Putting Futuristic Cars for Hollywood into High Gear with GPUs

by Tony Kontzer

Way, way back four years ago, while fleshing out designs for cars to be used in the movie Tron: Legacy, auto-futurist Daniel Simon would create vehicle concepts, and then leave them to be rendered overnight.

When he’d arrive at his office the next morning only to find that the rendering software had crashed at 2:30am, he’d figure out how to pick up where he left off so that he wouldn’t have to re-render his first frames.

In other words, he’d face a time-consuming process on top of a time-consuming process.

“Now, it’s jut a matter of lunchtime,” Simon said during a presentation Wednesday at the GPU Technology Conference. “We’re really, really close to real time, depending on the resolution.”

What’s the difference? GPUs.

After using Autodesk’s Alias industrial design software to create models of his creations, Simon turns to his favorite strategy—using Bunkspeed Pro, which uses NVIDIA’s iRay renderer, to quickly create “turntable” animations that show off 3-D elements of his vehicle designs. 

“Rendering a turntable in a matter of minutes really freaks me out,” said Simon, who readily admitted that, as a designer, he knows little about technology other than how to use it.

And use it he does. Simon, who established his name with Cosmic Motors, his acclaimed 2007 book of high-resolution images of futuristic vehicles, has designed the eye-popping vehicles seen in Tron: Legacy, Captain America, and the upcoming Tom Cruise film Oblivion.

“I love surfaces, I love details, and I love highlights,” said Simon, “but I need a lot of rendering to do that.”

While Simon doesn’t use GPUs to speed up his creative process, the ability to use them to significantly shorten rendering times clearly excites him, especially when compared with his humble beginnings creating his designs on a Commodore 64. He went so far as to suggest that GPUs have increased his passion for what he does.

Said Simon: “Pulling this off, not as BMW or Audi, but with like 10 people, is just so fulfilling.”

This post has been updated to reflect the key role played by Bunkspeed Pro in Simon’s workflow.