Filming with a car is a massive headache. You need to coordinate a film crew, get permits and close off streets, hire a driver and a camera chase-car. If, for whatever reason, you can’t get the right subject car at the right time, the production can be derailed. In recent years, production companies have begun shooting with dummy cars that are altered in post. But one company has gone a step further by creating a shape-shifting, tech-filled dummy car that can make filming automotive content incredibly easy.
“It was about three years ago we had the idea, on the back of the first project that we did that was a fully CG car throughout,” says Alistar Thompson. He’s the International EVP for the Mill, a production company that’s done visual effects and other work on notable automotive advertisements, including the recent “Dodge Brothers” campaign and Volvo’s commercial that featured none other than Jean Claude Van Damme doing the splits between two semi trucks.
“We had a realization that the technology was good enough to achieve a fully CG car. The key thing was that it had to look right and believable,” he continued. “There was always a vehicle there, shot on camera, that was moving and that had to be going the right speed, and showing us how the car would react. So that gave us the idea for the Blackbird.”
In essence, the Blackbird is an incredibly adjustable skeleton, powered by an electric motor and littered with sensors and cameras, that can be re-skinned in post-production to mimic any car on the road. It’s an amazing technical achievement that Thompson says hasn’t been done before. “Lots of new technology is coming together to form this one thing.” The creation and refinement of new camera stabilization and systems, along with chassis adjustability, meant that from start to finish, the Blackbird took three years of planning and development.
One of the biggest technological challenges was keeping everything compact. Thompson states, “Every time you put a CG car skin on top of it, the real car has to be smaller in its template than any of those cars…you can’t have anything sticking out out front or back, ’cause you’d have to take it out digitally.” This means that the extensive camera and sensor equipment the Blackbird uses to digitally capture its surroundings — including 12 bespoke cameras on board — has to be super compact.
The Blackbird also needs to adjust to the dimensions of whatever car it’s meant to replicate so it can be properly re-skinned in post. The vehicle does this through a series of powerful electronically controlled actuators that stretch the car’s frame by up to four feet in wheelbase and 10 inches in width. Thompson says you can simply punch in the dimensions and the car adjusts automatically. “It takes literally minutes to do — you’ll see it happening in front of you. It’s very accurate,” says Thompson.
The car’s frame also needs to accommodate various wheels and suspension to recapture a car’s driving dynamics. It uses a universal hub that can accommodate any wheel from any manufacturer, while the suspension can be tuned for rigidity and dampening within minutes. Suspension components from real-world cars can also be fitted to more accurately replicate the real-world car’s movements.
At the heart of the Blackbird is an electric motor driving the rear wheels (Thompson says the Mill is planning on all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive variants in the future) that further allows the car to mimic a wider variety of driving dynamics. “The beauty of the electric motor is that it keeps data of what it’s been doing,” says Thompson. “So we can know what average speed it’s been doing, what the acceleration curve is. We can recreate that. We can give it a certain acceleration curve to mimic a certain type of curve, which allows you to create presets for a certain type of vehicle. It could be used for a [Volkswagen] Golf GTI or something like that — if we wanted to have the acceleration curves and specs and we wanted to limit the 0-60 time, we could do that too.”
“I think that all this will open up the way car content is made.”
The motor is powered by more than 40 lithium-ion batteries, though more batteries are also used for the car’s various cameras and sensors. When asked about the vehicle’s range, he laughs: “We’ve never actually run the battery out, but we suspect about 120 kilometers.” Thompson says the type of shooting the Mill does with the car is very stop-start, so the risk of running out of juice is minimal.
The vehicle is relatively new, having just debuted at Cannes — where it won the Lions Innovation Award — but Thompson feels the vehicle should have endless applications. Though the vehicle is billed on the company’s site as an innovative solution for filming ad spots, Thompson iterates that automotive content is “a big part of our lives.” The Blackbird could hypothetically be used not just in filming commercials and feature films, but also to create virtual experiences and more immersive digital car configurators.
And because the Blackbird can pose as just about any car, the sky is truly the limit with what can be rendered digitally in a real-world setting. While the Blackbird can be used to recreate rare, almost unobtainable vintage cars, it can also be used to create concept cars and abstract designs. “One of the nicest projects we’ve done so far with it was to create a car designed by a child. It looked one-hundred-percent real. It truly made fantasy look like reality. And I think that all this will open up the way car content is made.”