Digital Domain Gets Extreme for Nissan’s Titan

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Agency Chait|Day has produced two new 30-second commercials for Nissan with visual effects created by Digital Domain, leaving no doubt that the Nissan Titan is the toughest truck on four wheels. The team’s work includes invisible environment augmentation and dramatic, realistic weather effects.

VFX supervisor Randall Smith was on set throughout the five day shoot at Inyo National Forest in east California near the Nevada border, spending 14 to 16 hours per day with the directors The Chartrands, the producers and crew. The shoot involved travelling from desert country up to the nearby mountains.

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Randall said, “This campaign turned out to be very creative project for us. We were handed a blend of conceptual challenges, top quality car photography to work with, and a fantastic location. Digital Domain has worked with both Chiat|Day and Nissan in the past very successfully and we felt confident about meeting their demands.”

The production wanted each of the two spots - titled 'The Day Shift' and 'The Night Shift' - to express extremes, contrasting cold and heat, night and day. Everything needed to feel larger than life – the massive sandstorm, clouds of dust, thunderstorm clouds that filled the sky. At the same time, at only 30 seconds per spot, time to tell campaign’s story was limited.  See ‘The Day Shift’ here and ‘The Night Shift’ here.

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Randall said, “VFX supervision was important for the campaign because getting the right elements into the plates as far as possible while on set was critical, for looks as well as to avoid the need for too much work in post. The location was beautiful and impressive and laid the groundwork for the director’s intentions, but background augmentation was always going to be a primary part of the work and varied from shot to shot.”

As well as making sure enough on-set lighting, layout and measurement information was captured for data integration, for Randall, being there on set was a good way to understand the real life feel of the landscape and decide what would look realistic and convincing in terms of enhancement.

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The camera used was the Alexa XT, plus a Phantom high-speed camera for slow motion shots of the horse and tires rumbling over the rocks.

A strangely appropriate intervention, emerging very close to the site of the shoot, was a forest fire, one of many occurring in the LA region in recent years due to lack of rain. Because fire was originally intended to feature in the story, it was in one way a great opportunity for a reference shoot, both for this project and Digital Domain’s library, but on the other hand, managing forest fires has become a political issue in the area. Instead of including a raging wall of fire in the commercial, they decided to keep it in the distance and let firelight reflect from the actor’s face.

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Not so keen to venture into newly burnt areas, they found a place at Inyo that had been affected not long before by natural gasses seeping from the ground that had poisoned the vegetation. The scorched, blackened appearance of the plants and ground was useful to include in the photography.

They had anticipated that shooting in a National Forest would involve restrictions on time, parking and use of props. But after arriving they discovered that in some places, this meant no parking at all along forest roads and no artificial snow on the trees or the ground. Therefore, location scouting, which took two days, and the shoot proceeded with care. They wouldn’t have time in post to work on plates full of foreground and mid-ground trees, for example, that all needed CG snow. So they chose more open areas for the snow shots with trees in the background.

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Back in the studio at Digital Domain, the VFX team got to work on the plates. “Most of the work was done using Houdini and Maya,” Randall said. “Composting was done in Nuke and as usual we used quite a few of Digital Domain’s proprietary tools. Strong CG supervision was key during this project.  CG Supervisor David Liu was responsible for hitting our quality bar within such a short amount of time.  He was able to manage the large team of artists with ease and jumped in with his own expertise as situations required it.”

The weather phenomena benefited from a layered approach instead of a building them outright as large simulations. “The team had actually started working on one for the storm as a big super-cell event, but although simulations are exciting and can be very effective, they aren’t very flexible for making adjustments and last minute changes,” said Randall . “Instead we decided to layer up digital matte paintings, smaller library simulations, sheeting rain and other 2D and 3D elements.

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“This placed the final design and looks stages in the composite, and lighting was adjusted in the composite too. As well as flexibility, this approach meant we had a more diverse team committed to the project, encompassing artists with a range of different skills.

The night-time spot would need day-for-night treatment in the grade, which the production assisted by shooting at twilight. The only element shot under true night light is the actor’s face. The aerial shots are composites of video the cameraman shot of the cars from overhead in a controlled space, and Digital Domain then composited the car elements into stock landscape shots.