Director Joseph Kosinski came out of engineering and architecture, where he learned and used CAD programs to design. "While learning those, I realized how powerful they are and how I could use them to create my own short films," he recalls. "I was using them to design buildings and realized I was more interested in animation with sound." After turning his Columbia University senior architecture project into a short film, Kosinski delved into making short films using CAD as a basis for 3D models. His spec spots for Mercedes, Ford and Nike caught the attention of Anonymous Content director David Fincher, and Kosinski was recently hired on at the production company.
"David [Fincher] has always been a big proponent of CG in general and cars in specific," explains Dave Morrison, Anonymous Content partner/head of commercials, who says that, while the company has not yet embarked on a production using CAD data, he sees that methodology as the next logical step. "Why not use the CAD data if the car manufacturers already have it? CAD is perfect as a foundation for photoreal cars and it’s cheaper rather than to have to start from scratch. CAD gives you a huge head start."
The advantages of CAD make it a compelling choice for ad agencies, their manufacturer clients, production companies and animation houses that want to balance on the bleeding edge. Print ads, with their demand for ultra-high resolution and impossible visuals (cars not yet manufactured, posed in exotic locales), are certainly a major driver- but not the only one. Digital Domain VFX supervisor Eric Barba points out that car manufacturers are themselves stripping down CAD models to use on their Web sites, and these slimmer models can sometimes fit into the 3D animation pipeline without much extra effort.
CAD also opens up new creative possibilities. Fooling viewers with photoreal CG car exteriors is one thing, but suppose ad agencies could design spots that deploy the airbags, show off the engine block or demonstrate up close the anti-lock brakes. What implications does the use of CAD data have for innovative 3D interactive entertainment?
Time to market is another factor. When not even prototypes exist, the chance to use an accurate 3D model of a new car cuts out the time it would cost to build a maquette and scan it. Those commercials touting the brand-new car can be released before the car itself hits the production line.
Repurposing assets is a key strategy in the feature film and television worlds, so it makes sense that commercial production companies- and especially their clients- will see the value in doing just that. Car manufacturers increasingly believe that making smart use of their pre-existing data for a car’s design can save them big bucks as it’s repurposed across all media- and CAD data can also fuel compelling applications such as dealership kiosks and interactive Web sites.
In the trenches, however, commercial production company execs and VFX supervisors are gauging the obstacles inherent in CAD. Unfortunately, a CAD model cannot simply be plopped into the animation pipeline as it exists today. At Digital Domain, which just produced a digital Acura for an Anonymous Content production, producer Mike Pardee points out that CAD data is NURBS-based, but they need polygonal models to animate. Today, he says, "it’s easier and faster to scan the car."
Digital Domain’s Barba, who comes from an industrial-design background, has had some preliminary experience creating photoreal models from CAD data. "It’s much more time-consuming, in most cases, to deal with that data," he says. "A lot of times, you want to go back and streamline it and make it better. CAD data doesn’t lend itself to a quick way of rebuilding, especially with sub-division surfaces. Little nuances in NURBS data don’t cross over, and you have to patch holes.
"That being said, we’re looking at newer ways of doing it, and other pieces of software that will allow us to do it in a different way. We have a long history of doing CG cars. Now, obviously, we’ll look into doing it with newer techniques."
Turning NURBS into polygons is only one of the problems- in fact, it may be one of the lesser issues in gravitating from scanning to CAD. Fundamentally, CAD data is too "heavy" for the typical 3D animation model. For the commercial showing a sleek car racing along a mountain road, all the precise detail relating to the car’s engine block, air bags and locking system are an unnecessary burden- and therefore require painstaking human intervention to strip out. "The reality is that there isn’t one file that exists for an exterior skin of the car," says Barba. "It will have the exterior, but also the bolts, the hinges- and to pick out what you need for a car driving down the road can take three or four days."
Then there’s the fact that the size and organization of the CAD files vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, turning each project into a digital treasure hunt. Rhino FX partner/managing director Rick Wagonheim recalls his experience using CAD data for a 1997 Dodge commercial out of R/Greenberg & Associates. "It’s so heavy with data that you actually have to dissect the information you don’t need to get to the information you do need," he says. "It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack."
The Motor City has a little secret: out of the glare of the Hollywood spotlight, a handful of companies in and around Motor City have been wrangling CAD data, producing 3D models for use in print ads and brochures, interactive venues (including car manufacturer Web sites), and even commercial broadcast. In Birmingham, MI, the two-year-old Speedshape does just that for General Motors. Executive VP Tom Stone reveals that the company has developed a specialized process for making CAD data available for use by creative companies for all media. The technique, which, says Stone, "never throws any data away," is based on Autodesk 3ds max and several other Autodesk products, Alias Maya, Right Hemisphere, and proprietary software written in-house.
Stone has nothing against scanning, which, he notes, "produces very high-fidelity models." But he counts up the costs: $15,000 for an exterior scan, $40,000 for an interior scan, and $200,000 and up for the engine, drive train, brakes and suspension. "How do you get deeper content?" he asks. "The best way is to repurpose assets that already exist. CAD data is the same as a scan- but more accurate and more of it."
In Oak Park, MI, GTN produces quite a few national, regional and local car commercials. According to GTN senior visual effects artist Sam Marrocco, the company began its photoreal CG car work using CAD data. "We were dealing directly with car companies," he explains. "They had access to data and they believed it would be more cost-effective to give us the files.Ã¢Â€Â˜Here’s this big pile of data,’ they said.Ã¢Â€Â˜Go make a pretty picture.’" The resulting task of rebuilding models from CAD to work in their pipeline was onerous, although Marrocco says that once it was properly prepped, the stripped-down CAD-derived model slipped seamlessly into the existing 3D animation pipeline. Still, GTN has added scanning equipment to be able to take advantage of that option. "I have yet to see anyone run CAD data through a magic filter and have it be a totally transparent process," he says. "With the scanner, now we decide on a project-by-project basis whether we use CAD or scan. I have a feeling we’ll continue to do both."
A look at what some major 3D animation software companies are doing is perhaps the best way to take the pulse of the market for repurposed CAD data. Both Alias and Autodesk produce software aimed at the vehicle/product design market as well as the entertainment arena. At Alias, says product manager for global professional services Rob MacGregor, clients began asking Alias to bridge the two product lines a few years ago. "They recognized the enormous amount of latent value in CAD," MacGregor says. "They’re looking to find ways to gain efficiencies and gain differentiation in the market."
Operating under wraps until just after Siggraph 2005, Alias took on the task of bridging the CAD and 3D animation worlds as an in-house service. "It takes quite a bit to turn CAD data into a usable model," says MacGregor, who declines to name the car manufacturers and their agencies that are using the Alias service. "We take the CAD data, get it into shape and convert it to the type of model that can be used for animation purposes." MacGregor reports that other consumer product companies are recognizing the economies to be gained by repurposing CAD data.
MacGregor, whose service unit is made up of "a couple dozen" high-end modelers, says the benefits are two-fold. "There’s the optimization bucket, which is doing things you’ve always done, but doing them faster and better and with more flexibility," he says. "And there is the innovation bucket. This really makes the difference between being a leader or a follower."
Autodesk sells numerous software packages for designers, among them AutoCAD, Architectural Desktop and Revit. These are for industries that require visualization, collaboration and iterations. For that workflow, Autodesk released the File Link feature with v7.0, and enhanced it with v7.5. According to Autodesk product marketing manager Dan Prochazka, File Link enables AutoCAD’s native DWG files to open up in a 3ds max scene for easy updating of CAD info. He reports that "a couple of companies" are using it for the car market, mainly for high-res print work. But Prochazka recognizes the possibilities of CAD-derived models for the commercial production arena, where CG photoreal cars are already omnipresent.
"Now it’s the question of what’s the easy way to do it," he says. "I know the answer will be, more and more, to use existing 3D data. Instead of rebuilding the model- and rebuilding it inaccurately- CAD data is faster, more convenient and more accurate."
Prochazka sees the biggest obstacle as 3D animation pipelines not tailored for CAD data. "Just like motion capture in its early days, the problem wasn’t that the mocap company couldn’t do it or the 3D animation company couldn’t do it," he says. "If you built your pipeline around it, you could do it."
That’s exactly what Sway Studio in Westwood, CA, is preparing to do. Sway has made a name for itself in car commercials, already tailoring itself to that industry with its Sway Driving Simulator, proprietary software that lets an animator "drive" a CG car in a more realistic manner. Just back from a trip to Detroit to show off the simulator to car manufacturers, owner/visual effects supervisor Mark Glaser is already planning to use CAD data in the near future. "Its usability is highly dependent on what we’re given," he points out. "It’s a big unknown and there may be a lot of work involved. We can do it- it’s just a question of how much more work we’re going to have to put into it to generate photoreal imagery."
Like any new technology, the use of CAD will arrive in stages. First, the pioneers will construct pipelines to accommodate it. Others will write software to automate the process of building a usable 3D model out of CAD data. Sooner or later, it will become a commodity; one industry leader who declined to be identified predicted that software to make CAD data usable for 3D animation studios will launch within 18 to 24 months.
Big companies like car manufacturers turn like an ocean liner. But the ROI calculations on using a single CAD model for all media has already raised eyebrows in Detroit. Though CAD-derived models may never be a fully automated, "shrink-wrapped" process, the technology is accelerating to make it increasingly easy. "At some point, we’ll have to figure it out," says Digital Domain’s Barba. "I think it’s inevitable that the pipeline will go this direction." Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to place your bets.