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Making Commercials: Ford SYNC What Planet Are You From?

Artistic Image uses CGI to sync up Ford with people and planets in an alternative universe

By Michael Fickes

Ford Focus speeds across a lava-wrapped planet.

When setting out to promote Ford Motor Company’s SYNC technology for Ford’s Dealer Groups, JWT/Retail First in Detroit handed Atlanta-based Artistic Image (AI) a complicated challenge.

According to Ed Dye, co-founder of AI (www.artisticimage.com) and a designer/director/illustrator, Ford wanted to explain the benefits of SYNC to three demographic groups: 20-something males, young female drivers and young moms. “We were also asked to make the commercial modular so that we could insert video targeting other demographic groups and vehicles to create future spots,” he adds.

That’s a tall order: explain the technology, appeal to three target audiences with one commercial, and build in the flexibility for the agency to replace modules appealing to one target audience with segments tailored to different ones.

Technology Meets Planets
SYNC is Ford’s in-car connectivity system standard on all 2010 Lincoln models and available on select 2010 Ford and Mercury models. It allows drivers to operate most MP3 players, Bluetooth-enabled phones and USB drives with simple voice commands.

Dye and JWT/Retail First decided that the most effective way to explain the technology would be to demonstrate how easy it is for three drivers to use SYNC in a nontraditional setting.

According to Dye, the commercial’s audience “has youth in common, so we started out by thinking about how young people live today and use technology to work, communicate and as interactive entertainment.”

Anime-style imagery combines with icons showcasing SYNC’s activation.

Mulling this over, Dye hit upon the idea of creating a dynamic, video-game environment for the commercial, called “Ford SYNC Universe.” Using CGI, his team crafted an intergalactic universe of planets where three young drivers navigate their Fords through futuristic cities and unique landscapes as they utilize their cars’ SYNC technology in a challenging video-game environment.

On a sizzling, lava-wrapped planet, an adventurous 20-something man driving a sporty Ford Focus speeds across a craggy landscape while commanding the SYNC technology to “play rock music.” A loud, driving track from his MP3 player blares out of the speakers as he maneuvers around eruptions.

On a second planet that resembles a glittering disco ball, a 30-something woman drives her Ford Fusion sedan through a youthful, urban-professional community. Across the streetscape, her generational cohorts congregate in outdoor cafes, retail stores, offices and city parks as she gives a command to the hands-free SYNC technology to “call Sam.”

And on a third planet faceted with ice crystals a young mom drives her Ford Edge crossover vehicle to run errands in her futuristic suburb. The radio speaker signals that her cell phone has received a text message, and she commands the system to read it to her.

The entire look of the spot is in the tradition of Japanese anime integrated with video game-style communication as the vehicles are surrounded by icons showing activation of the SYNC product. “To get the anime right, I studied the work of Takashi Murakami, a Japanese artist credited with raising anime to a fine art,” Dye reports.

Animating the Worlds
Using Pixologic’s ZBrush Dye created the young man’s dark planet with no roads and bright orange volcanic lava simmering just below the surface. As his Ford Focus careens across the landscape, lava tracks erupt in his wake. Dye wanted to show how “the vehicle’s weight would peel the road back and reveal the lava underneath. The road would do a light dance and literally follow the vehicle’s movements.”

He also tapped ZBrush to sculpt all the characters and cars in the commercial, taking great pains to render each detail of the vehicles.

Dye deployed Autodesk Maya “to rig and animate all of the shapes in the commercial — the planet, the stars, the cars and the people. Pixar Studios’ Maya-compatible Renderman Shaders created complex surface textures for the rock, lava, glass, metal vehicles and other surfaces.”

To put everything together, he used Apple’s Shake and Adobe After Effects to composite, color correct and apply VFX to about 20 individually-rendered layers. Although Apple discontinued Shake last year, fans like Dye continue to use it. It simplifies the process of compositing highly-complex, multilayered animation scenes by allowing a compositor to modify earlier image-processing steps while viewing the results of the current compositing layer.

Artistic Image partners, designer/director/illustrator Ed Dye (left) and director Ken Soons.

Speaking to more than one demographic group in a 30-second commercial may sound like a formula for failure. But SYNC’s alternative universe offers a virtually infinite way to extend the campaign to other Ford vehicles — just create a new planet that matches a particular vehicle and target audience.

The spot proved so successful that JWT has awarded AI another 20 Ford Dealer Group spots. The AI business model, which harkens back to an era when postproduction studios handled everything from the rough cut to the finished commercial, likely contributed to this success.

At a time when fragmentation of the post industry often results in separate suppliers for editing, VFX, animation and finishing, AI has put everything back together under a single roof — and even added commercial direction to its menu of services.

“We think this will become the trend,” says Dye. “Working with too many different companies has gotten too complicated. Sometimes, a VFX house will do something that doesn’t fit with what the editor and director imagine. Sometimes, VFX (aren’t) compatible with animation technology. You also have to schedule and reserve time with each vendor. Sometimes the work takes longer at one house and wrecks the schedule at the next. It’s too many cooks.”

It’s AI’s contention that one company employing people skilled in every facet of production and post can work together faster and more efficiently than a roster of specialty boutiques while ensuring that the original vision of the project shines through at the end. That’s particularly important when you’re creating an alternative universe.

December 10, 2012