Mini Milan

For ‘Flow’, a spot promoting the 2011 MINI Countryman, SWAY Studio created hundreds of vehicles magically splitting, reforming and driving with precision through the streets of Milan. We talk to visual effects supervisor Aaron Powell about the use of SWAY’s Drive-a-Tron driving simulation tool for the commercial.

Watch the spot here

fxg: How did you pitch your work for this spot?

Powell: We showed the production company, a test that we shot outside in the street, and we got hold of a MINI model and had it drive down the street and had three cars split off in different directions. The agency loved it and it started off from there. We knew we would be able to fill the streets of Milan with as many as MINIs as the director, Brian Beletic, wanted. We actually didn’t think we’d do as many shots, but we ended up with 30 something shots in a 60 second spot.

10Oct/mini/FL090 fxg: What did they end up filming live action?

Powell: There were only three real MINIs. They only had one hero car and really only filmed that for reference. We would have it drive through the scene so that we could see how the lighting and reflections played off of it. Only three scenes featured the actual hero car. So there are about 300 MINIs in the whole spot and just three of them are real.

fxg: What things did you do on location to help you later on in terms of tracking?

Powell: We markered everything. We were shooting six or seven shots a day and so didn’t have time to survey everything. But we did have these battery powered LEDs that were magnetic and could stick to metal elements. On film they became a really nice hot point to use for tracking. Myself, the compositing supervisor and the producer were on location and we would run around setting up as many markers as possible based on where the camera was being set up. We also used the satellite views on Google Maps to re-create a map of what was filmed. We used this to match up with the measurements we had taken and it really helped to build out the set. For the shots on the golf course, we used bright orange ping pong balls in the grass.

fxg: How did you go about modelling the MINI?

Powell: We had the specific CAD data for the MINI in this spot with all the rims, stripes and grille information. We also took photographs of the talent, predominantly the driver and his girlfriend in the car, and put CG versions of them in the front seats. You couldn’t see the guys in the back seats but we still had representations of them. Our digi doubles could be seen through the windscreens.

fxg: What were the tools you used?

Powell: The modelling was done in 3ds Max and rendered in V-Ray. We’ve got an extensive library for surfacing our cars with different types of paint and coats. We matched that to the reference photography. Our compositing was done in both Nuke and Flame. And the animation was done in our Drive-a-Tron tool.

fxg: Let’s talk about Drive-a-Tron – what’s the history of that system?

Powell: Well, the owner of SWAY commissioned a programmer about six years ago to create a simulator that gives you the right driving look – the right compression of springs, the right squash of the tyres and even something that lets you leave tyre tracks. You actually drive a CG car with a steering wheel. We’ve modified and enhanced it over the years, adding features when necessary. For the MINI spot, one of the features we added was being able to bring in scores of ‘marker’ MINIs. We needed representations of those so that you didn’t drive cars through each other. The whole point is that once the cars split, you have a new car that obeys physics. They don’t drive back into each other.

We built a low-poly version of the set, say the intersection or the golf course, then we bring in our tracked camera so we can view it from that perspective and start driving through it. When there’s 80 cars in the scene, we’d probably drive 65 of them individually and then duplicate some of the paths. So you drive each one, save it, bring that car back in as a ghost car which means you have to avoid it. We would layer and layer these cars like that. The first car you drive in the scene is great. But for the twentieth car you drive, you actually spend more time avoiding the other cars than you do moving it around the scene.

fxg: How do you control that animation?

Powell: We bring a low-poly version of the car into the scene and you set everything – the stickiness of the tyres, the spriggyness of the shocks. Once you’ve got all that dialed in and you drive through the scene, the great thing about it is you don’t need to take all day to do one shot or scene. If you drive through and it takes 10 seconds to get through the scene, you’re done. A really tricky move might take a number of tries, but you can easily reset and save.

We then export the information for the body of the car, the wheels, the individual tyre deformations and even the steering wheel information so that if you look close enough into the car, as the tyres turn the steering wheel also turns. Then in Max we drop the data into the hi-res MINI rig. It’s a really robust system and our primary Drive-a-Tron operators could power through scenes with 50 cars in just a day.

fxg: How did you achieve the shot of the actual cars splitting?

Powell: For those shots, we actually forced our drivers to bring in a ghost car and line up to it perfectly, or as close as possible. So it did look like geometry running into other geometry. But if anything poked out the other side, we could clip it out in compositing.

fxg: One of the shots I’m thinking of in particular is that first one of the MINIs splitting into three.

Powell: We originally wanted to film this live action and add two CG MINIs to it. The stunt driver looked at what the director wanted to have happen, where it was going to back in and swing around and drive down. But the stunt guy did not feel comfortable doing it as it was only a small intersection and he was worried he might clip the wall. We only had one hero car. So we had him drive through it frontwards and backwards as reference and then we just went back and simulated it. It took about 20 tries to get it right, but once we nailed it it turned out great.

fxg: There’s also a nice shot at the end on the ferry where the cars are not quite together.

Powell: The whole point of that shot is that two cars went in and didn’t quite make it. In the close-up of the driver, they’re actually sitting right next to each other having not quite merged. Then for the outside shot, we split them apart a little bit more to make it really evident, until the last guy comes in and collapses them altogether. It took a lot of massaging just to show that. Also, just to get the car to land and stop over such a short distance took some real stunt driving, seeing as we were simulating it.

fxg: Was this a spot you could previs?

Powell: We previs’d it for a long time. The director sent us location photos. We did the previs to help the director get an idea of where he wanted to film. We were over there for about two weeks. Four days was for shooting but before that we did a tech scout and spent time working out how to shoot it. Our tech scouts would be these 12 day hour days where we’d shoot a bunch of reference photos. I’d upload those to LA and Skype in with the guys at work and they would do some previs ideas for that location. By the time we got up the next morning in Milan, the guys in LA had spent the day doing the previs and uploaded it the FTP which we could have on our laptops. So the time difference worked really well.

fxg: How did it come together in editing?

Powell: Well, of course, on the day of the shoot things could change quite a lot if the DP had different ideas or if it worked better another way. Once they made their edit, we had to go back to the drawing board. There’s one scene, for example, where the guy comes out to the middle of the street and cars are swinging around him towards him. It was actually originally intended to have the cars going away from him. That’s why he looks left. But the editor decided it would look cooler if the cars came at him.

For one shot that had just about all the cars in the city, the original gag was that they were all supposed to come together as one car at a toll booth right before a tunnel, so they only had to pay one toll and then split up again. But they changed that for the police gag. We had about 80 cars in that scene and the guys really had fun with that shot by making them hop over the curbs. The big thing with the splits was to have something that motivated the split. So any time you hit a curb, it would bounce a car out of there. Or if there was a hard turn we had centrifugal force pull a car out. And by not making them hit each other, it really added to the danger of the scenes. Our drivers also had to create a lot of their own choreography once they knew how the camera was moving and where everything was going. Previs was really just for conceptualising, but once we got our plate and the edit it was time to do it all over again! But all the pre-planning and everything we did really paid off.



PRODUCT: MINI Countryman
Title: “Flow”  (:30/:60)

Head of global advertising and social media: Robert Gocke
Global advertising: Piera Kaempf

ADVERTISING AGENCY: BSUR Amsterdam / Netherlands
Creative Director: Jason Schragger
Creative Director: Paulo Martins
Copywriter: Gian Carlo Lanfranco
Art Director: Rolando Cordova

PRODUCTION COMPANY: Smuggler / Hollywood, CA
Director: Brian Beletic
Partner & Executive Producer: Brian Carmody
Partner & Executive Producer: Patrick Millingsmith
Post Producer: Franny Faull

Executive Producer: Jason Cohon
Visual Effects Supervisor: Aaron Powell
Compositing Supervisor / Senior Flame Artist: Pilon Lectez
CG Supervisor: Artur Sayan
Senior Producer: Alex Thiesen
Production Coordinator: Andrew Gilson

Flame Artist: Brad Scott
Flame Artist: Todd Hemsley
Nuke Artist: Lawrence Littleton
Nuke Artist: Scott Hale
Nuke Artist: Ken Littleton
Pre-visualization: Robert Glazer
Drive-A-Tron Operators: Cesar Chavez, Alexander Powell
Animator: Nathan Millsap
Color & Lighting: Artur Sayan, Cesar Chavez, Nathan Millsap
Photogrammetry: Andrew Swihart
FX Artist: Rob Valdivia
FX Artist: Steve Wang

Tracking Lead: Marco Maldonado
Tracking: Steve Hansen
Lead Roto Artist: Elissa Bello
Roto Artist: Kenneth Lui
Roto Artist: Billy Robinson

EDITORIAL HOUSE: Rock, Paper, Scissors / Santa Monica, CA
Editor: Adam Pertofsky
Executive Producer: Carol Lynn Weaver
Producer: Juliet Batter
Assistant Editor: Neil Meiklejohn