek autos with brilliant reflections from surfaces as mundane as a polished fender to as intricate as a multi-faceted headlamp, a wheel cover or even a chrome Jaguar hood ornament. With ARTVPS's combination of High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDRI) and RenderDrive rendering, you can move around the CG car, creating the sense of a cameraman moving lovingly around his quarry in a showroom.

HOW IT WORKS

"Fundamentally, HDRI is about capturing the complex lighting at a location, studio or stage and then using this data to add realistic lighting to 3D characters, models or props," says Brian Tyler, ARTVPS CEO. "The 3D lighting designer no longer has to simulate or approximate the 3D lighting — it's all done with HDRI-based light. So now anywhere that you can get an HDRI camera, data can be captured and used back in the studio.  We use the Spheron HDR camera, which is a scanning camera, using a 180-degree lens," Tyler says. "The image captured is a true 360 x 180-degree spherical scan of the location and each pixel records about 26 f-stops of brightness capturing all the shadow and the highlight detail needed in a single High Dynamic Range image." The final scanned image can be up to 10,000 x 5,300 pixels. The Spheron HDR camera is not cheap — about $60K. The RenderDrive: $13K. 
It must be rendered

The Burrows shop houses 20 RenderDrives. "We can stripe up to four RenderDrives together to render one image if we are under pressure for timing," says Wright.

Burrows uses a CAD expert "who specializes in data formats and transfers" and is based at a UK Ford site. "We then prepare the data by assembling it, stripping out unwanted elements and applying textures. We model the tires and apply the shaders we created. [Then] we create the scene and camera and then render the image."

RenderDrive, Tyler says, "allows us to throw an enormous number of 'light' rays into a scene to achieve extremely high levels of detail. Secondly, we developed an advanced set of shaders for glass, mirror, metal and many other materials to enable users to accurately model products, vehicles and buildings." He adds that the RenderDrive interface "is extremely easy to use. We don't confront the user with a complex set of controls and optimising tools — we just raytrace the entire image and do it right."

STILL CHOOTING CARS?

"Using HDRI visualization from ARTVPS means photographers and art directors can still go on shoots, but they don't need to take a vehicle," says Tyler. "There will always be a need to shoot cars, but automotive companies are seeing what can be done with 3D visualization in their design department and want to know why they can't get this from their marketing department." 

"It will only be a matter of time before CG models are used in commercials to simulate 'live action,'" says Wright. "We are just finishing an animation for the [Ford] site that uses live models and CG ones. We are already producing stills and animations with challenging content such as snow and puddles."

Still, Tyler feels it's "necessary to convince the industry that 3D HDRI 'photography' is indistinguishable from the real thing. Once that message is understood, we'll see more creative exploitation of this toolset."