Sensual CG
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 10 (Oct 2006)

Sensual CG

More and more, television and movie viewers have to ask themselves, is it real or is it CG playing out on the screen?

In a recent set of TV commercials for carmaker Lexus, it is quite obvious from the presentation that most, if not all, of the content is indeed digital. One 30-second spot in particular, titled “Robots,” features robotic arms in a production facility gently and lovingly caressing a Lexus ES 350 in the final stages on a production line. The headlamps are fitted by a robotic arm, which lingers for a moment as it drags its “fingers” over the fender’s curves. Later, a quality-check arm cannot help but pause in the middle of its programmed duties to run its feelers over the leather headrest. As the car rolls off the production line, the robots’ arms can barely let go as they reach longingly for the car as it slowly pulls away. “You can’t build and maneuver robots to do what we wanted them to do on a commercial budget,” says Eric Barba, visual effects supervisor at Digital Domain, which completed the effects work.

Except for two quick shots,
Digital Domain created
this car commercial using
all-CG: the backgrounds,
the robots, and even the
car. Fluid animation adds
life to the robots, while
complex modeling, texturing,
lighting, and rendering
enabled the studio to
create a fl awless vehicle.

    In fact, with the exception of two quick shots, the entire spot is all-CG: the background (the manufacturing plant), the characters (the robotic arms), and the star (the Lexus itself). And the commercial is sparse on ad copy; only six words are uttered in the commercial: “Is it possible to engineer desire?”

As a result, executive creative director Chris Graves at Lexus’ ad agency Team One Advertising relied heavily on the visuals to convey the brand’s message. Thus, it was especially important that the imagery not only be drop-dead beautiful, but also carry the entire commercial. Simple? Yes. Risky? Possibly. Effective? Absolutely.

Although it is not unusual for car commercials to rely on stunning images, “Robots” differed in that the imagery was computer-generated from scratch, modeled with a variety of software, including NewTek’s LightWave and Autodesk’s Maya and 3ds Max, all riveted together with proprietary software.

Victor Garcia of MJZ, who is equally as savvy when it comes to CG as live action, directed the commercial. “He is very knowledgeable on both sides of post and live action, and is very much into architecture and beautiful imagery,” says Barba. “His directive was to use whatever medium it took to get the story told.” Using live action, however, was out of the question; the budget to build actual robots and the stylized set alone would have been prohibitive.
Instead, the environment is virtual, built based on some of the modern, stylized factories in Europe. “It’s hard to believe that some of them are work spaces; they are so beautifully structured,” says Barba. Next, the artists built the robots, whose movements are more sensual than the typical precise movements of industrial robots found in vehicle manufacturing plants.

The Car’s the Star
And although the artists at Digital Domain had honed their skills at giving human feelings to machines in the 2004 feature film I, Robot, Barba notes that is where the similarities in the two projects end. “None of the techniques we used for I, Robot crossed over for this spot. The I, Robot technology is ancient now,” he says. “The facial animation of Sonny was done amazingly well in the movie, but that is a whole different beat to what we had to do in ‘Robots.’ The animation was simpler, but had to convey the message. This had to be very photoreal, whereas Sonny had facial expressions that sold his performance.”

The real focal point of the commercial is the car, which is accentuated by the actions of the robots. Yet, except for a quick exterior and interior shot of the Lexus, a digital car became the star. “The nature of shooting cars is that you live and die by their reflections and all the interaction that would occur with them and the robots. So, it didn’t make sense to light practical cars in this case since we would have had to replace all the exterior reflections anyway, to make it fit into the digital environment.”

To achieve those results digitally, the artists used the Chaos Group’s V-Ray for rendering and lighting. They also used a LightWave plug-in called FPrime (from Wor­ley Laboratories), an interactive renderer that allows them to set up bounce cards in place of the lights in LightWave, then later transfer all the curves and data directly into 3ds Max for rendering in V-Ray. “We didn’t have to set it up and test it for every frame,” says Barba. “It is quick, interactive.”

Moreover, the artists used a minimal color palette and graphics to sell the car, while for the robots, they used warm lighting to make them feel less cold and industrial. Then they employed the same lighting techniques that a DP would have used with soft boxes and reflections. At the end, the group composited the scenes with Digital Domain’s Nuke. Final conform was done in Autodesk’s Discreet Flame.

Using a CG car, Digital Domain was able to ensure perfection—no pits, no dust, no streaks, and no unwanted reflections on the metal and glass in a lot less time than it would have taken to film such a scene practically—if indeed that would have even been possible.

“Unlike I, Robot, which used facial expression to convey a mood, we had to look to body language to make this spot work,” says Barba. “A robot’s movements are limited by its design, so we had to work within those constraints and still assign them traits like elegance and style. Transposing those sorts of human qualities to CG robots was a unique challenge.”

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor for Computer Graphics World.