Project study: “Track Dedicated: McLaren P1™ GTR animation”

3dtotal chat to Mondlicht Studios about their latest Unreal Engine project and the workflow involved, creating an animation for the McLaren P1™ GTR…

Mondlicht Studios' Website


Mondlicht Studios recently released a new automotive project created in Unreal Engine. The team was eager to create a project with character, with different environments and movement, making most of Unreal Engine's possibilities.

Mondlicht Studios specializes in CGI advertising productions, focused on the highest visual quality. The studio's pipeline includes Cinema 4D, Houdini, Maya, 3ds Max and other 3D applications, combined with render engines such as Redshift, V-Ray and more. In the past, the team has been confronted with the question if they are able to use Unreal Engine in a production focused on the highest level of visual quality as in non real-time render engines.

Despite the growing popularity of Unreal Engine, there are still not so many project studies connected with this question. 3dtotal was happy to talk with Mondlicht Studios to find out the project's story and some interesting tips about UE workflow.

McLaren P1 GTR animation // Unreal Engine

“What I love most about this project is that our team was able to combine creative and technical experience. Coming from cgi production with 'traditional' render engines, we still approached the project like any other animation before. We wanted a proof of concept that we are able to achieve the same level of quality in Unreal Engine”.

-       David Schäfer

The idea behind the project

The idea for the project had been developing for a few months. Mondlicht Studios’ team started to think about a new automotive project right after the video with Brabham was released. For a long time, motion designer Nikolay Okolita explored advertising videos with sports cars, always paying attention to the techniques, allowing to communicate the dynamics, speed and movement the best possible way.

The project started with its main hero - McLaren P1™ GTR. After the car was chosen, David Schäfer prepared the model, using a model from a popular 3D model store, recreating the original livery and pimping various details. Stefan Evrard began working on the shaders and lighting. The idea to create a stylish race video was in the air and was then boiled down by the team and poured into first rough video edits.

3d model light glare sports car render model track

“The first few months was a lot of testing (and pushing!) settings and getting familiar with ray tracing, but mostly working on my materials. While I always use the same simple “Master Material” that I made a while ago, I made another iteration that had control for flakes, dirt, scratches and better control over the clear coat”.

-       Stefan Evrard

Using Unreal Engine for production, the team wanted to explore all the software’s possibilities and find out how far they could go with it. Stefan Evrard has been using the UE non-stop for three years, so he felt it was time to create something extraordinary with his experience, combining it with the team’s creative and technical expertise.

3d model light glare sports car render model track speeding driving

“Unreal Engine is something new for me. I've never worked with the software earlier, so it was exciting for me to explore it. We aimed to create the Unreal Engine project because it gives you other possibilities to control the visual in real-time. At the same time, it has very flexible options to work with effects and post-production. It wasn't very different from our usual pipeline, but still, there were challenging moments.”

-       Nikolay Okolita

But before going deep into Unreal Engine, Nikolay Okolita and Dmitriy Glazyrin developed an animatic with ideas of the car in multiple environments, including a racetrack. Unreal Engine is great for quickly making atmospheric environments, so making both studio shots and exteriors would be both a challenge but would really exploit Unreal Engine’s possibilities and provide a dynamic feel to the video.

Creation process

As with any other project, this one started from references, so now Nikolay dove into moodboard creation. It was vital for him to emphasize the dynamics and speed of the McLaren P1 GTR. This stage of the project is similar to the R&D process and involves a lot of experimenting to find the best possible visual solution.

Working on the cameras

A way to give these productions a more natural feel, the team recommends to use correct lenses and realistic camera positions. For that, Nik took real footage as the main reference for the animatic.

“It's vital to understand how a camera acts in the real world. It has its weight and inertia. What's more, one has to understand how a camera can be placed in the environments. All these details influence the movement of a camera and, as a result, help you to create a photorealistic effect.”

-       Nikolay Okolita

lights car environment animation detailing object scale 3d model
car environment animation detailing object scale 3d model exhaust

Car & environment animation

Further, to get a photorealistic result, a good advice is paying extra attention to the main object's scale and its interaction with the environment.

“McLaren P1 GTR is a high-speed, high-performance car, and my main goal was to demonstrate this. To achieve the result, I put in a lot of effort to be sure that it moves along the spline with the correct speed”.

-       Nikolay Okolita

car environment animation detailing object scale 3d model
car environment animation detailing object scale 3d model

Data preparation

David made sure to set up the car correctly with positions, rotation points and axes as well as hierarchy. Stefan used Datasmith to keep the pivot points in place for the wheels, as he knew he'd have to animate suspension and rotation.

data preparation car position rotation pointes axes  3d

Car paint material

The car paint material was the most important one, so Stefan tried to give himself as much flexibility and keep things somewhat optimized. He used a mix of a flake normal map, using the clear coat shader and making another blend for dust and scratches, both affecting the diffuse, the normals/bump, and roughness.

Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps

The entire race track was imported into Unreal as Stefan wasn't sure which areas he would use for the final cut. As he prepared each shot, he made sure there were enough elements and level of detail in the environment - without going too far into details. Stefan also had to make sure the trees were realistic enough, as they are an important part of the track. For the lighting, he used Unreal Engine's HDRI dome with a separate skylight, and used the exponential height fog to blend everything together and get the atmosphere he wanted.

“For the racetrack, I immediately imagined the Mclaren racing around Spa Francorchamps. I live not too far from it and know it quite well, and I knew the track would give us many variations in heights and corners. The entire track is actually inside Unreal, I mainly focused the details on the parts we were going to use for the video”.

-       Stefan Evrard

background environment design render shading model 3d
background environment design render shading model 3d

Rain Shaders

Stefan made a darker and more glossy version of each car shader affected by the rain, and decided to use a special animated decal he made to add water effects. Using a decal made it easier for him to add rain where he wanted on the car and make it follow the geometry.

Adding simple detail

To quickly add life to some shots, Stefan made sure some lights and objects were in the background. Sometimes simply adding 1 or 2 lights is enough to add more depth.

detailing render model 3d car window mirror

Dynamic cameras

On top of using realistic camera settings, Stefan had 2 variations of Unreal’s camera shake, and usually blended both depending on the shot. He also “attached” the cameras to the car to simulate a real crane rig, and gave him much easier control on the movement.

camera set ups dynamic variants unreal studio

Studio Lighting

Since the car needed to be lit differently for each shot, Stefan made a separate level per shot containing the individual lights. This means he had a big amount of lights but could easily switch between versions, and sometimes he’d accidentally get interesting lighting by activating 2 levels at once.

studio lighting render car model sculpt editing software

Lighting workflow

Stefan usually starts with rectangular/area lights to compliment the car's shape. In this case, he wanted to accentuate the P1's flowing curves. Once he was happy, he added small point lights on areas that needed a bit more lighting or just to add some specular reflections (most of the time on the wheels).

emissive material car interior lighting point lights render
Emissive materials + car interior, rectangular lights, point lights

Tunnel and neon light environments

Keeping things as simple as needed, the tunnel environment was really just a concrete tube with a road, a lot of lights and some mountains around the road. The same lighting technique was used for the circuit environment, using an HDRI dome, a skylight and fog to blend everything together. The environment for the neon light shot is also very basic, but with enough detail to keep things interesting in the background.

Neon Lines Shot

Maksym Khirnyy simulated the lines in Houdini, so the team had splines that simulated an airflow. Stefan then converted them to geometry and created an animated material along the UVs.

"I've been working with Houdini for quite some time, but I can't help wondering about all the possibilities it has to offer. Creating the lines for the project was not a hard task for me and Kuvaka, but it was fun and exciting. I truly believe that the video turned out to be this popular because all members of our team contributed something to it".

-       Maksym Khirnyy

speed lines editing model render car vehicle digital art
lines shader 3d model car 3d model racing vehicle light ambience render sculpt

"Many shots in this project were using experimental techniques, I often had to resolve some bugs or glitches, mostly due to mixing ray tracing with convoluted techniques. Sometimes you can render the same scene 3 times, and suddenly something will change on the 4th, but that's often a challenge you get when you go a bit too crazy with settings. We also started this project in Unreal 4.25, and the Movie Render Queue was still brand new, so bugs were to be expected".

-       Stefan Evrard

Neon Lines Shader

The line shader is relatively simple in itself but still needed to have some excellent dynamics. Stefan used basic sine waves to give all the lines some undulation and used multiple gradients that would sweep along the spline, displacing and lighting the lines.


Finally, Stefan had to make sure the lines were nicely reflected on the car, and he had to spend some time tweaking the ray tracing settings to get the results he wanted. In the end, the lights complemented the car paint and were even affecting the flakes layer. The team was amazed at what Unreal Engine could handle!

lines reflection flakes layer car 3d model racing vehicle light ambience render sculpt
Lines being nicely reflected in the clear coat and the flakes layer

The final cut

The team tried to stay as close as possible with the animatic since it had a great dynamic. Stefan first started using the cameras that were already animated, but the workflow was quite complicated. Some shots are precisely the same as the animatic, and some were a bit more improvised later on, but it was always done to match the general idea.

“For changes on camera animations, I also made sure to use “realistic” focal lengths to have a realistic output and composition. I generally stayed with 50mm for a lot of the shots and switched with telephoto lenses and wide lenses depending on the desired effect”.

-       Stefan Evrard

speed night car 3d model racing vehicle light ambience render sculpt
night rain car 3d model racing vehicle light ambience render sculpt

Initially, the team already had a ready-made animatic. However, throughout the entire project, designers improved the project at all levels of production with each iteration. And at the same time, they tried not to get away from the general idea and vision they prepared.

“We did a lot of work at the preproduction stage; each of us wanted to take part in the creation of this project, which is probably why it turned out the way it is. And I am very happy about that”.

-       Nikolay Okolita

3cgi car 3d model racing vehicle light ambience render sculpt
car 3d model racing vehicle light ambience render sculpt

“The most exciting things happen when one tries to mix different techniques. We combined the best solutions from traditional animation and the most outstanding features of Unreal Engine for this video. The unique symbiosis of our artistic vision and technical advancements of UE helped our team to achieve an incredible cinematic feel and add new tools to our pipeline for future projects. After all, the best CGI projects are always created at the interface of different skills and experience”.

-       Dmitriy Glazyrin

Post production

After Stefan was happy with the renders' general feel, Dmitriy Grazyrin and Nikolay Okolita worked on the image sequences to give them the amazing final grading and polish.

“I tried to export the best result possible straight from Unreal. I didn’t have render passes yet (which are possible now in 4.26), so the beauty pass needed to have the least issues possible. There were still some visual glitches that needed to be fixed, but most of the shots turned out great straight away”.

-       Stefan Evrard

“After I received the finished render from Stefan, I started composing. I needed to add a little imperfection to all the frames (dust, rays) and accentuate the motion blur when needed. I also cleaned up some areas in post. During the post-production we also added a few other details to enhance the video”.

-       Nikolay Okolita

after effects car 3d model racing vehicle light ambience render sculpt

Music & Sound

Stefan Evrard also created the music and the sound for the project. The first track was a lot more heavy guitar based, but the team went more towards something electronic and fast after discussions.

“Music can be very subjective, and I knew making the music and sound would be both a technical but also a personal challenge. It felt necessary to do though, as it would give me more control over what we wanted our film to sound like. The sound design was incredibly fun to do, and mixing both the sound and music was also quite a mission”.

-       Stefan Evrard

card 3d model racing vehicle light ambience render sculpt

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