But times have changed. Filmmaking technology is catching up with Detroit's hidebound insistence on putting cars under lights in studios or tracking them with mobile cameras on the same undulating country roads we've seen on TV thousands of times.
The age of digital cars has arrived. Computer graphics, or CG, have been used in conjunction with other techniques in car spots for a number of years. But a new two-spot campaign for General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac unit from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles' Troy, Mich., office and "Titanic" visual effects studio Digital Domain marks the first time it has been used to create not just background environments but the vehicles themselves.
Most notable about this breakthrough is that these are not static models set in CG-generated environments but rather full-motion depictions of automobiles doing what carmakers love to see them do: drive, drive, drive.
The campaign, which broke late last month, depicts the new Grand Am traveling through a metallic-tinged world. In one spot, a Grand Am courses through the streets of a city made entirely of metal; in the other the model rifles through an eerie, steel-belted desert.
While films such as "A Bug's Life" and "Antz" are making all-CG worlds commonplace, the exclusive use of the technique in a big, influential product category such as automotive advertising is a major step forward.
"The whole idea that Detroit would not shoot an automobile is the antithesis of what we've been brought up in this business to believe," said Mitch Kanner, Digital Domain's executive director of TV commercial marketing and new business.
Most ad veterans are hard-pressed to list car campaigns that weren't all about real cars. Frequently they're shown in otherworldly, fantastic environments, and any deviation is conspicuous. VW's white background Beetle ads, for example, stood out, as did its down-to-earth "Da da da" spot, or last year's teaser campaign that included a guy using a chicken leg in a bowl of dip to simulate the fun of shifting gears.
What drove the DMB&B team to this execution, dubbed "Steel World," was a strategy meant to illustrate Grand Am's toughness, said agency Group Creative Directors George Katsarelas and Mark Zapico. Working with writer David Charlton, art director Jim Borcherdt and producer Linda Kemp, they looked for a way to stress the model's structural improvements, or what the automaker calls SolidForm Design. While they wanted to put the car in a tough-as-nails environment, the question was "how could we create a visual metaphor for this place," Mr. Zapico said.
Numerous approaches were weighed, Mr. Katsarelas said, and the team finally reached the conclusion that they should go all-CG, as opposed to shooting live action cars and attempting to marry them in post-production to a computer-generated or enhanced environment.
Once that decision was made, the challenge was to create a truly photorealistic depiction of a car in motion.
Ray Giarratana, who directed both spots for Digital Domain, attributed the realistic effects to "the softness and lighting techniques we've developed, and the physical dynamics of the way the car responds to the road. It's not just about [recreating] the photography, but about the lighting and composition."
To help its digital artists mimic classic car photography, Digital Domain brought in as a consultant Bill Bennett, a top cinematographer who has shot countless car commercials. Another key contribution, in creating the background environments, came from Digital Domain production designer Benedict Schillemans.
Mr. Giarratana said Digital Domain's motion software has developed to the point where the user no longer simply tells the computer where a given movement of an object in a shot begins and ends.
"Now we can drive the car and have it respond the way it would given its weight and design," he said. Various details can be programmed into the computer animation, including the vehicle's engine size and suspension package as well as differing road conditions. The resulting images correspond to how a car with such specs would act when braking, accelerating and cornering, Mr. Giarratana said.
To get the look of the animated cars down, the Digital Domain team studied hours of actual car footage.
PRODUCT AS MIRROR
Ed Ulbrich, executive producer for commercials at Digital Domain, said that given the concept of a steel environment and the complexity of matching digitally composited live-action scenes to such a background, CG was clearly the way to go.
"Your product is basically a big mirror," Mr. Ulbrich pointed out. If a real car was used, he explained, "you'd have to get rid of the reflections that are on it and replace them with CG reflections. It made the size and scope of the project grow exponentially."
That Pontiac is the first car brand to do an all-CG campaign like this is not a surprise. Mr. Kanner said Phil Guarascio, general manager, group VP-marketing for GM in North America, brought all his advertising managers to the studio late in 1997 for a seminar on how to take advantage of new developments in digital technology.
Bob Kraut, director of advertising and promotion, Pontiac/GMC, who attended that event, said he'd been interested in pushing the technological envelope and was not apprehensive when his agency suggested an all-CG execution.
FIXED DIGITAL ASSETS
"We've done digital work in the past," he said. "Our goal here is to embrace technology and to try different things." Besides, he said he liked the concept of having fixed digital assets.
Revisions of these ads are now a much easier task to perform; different models can be inserted, for example, or colors changed.
While this campaign has demonstrated that believablecars can be developed for commercials, creative executives see this development as simply opening more conceptual doors. And what will the industry's top car directors think of it?
"That's a good question," said Mr. Borcherdt, who practically lived at Digital Domain during the production. "I think it will be well received by them. Everyone will be looking at this, because it hasn't been done before."
While veteran production executives seem impressed with the technical achievement, they are not sure how widely it will be embraced by agencies or marketers.
"As long as they don't start creating digital directors, we'll be OK," quipped Jon Kamen, partner in Radical Media, which produces spots for top car director Jeff Zwart.
Mr. Kamen believes the debate is really about "having the right tool for the right job at the right time."
"If they can design cars on computers, why would you need to drag a car into a