Peeling Out
By Lisa Taylor
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 1 (Jan 2003)

Peeling Out

"There's going to be this sleek new black Maxima tearing down a desert road. It's going to be moving so fast that the paint is going to start peeling off, beginning at the front and continuing to the rear, until there's not a speck of paint left on it. Oh, and we're going to shoot the car from all sorts of angles—helicopter, motorcycle, car-mounted cameras. And if there's not enough motion, we'll shake the cameras to get a more aggressive feel."

Such was the storyboard developed by advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day for the 30-second Nissan "Paint Remover" commercial spot, which began airing this past fall as part of the 2003 Nissan Maxima campaign. The concept is brilliantly simple. Yet when production director Adrian Moat heard it, he knew that finding a CG team able to create the effects for a shoot involving so much motion and so many different and unusual camera angles was going to be a challenge. The solution was to turn to West Hollywood's effects and design studio A52, which has distinguished itself over the past six years by creating award-winning music videos and commercials. Some of the more recent honors garnered by A52 include a 2002 Clio Gold, a 2002 London International Advertising Award, and a 2002 Emmy.

A52's first task was to prove to Moat and team that the studio could create footage of a CG Maxima that was completely indistinguishable from live footage. Using a highly accurate polygonal model provided by the Utah-based 3D digitizing and modeling facility Meshwerks, A52's CG team, led by creative director and project visual effects supervisor Simon Brewster, used Side Effects Software's Houdini running on SGI Irix 6.5 to create an exact replica of the car. Right Hemisphere's Deep Paint 3D was used for texturing, and the final images were rendered in Pixar's RenderMan. The car was then animated with spinning wheels, synthetic suspension travel, and camera shake for added realism. According to art director Jason Stinsmuehlen, the test allayed all fears. "The car looked so real that almost everyone was asking where they had managed to get a hold of a [real] car," he states.

With proof that A52 was ready to handle whatever he threw at them, Moat and crew went out to the desert to capture the Maxima in its required setting. The shoot involved three black and two metallic silver 2003 Maximas: a black car with no equipment attached, a second black car with a movable camera mount attached to the frame, a third black model with practical smoke effects rigged to it, a silver car with no equipment, and a second silver car with a movable camera mount attached to the frame. Each car had been thoroughly bespeckled with tracking points beforehand. Despite the exhausting heat, the team photographed the cars from the car-mounted cameras, a motorcycle, and a helicopter, as well as from more traditional static angles through a telescopic lens. In the end, Moat proudly walked away with a lot of footage for A52 to work with.

The overall plan for the project as conceived by Brewster was to have the footage of the live black Maxima blend with increasing amounts of a silver CG Maxima, then gradually transition to a live silver Maxima blended with a black CG Maxima, until finally only a live silver car remained. However, with all the extreme angles and shots involved, this plan could not always be closely adhered to. "In a couple of shots, we rendered the part-black/part-silver body as CG, leaving only the wheels and details—such as the tail pipe—as live action," explains CG supervisor, Denis Gauthier. "There are also two close-up shots that are totally CG." In another shot, which was blurred by atmospheric heat distortion, footage from both the live-action black and silver cars were combined by Brewster in Discreet's Inferno.

The CG work was accomplished by a team of four digital artists over the course of five weeks. Painstakingly accurate tracking was done by Westley Sarokin using Science-D-Visions' 3DEqualizer software. The motion data was then brought into Houdini 5.0 via the software's Channel Operator (CHOPs) toolset, where it was filtered. The high-res polygonal model of the car from Meshworks was, for some of the shots, converted to subdivision surfaces in Houdini. All shots were rendered in RenderMan. Westley and 3D artist Jeff Willette animated the car and flying paint particles with assistance from freelance artist John Willette of Travelling Pictures.

Jeff Willette also created a procedural modeling method that would make UV coordinates align along aerodynamic flow lines. Not only would these virtual flow lines direct the peeling of paint, they would also control the flow of paint particles as they flew off the car. These aerodynamic lines were generated through Houdini's powerful VEX language, which allowed the artists to deform each body panel in UV space.

The progression of the peeling paint was keyframed using deforming outlines to create traveling mattes for each body panel. "It was especially important to us to be able to control the entire process by hand," explains Gauthier. "That way the client could point and say, 'make it peel slower here' or 'faster here,' and we could do it very quickly." As for the flying paint flecks, these were created by John Willette via Houdini's Particle Operators (POPs) with VEX being used to control particle birthing. Live-action particles, shot by Moat, were directly incorporated into the renders with texture mapping, and also blended into finished shots to give them a realistic edge.

Moat's vision for the project was to use CG to create a polished, "non-CG" looking spot, and the finished project is testament to his success. "I wish every scene could be run in slow motion," enthuses Brewster. "It's an incredible CG paint job being ripped away... paint flakes flying, being caught in the car's vortex. Every frame is perfect."

"Paint Remover" will continue to air until the end of January. After that you can look for more A52 eye-catchers, including a 60-second Boeing spot entitled "Connecting," in which the themes of nature and technology are juxtaposed and sometimes combined. The highly sophisticated spot, which features some mesmerizing photography, makes use of both subtle and more obvious CG effects. ..

Lisa Taylor is a freelance writer specializing in digital special effects.

Images courtesy of A52

Right Hemisphere
Side Effects Software