Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 4 (April 2001)

The Digital Divide

A train company crosses a chasm that separates two diverse worlds

By Karen Moltenbrey

Bridging the gap between the traditional world and the technology-driven cyber world can be difficult even for an industry veteran. Using computer graphics, Rhythm & Hues Studios made such a move appear effortless for railway company Norfolk Southern.

In a 30-second commercial identity spot called "Chasm" for Hollywood production company Sunspots, Rhythm & Hues created a 3D universe in which a CG Norfolk Southern train roars out of a brick and mortar-style city as its cyber counterpart launches from a virtual skyline. As each train crosses the deep gorge dividing the two diverse worlds, they form a metaphorical bridge linking the separate cities.

Nearly every element within the commercial is computer-generated, with the exception of composited live-action people and a few nearby props. In fact, the spot recently received two first-place international MOBIUS advertising awards in the computer animation and corporate identity categories.
In the TV commercial "Chasm," Rhythm & Hues used 3D imagery to convey the repositioning of a train company on track for the new century. The artists spared little while creating the dense cityscapes, including this futuristic world filled with stylized im

"The advertising agency wanted to illustrate that its client Norfolk Southern was a vital part of digital commerce in the new millennium even as it continues to service traditional rail customers," explains John-Mark Austin, CG director for Rhythm & Hues' Black Box specialized production group. "The agency wanted something visually exciting and inspiring, with a larger scope than you usually find in commercials-not necessarily photoreal, but hyper-real."

According to digital artist Mike Johnson, the group incorporated design elements common to American cities into the traditional world. He describes it as "a blend of styles and eras emphasizing art deco and Manhattan of the '30s and '40s."

For the digital world on the other side of the gorge, Sunspot's director David Dryer looked to Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, as a reference for that world's flowing, curvaceous forms. "Stylistically, the cyber world has a more unified ap pearance than the traditional world," says Johnson. "The area has a glass and steel look that's filled with digital numbers-mathematical formulas, symbols, and graph patterns."
The main focus of the commercial is this Norfolk Southern train, which was modeled from scratch in LightWave, using blueprints of a real train for reference. Later, the artists retextured the traditional CG model to create a stylized version for the cyber

To construct these two diverse cities, the Black Box team used NewTek's LightWave 3D modeling and animation software running on Windows NT. First, designer Gary Montalbano sketched out rough cityscapes for both worlds, then each digital artist was assigned specific buildings to construct. "These 'hero' foreground buildings accounted for about one-fifth of the structures that had to be produced," says Austin. "[Therefore] we relied heavily on the digital artists to be designers and architects, and develop and integrate the remaining architecture."

Even after the team built all the structures, construction was far from complete. To add life to the traditional city, the group incorporated numerous set-dressing elements such as telephone booths and trash cans, birds flying overhead, benches, lampposts, and trees. In one shot where the camera plunges from bricklayers working above the city down to street level, digital artist Steven Rogers included condiments on the shelves of a diner, a clock with moving hands, and tree shadows that blew in the breeze from the passing train. "You may not notice these details when watching the spot, but without them, you'd know that something was missing," explains Austin.

Also incorporated into the real-world street scenes were crowds of people-some walking, others standing-which were filmed against massive bluescreens. "But there was an empty quality; it still didn't feel like a city," says Austin. "Then we realized what was missing-pigeons." So production assistant Daniel Seidner was dispatched to a nearby park, armed with a digital camera, a scrap of bluescreen, and a bag of birdseed. But he discovered an unforeseen challenge. "Pigeons are apparently terrified of bluescreen," Austin says with a laugh. "It took hours to get a few birds to brave the material long enough to get usable footage, but the result added to the charm and credibility of the environment."
The first time viewers see the commercial, they may miss many of the details, such as the sweeping hands on the clock and the tree shadows swaying in the breeze. But without them, the scene looked unnatural. (Images courtesy Rhythm & Hues.)

To complete this portion of the spot, the artists added shadows and hand-painted digital "dirt," such as water streaks on the concrete, tarnish on the brass fixtures, soil between the sidewalk cracks, bird droppings on the buildings and sidewalks, and chewing gum stuck to the walkways. "We'd look at the renders and would go back and dirty it all down some more, to the point where the texture maps were getting pretty grimy looking but the city as a whole looked like a real, desirable place to live," notes Austin. "It was amazing how much distress and dirt we had to add before a building lost that clean CG look."

The artists took a totally different approach to the cyber city, which had a pristine digital appearance. Even the lighting differed dramatically. In the cyber city, the artists chose a twilight setting, which gave the glass a cool, blue tone, whereas the traditional cityscape was bathed in warm light from the setting sun.

The artists used matte paintings, practical smoke and fog plates, and atmospheric effects created with Impulse's Illusion to add cohesiveness to the two diverse worlds as the camera panned from one location to the other. As this scene transition occurred, matte artist Lopsie Schwartz changed the cloud cover from wispy clouds against a warm, rich sky behind the brick buildings to puffy storm-like clouds against a purple/blue sky in the digital land. "This gave the cyber city a dark environment so that the glow and shimmer really popped, yet it didn't make the city appear ominous," says Brad Hayes.

The focal point of the transition between the worlds is the train. To create the train model for the traditional city, digital artist Andy Wilkoff referenced blueprints and design plans, as well as a detailed practical scale model of a Norfolk Southern Dash-9 train that had been commissioned for a previous advertisement. Once he created and textured the 3D train for the traditional world, he and fellow artist Andrew Weiler retextured it as the cyber train, adding glass, steel, and mathematical content. "The two trains are very different in appearance but both are recognizably the same train," Austin notes.

Accomplishing the desired levels of depth and detail in the commercial required the artists to incorporate a tremendous number of elements into each scene. In one particular shot, which shows both cities extending into the horizon from an aerial perspective, the polygon count exceeded 2.5 million-and that's before the trains, shadows, lighting, and particle effects were added. In some in stances, the artists were able to use less de tailed objects in the distance, but in many shots, the camera moves were so sweeping that higher resolution models had to be used throughout.

According to Hayes, most scenes contained about 75 different layers that were rendered separately in LightWave and composited using Eyeon Software's Digital Fusion. "It's the density of the design and elements in each one of the scenes that makes the commercial something that can be watched many times, and each time you'll notice some different detail that you didn't see before," says Austin.

LightWave, NewTek (