Image courtesy of DBLG

Harrods menswear department gets a real-time makeover 

Fashion has long used technology to push boundaries, from Helmut Lang’s ground-breaking use of the internet to present a collection in 1998, to Lil Miquela and Shudu promoting brands to millions of Instagram followers today. 

Now, the same type of technology behind digital human influencers is being used to create stunning marketing campaigns for forward-thinking fashion retailers. 

Harrods in London is a case in point. It's approaching two hundred years since the world-famous store first opened its doors. Since then, Harrods has developed a reputation for innovation—including commissioning one of the world’s earliest escalators—so it's no surprise to see this retailer adopt brand new production techniques for a visual overhaul of its menswear department. 

As part of a full 360° campaign conceived by creative studio DBLG, Harrods customers are now presented with real-time-rendered CG versions of the store’s latest menswear lines in ethereal, Dali-esque landscapes. 

3D scans in place of real-life models

Grant Gilbert is the founder of DBLG, an award winning studio that specializes in motion design and brand identity. Harrods originally approached his studio after it won SHOWstudios Best Fashion Film Award last year for its experimental fashion film Hidden

The brief for the Harrods project was to help present the exclusive department store as the ultimate menswear destination. This involved a 360° campaign, including films for a full window and screen takeover in the store.
Image courtesy of DBLG
When it came to the concept for the work, an idea was lying right beneath their feet. “The inspiration originally came from the marble checkerboard motif of the newly redeveloped menswear floor,” says Grant. “The textures in the numerous marble patterns reminded us of epic far-stretching landscapes, so we set out to recreate these textures in physical form.”

Concept in place, the team was able to start thinking about creating the films. COVID-19 immediately presented a hurdle—the new social distancing rules meant they had to find an alternative solution to a physical film shoot. “Due to current filming regulations, we weren’t able to film models in the clothes, so we opted to 3D scan them,” says Grant. “This actually worked to our advantage, giving us much more flexibility, as we were able to manipulate and light them within Unreal.”

Despite being fairly new to Unreal Engine—as motion designers, they have traditionally used other programs to create and output designs—the team were able to pick up the toolset and leverage its superfast real-time rendering workflows to deliver the project in a tight timeframe. “We had a short deadline but needed to create a lot of content in a small amount of time, so Unreal was the perfect tool for the job,” says Grant. 

In the end, the studio managed to complete the project in one month using the engine.

Ray tracing for accurate lighting

DBLG knew that the visual quality of its films had to be flawless to meet the Harrods’ high expectations. Unreal Engine came into its own in this respect for developing the landscapes and lighting, Grant explains. “Seeing these evolve in real time gave us the flexibility to design and explore more options,” he says. “I think the most useful feature of Unreal on this project was its ability to take really heavy assets from other software, from Cinema 4D through to Houdini, and still run fast.”
Image courtesy of DBLG
With this speed and power at its fingertips, the team could focus on the creative and not be bogged down with slow viewports and a laggy workflow.

Filming real-life models was out of the question, so DBLG hired 3D scanning and design studio Form Capture to scan the clothes using an Artec 3D Eva scanner. These scans were then imported into Cinema 4D and Houdini before being animated, textured, and lit within Unreal Engine. “Unreal’s ability to handle these heavy assets was paramount,” says Grant. “Due to the cloth being a key part of the creative concept and filmic nature of the piece, it was extremely important to render using the highest fidelity assets our tech would allow.”
Image courtesy of DBLG
To achieve the most accurate lighting possible, they had ray tracing turned on in most shots, using an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 Ti graphics card. Ray tracing is a method of rendering that mimics the physical behavior of light. It delivers much more photorealistic results than traditional methods of rendering, like soft, detailed shadows and reflections from off-screen objects. In Unreal Engine, it’s possible to achieve these results in real time. 

Team also made use of Quixel Megascans, a library of ultra-realistic 3D scans that can be used to enhance the photorealism of CG scenes. “Megascans allowed us to focus on the concepts and creative, and not spend hours building a single extremely complex texture,” says Grant. Quixel Megascans are free to use in all Unreal Engine projects. 
Image courtesy of DBLG

Real-time workflows transform filmmaking 

During this unprecedented period of restricted face-to-face contact, real-time technology has provided a lifeline that enables brands to continue putting out marketing content. “In current times, shooting on location or in a studio is problematic,” says Grant. “We need the flexibility to have options and think quickly.”
Image courtesy of DBLG
Just as many filmmakers have discovered, DBLG has found that real-time technology provides new opportunities beyond what’s possible with traditional filmmaking methods. “It completely changes the workflow,” explains Grant. “We no longer have to wait and cross our fingers that the renders have worked. As graphics cards get faster, it will give us so many more options that weren’t available to us before.”

For Grant, the really exciting prospect is to start combining real-time and live production workflows. “There are so many other Unreal Engine features that we’re yet to try. We can’t wait to start integrating Unreal with live-action shoots—hopefully soon.”
Image courtesy of DBLG
Now that DBLG has experienced the power and speed of real-time workflows, the future suddenly holds a world of possibilities. “This really is a game changer for our industry,” concludes Grant. “All we need to do now is find some NVIDIA 3090s and we’re off!”

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