Greater than the sum of its parts

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From David Fincher's "Gamebreakers" and "Constant Change" to Lance Acord's adidas composites for the "Impossible is Nothing" campaign, Digital Domain has been involved in some pretty intricate and innovative CG spots. But executive producer Ed Ulbrich says that the company's latest effort, Acura's "Dance," is "easily in the top five most complicated commercials we've done." Using four software platforms whose result is greater than the sum of its parts, Anonymous Content director Mark Romanek and the Digital Domain effects team, led by supervisor Brad Parker, created a car spot that is completely computer generated except for one shot of human hands, from the environment to the cars themselves. "This really came out of Mark's friendship with David Fincher," says Ulbrich, "and he taught himself about all this technology, and when we showed him what our software could do, he pushed us hard to create something that has never been done before in commercials."

The spot opens with an aerial look at a water-filled crater, then zooms down to the car on a slick road. Alternating with shots of dozens of Acuras driving down a spiral track, we see the single car drive down a creepy tree-lined street and kick water droplets onto the camera lens. As the car passes a glacial ice formation, a piece breaks off, sending a wave of water on to the road behind the vehicle as the multiple Acuras spin and criss-cross in formation. Finally, the many cars merge into one, and the single car skids into the final shot, kicking up a cloud of dirt and gravel. "Mark wanted to have moments of these impossible things that just happened to be caught," says Ulbrich. "He also wanted a very stylized feel for this, and wanted it to be plausible that maybe some of it could have been filmed. So he's playing with optics such as water on the lens and camera shake and flares and all of the things that happen optically as a photo process."

Working with a completely blank canvas, Romanek scouted locations as if he were going on a shoot, using Digital Domain's terrain software, Terragen, to download satellite images of landscapes, then build them exactly as he envisioned them. For any water elements, the team worked with a proprietary software developed for flood simulations in the feature The Day After Tomorrow. According to Ulbrich, educating Romanek about what the software can do enabled him to create the damp look of the spot, as well as the glacier wave. The third software platform is one that Digital Domain had used before to create photo-real cars, which also captures the movement of the vehicle's suspension when driving on terrain. The fourth, called Storm, was developed for the first Lord of the Rings film and generates weather, mist, dust, smoke and fog.

The hardest part of the process for the production team ("There is no such thing as post any more," Ulbrich says) was creating water elements. "When you see rivulets of water dripping down a car, that's as difficult and complex as it gets in CG," he says. "Every drop of water and piece of gravel and nook and cranny and mountain and shrub and bird and cloud is computer generated. There is so much going on in every one of those frames." After finalizing the pre-viz cut and creating the elements, rendering frames could take as long as 20 hours each. "The cars were the easiest part of the commercial. Cleaving glaciers splashing into the ocean with cars driving through water-that's hard. It's the car's interaction with the environment. Leaving tracks and kicking up gravel-every little piece is created individually."

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