Honda 'The Dreamer'
June 2, 2016

Honda 'The Dreamer'

Honda’s latest commercial, titled “The Dreamer,” takes viewers on a trippy CGI road trip through the imagination of a Honda Civic engineer. The wild, inventive journey features a wide range of 3D objects within many all-digital environments as a Honda Civic traverses an ever changing, ever expanding roadway. Except for a few scenes with the engineer, the entire 60-second commercial is completely computer-generated.

The vibrant spot, created by the facility Roof Studio, also contains the song “Walking On A Dream” by the Australian musical duo Empire of the Sun – drawing viewers in on both a visual and audible front. The production was done by a core team of 10 over the course of approximately four months. However, the group’s ranks swelled to 25 at times as artists from around the globe contributed assets – objects and short animated sequences – to the whimsical piece.

“We had a great relationship with the agency [RPA], and they afforded us a lot of creative freedom,” says Sam Mason, who along with Guto Terni and Vinicius Costa, served as creative directors on the spot. “Creatively, it was very open for us.”

As a result, the group from Roof continued to add 3D elements and story pieces, even into the last day of the project. 

In essence, the designers let their imagination – or, more accurately, that of the engineer – run wild. And Roof was the ideal studio to do this, as the agency was already familiar with its previous design-centric work. “They wanted us to take some of that design sensibility, those elements of surrealism, and expand them outward to a full-scale universe that the car travels through,” says Mason. 


Scale It Up

The commercial opens with a live-action shot of an actor (the engineer) working on drawings at his desk. A digital door opens in the back of his head, and the 3D adventure begins. Initially, the scene starts in miniature, confined by the size of the engineer’s head. But once the car crosses the first bit of track, it becomes full scale. 

“We then created a massive landscape that went on into the distance,” says Mason. 

Scale was one of the main concerns, says Terni. The car started out proportional to the engineer, at miniature, but the client did not want to continue that feel through the rest of the piece. To avoid having the car seem small against the massive landscape, the artists used atmosphere, such as fog and other tricks often used for big, wide landscape shots. Moreover, the designers made the engineer appear giant size, rather than regular size, thus enabling the car to maintain a real-world scale. This was done through camera angles and filming the engineer segment at 60 frames per second, giving him a larger, more lifelike presence.

The CG car, though, is the star of the commercial and had to be product-accurate both inside and out. The group started with CAD reference data, and in the end, the vehicle model comprises between 500 and 1,000 parts – some of which are shown off early in the spot during an under-the-hood shot as the engine is inserted, revealing all the pieces of an actual motor. 

Not only did the car have to look full scale, but it had to perform like its real-world counterpart. The crew looked at a significant amount of live-action reference and tried to stay true to the laws of physics in terms of how a car would behave. Sometimes, though, that movement became more stylized when the vehicle was placed in impossible situations – for example, when it was launched across a void in the road. “Yeah, we had to break reality quite a bit to stay with the shot, but we tried to make it feel as natural as we could,” says Terni. 

As Mason explains, “It was kind of a ride piece, where one element sets the rhythm, and the continuity was the car and how it would speed up, slow down, and handle a turn. Since we had this abstract hero, which is the car, all it needed to do was behave like a car, and the world around it could transform.”


A Graphic Display

Soon after the CG car is introduced, a digital takeover occurs, giving the artists and designers more flexibility as the imagery and backgrounds became wilder and crazier. 

Half the landscape shots have CG all the way to the background. The scale is large. “We were going for some feature-film style, giant, CG landscapes. But we were doing it for a commercial,” Mason notes. “The challenge was transitioning from miniature scale to something cinematic and big, without losing the audience.”

According to Terni, they accomplished that by setting up a reality where just about anything can happen during this dream ride. “We let design lead the way with bits and logic. But there was a lot of dream logic, where nothing really made sense. And with that going on, the car just leads you through the environments while you witness all these hallucinogenic things happening all around you,” he says.

Terni points out that the studio often designs in 3D, as most of the directors are 3D artists themselves. As a result, there was no restriction on ideas or concepts – there was always someone to rig, model, and animate. Many background objects are abstract, but there are also some interesting choreographed motion of abstract mechanisms based on things from the real world and the language of driving, especially in the first half of the spot. In the second half, the designs were inspired by Rube Goldberg mechanisms that continued the action. 

“In some cases, we just ran with an idea on the fly, and one of the directors would make something or we would talk to the team and repurpose something to create a new object,” says Terni. “It gave us a lot of flexibility. Since we designed in 3D, we were able to incorporate things into the film that we felt improved it, without following a checklist of specifics we wanted to include. The whole thing was fluid, and everyone had quite a lot of input, as opposed to one person doing one particular, small task. Everyone had creative ownership.”

This style of workflow enabled the group to work quickly. “It is difficult for a large VFX studio to come up with an idea and two hours later have it in the production,” says Mason. “But we are a small studio and were able to do that.”

To create the objects and animations, the group used a combination of Autodesk’s Maya, The Foundry’s Modo, and Render Legion’s Corona. Compositing was done with The Foundry’s Nuke. For the liquids and clouds, the artists used “a lot of trickery” with low-resolution geometry within Corona. “There isn’t full-featured volumetrics for Corona yet. We created volumes out of 3D geometry that looked really nice, and then we painted on top of those,” says Mason.


Making a New World

The environments span the natural, to the futuristic, to the surreal and more. It started with strong concept design, as the designers mapped out the production in a traditional, albeit extensively detailed, way. 

“The difference was that we were able to make changes easily. “By designing in 3D, you can scatter vegetation and the terrain, and see a fast result. That is where we utilized the flexibility of 3D,” says Mason. “We started with this mapped-out base and then changed the positioning of objects and reworked some of the landscapes and added new mechanisms and things like that.”

The designers purchased some tree models and cut them apart and changed them up to make trees, shrubs, and a variety of foliage. 

Just how many objects are in the backgrounds is difficult to say. “It felt like a hundred million,” says Terni. “We had to deal with a large number of polygons in every scene.” Indeed, some shots contained more than a billion polys. The most complex scene, Mason points out, contained 30 million unique polygons and two billion to three billion instanced geometry, such as the trees.

“The amount and variety of geometry we had in every shot were staggering,” Mason notes. Terni agrees: “We tried to push the boundaries of 3D as much as possible. We kept saying, ‘Let’s do more!’”

While the group managed to not break the renderfarm, they did have to do a significant amount of rendering through the Google Cloud Platform. Terni explains that they would use Corona running on local machines overnight, rendering in a low quality to check out progressions, and once satisfied with the results, would send them to the cloud for final rendering. 

Without question, the key to this project was the assets – as well as the design acumen of the team.