Honda "Endless Road"
Role: TD, VFX Supervisor
Director: Chris Palmer
Production Company: Gorgeous
A never ending spiral camera move, zooming into a world within a world.
Read more about it below.
This project was a big challenge, but a fun one. The gag was that the camera would infinitely descend into the set and we would repeatedly see a smaller version of the set contained within itself (known as the Droste effect). The transition would need to be seamless between them. This is an easy thing to do in CG, but much harder if you're trying to shoot it in camera.
I've always found it fascinating the creative opportunities that motion control can open up for you, and this project made full use of its ability to move the camera in a very precise way. The trajectory of the camera scribed a shape known as a logarithmic spiral, which allowed it to recursively descend into the central space. Each movement of the camera is a scaled up version of the earlier motion.
My role on this project was varied. I was involved with the shoot supervision, assembling motion-control data, 3D tracking (hardest shot I've ever tracked!), and weather FX elements.
The inspiration of the set design itself was taken from a real location on the US Route 16A in the south west of South Dakota. The road is known for its "pigtail bridges".
Photo: Kimon Berlin
Due to the complex nature of what we were trying to achieve, I imagine there were probably more working hours spent in pre-production than in post. The camera move had to work within a set that could fit inside itself, given a 1/10 scale factor and 180º rotation.
A large amount of time was spent trying to understand the problem and visualise what we were trying to create. We knew that the camera motion needed to be a logarithmic spiral, but we still had to design the set for construction and make sure that the motion controlled camera didn't hit anything along the way. Jordi Bares took care of most of that, but I was also heavily involved in breaking down the designs in Houdini into cross sections so that we could send it to the set builders at Shepperton Studios.
The set even contained a miniature CNC lathed version of itself in the interior. This wasn't visible in the final film, but it was a helpful reference for matching the transition.
One challenge we came up against was, given we had a CG car and we needed to have it go through the set at night, how would we illuminate the set in a way that would match? We considered all sorts of solutions, but in the end we ended up employing an animator to do stop-motion animation on set with a tiny light rig.
One problem was trying to figure out how to get the animator to move the light rig in the same way as our CG car. The eventual solution was to bake out the animation of the car to individual frames and print it on paper to scale (approx 5 x 13m).
The paper was then laid over the road so that the light rig could accurately be positioned on each frame to precisely match the CG car. To avoid having the paper in shot, the animation was actually done in reverse. The animator cut and removed the previous frame's paper after each frame capture. Think of that famous Wallis and Gromit train track laying sequence, but in reverse!
I'll be honest... I'm still amazed that it worked so well, but it really sold the integration of the CG car.
In post-production the first task was to get a camera move that matched the motion control. If I was ever under the illusion that we could just use the same animation that we'd given to the motion-control camera, then I was quickly absolved of that notion!
It turns out that camera tracking software really does not like spiralling camera movement. The parallax is weird; everything's going in different directions and the long duration of the camera move didn't help either.
The only way I was able to solve the camera track was to identify and match features from early in the shot to the same features that were in the background later in the shot. I had to be super precise about tracking the individual features and had to hand animate many of them. I did this in 3D Equalizer (my tracking package of choice) as it gives you a level of control that I've not found elsewhere.
BTW, in case you can't tell, I'm one of those weird people that loves tracking, particularly when it's difficult, so I'm always happy to jump in to it.
One thing I was asked to try, was to see if we could allow Chris Palmer (director and co-founder of Gorgeous) to actually drive the car around the loop. I rigged a CG car in XSI, complete with a realtime physics simulation for the suspension. I wrote a simple C++ plugin to read an ActiveX compliant steering wheel and pedals game-controller that drove the various parameters for the car. Hilarious. It sort of worked, but it was never going to put an experienced animator out of a job!
Overall, the post-production was fairly involved. We even added some CG rabbits and birds to the background. My contribution was some ICE based weather effects (rain, snow, etc). Part of the delivery of the job was to support an online digital marketing effort. The website would look up your browser location, check the weather, and then play back the appropriate clip. You can see it featured in Honda's behind the scenes video on YouTube: