Design Visualization

Armstrong White

Using Autodesk 3ds Max and Autodesk Combustion, artists quickly create energized animations highlighting two powerful engines for North American International Auto Show

Armstrong White is no stranger to the automotive advertising industry. Over the last several years, the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based facility has built an impressive reputation creating high-end images, primarily for print ads announcing new-vehicle launches and new business pitches. "Eighty percent of our business comprised servicing the big ad agencies," says Chuck White, president. "We'd get photos of the cars and retouch them, mostly in Photoshop, until the customer thought they were perfect."

The company achieved great success in this highly competitive field, and even formed a CGI Department in 2003 to support its retouching business. However, it was yearning to expand into animation. So, when ad agency BBDO Detroit approached Armstrong White just before Christmas 2003 to create two 30-second animations for the 2004 North American International Auto Show, White jumped at the chance-even though his crew of 15 artists would have just eight days in which to create the animations.

"This job was extremely important because although we've done Auto Show work for years, it's always been on the retouching side," says White. "These would be our first animations for the Auto Show, and animation is something we always wanted to get into. The North American International Auto Show is a huge event. We couldn't turn it down."

Fortunately, the talented artists in Armstrong White's CGI Department have 3ds Max software installed on their machines. Plus, the company has two seats of Autodesk Combustion software. "We couldn't have done this job without 3ds Max and Combustion, that's a definite," states David Burton, CG supervisor. "Thanks to these products, we were able to create two powerful, attention-grabbing, high-end animations, and hit our deadlines."

The North American International Auto Show, held in Detroit each January, is one of the world's top international auto shows and is one of the longest-running auto shows in the United States. The 2004 show featured 73 exhibitors from around the world and attracted a public audience of more than 800,000 attendees.

On behalf of auto giant DaimlerChrysler, BBDO Detroit contracted Armstrong White to create two animations to be looped continuously throughout the show in DaimlerChrysler's exhibit space. The animations, designed by Armstrong White senior designer Bruno Hohmann, highlighted the inner workings of Dodge's HEMI and Cummins engines. While the HEMI animation took attendees on a 30-second thrill ride through the engine, the Cummins animation showed them an exploded view of every engine part, then flew them through the engine before rebuilding it by bringing all the pieces back together again.

To create the animations, the artists began with actual engineering data of the engines, which they received from DaimlerChrysler. "We translated that data into a format 3ds Max could work with, and then we applied surfaces and textures to the models in 3ds Max," says Burton. They also used 3ds Max for animation and lighting. For rendering, the artists used V-Ray, a plug-in to 3ds Max from Chaos Group. According to Burton, each engine was rendered in approximately 16 layers. To composite the layers and to perform color correction, the artists relied on Combustion running on a compositing renderfarm comprising approximately 40 machines.

According to Armstrong White, the challenge associated with this project concerned creating the photorealistic, engineering-accurate animations in just eight days. Along these lines, numerous features in 3ds Max and Combustion proved indispensable in terms of helping the artists overcome the challenge.

One such feature was the XRef capability in 3ds Max, which enabled multiple artists to work on their own sections of the engines, while ensuring that they were working on up-to-date geometry. "This saved time because no one had to wait for anyone else to finish what they were doing," says Burton. "Plus it ensured that fewer mistakes would be made because everyone was working with the most current version of the geometry as it was being translated and massaged."

Also important was the ability to render in the .rpf format. "This enabled us to quickly get our lighting and materials set up, and it made it easy for us to make changes and adjustments in Combustion after the renders were done," says Burton. "Having those .rpfs didn't just allow us to have very fine control over the image quality; it was crucial to us being able to stick to our deadline."

The artists also appreciated the effectiveness of Autodesk Backburner, the free network processing management software. "We have 60 machines on our entire renderfarm. With Backburner, we could send test animations to those machines and have them render them off very quickly," says Andy Czilok, lead animator. "Backburnerhandled that task very effectively and efficiently."

Czilok also cites the IK capability in 3ds Max as being quite beneficial. As he explains, each engine was animated with two dummy objects-one on the crankshaft and one on the camshaft. Using the IK in 3ds Max to control all the engine parts, the animators were able to animate parts in each engine with the confidence that all the relevant parts would move accurately.

"I could change the motor speed very quickly, and I knew everything that would be affected by the change in speed would move the way it needed to," Czilok says. "We had engineers from Chrysler looking at the animations as we were creating them to make sure the timing was right on the valves, pistons, and so forth. Everything had to be in sync; we couldn't fake it. Using the IK tools in 3ds Max helped us to ensure that the animations were accurate."

Although the Auto Show animations were complex and the deadline was extremely tight, taking on the job was well worth it. According to White, numerous agencies that saw the animations at the show have invited the facility to bid on new jobs. "We received lots of accolades for our work, and we're getting lots of projects we wouldn't normally have gotten," he says.

"This definitely has opened doors for us," he concludes. "Our success in this field is due, in large part, to 3ds Max and Combustion."

Armstrong White (pdf - 310Kb)