Car commercials are a dime a dozen. They are the main tool used by automakers to let the world know about their newest products, to present that certain je-ne-sais-quoi that makes buyers pick their pockets and go to the nearest dealer to buy one car as opposed to another.
But what if you knew the car you are buying is not exactly the car you see in the commercial? And that’s not a philosophical question.
For years, before the age of digital visual effects, car commercials were being shot using real cars, real surroundings and so on. Some of them are still shot this way even today. But not all. And we have The Mill to blame for this.
The Mill is a UK-based visual effects and creative content company. It was founded in 1990s and since has won a long list of awards for its work. But their trademark creation is the Blackbird, a chassis with wheels and dreams of becoming more.
That means they needed a tool that could be transformed in any car they wanted to, at the push of a computer key, so that the desired footage is obtained without the actual car being on location.
Blackbird is the result of an effort by The Mill, JemFX, Performance Filmworks and Keslow Camera. It takes its name after the infamous SR-71 Blackbird, as it has been assembled, says The Mill, in the same hangar where the supersonic spy plane was constructed.
Physically, this Blackbird is only a chassis, adorned with the required four wheels and an electric motor to power it along. The concept is, if you like, an X-Ray showing how a car would look if it hadn’t any body.
It can be extended by 4 feet (1.2 meters) and widened by 10 inches (25 cm), which means it can mimic the underpinnings of virtually any passenger car out there, except perhaps full-size trucks. The suspension of the Blackbird can also be altered to mimic almost any chassis design available, be it from a small car or a crossover.
The wheels on the Blackbird can be changed as often as required and with any wheel model needed for the shoot, so carmakers, instead of providing an entire car for filming, only have to be ready to ship the wheels on location.
The electric motor powering the car is programmable, meaning it can be made to imitate the driving characteristics of a wide range of vehicles.
Blackbird also uses an array of high dynamic range imagery and 3D laser scanning, which allows it to create computer generated renderings on any environment.
Simply put, one can shoot the chassis in a desert, and make it look like a Tesla Model X doing donuts on the Las Vegas strip.
The Blackbird is a blend of two worlds. It is an actual chassis, meaning it interacts for real with the environment it is located in. It casts shadows, it raises clouds of dust and makes noise. It is also a computer generated vehicle, meaning it can take any color, shape and size the client desires.
It is the ultimate make-believe.