January 7, 2020
Real-time rendered versions of Nissan’s ads hint at the future of TV advertising
Creating a campaign that can be easily adapted for multiple different territories around the world is a formidable challenge, however—particularly if you want to avoid costs spiralling out of control. As well as showcasing the Nissan vehicle range, the company needed to efficiently swap out cars and environments, at the highest visual fidelity, for the greatest effect in each of the different local markets.
To achieve this, Nissan relied on the expertise of independent creative community Untold Studios. In addition to delivering the traditionally rendered ads that would be aired on television, Untold suggested it would be advantageous to test out a real-time rendering workflow for a full-CG approach to both the cars and the environments. This proof-of-concept exercise pioneered a way of creating configurable TV advertising that could potentially be leveraged for future campaigns.
High-fidelity ad visuals and configurator flexibility convergeThe brief for the ident films was to fuse high-octane cricket action with the dynamic features of the Nissan car range. The campaign eventually grew into a series of around 20 films. Untold decided to test the traditional VFX pipeline offline rendering against a real-time approach. This was the first time they had used Unreal Engine as a real-time rendering solution, and they were looking to directly compare and contrast the performances of the two methods, with a view to proving real-time workflows for future projects.
What they found was a marked difference between real-time workflows and the traditional approach of working through camera. In the conventional way of working, you can only shoot what's in front of the lens. “In Unreal, suddenly you're not thinking in that way,” says Creative Director Diarmid Harrison-Murray. “It's a different mindset—it’s 360.”
The automotive industry has long enabled car buyers to customize cars in CG using online and showroom configurators. Ninety-nine percent of the time however, the CG vehicle is set against a stationary background, without movement or animation. Untold’s testing of real-time rendering on the Nissan ads turned this on its head. It proved that it’s possible to combine high-fidelity animated CG cars with a photoreal CG background to create seamless, fully CG running footage that’s indistinguishable from live-action footage.
The implications for the automotive industry are enormous. As this demonstrates, the beautiful imagery and wonderfully lit environments of traditional car advertising can be combined with car configurator flexibility. This was a revelation for Harrison-Murray. “The really exciting aspect of working with Unreal for me is the immediacy of it. As a director, it was effectively as if I was shooting the car,” he says. “You have all of that creativity, and the closer you can get to being like real filmmaking, the better. When CG filmmaking becomes akin to real filmmaking, that's when things become really exciting.”
Blurring the lines between production and post-productionReal-time workflows make CG filmmaking more like on-set filmmaking by providing an environment that's far closer to a real on-set environment than traditional VFX software can achieve. “In real time, you're able to move lights, move flags to block lights, move set dressing around, and get instantaneous feedback on that action,” says Tom Raynor, VFX Supervisor at Untold.
Compared to traditional visual effects packages, the process of creating VFX with real-time technology is exponentially accelerated. “The differences between what we could achieve in real time in Unreal and what was taking two hours a frame for traditional methods were very small,” says Harrison-Murray. “That's really when the boundaries between production and post-production blur.”
The Untold team relied on Sequencer, Unreal Engine’s built-in multi-track editor, for much of the work on the real-time proof-of-concept project. Sequencer was used to play back sequences and to jump into specific shots to make changes, such as slightly reframing the camera or tweaking timings.
Ray tracing enabled the team to achieve the photorealistic reflections, shadows, and ambient occlusion effects that were crucial to achieving the look of the cars. “Ray tracing allows artists to light the scene in a much more intuitive way, as light behaves as one would expect it to,” says Mikko Martikainen, a technical artist who worked on the films.
As a completely cloud-based creative studio with no local infrastructure, Untold was excited by the opportunity to get Unreal Engine working in the cloud. The team used the new G4 instance types in Amazon Web Services (AWS), which enabled it to make use of the RT cores for real-time ray tracing on NVIDIA Tesla T4 graphics cards. “We’re excited about what the future holds for this workflow,” says Sam Reid, Head of Technology at Untold Studios. “We can see UE4 shows much promise in this space.”
The studio’s next move will be to try out Unreal Engine on different hardware, and to see if it can make use of machines with multiple GPUs to achieve even better ray tracing results, tapping into the scalability of the cloud to provide this performance.
Martikainen recalls that game engine technology was hugely empowering for artists during the creative process. “The fact that everything is real time gives an unprecedented level of control to the artist. It's almost like watching a final film when you're working on it, but with the option to pause the action and move the camera or adjust the lighting in any way you want.”
What’s more, the speed and creative freedom these workflows afford is turning artists used to time-consuming, conventional processes into converts to real-time technology. “I'd say that once you've made the jump to Unreal from a traditional offline pipeline, it would be very difficult to go back,” says Martikainen. “There's definitely a slight change of mindset that needs to happen and a slight adjustment of workflows, but the power of real-time is definitely worth it.”
The dawn of configurable real-time TV advertisingFor automotive content creation, the possibilities of real-time workflows are endless—and their effect on bottom lines could be transformative.
Ian Berry, Executive Producer at Untold, summarized the implications succinctly at the recent Build: Munich ’19 for Automotive event. “You've potentially got no more multi-car shoots required. You have endless running footage possibilities; readily available showroom content; rapidly adjustable personalized content for all screens and different media types; an easier way of creating interactive content; a far more inclusive and engaging client experience; and all of this at the highest visual specification—absolutely flawless images.”
The real-time experimentation by Untold has shown that car manufacturers no longer have to invest in expensive shoots on location to generate running footage. They can create photorealistic configurators that are animated, not still images of cars. And with Quixel Megascans now free for all use with Unreal Engine, thousands of stunning photoreal materials are available for anyone to create stunning environmental backdrops for such visualizations.
It all points to an exciting future for automotive marketing: one in which the convergence of high-fidelity traditional advertising visuals, interactive car configuration, and open, democratized technology offers the possibility of configurable, photorealistic advertising for the first time.
Want to start creating your own configurable, photorealistic advertising? Download Unreal Engine today for free!