We’ve come to the point in video game development where, in many cases, the quality of animation is so high that to an untrained eye the graphics look real. This is particularly true of the motorsport genre where entire games are based on recreating cars and racing terrain to simulate the driving experience, and where there's some freedom from the burden of creating life-like human characters. This is great news for gamers, but is a bit of a challenge for marketers of such games. People know these games look awesome so putting some footage in a spot just doesn’t pass muster like it used to.
So when it came time to promote Forza Motorsport 5, San Francisco-based agency twofifteenmccann decided to do something different. By combining high-tech gear with an old-school filmmaking style the agency turned a McLaren 12C supercar into the world’s fastest camera and a racetrack into living filmstrip. How? By mounting a Phantom Flex camera atop the car with a purpose-built rig, and enlisting pro driver Tanner Foust to race by 680 still frames output from the game at speeds topping 120 mph. The result is "Forza FilmSpeed", a two-minute film that brings the game to life in the real world.
"The fidelity and realism of games has gotten to the point that it’s harder to get much more impressive and we were trying to find a way to bring the beauty, realism and excitement of this game to life in the real world," says twofifteenmccann chief creative officer Scott Duchon. "So we started thinking, ‘Can we have a racecar with a camera mounted on it and, by the speed of the car, create the effect that the video game comes to life, kind of like a zoetrope? If you line up a bunch of stills from the game along the track, can we bring those two worlds together?"
With a great idea in hand, the real question became: was it possible? Looking for expertise, the agency turned to director Jeff Zwart. Known for his extensive experience shooting car commercials, Zwart is also an accomplished and active racecar driver and his intimate knowledge of the Barber Motorsports Park, where the commercial was to be shot, helped determine how to make the idea work.
Having recently raced that track, Zwart knew there were three straightaways and the top speed a driver could safely maintain on each stretch. "What we were being asked to do is turn a camera inside out. This was a case where the film was actually outside the camera, literally sitting next to the track. So it boiled down to math," he says. "We needed to figure out how to take single images from the game footage and lay them out next to the track so that as you drove past them they would animate in to the game footage. It came down to three things that we had to consider: the size of the pictures we drove past, how fast the camera on the car was going to run per second, and what speed we needed to travel to capture all of this."
His first test involved driving past test frames at 100 mph to determine how much distance was covered in one second. That information determined how big each frame needed to be. For instance, the max speeds on the three straightaways were 80, 100, and 120 mph. The fast the driving speed, the larger the printed frame needed to be. Says Zwart, "As long as we could drive past them at 30 of these frames in one second it would lock in and work."
The game stills at trackside were output directly from Forza Motorsport 5, which, with its amazing fidelity, produced super-high resolution, art-like images (60 of those frames have been given to the top online Forza players around the world). To capture those images, Duchon says they went to developer Turn 10 Studios and played the game through hand-chosen sequences. The stills frames were then printed onto aluminum sheets, a process that Duchon says took over 30 days.
When it came to actually filming the spot, the process was truly like no other. Zwart placed the still frames in such a way that allowed the car to do full laps, providing different backgrounds and using each of the three straight-aways to the fullest. Since "getting the shot" involved driving a full speed past the frames, the results were varied.
"We had to drive basically flat-out around the track to get to the speed with all the equipment and myself in the car. Then we’d have to hold it for as long as you possibly could," says Zwart, noting the addition of considerable weight to the carbon fiber car altered its usual performance. "It’s one thing to hit the speed, it’s another thing to hold the speed." If the car passed the frames too fast or too slow, the image captured by the camera would be blurred and would seem to drift either right or left. The car’s speed also determined how much footage was captured with each pass. "Sometimes, if we didn’t get a good exit out of the corner or we tried some other variable, we’d only capture two seconds of game footage. Other times, if it was perfect exit, we could hold for the length of the run," he says.
The goal was to capture the most perfect footage possible in this very unique way. Still, Duchon says some of the unavoidable imperfections added to the charm of the finished film and cemented the fact that it was all filmed completely in-camera. "When the camera locks into the speeds that you need for the animations to come to life, there’s a little back and forth with the frame. And we like that because it shows how real it is," he says. "There were concerns that we’re showcasing a videogame—does it have to be pristine and beautiful and be full frame for the client? Fortunately they understood that to see some of the edges around it made it believable."
And it had to be believable. "It’s really important in my work that things are real," says Zwart, which is why he was willing to push the limits of driving in order to make the idea work as imagined. "It was quite an exciting shoot just from the standpoint that we needed to drive 10/10 most of the time. Math can’t lie and you had to hit certain speeds, and the only way you could improve on it was by driving better," says Zwart, admitting it was the most technical shoot he’d ever done. "It was a tug-of-war sometimes trying to get as much footage as you could without sending the car off the track."