Santa Monica’s Asylum FX helped luxury car makers Porsche celebrate its sixtieth birthday by working with them to create a television commercial that features a company first – a four-door sports car called the Panamera. This spot showcases the history of the prestigious company featuring fifty of its roadsters from the past right to the present day as they race and swerve across a dusty open plain.

Many of the cars featured in this spot are classics and are considered priceless by their owners. It was therefore not an option to send vintage cars flying across a desert plain traveling at a high speed with such a high risk of damage from rocks, dust and other flying debris. This is where Asylum FX came to the rescue as they re-created portions of the fleet of cars as well as the entire live action environment.

An air base located El Toro, California served as a perfect location to generate live action plates with its extended runways that are perfect for simulating a flat desert plain. The entire live action environment of the air base would be replaced entirely through CG. Satellite imagery of the air base allowed Asylum FX to be strategic in their pre-planning.


“Houdini was a huge help in the pre-visualization process” says Zach Tucker, a CG Supervisor at Asylum FX. Zach had built a real-time vehicle dynamics simulator in CHOPS along with a simplified “tire-tracks” generator to visualize the speed, energy and feel of how cars would move and what specifically would be shot on location.

Noise CHOP’s were promoted in the vehicle dynamics asset to add suspension noise as well as camera shake. This could be dialed-in in real-time as the shot played back. This saved the team from having to create lots of keyframes since the only thing needed for each car was to draw its path and animate its position along the resulting curve. All the rest was handled by the dynamics.


Terrain & Track Generator

Houdini’s Digital Assets were instrumental in allowing Asylum FX artists to concentrate on being creative without getting bogged down with technical details. For this spot they created two primary digital assets.

The first digital asset was a terrain and track generator that was created by FX Artist Jeff Willette. The asset brought in match-moved animation for any of the specific Porsche cars that were shot. The surface terrain was procedurally generated and was created to allow the surface to become scarred, leaving tracks as the speedy Porsches ripped across it. In addition to tracks being created during the shot they also had to address the tracks already made as well as tracks extending back prior to the first frame of a shot.

The car tire tracks were also implemented with point clouds within the ground shader. There is a dense cloud of points that trails behind each tire of every car as it passes by. These points contain attributes to control the amount of displacement and tearing to the ground surface. The depth of the tracks was controlled automatically per tire based on the width of the tires and the size of the vehicle, but could easily be modified manually. Blending of multiple tracks overlapping each other happened automatically since the point clouds from all tires are read in at once and filtered together.


The ground terrain was implemented as a Mantra shader. The shader used layers of noise patterns to blend in various hand painted textures. To reduce the look of tiled texture maps, random features could be scattered across the terrain using a point cloud, each point in the cloud could be assigned to a specific texture map that could be oriented and scaled independently. Jeff’s terrain and track generating asset was outstanding in this respect as it used simple controls to hand shape the pre/post roll tracks which made it easy for the client to shape the family tree that the vintage cars carve into the ground and even easier for Asylum FX to execute it.

Dust & Debris

The second Houdini Digital Asset was created to handle the dust being kicked up by the swerving roadsters. The dust was a last minute addition to the spot but they were able to accommodate this change with ease and incorporate it into over fifty shots within the commercial. The dust asset was initially created using the guts of the terrain asset mainly borrowing the animation import setup for the various match-moved cars. From there, a spline-based volume noise system was setup. The tire for each car generated a curve from which the noise was based. 3D holdouts were projected to simple car body shapes based on the roto and that allowed Asylum FX to get very accurate holdouts to composite the dust over the cars.

”Often in a project somebody would pass a “wouldn’t it be cool?” remark and this person usually tends to be the client,” says Zach. “Luckily, once our digital assets for terrain and dust were created, we could quickly propagate changes to every shot in the commercial. It often took longer just to kick off renders than it did to transfer changes made in one shot to 59 other shots. “


Looking back at the overall spot Zach remarks “Frankly, I think every shot in this Porsche spot was a bread and butter shot from a CG stand-point. Compositing had to deal with some very picky things to get live action to play well together but we had just a handful of effects to do over and over and over again. When you look at it from that perspective, Houdini was a clear winner with a funky custom toolset for very specific task. I would not have chosen another piece of software to tackle a job such as this, considering the amount of shots we had to work with in such little time”.


Side Effects Software would like to congratulate compositor Tim Davies who has been nominated for a VES Award for his compositing efforts in the project. The 8th Annual Visual Effects Society Awards takes place this coming February 28th, 2010 in Beverly Hills, California.

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