Those perfect cars you see in TV ads? Here's the Mad Max machine underneath the CGI

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The Blackbird by The Mill: a visual effects stand-in that can mimic the driving characteristics of nearly any car for filming and CGI replacement(Credit: The Mill)

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This wicked little electric beast looks like a ton of fun to drive, but it's even more impressive than it looks. The Blackbird is a visual effects stand-in for car commercials and filmmaking. Its width, wheelbase, suspension action and engine response can be tuned to match pretty much any car, and its onboard 360-degree cameras can be used to generate perfect reflections when the real car body is overlaid onto it in post production. Those car commercials that look too good to be true? They probably are, and this little beast might be the reality underneath the perfection.

You could argue that the imagery in movies and advertising has never truly been real – everything is staged, lit to perfection and color graded so that every frame is perfect. Still, this takes things to the next level. The Blackbird is the invention of Visual Effects wizards from The Mill, and it's an electric stand-in rig that means you can now film any car scene you like, without the car.

It works like this: first, you adjust the Blackbird to meet the physical dimensions of the car you're going to be replacing it with. To that end, you can alter its wheelbase by up to 4 ft (1.2 m), and its width by up to 10 in (25 cm). The suspension is also finely adjustable to mimic pretty much any chassis you'd like to use. The power curve of the rig's electric drive can also be tuned to match the target car, be it a rear wheel drive V8 or an all-wheel drive flat four.

Then, you put the right wheels and tires on, and go film. The Blackbird also carries an impressive camera rig of its own, which it uses to capture and 3D-map the environment it's being driven in.

For the final composite, you're looking at a real environment, and the wheels, tires and shadow of the vehicle are true to what was shot. But the car can be completely replaced with a photo-realistic model, including true to life reflections generated by what the rig's own cameras picked up.

The results are incredibly realistic and you'd never pick that the filmmakers didn't use a real car. For some of the shots, you'd wonder why they'd even bother to go to all the trouble of using a computer-generated car instead of a real one.

Why use a CGI rig like this?

As it turns out, there are a number of reasons. Firstly, car commercials are often shot before the cars have actually been manufactured. That means final details might not have been finalized, and the cars that go to market might not be the ones shot earlier in the process. That's where you get those "model shown may not match what we're actually selling" captions that pop up in commercials.

Secondly, car releases are often kept under extreme secrecy, with heavily disguised test mules out on the streets trying to conceal the final look of the vehicle. Shooting with a Blackbird gives keen-eyed auto paparazzi nothing but a set of rims to work with.

Then there's the issue of locations. With a Blackbird setup it's possible to film absolutely anywhere without having to transport the brand new vehicles.

And finally, the results are going to be cleaner. The shots look absolutely magic. Reflections can be fine-tuned to show the car at its best, with no camera crew or safety vehicles to be seen, and there's never a mark or distraction to worry about.

It also offers the opportunity to shoot beautiful footage of cars that will never exist outside a filmmaker's mind, as well as letting you create those amazing composites where bits of the car go transparent, or the paint jobs cycle through, or all sorts of other effects shots.

So the next time you're watching a TV commercial or movie scene with a car that looks too good to be true, maybe it is. And maybe under that perfect footage is this anonymous, black, electric Mad Max mobile.

Check out the Blackbird's extraordinary film reel below.

More information: The Mill

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