Fit Crew
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 2 (Feb. 2009)

Fit Crew

Years ago, advertising campaigns for cars were about one thing, the vehicle. Today, the ads tend to focus on the experience the vehicle offers, with glimpses of the car, truck, or SUV as it traverses a picturesque landscape. However, when it came to devising a multi­media campaign for the Honda Fit, the creative team at advertising agency Rubin Postaer & Associates was determined to throw out the car-commercial rule book. After all, leaf-covered roads, postcard-perfect mountains, and pure beauty shots just didn’t “fit” the vehicle’s brand.

“The agency wanted something uniquely stylized, and we wanted to push the boat out a bit,” says Digital Domain’s Brad Parker, who, along with Eric Barba, directed the spot. “They wanted us to create a really different look and step it up a notch or two.”

And step it up they did. Rather than use live action or a photoreal approach,  Parker and Barba used a highly stylized look created with computer graphics that places a 3D Honda Fit within surreal CG environments and scenes.

“We focused on making the spots original, unusual, and cool—which really set the tone for the brand,” Parker says.

In fact, Parker and Barba have had a history of making “cool” ads for Honda, albeit as visual effects supervisors as opposed to directors. This time, they took on all those roles. “We had direct contact with the agency and the client, and could tailor the team to the vision we had,” says Parker. “We had the freedom to come up with ideas, and we knew exactly how to execute them. Working with outside directors is great, but sometimes it is hard to know what they really want and where they want to go with something.”
In the all-CG “Defense Mechanism,” a semi-realistic Honda Fit (left) faces a gas-guzzler (middle), which, like the cityscape and the puffed-up Fit (right), is super-stylized. The artists built the models in LightWave, while surface shaders developed for Speed Racer gave the vehicles their shine.

The overall concept of the campaign—which included three television and theatrical spots, along with elements for an interactive Web program—was to create a unique Fit universe. This meant that every object had to be conceptualized by the Digital Domain team and then brought to life. Yet, the three commercials contained very different ideas selling very different features of the same car. And all three had to have an extremely stylized look.

“So rather than go off and do three different designs with development paths, we pooled our resources and decided to create a cohesive world, or universe,” says Parker. “When we pitched the job, we created a map similar to Middle Earth, laying out where the three commercials would take place in the Fit world and how we would tie them together. We had to make thousands of decisions about what the world would look like, including the color palette, the creatures, everything.” Later, the group used that map as a guide for the online materials, which included games.

Spot On
Two of the three television commercials—“Mecha-Mosquitoes” and “Defense Mechanism”—are 30 seconds long and 100 percent CG. The third, “Bats,” is only 15 seconds in length and contains some live components.

In “Mecha-Mosquitoes,” giant mechanical mosquitoes, with chrome wings and bodies of hulking gas-guzzling cars, gorge themselves on fuel from an overturned gasoline tanker truck on the outskirts of a city. Soon a swarm begins to chase a passing Honda Fit, which darts in and out of traffic to fend off the attack. In the city, the car reaches a tunnel under a huge building shaped like a bug zapper, whose blue light proves too irresistible, and fatal, to the insects.
The second all-CG spot, inspired by underwater photography with a cyan/green/yellow palette, is set within the Fit world’s city limits. A menacing shark-like gas-guzzler patrols the streets, knocking down signs and recklessly skidding around corners, while a Fit waits at a stoplight with other vehicles. As the monster car approaches, the other vehicles scatter; the car accelerates aggressively toward the Fit. Just before impact, the Fit inflates like a blowfish, sending the mean machine zooming off.

“Bats,” meanwhile, illustrates the Fit’s cavernous storage capacity by housing and releasing a cadre of the Fit world’s resident bats at an eerie “lookout point.”

The style of the commercials, with their dramatic action, striking colors, and atypical characters, is a big departure from the type of realistic work Digital Domain is known for—including the groundbreaking accomplishments on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (see “What’s Old Is New Again,” January 2009), for which Barba served as visual effects supervisor. The team was up for the challenge.
Digital Domain’s Brad Parker and Eric Barba created a uniquely stylized Honda Fit universe for an ad campaign that includes the spot “Mecha-Mosquitoes,” featuring giant insects with chrome wings and bodies resembling gas-guzzling cars. The stylized look, striking colors, unusual characters, and dramatic action are a big departure from the studio’s well-known realistic film work.

“I love working with an empty canvas. You have more ownership and control over every pixel when you create and design something from scratch—vehicles, objects, buildings, and environments that look concrete in a way, where you can almost reach out and touch them, although they are clearly stylized and do not exist,” Parker says. However, he does caution that in such circumstances, you have to exercise some constraint and give yourself some basic rules to avoid going off in wild directions that aren’t going to serve the purpose of the story.

On the other hand, creating such an open-ended project can be difficult because the concepts are so loose. “There’s a lot of pressure to create something no one has ever seen before. There’s nothing harder than a client coming to you and saying, ‘Make something really great and cool that is brand new and we have never seen before, and we’ll tell you if we like it,’’’ Parker adds. “It has become fairly standard to light cars in plate photography or create photorealistic effects in plate photography. But to design a world from scratch is probably one of the hardest things we’re asked to do.”

A Fit World
Although the world in these commercials is super-stylized, the Honda Fit has a more realistic appearance. To create that imagery, the modelers started with basic digital scans of the car’s exterior, which CG supervisor Richard Morton and his team then enhanced. Drawing on experience they honed earlier in 2008 crafting vehicles for the feature film Speed Racer (see “Photo Anime, Hyper Pop Art,” April 2008), on which Morton served as CG supervisor, the Fit crew used various surface shaders developed for the film that emulated the layers of car paint—undercoat, base color, clear coat on top—and how they behave in certain lighting environments.

At times, some additional “bodywork” was needed for close-up shots of the models. In those instances, the crew used physical objects and photos of the actual vehicle for reference while re-creating the parts in CG. For one shot, the modelers received an actual headlamp cluster from Honda, which they then rebuilt in NewTek’s LightWave.

As a matter of fact, the project was mostly done in LightWave, from modeling, to lighting, to rendering. “Richard Morton is strongest in lighting hard-surface objects in LightWave, and built a team around him with those capabilities,” notes Parker. A number of the developments for Speed Racer were indeed used for this project, including Digital Domain’s fairly new linear lighting pipeline, which offered the artists more control over the imagery. “Here, the challenge was more artistic than technical,” he adds.

The Digital Domain team used a varying color palette among the Fit spots. For instance, “Defense Mechanism” was slightly more saturated, with a futuristic style of the painters from the 1930s—“the Gothic images of cities that were very dramatic and had a lot of atmosphere and false color,” explains Parker. “We tried to take that look and push it further. It’s not one that we’ve seen exploited to any extent in automotive commercials.” Comparatively, in the “Mecha-Mosquitoes” spot, David Rosenbaum, creative director, was inspired by 1950s creature movies—“The Mosquito that Ate Manhattan, that type of thing,” describes Parker.

Stepping into different territory felt great, Parker contends. “Instead of going for a motion-graphics style, we chose to use all the horsepower of Digital Domain but harness that into this stylized look, which I personally found interesting and unique, and hope it’s something we will see more of here,” he adds.

And it proved to be a good “fit” for the campaign, as well.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Computer Graphics World.