CULVER CITY, CA — VFX company Zoic Studios used its ZEUS (Zoic Environmental Unification System) for the first time recently on an automotive industry commercial for the new “Prius Kingdom.”
To execute a vision first described by the VFX firm’s client, agency interTrend Communications (the Asian-American marketing agency of record for Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc.) as “a golf course on Pandora,” Zoic Studios used its proprietary ZEUS technology to realize a spectacular, panoramic all-virtual environment for the spot on a relatively small greenscreen stage. ZEUS, Zoic Studio’s previsualization process, combines the benefits of realtime compositing with an integrated editorial and CG pipeline.
Revolutionizing the approach to visual effects, ZEUS provides real-time camera tracking and rendering of the virtual environments on set, bringing unprecedented creative flexibility for the cast and crew working on the greenscreen stage. Heavily used on popular episodic series, including Once Upon a Time, Pan Am and V, the real-time feedback from ZEUS delivers never-before-seen set capabilities and film-quality effects on a television budget and schedule.
The creative represented a collaborative effort between interTrend, its long-time multi-cultural production partner Rival Pictures/ LFP, and director Rob Feng, who worked closely with agency creative lead Eugene Kim to set the stage for the highly stylized Prius Kingdom: a family team of “pri-ologists” who traverse through a wilderness in search of an evolved new species. As they emerge into a vast, eye-popping clearing, they spot the four new Prius models grazing in the wild—the roomy “v,” sporty “c,” and efficient “Plug-in”—driving alongside the familiar Prius “Liftback.” As the cars make a rare stop at a refueling pump, the family gives chase to discover many new Prius features.
Amid rolling green hills, red wildflowers, and whimsical bonsai-like trees, each Prius model is showcased against a backdrop of white-cliffed palisades and cascading waterfalls. “Prius: Kingdom” can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ya99UBolpGQ
“The concept was layered and rich, and the visuals needed to tell the story had to be unlike anything we were used to seeing,” said Rival/LFP’s executive producer Frank Mele. “To execute, we had to step outside of the box, and we knew Zoic would be a perfect partner to help create them.”
“ZEUS changes the equation for productions large and small, allowing realistic virtual environments to be quickly created to meet budgets as well as timeframes associated with commercials and episodic work,” said Chris Jones, executive creative director and co-founder of Zoic Studios; he also served as co-executive creative director for the spot. “When Rob laid out his vision for ‘Prius Kingdom,’ we knew ZEUS was the answer, transforming his stylized ideas into reality. We’re thrilled to employ ZEUS for the first time in an automotive spot for Toyota.”
The ZEUS Shoot – Adapting for Automotive Work
For budget purposes, the decision was made to shoot the commercial on the Universal Virtual Stage (UVS-1) at Universal Studios, a facility that Zoic helped to develop. An immersive, three-wall greenscreen “smart stage,” UVS-1 allowed for a cost-effective alternative to prepping, pre-lighting, and configuring the camera from scratch at another stage.
Executive Creative Directors Chris Jones and Andrew Orloff worked together to employ ZEUS in a new and exciting way to realize Feng and interTrend’s vision. Using ZEUS for automotive work required some modification to the system, since the witness camera typically mounts above the Arriflex Alexa camera, and requires direct line-of-sight to a tracking array in the ceiling for data capture. Car beauty lighting involved large reflective silks above the set, obscuring ZEUS’s ceiling markers.
Demonstrating ZEUS’s flexibility, Zoic Studios engineered the UVS-1 facility to incorporate an encoded crane—the Teloscopic LLC Techno Jib—prior to the shoot day. This proved invaluable for capturing accurate, real-time tracking data, while also helping the crew to move efficiently through multiple setups of the four Prius vehicles and talent. On the shoot day, a live composite was generated for each camera take using the Lightcraft system, an integral component of the ZEUS pipeline. Seeing the game-version asset of the virtual environment in reference to the live HD video feed of talent and cars through an iPad app, also designed by Zoic, Feng was able to refine camera moves and lens choices for optimum effect.
When production was complete, Zoic Studios editorial imported the pre-composited footage and completed the edit with the director. Senior Editor Dmitri Gueer cut the spot in-house for Zoic Studios. Special attention was paid to finessing the speed and scale of each Prius vehicle and choreographing the four models, which were sometimes driven in separate takes due to the size of the stage. Once the edit list was generated, Zoic reconciled tracking data with the green-screen footage through time code. This gave the CG artists the ability to re-establish the camera’s position in the final version of the virtual environment.
While creating the virtual environment, Doug Ludwig led the visual effects team, with Steve Meyer overseeing Autodesk Flame composition; 3D supervision was left to Andy Wilkoff and Mike Kirylo. In postproduction, the CG team worked with the director to customize the environment layout for each shot, sculpting the rolling hills and placing the trees, flowers, and refueling pump in relation to the deeper mountain background.
Every aspect of the terrain was modeled in Autodesk's Maya and rendered using Chaos Group's V-Ray render engine. Leveraging V-Ray's robust global illumination, subtle bounce lighting and nuanced shadow details were accurately and efficiently rendered in full 1080 HD, bringing the natural setting to life. Proxy geometry and fur systems easily produced very high resolution tree models and lush grass textures. Specific placement of wildflowers patches added color and dimension. Finally, each scene was deconstructed and rendered in specific layers to give the compositing team the necessary control to manipulate the final image.
Using The Foundry’s Nuke software, along with custom tools developed for Nuke and ZEUS-based shows, Zoic’s compositors quickly processed the greenscreen footage to realize near-final working comps. With Nuke’s 3D and projection capabilities, along with Kronos, The Foundry’s retiming software, compositors matched editorial’s placement and pacing, but allowed for seamless spatial integration within the virtual environment. Several matte passes, XYZ shaders, and normal maps enabled the team to adjust the look of the environment based on elevation, depth, and contour.
Each vehicle was spill suppressed two ways, for sky and for the grass, giving the Prius family a more integrated look. As a final touch, each Prius was tracked and matchmoved with a CG duplicate, placed into the scenes to catch natural environmental reflections.