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Making Commercials: Va-Va-Va-Vroom

Engine Room animates a NASCAR On Fox opening with a wild photoreal computer graphics race.

By Michael Fickes

Gary Hartley, creative director with Fox Sports Graphics, asked Los Angeles-based Engine Room (engineroomhollywood.com) to create a new, 20-second opening and graphics package for NASCAR on Fox. The goal was to solidify and grow the series’ youngest audience segment – viewers aged 14 to 28.

Fox wanted Engine Room’s experience producing custom animation pieces on an extremely fast-paced schedule. The company had been producing comic computer animated recaps of weekly NASCAR races for two seasons.

A wild NASCAR race

Engine Room choreographed a wild NASCAR race for the opening, said Dan Schmit, Engine Room’s owner and creative director. A specially designed NASCAR Fox car joins the race, and at the end transforms into a NASCAR on Fox logo.

It begins with an overhead shot of the track. Cars speed through the frame. At ground level, the camera spots the Ford, Chevy and Toyota racing side-by-side at the camera. The shot shows that each has a different front grille, highlighting the sport’s variety of newly designed cars.

Part of the assignment involved emphasizing the new bodies. Traditionally, Ford, Chevy and Toyota have provided cars with identical exterior shells. This year, each brand revealed its own body style.

As the race proceeds, a car spins out of control and flips end over end as the other cars dodge disaster. Several frames show the reeling car in a rearview mirror. Finally, the Fox car cuts through the crowded field, speeding toward the finish line. Before it arrives, it transforms into the NASCAR on Fox logo, and the other cars speed past.

“We started the production process producing boards and an animatic, where we defined each individual shot,” said Schmit. “The piece includes 17 shots, so most of the shots last about one second.”

Engine Room went into CG production, using Maya to animate and V-Ray for Maya to render.

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The strategy

“Every project requires a strategy,” Schmit said. “For this project, we needed a way to make changes quickly, without re-doing everything.

“Visual Effects Supervisor Dave Piedra developed a workflow based on animating the entire 20 seconds as one continuous 3D scene,” Schmit continued. “To create different shots, we placed virtual cameras in different positions along the path of events and rendered different views.”

Two drivers

Two real NASCAR drivers appear in the NASCAR on Fox opening: Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon.

“Last year, we shot Brad sitting in a NASCAR seat on green screen,” Schmit said. “We repurposed that shot to use here. We had shots of Jeff Gordon too, but the opening called for him to look into the rearview mirror and then look forward, and we didn’t have that performance. So we used the previous shots to create a CG version of him.”

Smoke gets in your eyes

Scaling the size of the cars and track proved challenging. The scale had to be right for the race to look real. Within the CG NASCAR stadium designed by Digital Artist Hatem Ben Abdallah, the track is 2.5 miles around. In that scale, the cars are full size and travel at 200 mph.

“It was difficult to figure out,” Schmit said. “Dynamic effects like smoke and sparks were especially tricky. At 200 mph, a spark burst or smoke release is nearly invisible. Cinematically, we wanted to show more than you could see.”

Dynamics Lead Tom Lynnes suggested creating a proxy model one-tenth the size of real CG track. At that scale, the dynamic effects were visible and looked good when rendered. Those effects were used in the finished piece.

Good night

The last part of the assignment was to create a night version – NASCAR races at night, too. Under the supervision of Executive Producer Michael Caplan, the Engine Room team turned off the sun and turned on several hundred light banks around the track.

According to Schmit: “It was a complex process, but because we were working within a master CG project, we were able to make those changes globally and re-render.”

July 10, 2013