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October 2014
Issue: September 1, 2010

Creating Lexus's Interactive Web Film

By: Karen Moltenbrey
At the beginning of the online interactive adventure featurette Dark Ride, a warning pops up on the screen: “The following action is based on fantasy, not reality.” While the plot line makes that seem obvious enough, there is far more to the story than meets the eye.
The film, which can be viewed online (www.lexusdarkride.com), is intended as a marketing piece for the automaker’s new Lexus CT 200h, which will be released early next year. But, it is so much more. In fact, the film — a little more than 12 minutes long — is a high-quality production, shot in high definition. The objective is to pique user interest in the new 200h premium-compact hybrid, touted as the first of its kind. So, what better way to extol the virtues of the car than with a campaign that is a unique hybrid, as well — on more than one level.
The Web movie — which can be viewed at full screen — plays out like a scene from a feature film or game cinematic, with high-octane car chases that unfold during a drive that takes viewers on a trip along a deserted stretch of highway to dark city streets. Yet, integrated into the film are a number of interactive decision points, whereby the viewer is prompted to make choices that will drive the action in a certain direction and even affect the outcome. In a number of scenes, you also have the ability to extend the first-person camera point of view to pan farther to the left or right for a more immersive experience. The filmmakers added even more depth to the narrative by allowing you to insert your picture and voice into the sequences.
From a technical point of view, the featurette was shot live action, with actual actors in the roles of the various characters. The scenery is real, too. What isn’t real, though, is the star of the movie: the Lexus CT 200h. That’s because the car had not yet been manufactured, and an exterior production model was unavailable for this project. So, the decision was made to create the vehicle using computer graphics.

ACTION!

“With Dark Ride, we are creating a unique visual test-drive opportunity so consumers can experience this hybrid [vehicle], which is like no other, months before it is available at dealerships,” says Dave Nordstrom, Lexus vice president of marketing. “In [the movie], consumers play a co-starring role, as the fun-to-drive CT 200h is put through its paces. By guiding the driver and the vehicle through a series of adventures, customers will be exposed to The Darker Side of Green, which is completely different than the way hybrids are usually portrayed.”
Driving the concept and creative direction for this unique film-meets-game experience was Skinny, with James Brown directing. Stink handled the digital production, with Aris McGarry (Gone in Sixty Seconds, Kalifornia) for Stink serving as producer. Speedshape did the visual effects and post production.
Without question, this is not your father’s automobile, nor is it your mother’s advertising/marketing campaign. In addition to combining the thrill of a high-production film with the latest in interactive technology, the movie taps into today’s popular social media and uses the latest computer tools to immerse you in the adventure.
According to Jonas Hallberg, chief creative officer at Skinny, Lexus is positioning this car for a new audience and a new market segment. “They wanted a fresh, new approach to reach this younger audience, compared to what they currently have,” he says. To this end, the carmaker was looking for an innovative way for a young, technology-savvy, progressive audience to experience the CT 200h months before the
vehicle was available to the public.
Before embarking on the mission, you are prompted to link the experience to your Facebook photo (located automatically through under-the-hood technology). You are also asked to pose so your Webcam can snap a photo, and your voice is recorded while answering a handful of questions — all under the guise of providing you with the proper documentation for this mission. Your information is later integrated into the film’s storyline. If you choose not to perform the above tasks, then the experience still progresses, although your handler, who is prepping you, comments on your unwillingness to provide these identification sources. Then, at certain points throughout the drive, personal touches are inserted — for instance, your photo appears on the car’s audio console screen as your voice recording begins — based on the culled information.
Behind the scenes, the personalized imagery and sound are pulled into the film using Adobe’s Flash. Two servers run in the background: one for the film experience and the other for storing the person’s image and recorded lines. Flash is resident on the Lexus site where the experience lives, and calls for the image and recordings as needed.
After the initial prompts, the movie begins — and the action is already in overdrive. You are inside a moving helicopter when the handler’s voice informs you that earlier that day, the opposition has tried to steal the company’s hybrid technology, then asks for help, adding that Tony, an independent driver, has been brought in to assist, too. You are implored to make all the decisions so Tony can concentrate on what he does best, drive, and get the car to Los Angeles in one piece. After this briefing, the helicopter lands, and you make your way to a waiting vehicle. Tony orders you to get in, and with your new partner behind the wheel, you’re off.
“All the stunts were done for real,” says Hallberg of the featurette’s live action.
You also assume a major role in the production, riding shotgun beside Tony (played by actor Norman Reedus) as you head from the Nevada desert to a Los Angeles safe house, trying to protect the car’s trade secrets from several tough guys who want to get their hands on the new prototype.
“You are the hero,” Brown says of the unique nature of the ambitious project, which, to the best of his knowledge, breaks new ground.
Tony, as well as the baddies, look as if they just stepped out of a TV or movie drama. The wise-guy villains project a Sopranos-like attitude. The chase scenes could be straight out of the latest Hollywood action flick, the interactivity from a popular triple-A game title. In fact, the production quality of this Internet piece is on par with those types of projects. That’s because a large portion of the movie was filmed with Red Digital Cinema’s new Red One Mysterium-X HD camera, which was a prototype at the time of the shoot. Smaller Canon cameras were used to capture supporting footage for the visual content in the side mirrors of the car.
Most of the time, the camera in the movie reflects your POV from the passenger seat, allowing you to gaze at all the car’s interior offerings (this is done subtly, as you are focused on your mission) as well as see the action unfolding outside the car. Inside the vehicle, a wider viewing angle lets you pan left or right, akin to actually sitting in the vehicle and turning your head from side to side. Other times in the movie, the camera cuts to a third-person POV, providing a better look at the unfolding scene.

TIME TO DRIVE (AND SHOOT)

The scenes were shot using two different methods over six days. All the vehicles are practical, except for the CT 200h. For the exterior shots on location, cameras were mounted onto a surrogate tracking vehicle that had the same wheelbase and wheel track as the new car. (The stand-in was later replaced with a photoreal computer-generated version of the new Lexus.)
Meanwhile, the interior car shots, including those with Tony, were filmed on a soundstage at Fox Studios against greenscreen using a prototype model of the CT 200h’s interior (situated within a box-like casing), then composited within the live action.
In the film, when you are in the car, you are seeing footage from four different cameras. On location, the surrogate vehicle was out-fitted with a Red camera, which was mounted on the front of the vehicle facing forward. Attached was a 6mm lens for capturing the 210-degree environment the car was traveling in. This footage was later undistorted and merged with Red, 6mm footage captured on the soundstage of the car’s interior.
As Hallberg explains, the 6mm lens was key, as it enabled DP Claudio Miranda (Oscar nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and DP for the upcoming TRON: Legacy) to capture a 210-degree scene, basically “seeing” slightly behind itself. Another big factor was the Red Mysterium-X camera itself: “It was the bomb!” says Brown.
“We spent a lot of time up-front trying to figure out how to look around inside the car and still have good-quality imagery,” says Hallberg. “We only had a few days before the shoot when we found the Red camera — this is a brand-new one that makes it easier to shoot in low light, which allowed us to have a 6mm lens and still get sufficient light for our shoot. We didn’t need any [additional] exterior lighting.”
In post, the crew “undistorted” the footage shot with the 6mm lenses. Then, the 6mm Red footage from the front bumper was blended with the 6mm Red footage from the soundstage. (The soundstage cameras were situated at head level, where a passenger would be seated, so when you are sitting inside the car in the featurette, you can see the interior of the car and the action outside.) “All the POV segments were done with the 6mm lens, says Connor Meechan, VFX supervisor from Speedshape.
Two additional Red cameras captured the action from various angles as the surrogate car travels through the locations. Two Canon cameras, meanwhile, were mounted on the side rearview mirrors looking backward; that footage was later used in the rearview mirrors. The Canons were later tilted upward to capture the light sources on the set; this was then used to project the light back onto the interior model on the soundstage. On the greenscreen stage, the imagery that was recorded on location was projected back over a screen fastened horizontally over the interior model.
“We effectively lit the car in the studio with a projection of the real, existing lights on location. Consequently, it all matches and looks great,” says Brown. “We wanted people to feel like it was the real thing.”
Of course, pulling this switcheroo would not have been possible without the photo-realistic car model. “The model couldn’t be too perfect or it would look like it was created in CG and not belong in the environment,” Hallberg notes.

CAR TALK

Speedshape was the driving force behind the digital vehicle. Rather than model the vehicle, the artists there acquired the actual CAD data for the car and used their proprietary tool to tessellate it. In addition, they utilized Autodesk’s 3DS Max for the animation, texturing and lighting. Also part of the pipeline was the Chaos Group’s V-Ray render engine, The Foundry’s Nuke for compositing, and Assimilate’s Scratch for the DI and color. Finishing was done in Autodesk’s Flame.
“The challenge for us was to get all the imagery through and not have it look CG — the level of quality had to be such that people could not tell whether it was digital or not,” says Meechan. “We do this type of work all the time, but had to take it up a notch for this.”
Ambient lighting for the scene was captured on location using HDRI spherical panoramas.
“We’ve been working with the auto industry for many years, and we have developed a process whereby we can import the raw CAD data and clean the surface, taking all the heavy stuff from the back and tessellating the front surface, which is what we use for rendering and animation,” explains Meechan. “We also have built an extensive library of paint shaders over the years.”
While Speedshape’s pipeline is well tuned to handle hard, shiny objects, it wasn’t quite ready for the Red introduction. “The Mysterium-X Red camera was new — it wasn’t even available yet — so it took a bit of doing to integrate the latest build into our pipeline,” Meechan adds. “Assimilate gave us a hand with that.”
In order to seamlessly insert the CG into the scene, the crew at Speedshape used The Pixel Farm’s PFTrack for 3D camera tracking and matchmoving.
Ilya Astrakan, CG supervisor at Speedshape, developed special tracking markers, built from LED pucks and Styrofoam balls, which were placed on the stand-in vehicle. “The shoot was at dusk, magic hour, and a lot of the conventional tracking markers do not work well in low-light situations like that,” Meechan explains. Moreover, time was tight between takes, so they didn’t have the ability to swap out tracking markers when shooting the wide and tight shots of the vehicle. “The markers had to support all types of shots,” he adds.
For the close-ups, a black cross was added to the marker, so when the vehicle was close in the frame, the exposure of the LED marker would blow out and become too large, and the tracking software would lock onto the Xs in the white background.
In all, Meechan estimates that 90 percent of the shots were tracked. In addition, there were some fully animated shots. One of these occurs two-thirds of the way through the featurette, in the tunnel, when Tony drives up on the curve while seemingly trapped. “They didn’t want the stunt guys to do it because it was a bit dangerous, so we did the scene in 3D,” he says.

FINAL TOUCHES

Editing was done on Avids by Stink personnel at the Speedshape offices in Los Angeles. Not surprising, editing this was different from editing a typical movie, says Hallberg. “Usually you have one linear story, but here you have a number of tracks,” he says. As Brown notes, everyone who experiences the film has a varied adventure. “That makes it different as a film, but also as an editing experience. You [the viewer] are effectively editing it yourself,” he adds.
The group took the process one step at a time, editing the linear segments and then, at each interactive moment, editing the three versions (which are dependent on what the viewer chooses to do). The overall length of the film varies based on how fast the viewer makes those interactive decisions.
“We don’t know when you are going to click and what you will click (for choices), so we needed to load a lot of different assets, even though some of them will not be used based on your decisions. We had to find a way to do that and not lose bandwidth,” says Hallberg. “It was a technical challenge, but I think we managed. The film will run fine as long as you have a sufficient bandwidth connection.”
Unquestionably, the spot is new and geared for today’s driver. Yet, the starting point, according to Hallberg, was not determined by what was new. “Lexus explained that this was the first fun-to-drive luxury hybrid, and we wanted to focus on the ‘fun to drive’ aspect first and the hybrid second,” he says. “Because the car was not made yet, we wondered, ‘How could we give you a driving experience, when you cannot drive it yet?’ We wanted viewers to feel the fun of the drive, so we put them in the navigator’s seat and let Tony, a professional, handle things.”
And he definitely takes viewers on a thrilling ride. And while the experience is exciting for the viewer, it was an even wilder ride for the production and VFX crews.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor for Post's sister publication, Computer Graphics World.