Who’s the Driver?
The Automotive Industry as a Film Tech Booster

Written by: Philip Hollerbach, Executive Producer Film & Content, Global Communications, AUDI AG

Philip Hollerbach

The technology for corporate and commercial film productions has never been this versatile and exciting. It’s a good moment to check out the advanced film tech of today, its impact on our viewing patterns – and how the automotive film industry drives the newest trends.

Bits and bytes? Nope! Some time ago, industrial film productions were shot analog on tape or celluloid. They were edited with bulky cutting machines filling up almost an entire room. Looking back, this old-school way might be romantic for some, but this was certainly not efficient or fast. And the automotive film industry was not a film tech driver.

The revolution came with digitalization. Leaving behind the analog film workflow, it was not only the way of recording and processing of the shots that fundamentally changed. Digitalization opened up a new world with almost unlimited technological and creative opportunities. It was nothing less than a breakthrough for the outstanding ways of shooting films of today.

Today, computers, software and networks are developing at tremendous speed. And film tech develops along with them, as it is almost entirely based on high-end computers. Needless to say, fictional Hollywood productions are ahead of the curve using the newest technology as well. But if we have a look at the corporate and commercial film sector, there is one branch that sticks out as technical driving force: the automotive film industry.

How is that? It would be easy to point to the film budget, which might be higher than elsewhere. But that’s just half of the truth. Also, the pressure might be higher than elsewhere. The pressure of car companies to present new premium products in quick succession. And even more important: Many automotive brands claim to be technology leaders, so the communication has to be shaped accordingly. That pressure is forwarded to the agencies and production companies that are in charge. They need to produce premium automotive films with cutting-edge technology.

New tech is always expensive and often out of reach for other industrial film sectors. It is not by chance that high-end digital camera systems or drones were first used by automotive productions before they spread throughout the whole corporate film industry. As the demand for a new technology increases after it has been initially used, the costs are cut due to improvements or a growing competition among the companies offering the new technology. In this way, the automotive film business helps to drive the evolution of film tech.

Virtual is the new green: The corporate film industry faces a fundamental change

Sometimes the automotive film industry does not only take advantage of a new film tech, sometimes the tech is actually developed by the automotive film industry itself. Like the Hyperbowl, a virtual production studio that is working hard on killing the green screen technique.

For sure, everyone has seen a lot of films that were produced with the green or blue screen workflow. It has been a basic standard for decades when actors or products are shot in a studio and not on-site at the actual film location. This workflow is inconvenient: The studio’s background has to be covered with green or blue fabric, and the actor or product is placed in front of it. After the shot has been taken, the green or blue color is replaced by a film background created at the real location. The two elements are filmed separately and merged afterwards.

This established standard is now being challenged by the new kid on the block, virtual production studios. Maybe you haven’t heard about this technique yet, but you already might have experienced its impactful outcome: Disney’s “The Mandalorian” was the first Hollywood blockbuster series relying on this technique. And not only American film companies producing works of fiction are enthusiastic about the revolutionary technique: In Munich, as the first European virtual production studio, the Hyperbowl was founded by three companies coming directly from the automotive film sector.

But how does a virtual production studio work, and what’s the revolutionary point?

Basically, it is a film studio almost completely surrounded by high-resolution LED screens. Even the ceiling of the studio consists of a screen. Film backgrounds, like landscapes, architecture or anything you need for your storytelling, are integrated in real time during the shoot. And that is the big difference from green screen productions where the background is integrated afterwards. Shoots with a green screen always have some disadvantages, like the green light reflecting from the green fabric onto the surface of objects or actors. To avoid this troublesome effect, precise lightning and a high level of effort in postproduction are often needed.

With the new workflow of virtual production studios, this disadvantage turned into an advantage: Instead of unwanted green light reflecting from the green fabric, now the LED screens emit the light. The LED wall is the main light source and thus automatically generates a highly believable atmosphere thanks to authentic reflections on objects and actors. This helps tremendously to generate a realistic look for the film and lower costs and time in post-production.

You don’t have to look far for further advantages. In a virtual production studio, actors can perform in a “real” environment instead of an abstract green room. Another benefit is that the LED content on the screens can be swapped out in real time. In this way, the film set can be turned from a desert into a tropical island at the click of a mouse. But where does the content for the LED screens come from?

The Hyperbowl uses a software platform called Unreal Engine, which was originally developed for the gaming industry. It’s the heart of the whole virtual workflow. This powerful engine can send computer-generated backgrounds like realistic-looking landscapes to all LED screens of the studio. Seamlessly and in real time.

At the same time, the movement of the camera is tracked by sensors. This information is sent back to the Unreal Engine immediately, which calculates precise adjustments to the visual backgrounds based on the camera movements. In other words, the camera pans and the background moves accordingly (“shift of parallaxes”). Movements of the camera and background can also be programmed and are therefore repeatable, which can be another benefit for certain productions.

This all might sound a little bit abstract, but in the end this workflow does nothing more than imitate the natural behavior of the background in relation to the camera angle and lenses. This is the huge game changer and opens up unlimited opportunities for film creatives around the world.

A practical example: Let’s say you want to shoot a sunset scene with actors on the beach. On location with a traditional workflow, you would have 30 minutes to make the shots happen until the sun is gone – and you have the risk of a bad weather day.

In a virtual production studio, you can have five hours of sunset. Or ten. Or nonstop through the night if you can convince the film crew. With the tap of a finger on a tablet, you can adjust the color of the sky, the amount of clouds, the shape of rocks or the angle of the sun. Or the size of the sun. Or you can swap out the sun for the moon. Or three moons. Whatever – the idea is clear, and you can just imagine the incredible opportunities this new technique brings along.

Volkswagen ID.4 reveal film produced in the Hyperbowl.

To show the whole picture, it has to be said that there are still challenges: For most dynamic automotive film productions, this workflow isn’t advantageous in economic terms compared to other workflows. Not yet.

The visual integration of the studio’s floor is a fundamental issue when it comes to driving scenes. As the only surface, the floor in the studio is not an LED screen. It remains static while shooting, and so do the wheels of the cars. Without spinning wheels and a moving road, no car driving shots can be made.

So far, there is no solution for this issue, and that’s why the first automotive film productions realized in virtual workflows combined the studio shots with classic in-camera driving shots or with computer-generated images (CGI).

The Blackbird: a fully adjustable stand-in car for CGI productions

The CGI/plate workflow combines real camera footage, the “background plates,” with animated and photorealistic 3D car models. The actual hero car does not have to be on location. Instead, a stand-in car with the same measurements is shot and replaced later by the rendered CGI car model. Finally, filmed environmental data from the road and surroundings are added to the graphic car model to imitate dynamic reflections in the surface and thus make the visual trick believable. Today this complex technique is nothing new – but a London-based company revolutionized it: The Blackbird was born.

The Blackbird is used as stand-in car during plate shooting, but it is much more, as it physically can change everything: its measurements, its shape, its wheelbase. Moreover, the electric engine is programmable and, together with the adjustable suspension, can imitate any car model’s physical driving behavior. This is already an outstanding feature, but it gets even better: Automatically, the Blackbird uses scanners and several HDR cameras to capture data from the right environment that is used for the reflections in the graphic car model later on. That’s a highly effective workflow.

The Mill introducing their creation “The Mill BLACKBIRD”.

The automotive film industry is not alone in taking advantage of this technique. Big blockbuster productions also use it for dangerous stunt sequences, to animate classic cars with realistic driving behavior or to animate futuristic cars in science-fiction productions, for example.

Downsizing of film tech

Blackbird and Hyperbowl are two major concepts for pioneering film technology. But they are used more for special cases. However, there is also one fundamental evolution in film tech that influences the general industry: the downsizing of technology as the basis for most tech trends and developments.

A lot of new film tech was possible not only because of the initial digitalization but also due to the gradual downsizing of cameras and other devices that took place in the last couple of years. It’s not a new technique per se but an important factor, a catalyst, that enables radical developments in film tech. The smaller the tech gets, the more flexible its usage is. Cameras for example nowadays can be easily rigged on or in cars, boats or flying objects. The body of drones – without rotors – can be rigged as well and used as a remote camera.

Today, even small cameras provide acceptable visual quality due to their improved lenses, resolution and stabilization systems.

And finally, a development that is pleasant not only for the client is the usage of Wi-Fi: It makes it possible to watch the shots wireless from a safe distance on a remote monitor. A couple of years ago, this was impossible. Back then, you had to make the shot and check the replay afterwards. How inconvenient!

Drones: How film tech influences our viewing patterns

The Wi-Fi technique also enables camera drones to fly, maneuver, and shoot. Of course, drones are not a special feature anymore in the film industry. Today, an ambitious student film without at least one drone shot most likely will be hard to find. One could say the usage of drone shots in films is inflationary. This is why the usage of drones is a good example not only to showcase the tech development but also to display the visual aesthetics and viewing patterns that a new tech can bring:

A new tech is developed. In the early stage, it’s unseen, new and exciting. Once the tech is successfully used by early adopters, it gets improved, simplified and democratized through economic competition and the evolution of digitalization. In this way, more film productions can afford it, and a technology becomes kind of a standard. The last stage then could be described as the overuse of a technique and its resulting shots. Sometimes this fresh, exciting, new aesthetic trend that a tech once brought becomes boring or even annoying to the audience.

Just watch a random mediocre TV film. Nowadays, you will find lots of drone shots for which, in terms of a film’s dramaturgic structure, there is absolutely no justification. One could assume, these shots are part of the film because no helicopter was needed to create them. Making these shots was affordable and feasible, so creatives use this tech. Sadly to say, often without dramaturgical purpose.

The evolution: Race drones

Film tech keeps on evolving. Drones, too, have been downsized and now offer another new opportunity to generate spectacular shots: Initially constructed for high-speed drone flying contests, very light but also powerful race drones are equipped with small cameras. This tech is new to the film industry – and the automotive film sector has been enthusiastic since the outset!

Race drones, operated by highly skilled race drone pilots who use virtual reality glasses, can fly way faster than 150 km/h. Not only their speed but also their rapid agility can create aerial shots like those never seen before. This technique enables filmmakers to fly precisely through dramatic landscapes, facilities, factories or even open car windows. The twists and turns and maneuvers like loops and rolls generate spectacular results. Obviously, adding a race drone to your film shoot on a speedway is not the worst idea. And here we go, still in the early stage but on the edge of stage two, the establishment of a technique. Pretty soon, this visual trend will also result in something that could be called oversaturation. Then, something new is needed again!

Wherever the drone evolution is leading, one thing is clear: Helicopters with cameras have not been fully replaced by drones, and drones won’t be replaced by speed drones. All three workflows offer fantastic opportunities to generate aerial shots in different ways. Their usage and results are complimentary and have one thing in common: The automotive film industry was early adopter – and driver – of all three film techniques.

Spectacular aerial shots in the trailer for the new Audi RS 3.

What will the future of film tech bring?

The disruption will continue: The analog and the digital world will continue melting together. This will happen to film tech as well. A Blackbird car that drives autonomously in an exactly repeatable manner, directly linked to camera and drone systems, which work remotely and autonomously as well? Possible! Or even: Most likely!

For sure, artificial intelligence will be a huge topic for film productions. One could imagine: In a virtual film set, cameras automatically follow human actors. Actors are separated by location, yet they act and interact in the same virtual location, generating one integrated film scene. Human actors will playact with computer-generated characters face to face and in real time. And the virtual character can react to the actors’ performance using artificial intelligence.

And even all this is just an intermediate step. In the future, most productions will be fully virtual, entirely generated with CGI and created by artificial intelligence. Produced, individualized and delivered in real time, corporate films will be addressed to individuals instead of target groups. There won’t be a single film anymore, there will be uncountable different versions of a film, and every version interacts with one individual, speaking to the audience by name and even integrating the viewer personally. This hyper-individualized content will be our reality one day. Just imagine: You will be sitting in a car with Marilyn Monroe, and you can talk to her, and Marilyn will talk back to you. Well, the artificial intelligence will. Yet, you might fall for her...

That’s all pie in the sky but not totally unthinkable if we look back on the tremendous speed the film tech has evolved over the last couple of years.

The technological evolution and the almost unlimited possibilities are very exciting, however, one thing will always remain the same: Even the newest and most advanced film tech is not able to compensate for a bad film idea! Film tech should support and follow the concept, not the other way around. At least, this is my mindset, not only when creating a film but also when I am judging a production for the Cannes Corporate Media & TV Awards.

About the author

Philip Hollerbach looks back on 300+ film projects realized in over 20 countries as Director, Creative Director and Executive Producer Film & Content at AUDI AG Global Communications. Spending the first decade of his career in a Berlin-based agency shooting films for clients like AUDI AG, BMW Mini, Bugatti, Porsche, Lamborghini, SEAT, Škoda and Volkswagen, Philip changed to the client side in 2017, bringing along his versatile expertise in creation, production, and supervision. His work has received international recognition and since 2020, Philip is member of the jury of the Cannes Corporate Media & TV Awards.