Graphic Interface

Last Monday, German computer graphics software company RTT, the winner of an international bid to seed General Motors’ global asset bank with digital data, made its first deposit. The complex wireframes and other precise drawings of GM vehicles will later bloom into everything from Web-based car configurators for virtual tours to full-blown commercials. The goal at GM is to get every one of its agencies worldwide to borrow cars from its new “virtual garage.”

The global asset bank, housed at GM design centers around the world, allows GM agencies anywhere to access and modify common digital assets, such as features that various cars share, says Jim Jandasek, director of Chevrolet global marketing, Detroit. The goal is a bank big enough to provide 75 to 85 percent of all static imagery (for catalogs, training and other collateral), and include running footage created with CGI, or with a camera, or with a combination of the two.

“CGI matte art now supports almost everything we do,” Jandasek says. “Once we harvest [CGI] data, we only want to do it once, and not just for Chevrolet, but to share the asset geographically and across portfolios, too.”

GM’s investment in the virtual garage is indicative of the growing need to manage its digital assets and streamline its production costs. For Chevrolet, the global shops include BrandCom, the joint venture between Campbell-Ewald and McCann Worldgroup, as well as Leo Burnett, StrawberryFrog and Ignition, which handle Chevrolet projects in Europe. “The use of CGI in our advertising across the board is already in place,” says Jandasek, “but now it has become comprehensive and it is the standardized fashion of working on a wide variety of advertising efforts.”

CGI is used for 65 to 70 percent of Chevrolet’s catalog work, Jandasek says, up from about 25 percent just a few years ago. The effort is one way GM can keep creative standards high as commercial production budgets diminish. “Structural cost reduction is paramount to GM’s turnaround plan,” Jandasek says.

Creative collaboration is key to the cross-shop CGI exchange. “The ultimate end point has got to be an improvement of quality of ideas and creative,” Jandasek says. “The ideation of creative campaigns will be shared across all the agencies. We think CGI can be a big enabler of expanding our ability to execute a big idea.”

There are already examples of how the effort will impact creative by GM agencies worldwide, Jandasek says. All roster shops will be encouraged to use the common assets. Already, for the Chevy Captiva and the Aveo, digital assets developed into full-blown commercials have been shared in vastly disparate markets among Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett and Interpublic Group’s Campbell Ewald and McCann Erickson.

GM roster shops have been responsive to the call. “CGI is an arrow in our quiver, and as we move forward we are engaging it more and more,” says Kenneth Doherty, assets account director at Leo Burnett, Troy, Mich., which handles Pontiac, GMC and Buick in several countries.

With increased demand comes increased capability requirements. CGI projects require art directors to take on greater roles than average commercials, Doherty notes. “Rather than ‘reading’ an image provided by a photographer, the art director must become the author, directing the workstation operator, who has become car prep, grip, first assistant and, at times, food service,” he says.

To better handle the client need for CGI, Leo Burnett is considering ramping up its in-house 3-D resources, Doherty says. “We have to look at taking the technology in-house, without a doubt. There are extremely useful benefits in terms of timing, creative oversight, brand integrity, confidentiality and, yes, incremental revenue,” he says.

Rina Mallick, art director and lead digital artist on Ford’s Lincoln brand at WPP Group’s Wunderman Team Detroit, Dearborn, Mich., agrees that reliance on CGI is rising, even while the preferred creative technique typically mixes CGI and photography, as in a recent spot for the Lincoln MKS that used CGI to create a crowd surrounding a vehicle. “Virtual locations have a long way to go,” she adds. “As a tool, CGI shouldn’t replace everything.”

Other automakers and their agencies are also moving toward more CGI solutions. Curt Catallo, creative director at Omnicom’s BBDO Detroit, says that CGI for Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge catalogs has increased every year. “Creatively, CGI is opening up more and more possibilities of, for instance, putting vehicles where you could never place them at a conventional photo shoot, and repurposing images in a way we couldn’t previously,” he says.

Honda’s and Toyota’s agencies, independent RPA, Santa Monica, Calif., and Publicis Groupe’s Saatchi & Saatchi, Torrance, Calif., respectively, have responded to their clients’ demand by bolstering the 3-D supervisory specialty roles, even while remaining largely reliant upon third-party vendors, many of which are photo-retouching shops that added 3-D CGI workstations and creative directors.

Four years ago, Toyota Motor Sales national manager of media and digital marketing Gregg Benkendorfer charged the agency with elevating its 3-D services. The program is coming into its own, says Michael Wilken, Saatchi’s manager of 3-D production. Every Toyota vehicle and trim package is now parked in the virtual garage for use by Toyota’s North American agencies. Wilken, a former art director, has added Larry Chou as a creative with a 3-D emphasis and Victoria Heric as a 3-D producer. The additions, Wilken says, bolster the creative, add to the agency’s pre-visualization skills for presentations, and support Toyota’s virtual garage and its business partners.

Saatchi works with vendors such as Tokyo Plastic, RTT, Sway and PsyOp to create 3-D for commercials, not only where it is obvious (Yaris’ Spy vs. Spy-like animation), but where it’s not (2006 RAV4 spots featuring animated car thieves and real-looking SUVs). All of Saatchi’s work for the Venza on Toyota.com is CGI. (The car is not yet available for shooting, among other reasons.)

Wilken says the department’s emphasis at Saatchi is not on developing finished creative in-house but supporting 3-D-related projects, such as developing HDRI modules, high-dynamic range images that capture a real environment so that a virtual vehicle can be placed within it in commercials. “There’s going to be growing 3-D capability at Saatchi, but mostly for creative concepting,” says Wilken. “CGI will significantly influence the advertising process and improve it.”

CGI’s growth at RPA is “inevitable,” says Tom Roberts, creative director in the interactive group. He supervises CGI with Laurie Slavin, art production manager, and Luis Ramirez, acd, who helps decipher the 3-D geometry from third parties such as Spring Box and helps create assets to be used agency-wide. RPA is using CGI for Honda because it is regarded as more cost-effective than live action. “There are no huge, elaborate off-site shoots, and we’re building a library of HDRI backgrounds,” says Slavin. “I don’t know if we’re there yet for broadcast, but for collateral and online we’re there already.”

Workstations on premises are a “step higher” than those that RPA uses for typical 2-D graphics. The agency’s in-house work is “solution development, training stuff, schematics, mechanics, engineering and the animation of the cars on the Web page.”

Overall, Slavin says, creative directors wandering past the computer like what they see. “More and more, CGI is becoming acceptable. There are about a half-dozen people here who know how to use CGI, even though it’s not their job. That’s making it more mainstream.”

While much of the growth in CGI business is driven by the automotive category, Richard Chuang, CEO of Pic2 and a co-founder of Pacific Data Images (now the multi-billion dollar computer-animation wing of DreamWorks SKG), says the use of CGI will become increasingly attractive to agencies working in all client categories. Among the benefits: It will reduce idea-to-delivery time; allow commercial delivery to multiple channels prior to product completion; allow ads to be more easily customized and altered after a market test; give creative greater global reach because of the standardization of the format; and allow unprecedented tracking and management of commercial imagery.

Finally, Chuang says, is the eye candy: “CGI ups the ‘wow’ factor.”