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Not Just Another Car Launch

Driving up the stakes with marketing spin.

By

16 November 2012

Text:/ Graeme Hague

How do you fit 300 people inside a single Subaru? It sounds like an old joke, but it’s exactly what SOTA Creative suggested to Subaru when the marketing agency was asked how it envisioned taking the next Subaru Impreza and Subaru XV product launch to another level. The two companies enjoy a close relationship and Subaru’s approach to each launch is to challenge Leon Minervini, SOTA’s managing director, to come up with something new and original. So how about a nice drive in the country? Hmm, not so original. For everyone, all at the same time? Now it’s getting interesting.

Launching new car models is a funny business. They’re usually lavish affairs with a lot of hype, even though the audience is mostly dealers and business partners who you’d think wouldn’t need much persuasion that the latest and greatest is… well, going to be the latest and greatest. The idea is to create excitement about the new models, which will hopefully translate into enthusiastic sales teams selling lots of cars… You get the idea and besides, AV production companies all over the world regard car launches as bread-and-butter gigs and nobody’s about to complain. They can be fiercely contested events, one-upping opposition car manufacturers in scale and grandeur. The ever-present internet factor makes its mark, too. By the time folks arrive at the launch, chances are they already know every nut and bolt of the new vehicles thanks to leaked websites, 3D presentations and good ol’ YouTube. There isn’t much left to impress them with, so launches need to be innovative with plenty of fresh content.

PANORAMIC PROJECTION

Subaru loved the idea of taking all its guests on a spectacular virtual drive around the hotspots of Sydney and nearby countryside, putting them inside the car with a full and accurate 360° panorama visible through all the windows and even the rear-view mirror. Using 360° projection isn’t a world-first – far from it. Lots of aircraft and maritime simulators are doing something similar and just about any expo worth attending will have a full-surround display working for somebody, somewhere (Ford in the USA has a full-time travelling ‘Cloud’ display that crisscrosses the country all year). But these are much smaller in size, using curved screens and, in the case of simulators, have the luxury of dedicated server rooms and soundproofing in a permanent facility.

The difference – and the ‘wow’ factor – with the Subaru show was the sheer size of the projection that would allow 300 passengers inside the car.

SOTA began liaising with a company called Social Animal, headquartered in Los Angeles. Social Animal specialises in creating immersive 360° imagery for commercial applications using its proprietary SA9 camera system. Its delivery medium is mostly web-based, so projecting one of its videos on such a large scale in high definition was a new challenge. And there was another obstacle: Social Animal’s window of availability was right away, otherwise it was a no-go (they must work with our editors). Within a week a team of Social Animal creators and their equipment was bundled on a plane bound for Australia with filming scheduled to be completed over a single weekend.

Nine first-surface mirrors and nine Silicon Imaging SI-2K Mini (2048 x 1080) cameras and nine MacBook Pro notebooks are used in Social Animal's unique SA9 360º panoramic image capture system.

HARD DRIVING

The SA9 system is a rig of nine 2K silicon-image cameras rigged in a mirrored array (opposing cameras precisely capture front and rear, left to right, etc). For this project the SA9 was mounted inside an open-top camera car. Each camera has its own Mac laptop feeding HD data to a Blackmagic hard drive, which quickly filled and frequently had to be backed up to allow further shooting. Just the recipe for a pleasant Sunday drive.

Once everything had been captured, Social Animal left copies of the files with SOTA for safekeeping and took the originals back to LA for processing. The nine camera feeds were blended into a single strip for projection at 1080 pixels high – the easy bit – and something close to 23,000 pixels wide… Maybe not so easy.

Now it was Haycom AV’s turn to transform all this data into a projected reality. Haycom’s Stuart Gregg and his crew were given a single day to get everything ready.

The screen configuration ended up being an asymmetrical octagon. A total of 12 Christie Roadster HD10K-Ms were installed on a similar-shaped truss flown above the audience. The quiet running of these projectors was a major factor in their choice, even against competing models with more lumen punch. Rear projection wasn’t an option and the overhead truss had to be carefully placed so no shadows were created on any part of the screen, and none of the audience members were at risk of copping an eyeful of a 10,000-lumen projector beam.

Two projectors covered each of the four larger facets of the octagon and blended with a single projector focused on the smaller corners. Each had its own computer dedicated to running essentially one-twelfth of the final edit provided by Social Animal, all networked to a server running Watchout software to deal with most of the blending, while Christie’s Twist technology handled the rest plus the warping required. For redundancy, Haycom rigged an extra two HD10K-Ms focused in a standard wide-screen setup to the front. The 360° projection concept had one last hiccup – Haycom AV didn’t have 12 matched lenses. VR Solutions came to rescue, pulling out all the stops to supply the shortfall at very short notice.

A little more bulky than a handicam, the SA9 sports nine preview monitors.
A fleet of Christie 10K projectors hung from an octagonal truss provide the full wrap-around panoramic spectacle.

MAP TIME

But first things first. No one wanted to see a bunch of Yank hoons zooming around the NSW countryside in a camera car. It was supposed to be a Subaru. So SOTA had some post-production to get done, mapping out the interior of the new car using still pictures against a green-screen background. Adding in the rear-view mirror was a little After Effects wizardry that Leon’s creative team was happy to take credit for. It was decided that the vision should speak for itself, and audio was kept to a minimum. Rather than opt for a more realistic surround-sound track of revving engines, a partner giving directions and the kids complaining from the back seat, a simple music track was used – except for the sound of a car door closing at the beginning. Very tasteful.

Finally, as you’d expect, the launch was to culminate in the real thing with the Subaru Impreza arriving in a blaze of glory. Originally Subaru was hoping to fly the car in from the ceiling (why do they always want to fly stuff in? Nikki Webster’s got a lot to answer for), but when the cost was estimated organisers wisely opted for a more conventional method – start the engine and drive it in. This required one of the larger screen facets, which were all custom-built scrims, to be flown on a track-bar and tabbed aside for the grand entrance. This wouldn’t be a problem in any bog-standard theatre but remember this was put together from scratch at the Hordern Pavilion. Also, the doorways for the guests and catering staff were created in the corners of the screens. All these gaps in the scrims had to be carefully monitored, not only to prevent anyone inadvertently walking through at a crucial moment, but to maintain the impression of a seamless, continuous screen.

FREE RIDE

The end result was nearly four minutes of 360° vision that had punters reaching for seat belts and hanging onto chairs as they swept around tight corners. Even the hard-core AV techs admitted it was something to behold. The entire surround screen was then used for presentation content and a second video showing a montage of Subaru models past and present. The whole event was held twice for a variety of Subaru staff and guests, and also included presentations by VIPs in the round and a band playing on a stage placed behind the tabbed scrim, which was again pulled aside. Everyone agreed it was a fantastic, successful launch.

It makes you wonder just how much Leon Minervini at SOTA will be looking forward to his next project with Subaru – that challenge to come up with something different. Good luck with that, Leon.

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