You probably know about green screen, and how film and TV studios use it to create computer-generated images for you favorite blockbusters.

But did you know that a lot of the cars you see on screen, on TV and especially in commercials might be computer-generated as well?

In the above video from WIRED, we take a look at the Blackbird, a collaboration between the Mill creative studios and numerous hardware manufacturers.

It has the potential to change how driving sequences are planned and done, and has already won a gold award from the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

This innovation in the creative arts is another step in using cutting-edge technology to solve very practical problems. It can change its length by up to four feet and width by 10 inches, allowing it to act as the base for anything from a Fiat 500 city-car to a limousine. Using a combination of proprietary camera stabilisation technology, tracking cues and 360° video, any car’s chassis can then be virtually aligned to the Blackbird base.

Not only that, but the crew can adjust the electronic motors to mimic the actual performance of the cars it will be emulating (front-whell vs 4-wheel drive, gear changes, acceleration levels etc).

The Mill Blackbird

The Mill Blackbird

Filming cars presents a number of unique challenges, which change depending on the desired end product. For example:

  • If you want to showcase the car in the “perfect” light, a director will want total control over the final images. If you film a real car in the real world, the amount of light will be affected by cloud cover, street lighting, shadows, time of day and reflections. Unlike film sets and photoshoots where light can be perfectly controlled, it is much harder to set up a mobile lighting rig to illuminate a moving vehicle at 30mph. Not to mention dust and dirt being attracted to the car’s paint if you are driving outdoors. By being able to digitally animate the car, and use all the collected imagery to layer on realistic reflections, the final images can be tailored to exactly meet the director’s vision.
  • If design secrecy is important to you, then using a base car like this for filming prevents anyone leaking images of prototypes before the final design is revealed. This might be important before trade shows like the Geneva Auto Show, where you could reveal a new car design and at the same time release a video of it being driven across the world.
  • If you want to film sequences where virtual cars do things their real-life counterparts aren’t capable of. Imagine a scene in Fast & Furious 9 where an old-style Mini Cooper is drifting around a corner sideways, something (I expect) the original car didn’t have enough power to do.
  • If you want to film dangerous sequences which could damage a valuable car, especially models which are no longer in production. Many classic cars can be worth more than a million dollars nowadays, ignoring any sentimental or cultural value which people put on them. Using a Blackbird, you could now create scenes where cars like this are driving on rough terrain, around cliffside motorways at high speed, or even crashing. Using original cars for this would be prohibitively expensive, especially from an insurance perspective.
  • If you want to film a scene with car designs which do not exist yet. Imagine a Sci-Fi film where cars have designs we can’t even imagine yet. Not only would virtual design allow them to film sequences, it would allow the directors and editors to adjust the design of the end-product after filming has taken place. Previously, a real prop car would have to have been made, and any changes to the design would involve physically building a new model and having to re-shoot the sequence, with all other associated costs.

All in all, it is an excellent example of how creative designers and engineers can come together to create something which solves very practical challenges.

Alas, you’ll never be able to open the virtual doors and step into it. So that viral video of you calling an Uber and being picked up in a 1960s Rolls Royce will have to wait just that little bit longer.

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Chief Editor of and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as the world's #7 Innovation blogger in 2014, I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love.