Pennzoil “Airlift Drift”

Image Engine turned its hand to the world of advertising for this powerful, petrol­fuelled short for Pennzoil. Read on to learn how the team adapted to a shorter shooting schedule and delivered a 90 ­second spot that appeals to the inner petrolhead in us all.

Image Engine has worked on some of the largest and most successful Hollywood franchises in history, but the talent at the studio extends beyond the realms of big screen entertainment. The team also has a great deal of experience in the small screen, ranging from top tier shows like Game of Thrones ​to commercials for the likes of Kayak, Scion, and now Pennzoil.

For the Pennzoil commercial, Image Engine needed to create a new and exciting way to demonstrate how the company’s synthetic motor oil can radically increase a vehicle’s performance. What better way to showcase that than l​iterally ​taking a vehicle to new levels?

In the short, top competitive drifter Rhys Millen accelerates a 707­-horsepower Dodge Hellcat Challenger through the night­time streets of Cape Town, the quick cuts and impactful footage punctuated by the animal, guttural sounds of American muscle combustion. The vehicle ends up on a rising platform, drifting against the black night sky while it’s lifted by four helicopters.

It was Image Engine’s long­-serving Bernhard Kimbacher who took point on the short as visual effects supervisor. “The main brief was to create the Sea Stallion helicopters that lift the 100×150­foot platform into the air, and the Dodge Hellcat while it performs all kinds of maneuvers,” he begins. “We also had to add things like the thick CG smoke that originates from the tires, some matte painting enhancements, and the Pennzoil bottle particle animation that appears at the end of the spot.”

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    Before Pennzoil Airlift Drift After
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    After-Pennzoil Airlift Drift 1
    Before Pennzoil Airlift Drift 1 After
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    After-Pennzoil Airlift Drift 2
    Before Pennzoil Airlift Drift 2 After
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    After-Pennzoil Airlift Drift 3
    Before Pennzoil Airlift Drift 3 After
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The Next Level

Image Engine has extensive experience in creating these kinds of effects, making them almost second nature. It was the tight schedule of the spot that really posed a challenge: “After the shoot had taken place, we only had five weeks to complete the entire spot, which ended up being 40 shots of varying complexity,” says Kimbacher. “In order to hit that target we had to get our main assets – the helicopter, platform and Hellcat – in good shape before we entered shot production. Once we got shots turned over the assets dropped in with very minimal per shot tweaks, which allowed us to execute them within the tight time frame.”

Image Engine’s work on the shot could be categorized into three main types: shots involving the CG platform with helicopters and Hellcat, 2D based shots, and the full-­CG shot of the bottle disintegrating at the end. The default Image Engine toolset was used for the task, consisting of Maya for animation, Houdini for FX work, NUKE and Photoshop for 2D work, and 3Delight for rendering.

“The most challenging shots were certainly the two wide aerial shots of the platform with the Hellcat racing on it,” says Kimbacher. “Every department touched that shot in one form or another. However, the basic approach to these shots was fairly straightforward. We just needed to execute them efficiently while keeping the quality as high as possible. For the vehicle, we had great reference of Rhys Millen racing through Cape Town, so we knew exactly what to match.”

Along with the complex full­CG elements, Image Engine also completed some simple environment work on the spot. “Cape Town provided a great backdrop for the commercial, and really gave it some atmosphere, but we still needed to create some simple matte paint enhancements,” says Kimbacher. “We painted out some signage that couldn’t appear in the spot, and added a Pennzoil logo to a blank wall.”

From a creative standpoint, Kimbacher found the project a very open process. “It was fun working so closely with the director,” he says. “There was more back and forth and we had the opportunity to make a really big impact on the final look.”

Power and speed combined

Image Engine completed all work on the Pennzoil commercial, from initial concept work to final shots, in less than eight weeks – a huge feat for a commercial featuring such CG­-heavy work.
“The short schedule was certainly challenging – for similarly complex work in a film schedule you’d have a lot more time to fine tune everything,” says Kimbacher. “However, we did some great work in a relatively short time. I’m really happy that we managed to stick to the super quick turnaround while maintaining a level of quality that Image Engine can be proud of.”