Image courtesy of Volkswagen AG

Volkswagen turns to virtual production for greener car commercials

Stefan Wenz |
April 28, 2021
For many years, automakers looking to market a new vehicle have often turned to the classic running footage we are all familiar with: think a gleaming car, effortlessly negotiating the sweeping turns of a mountain road.

While this traditional style of footage is likely to be with us for some time, there’s now a new method of creating marketing assets available to automakers that’s more cost-effective and provides vastly more creative options.

Instead of shipping a new model out to a far-flung location, setting up physical camera positions, and ending up with results defined by the limits of the physical environment, you can press a button and your car is speeding across the Sahara desert. Or gliding across the surface of a frozen lake. Or crunching through vegetation along a jungle road. You can even put it on Mars, if you feel so inclined.

Virtual production has taken the creative options for automotive marketing from a small selection of well-worn scenes to an entire universe. At Volkswagen, it’s changing the way the company thinks about creating content. 
 

Virtual production for greener car ads

The ID.4 is Volkswagen’s new electric SUV. The German car giant had always planned to do something a bit different for the global launch of this vehicle, but the pandemic took that dynamic to a new level.

With international travel limited, traditional on-location filmmaking methods were out. Instead, Volkswagen opted to create a commercial using a fully digital approach. “The brief was to create content which reveals the car for the world premier like other brands do unboxing videos,” says Christian Genz, Team Lead of Global Media Events at Volkswagen. “The car would go on a global journey through different territories, highlighting the car’s features while extending reality.”

The ID.4 would be shot on the HYPERBOWL virtual production stage in Munich, Germany. A diverse range of environments could be projected onto huge LED screens surrounding the stage, casting realistic lighting onto the car, along with shadows and reflections to make it appear as though the vehicle was actually in the scene.
Image courtesy of Volkswagen AG
Bringing the environment to them rather than travelling out to lots of different locations was far more environmentally friendly. This was no accident: Volkswagen has a goal of becoming net carbon-neutral by 2050. “Normally we travel the shooting car through the world to film the content,” says Jan-Erik Franz, Senior Marketing Manager of Integrated International Campaigns for Electric Vehicles at Volkswagen. “The aim for this project was to set up a production with low emissions to meet our ‘Way to Zero’ objective.”

For its first fully electric SUV, Volkswagen also wanted to be one of the first automakers to leverage cutting-edge virtual production filmmaking techniques. To bring the project to fruition, Volkswagen partnered with post-production agency ACHT, film production company Film Deluxe, and creative studio NSYNK, which was responsible for creating the environments in Unreal Engine.

Realistic light conditions and true reflections

Juergen Krause is Executive Producer at Film Deluxe Berlin. When he was initially contacted by Volkswagen to work on the project, there was no firm concept in place. “We developed an idea with our director Pete Schilling within three days and got super-speedy approval,” recalls Krause. “We immediately got in contact with Simon Mayer at HYPERBOWL to coordinate pre-production with a shoot in this new studio.”

As CCO of ACHT, Simon Mayer is part of a team that played an instrumental role in connecting the different creative stakeholders on the ID.4 project. One of these creative partners was NSYNK, a co-founder of HYPERBOWL alongside ACHT, TFN and fournell showtechnik.

“HYPERBOWL is a versatile medium that enables quick changes of scenery, from reliably beautiful sunsets to completely abstract fantasy worlds, which aren’t possible in non-virtual environments,” says Eno Henze, Founder and Creative Director of NSYNK. “We applied all of those advantages for the Volkswagen commercial. In just a matter of two days, we collected shots in ice caves, forests, deserts, and a cyberpunk city.”
Image courtesy of Volkswagen AG
On top of the obvious time saving benefits, this method of filmmaking facilitates a much more fluid creative process—one in which many decisions can be made live in the moment, rather than later down the line in post-production. “The process itself felt really natural—like a dialog,” says Henze. “We could quickly react to client demands and also follow the vision of the director of photography.”

Krause points out that while virtual production allows for greater spontaneity on set, a significant number of decisions have already been made before you get to that point. “If you think this is an advanced green screen shoot, you’re wrong,” he says. “The content you see on the LED screens in the HYPERBOWL has to be pre-prepared. When it works, it’s fantastic and after the initial prep time, the shooting flows. The results can be amazing.”

The HYPERBOWL has been designed so that LED panels almost fully surround the stage. The emissive panels allow for realistic light conditions and true reflections—especially important to show off a car’s finish. 

NSYNK has placed Unreal Engine at the heart of its virtual production set up in order to achieve best-in-class results. “Unreal is the gold standard of virtual productions and their respective workflows,” says Dennis Boleslawski, CTO at NSYNK. “We’re impressed with how effective Unreal Engine is as a working environment and that many of the features that we once made ourselves are built into the engine. It’s safe to say that Unreal drastically improves the way we work and we are more than happy to have made that transition.”

Mayer says that Unreal Engine played a key part in ensuring the production achieved its aim of carbon neutrality. He points out that this objective rested on avoiding an unnecessarily large CO₂ footprint created by travelling to distant regions. “It meant that Unreal Engine, with its possibilities for generating naturalistic-looking environments in real time with the Quixel library, was the weapon of choice.” says Mayer. 

Unreal Engine features like nDisplay that hook natively into NSYNK’s tracking solution play a vital role in the HYPERBOWL virtual production setup, along with the ability to create in-camera VFX, as these deliver the right content at the right time for the massive LED wall. The team scours the Quixel Megascans library for photorealistic materials—a highly cost-effective way of enhancing the realism of a scene now that Megascans are free for all use with Unreal Engine.
Image courtesy of Volkswagen AG
NSYNK also uses Unreal Engine’s sky and cloud system to create fully dynamic photorealistic atmospheres, and leverages Movie Render Queue to generate high-quality render output to support post-production tasks.
Image courtesy of Volkswagen AG
For people working on the project who are not used to the Unreal Engine workflow, the Remote Control API exposes specific features to NSYNK’s internal control interface, enabling them to edit on set. 

The team have now started to go further and refine their process, bringing in ray-traced reflections, skylights, and shadows, as well as DLSS to achieve even better results. NSYNK is also developing a solution for automotive clients, where it will use Unreal Engine to render turning wheels on a standing car—especially useful for driving scenes within the HYPERBOWL.
Image courtesy of Volkswagen AG

Cost-effective real-time workflows

Depending on their scope, traditional advertising campaigns can be exhausting in terms of production time and cost. Unstable weather conditions, road blocks, travel expenses, and many other elements can easily blow up costs—even excessing millions of dollars.

Real-time technologies, on the other hand, offer more predictability and less traveling, but greater flexibility when it comes to the choice of desired locations. If required, you can convincingly be in Paris, Beijing, or New York in a matter of seconds. And at a fraction of the cost. “Moreover, real-time workflows strengthen the agency of our clients,” says Henze. “During production, we offer an ongoing exchange with clients, to ensure their wishes are being heard, and more importantly, immediately realized.”
Image courtesy of Volkswagen AG
There’s also the reliability factor to take into consideration. In a traditional on-location shoot, if you need a stunning sunset as a backdrop and the weather doesn’t cooperate, you have to sit and wait. Maybe even for days. With virtual production, you can achieve the precise lighting you need, for as long as you need it. “You are able to display light situations like blue hour permanently, which in reality you would only have for an hour a day,” says Genz. “That’s really convenient.”
Image courtesy of Volkswagen AG
When it comes to the creative process, virtual production provides a much less rigid way of working. The what-you-see-is-what-you-get method of shooting transforms the way you capture the scene. In a classic post-production workflow, you’re pretty much forced to produce the shot as planned. 

In contrast, if you harness the power of real-time technologies, you can bring the scene to life on set and open a creative space for the director, DOP, and other stakeholders. “In essence, it brings the whole imaginary space of virtual sets into the creative workflow of an on-location shoot,” says Boleslawski. “That way, serendipitous moments appear more often and benefit the overall result.”
Image courtesy of Volkswagen AG
The bigger picture here is that now, huge, ambitious creative ideas that involve diverse locations can be realized without costing the earth. The creative minds planning automotive ad campaigns are no longer so constrained. 

“We know from our automotive clients that they have a clear vision of how their vehicle should be perceived,” says Henze. “There is huge creative potential to unleash, as there are almost no physical constraints to adhere to and infinite ways to communicate their vision without the boundaries of reality. We believe that the pace of the future is real time.”

A universe of creative opportunities

Real-time innovations at automakers like Volkswagen point to an evolving automotive industry. The traditional processes that have defined the industry are on the cusp of sweeping change. Many are cottoning on to the fact that real-time technology both lowers production costs and increases return on investment. 

Processes that took weeks or months are now a matter of days. There’s more creative potential to unleash as the canvas size of possible communication strategies has increased by an order of magnitude. “Automotive clients can be assured that real-time technology is one of their greatest assets when designing advertising campaigns,” says Henze. “It offers great flexibility and endless possibilities to frame their product, their vision, and their brand.”
Image courtesy of Volkswagen AG

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