All advertising involves a bit of exaggeration, but this is a little meta. Witness this opening sentence from The Mill, a visual effects studio based in London: “The Mill transforms automotive advertising with The BLACKBIRD® – the first fully adjustable car rig that creates photoreal CG cars.”
To be clear, The Blackbird doesn’t magically create cars on its own—but it still helpful. It looks like a car in its own right—four wheels and a motor with some body panels and a frame around it—and you can drive it around. Save for some niche interest, however, The Blackbird is not a car anyone ever sees. Like Martin Freeman in Love Actually (2003), it’s a stand in.
a set of movable wheels onto which dreams can be projected
The Blackbird’s central intuition is that much of a car can be reproduced in computer graphics if the position and shape of its wheels can be captured in real life. That’s what The Blackbird is: a set of movable wheels onto which dreams can be projected. Its length is variable by four feet, and its width slightly less so. It is little more than an outline.
Cars are already created in virtual environments. That’s part of the manufacturing process. It’s a battle that was won years ago: in terms of their shapes, cars are already digitized and digital. The challenge comes from inserting them in the real world. How do you capture a car’s movements and interactions with the environment? A stand-in like The Blackbird allows CGI artists to capture the exact environment surrounding a car with minimal interference.
In a convenient twist of fate, the sort of environment mapping used in computer graphics rendering (most commonly HDRI spheres) looks a lot like the kind of panoramic video used in virtual reality. As such, The Blackbird can be used to visualize a car on top of the mock-up in real time. This augmented reality usage is less lifelike, but it is indicative of the ways product design technology and visualizations can slowly merge over time. None of these things are entirely new on their own, but the combination allows for the creation of more lifelike virtual worlds.