An Elastique. Production | Photographed by Manuel Nagel

BMW Group unveils next-gen vehicles using virtual production

April 8, 2021
Over the past year, restrictions on travelling and meeting in person have had a huge effect on live events, from trade shows to festivals. This has also thrown a curve-ball at companies planning big product launches, which are often years in the planning and involve a physical launch show.

In the automotive industry, a handful of forward thinkers understood that a technology they had already started to embrace might provide a solution. Cutting-edge virtual production filmmaking techniques, powered by real-time platforms, could provide a way to create compelling virtual events that attendees could enjoy from the comfort of their own home.

This was the concept behind BMW Group’s #NEXTGen, an innovative virtual event that enabled the German car giant to showcase next-generation vehicles to millions of potential customers—despite the restrictions of the pandemic.
 

 
Reimagining automotive communication

#NEXTGen is where BMW Group showcases new technologies and vehicles, as well as exploring what next-generation mobility could look like. The inaugural #NEXTGen launched in 2019 as a physical event. Planning for #NEXTGen 2020 was dealt a blow in March last year when COVID-19 restrictions brought the world to a standstill. Everything had to be re-examined, with the 2020 event reimagined as a mostly digital production.

Cue digital design agency Elastique—focusing on immersive and interactive brand experiences, the studio was the perfect choice to deliver a multi-layer communication concept.
 
Elastique set to work on an idea that combined talk-show elements, influencer videos, infotainment formats, documentary-style footage, and cutting-edge presentations, putting them together in an innovative streamcast experience accessible via a digital platform.
An Elastique. Production | Photographed by Manuel Nagel
To offer as much flexibility as possible, Elastique married traditional TV studio elements like a talk show corner with a virtual production LED CAVE. Right at the heart of the production was the BMW Welt, a combined exhibition, museum, and event venue located in Munich.

This hybrid setup proved to be highly adaptable over the 28-day production schedule—crucial, given how fast the new show had to be put together in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. “Developing hundreds of totally different types of virtual production films and presentations—some of them ten minutes long—from the initial concept and script to final production in a custom-built LED CAVE in a relatively short amount of time was really demanding,” says Andreas Schimmelpfennig, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Elastique. “Not to forget the coronavirus situation.”

The flexibility provided by a virtual production studio enabled the team to create many different formats in one place and communicate BMW Group’s vision in a completely new way. Using an LED volume enabled the team to instantly swap in any backdrop they required “so it became a fascinating collage of information and innovative thoughts,” says Schimmelpfennig.
 

A new visual language 

For Sarah Böckenhüser, Creative Director Art at Elastique, it was important to use virtual production to its full potential. “First of all, we wanted to develop a new visual approach for ‘classic’ car unveilings,” she says. “It should be more playful, more imaginative, and more approachable for the viewers.” 

To achieve this, the team worked with BMW Group teams to design abstract virtual worlds that capture the viewers’ attention by avoiding the stereotypes of typical automotive communication. Everything was designed with this in mind, from the music to the narrative of the presentations themselves, which eschewed traditional product presentation in favor of taking viewers on a journey behind the thoughts and decisions that lead to completely new car designs.
An Elastique. Production | Photographed by Manuel Nagel
With the unfettered creativity afforded by using a real-time platform, the team was able to create a visual language that presented the products in new ways. “The MINI Vision Urbanaut, a vision vehicle, was designed from the inside out—from the interior to the exterior,” says Schimmelpfennig. “So we chose to present it in the same way. Using an augmented reality layer for the presentation created in Unreal Engine, it was possible to first reveal the inner part of the vision vehicle and the exterior design afterwards.”

Real-time CGI studio AlphaFlare was brought onboard to create the digital replica of the MINI Vision Urbanaut that would be seen on stage, leveraging Unreal Engine features including Visual Dataprep, Materials, Animations, and Blueprints. The team also supported the project by consulting on technology performance and look development, as well as advising on how best to optimize the scenes and performing a final retouch to perfect the look. 

"The conversion of the MINI Vision Urbanaut to a digital replica was a pleasure using Unreal,” says Anestis Takidis, CEO and Creative Production Artist at AlphaFlare. “Datasmith was our best friend here. Also, when it came to material creation, there were no boundaries with Unreal. We could really bring in all our skills and experience."
An Elastique. Production
Schimmelpfennig explains that there are many advantages to using virtual production techniques for a show like this compared to a traditional production. “You can freely play with styles, environments, and surreal settings, and still be able to perfectly integrate a car with all its reflections, with the environments on the LEDs providing the light for beautiful interior shots, with protagonists sometimes being completely merged into the scene and sometimes bringing them back for the audience onto the stage,” he says.

Augmented reality to explore car designs

Elastique leveraged Unreal Engine for both in-camera visuals and AR elements. The engine was used to create the reveal movie and presentation of the all new BMW iX, and the AR visuals on a deep dive into the design of the MINI Vision Urbanaut. “The ability to adjust the scenes on set in real time, to move virtual lightboxes for reflections in the car paint, the ability to turn complete scenes for the perfect shots, these were just a few benefits that made production with Unreal a great experience,” says Schimmelpfennig. 
An Elastique. Production | Photographed by Manuel Nagel
Production partner NSYNK developed a unified virtual production framework that enabled the team to run the same scene for both the LED feed and the AR layer. To facilitate creativity on set, it was important to establish a coherent and flexible workflow that also reflected the needs of live broadcasting with multiple cameras and AR graphics in action.

Some scenes were filmed using three ARRI AMIRA cameras simultaneously. Each of these cameras was connected to its own node, rendering the AR layer in 4K for preview and for live editing by the camera director. 

The LED feed switched according to the perspective of the selected camera and was rendered on a cluster of several servers running Unreal Engine in an nDisplay configuration. “We came really close to a live production workflow and because of this we were able to shoot longer presentations during the day in just a few runs,” says Eno Henze, Founder and Creative Director at NSYNK. 
An Elastique. Production | Photographed by Manuel Nagel
When it comes to virtual production, Unreal Engine has been the go-to real-time platform of choice for a number of years. “Unreal provided just what we were looking for,” says Schimmelpfennig. “The visual quality and warmth of the images created by Unreal are unprecedented.”

Beyond compelling visuals however, the team were impressed by the depth of the engine’s built-in features for a virtual production environment. “We were blown away by the dynamic and precise depth-of-field look, which matched and moved exactly with the pulled focus on the cameras, as well as things like the ability to change the brightness within the frustum independently from the environment,” says Schimmelpfennig.
An Elastique. Production | Photographed by Manuel Nagel
He also notes that the flexible nature of Unreal Engine makes for highly cost-effective production. “Since Unreal can publish content to various platforms, we can reuse all created environments and cars for subsequent projects,” says Schimmelpfennig. “We might be working on interactive experiences and perhaps even VR-installations based on what was created for the #NEXTGen 2020.”

The opportunity to repurpose existing content like this represents a good investment for BMW Group because they can leverage one asset efficiently for different uses. With BMW Group also using Unreal Engine in the design and development process of cars, there’s the potential to take highly detailed models from the design process throughout the entire communication pipeline: from print to film to live presentations to interactive applications. You can find out more about this joined-up ethos in Epic’s Automotive Field Guide.
An Elastique. Production

Virtual production for inspiring experiences

Schimmelpfennig believes automotive brands should be excited about using virtual production for marketing and events. “Virtual production can really change the tonality of automotive presentations,” he says. “What were very often bold (live) shows in the past—with cars driving slowly on stages, accompanied by tons of show lights—can now become imaginative inspiring experiences for a worldwide audience. You can put the protagonists right into scenes with a warm organic touch and in the next moment take the viewer on an impossible journey.”
An Elastique. Production | Photographed by Manuel Nagel
Real-time creation platforms like Unreal Engine provide the opportunity to generate many different types of content, with different formats and different looks. That means automakers have a whole new world of creative avenues to explore when it comes to getting a message across to customers.

For BMW Group, embracing this new way of communicating has proven a huge success. “With millions and millions of impressions, tens of thousands of hours that audiences spent with the content, and thousands of new articles generated, #NEXTGen 2020 was a cutting-edge innovative format with virtual production at its heart,” says Schimmelpfennig. 

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