Speed and flexibility were key when PHM Studios was tasked with creating a series of animations for Volvo Cars.
When James Foster, Creative Director for PHM Studios, looked at it, the brief seemed straightforward. Create a series of animations that demonstrated the features of Volvo cars from a benefit-led perspective. However, there were some caveats. For a start, there was to be no on-screen copy so that each video could be used in markets with different languages. And the vehicle exterior had to be a generic Volvo, that immediately said, yes, it’s a Volvo, but not a specific model.
The project is ongoing, as James explained, “An average run of animations is around 20, which began in March and will end in November. In January and February we gathered data on the vehicle/tech by interviewing the function owners and designers and did as much R&D and environment work that we could. We have produced just over 100 animations, in total, so far ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes, with an average length of 45 seconds.”
Cinema 4D's involvement with the project
Cinema 4D was used at almost every stage of the pipeline, from storyboards to rendering and because the rendering had to be done in-house for security reasons, a 24 CPU farm was built on site. It was later combined with a 20 GPU render farm for the standard Cinema 4D and Octane rendering engines to use.
The brief for the project covered the marketing topics for new Volvo vehicles and, here, working with a producer at Volvo helped define the exact requirements. Then James and the team interviewed the engineers and designers so they could grasp what the benefits were, that needed to be illustrated in the animations. As James admitted, “That’s a fun challenge - to describe sometimes complex and nuanced benefits without having voice or subs to do the heavy lifting.”
Tight deadlines required speedy workflow
The individual deadlines for each animation depended on what work was required for a specific exhibition or show but, for an average animation, the production time, from start to finish, was roughly three weeks. This is where the speed of Cinema 4D paid dividends but that wasn’t the only advantage. James explained, “Yes, speed of workflow is important, but so is the flexibility. We can quickly try things out, get animatics/playblasts out and refine and iterate as we go. One of the best aspects of Cinema is how fast you can put an idea on paper onto screen and get working.”
One of the key elements was the generic Volvo car. For the first run of animations this was supplied by Volvo but PHM Studios was then asked to create a new one for the second year of production. As with the original car, it needed common Volvo traits, like the headlights, so it was instantly recognisable, but could also be suggestive of different forms. The first few design versions that PHM came up with were very Sports Utility Vehicle in look and feel so this was toned down to be somewhere between an SUV and a sedan. James was able to use references from concept vehicles and received feedback at each stage. Even the paint scheme had to be carefully considered as different paints imply different emotions around the world.
Building the Volvo model in Cinema 4D
Cinema 4D was used to build the vehicle from start to finish, as James revealed, “We went from initial drawings to using the model in production in a little over six weeks. I worked with a modeller in Portugal over Skype, sharing Cinema 4D files with doodles and annotations included. It was pretty seamless from a workflow perspective. While he crafted the exterior from a rough hull I made, I modelled the interior to match.”
There were distinct advantages to building the model with Cinema 4D, rather than importing a third party model. It meant that the team was able to have a very efficient mesh, neat topology and hierarchy. They didn’t have to deal with the usual issues of decimating a model from CAD, or waste time converting from other software and reorganising everything.
Animating Car Elements
Once built the next challenge was to animate elements of the car, incorporate the characters and use camera tracking through the vehicle. James was thankful that this was where Cinema 4D made life considerably easier, “Character tools make rigging and animating the characters really fast. And XPresso rigging of the car makes animation a much simpler task. We used, and modified, an open source rig for spline-based animation and our own setup for smaller, complex movements, such as reversing into a parking space for example. We also wrote some Python scripts to give the animators tools such as indicator lights on sliders, that could be set to flash left/right/emergency, and control which IES files and intensities were used for headlights, switching between daylight, dipped and full.”
The main characters that occupy the vehicle were rigged using the advanced character setup. Motion capture data was used for the walk cycles and added to basic character setups. It was fast and simple to set up, enabling the team to rig the characters to give some poses and test animations within minutes of their actual look being signed off by Volvo.
Organising Scenes With Takes, Layers and Render Settings
One of the most difficult tasks, on a day-by-day basis, was having to organise the various versions and passes. James explained how Cinema 4D helped pull it all together, “Having such a powerful take, render settings and layer system meant we had fewer file versions, so we could keep our standard and Octane versions in the same file. With a little discipline in naming, it meant that any of the artists could pick up a job that had been started and run with it. When you’re balancing resources, and planning several jobs at the same time, it makes life a lot easier.”
Flexibility was also the key when it came to rendering the animations. Previews were created in Cinema 4D for rough cuts and approvals and, in fact, for the first year of ongoing work on the project, all the production was done in Cinema 4D using the advanced renderer. As the workload built up though, more speed and flexibility was needed, so the team used Octane for the production renders, while keeping effects such as the radar waves in the standard renderer. As James pointed out, it was the fastest way and, “It’s great to have that flexibility, as switching renderer and settings is really simple with takes and layers.”
James added, “At every stage of my career, I have relied on Cinema 4D as a visualiser, animator, motion designer, and director. It's so flexible and fast that there's not been a job yet I couldn't handle with it.”
Duncan Evans is the author of Digital Mayhem: 3D Machines, from Focal Press.
All images and movies courtesy of PHM Studios.
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