A driving force: real-time rendering on The Mill’s high-octane F1 ads

Image courtesy of The Mill
Alistair Thompson
Creative content studio The Mill has been pioneering innovation in automotive advertising since 2016, when it unveiled BLACKBIRD—a fully adjustable car rig that can quickly transform its chassis to match almost any car for a live-action shoot. 

The Human Race saw this groundbreaking concept combined with Unreal Engine’s high-fidelity real-time rendering capabilities to create an augmented reality process that would enable creatives to instantly visualize a CG car model within live action shots and adjust accordingly.

Since these two milestones, The Mill has been battle-testing its real-time workflows on TV advertisements. It recently created the high-octane launch promo idents for the new F1 2020 season, harnessing the power of real-time rendering to deliver on a tight schedule ahead of Sky’s TV coverage.
Alex Hammond is Head of 3D at The Mill. For him, real-time workflows provide many advantages compared to traditional methods of creating ads. “Unlike traditional single linear narrative commercials, we develop 3D assets that take advantage of a real-time approach for the purpose of generating multiple versions of content that can be re-used with changes to details within the designed environment or character,” he explains.

Leveraging real-time technology enables The Mill to create content that can be iterated on and turned around very quickly inside Unreal Engine. The studio encourages clients to embrace this ideology, championing the advantages of creating social content that can be reactive to media. 

“For immersive and experiential content, the benefits are apparent—the audience can engage on a deeper level as the visuals adapt to their participation,” says Hammond. “The application of this has no limits, and this is very appealing to our clients as they can craft a truly unique and targeted social campaign.”

Exploring new animation and editorial choices

Using real-time technology completely changes the way you “tell the story” for automotive television advertising. The exploratory nature of real-time enables The Mill to quickly try animation and editorial choices that were not previously so fast to conceive. 

The team can take previs to a whole new level, showing high-quality visuals and a much better representation of the final film or content being created. Because feedback is in real time, the team can instantly change camera angles or lighting conditions, which will then automatically populate the edit, allowing for faster iterations and ultimately more outcomes to the film. 
Image courtesy of The Mill
“Unreal Engine is like a Pandora's box of tools, which are all designed to emulate real-world and camera effects,” says Hammond. “When you start playing around in a real-time engine, you quickly see the benefits of it as a platform for directors and storytellers.”

More real-time innovations on the horizon

Go back five years, and the idea of creating hundreds of mini-social content films from one advertising shoot would have been unheard of. Today, The Mill has a pipeline that not only helps bridge the gap between traditional VFX and real-time, it also enables the studio to visualize assets through the use of augmented reality—seeing creations live through a phone or on set through a monitor.

And it feels like this is just the start. The Mill is exploring even more new and innovative uses of real-time technology for advertising. Generating a character for a real-time or interactive application is becoming increasingly popular, and having that character react to any form of news can be a powerful tool. The message the brand wants to target to its audience can change in days rather than months. 

“A couple of years ago we developed Mill Mascot, which was a system to live-track performance gestures to drive an animated character,” says Hammond. “We’re currently working on some exciting projects which will elevate this further and develop more advanced systems to help drive digital avatars.”

Mill Scout is another real-time innovation the studio is working on. It’s a lightweight virtual production tool that enables a user on set to quickly visualize 3D models. This means The Mill can keep developing assets remotely whilst feeding the data onto the set for directors to help frame up the action without the use of a more complex real-time setup.

Revolutionize the automotive industry in real time

When it comes to the impact real-time technology is going to have in the future, Hammond is emphatic.
Simply put, real-time workflows will revolutionize the automotive industry.
- Alex Hammond, Head of 3D at The Mill
“At The Mill, we have already used technologies to help car manufacturers visualize their products for rapid prototyping and high-end commercial films.”
Image courtesy of The Mill
The ability to quickly reskin cars, alter paintwork, and adjust details has all been made possible by advances in real-time technology. Showing off these quick alterations in automotive conferences and car showrooms is incredibly appealing, as it becomes a powerful tool to sell vehicles customized exactly to the consumer’s specifications. “Unreal Engine really shines—quite literally—when it comes to rendering cars,” says Hammond. “Seeing super-slick vehicles rendered through a VR headset is really quite impressive. 

“The automotive section for real-time is very exciting…and who knows, perhaps you won’t need to visit a Formula One track in order to get up close to the race action in the near future.”

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