The Blackbird looks and drives exactly like a Ford Mustang. And a Toyota Prius. Or a Range Rover. That, after all, is the point: The Blackbird isn't any of those cars, but it can appear to be all of them. The Mill, a British visual-effects production firm, designed the Blackbird as a fully adjustable car rig that changes sizes and handling to mimic any car while “re-skinning” it with photo-real computer generated imagery that tricks the eye into seeing whatever car an advertiser or film director wants you to see.
“It's like motion capture for cars,” says Alistair Thompson, international executive vice president for the Mill, explaining that the car being mimicked may be too rare or expensive, or unavailable during a shooting schedule. It might also be a car the company doesn't want seen in public yet or a futuristic car for a movie.
Working for two years with an array of design partners, the Mill created the Blackbird—named after the superfast reconnaissance plane—so its size and shape can change with the push of a button while the wheels and suspension can also be easily altered to copy any car's chassis, and the electric motor can be programmed so it handles like virtually any car. The car is equipped with cameras and scanners that create a perfect three-dimensional model of the surrounding environment to better bring the car to life and to ensure that the reflections on the CG covering of the car can be perfectly matched to the “reality” of its location when the “car” is added in postproduction.
“The idea is quite simple, but what's not simple is making it happen: capturing the environment perfectly because vehicles are mirrors on wheels and reflect everything back,” Thompson says.
And because all the visual details of the car are computer generated they can be easily altered and updated without reshooting anything. Want that Chevy Camaro to be black? No problem.
Thompson also believes it will change how car designers work. “It's difficult to know what a car will really look and drive like when you are designing until the later stages, but we can allow car companies to see the 'car' driving with a skin over the top of the Blackbird so they can visualize things earlier and more effectively.”
Thompson says automotive companies can use the Blackbird to create a virtual reality showroom, where the viewer could see how a car handles on an actual location but would also have the ability to switch the colors and other details, inside and out. “This is a new level of interactivity,” Thompson says, adding that you could even switch out the kind of car you are watching in a chase scene. “The interactivity will change the process of buying a car.”