DETROIT -- On video screens deep inside Ford's design studios in Dearborn, Mich., a vision of the 2015 Edge Sport crossover is gradually taking shape.
It starts with a black-and-white sketch of the vehicle from a digital sketchpad. Then the environment around the Edge slowly begins to fill in. Images of buildings in a modern urban landscape begin to materialize.
The vehicle brightens into luminous yellow. Layer upon layer of detail is spread over the scene until the screen is filled with an image of the Edge Sport so lifelike, it's eerie, right down to the shimmering early-evening reflections playing on the vehicle's paint job and traces of oil spots on the pavement.
Electronic music adds drama to the virtual urban landscape, all designed to draw attention to the Edge Sport. The image looks like video footage, but it's 100 percent animation, composed of millions of digital pixels.
The picture is the creation of Studio 2000X, Ford's virtual reality design house where Disney-style technology meets the car industry. Ford uses 2000X to build advanced renderings of vehicle designs to show top management, often before final design approval. The renderings are often shown on 20-foot screens.
"We're using a lot of our high-end visualization for upper-level reviews and pretty big decisions that need to be made," says Jeffrey Nowak, chief designer in charge of 2000X.
Nowak says it takes hundreds of computers running 24 hours a day, seven days a week for as much as a month to achieve this stunning level of realism.
"In its current format, we do a lot of really advanced visualization for the studios," says Nowak, 46. "It has to do with galvanizing the whole organization around a single vision. Historically, clay models were great for the design studio and upper-level management. But maybe you didn't get to the same granular level of minutiae of detailing we can put into these animations."
Ford still does full physical prototyping.
"I don't see that going away," says Nowak.
But as Ford's designs are increasingly global, the virtual vehicle images can be used to bring together far-flung members of a team to make decisions when they can't look at clay models.
Many of Nowak's staff of 20 designers are enthusiastic cinema buffs or have worked in Hollywood animation studios.
"We find ourselves being more cinematic directors than computer animators," he says. "A lot of my team members are students of cinema. For the most part, they're coming from creative art and design schools. Some have worked in other media and the entertainment industry working on animated shorts and other animation companies around the country."
Every element of the digital presentation is carefully chosen for maximum emotional impact, right down to the music. All the properties are designed to work in concert with what Nowak calls "the hero vehicle" at the center of the screen.
"We're trying to convey the essence of the vehicle," he says.
Ford's Studio 2000X is not new. The company launched it in the early 1990s, but the computer horsepower to generate two- and three-dimensional images dwarfs what was available in those early days.
All that computing power comes from what Nowak calls "render farms," banks of high-powered mainframe computers.
"We have a very large render farm. It's a farm of different computers that allow us to render out these amazing frames," he says. "HD animation requires 30 frames a second."
At that rate -- 1,800 frames per minute -- it takes more than 4,000 frames just for a two-minute-plus animated video of the Edge Sport.
To give an idea of the size of Ford's animation operation, Nowak talks about small- and medium-size render farms that act as media subcontractors creating digital properties for carmakers and other clients.
"An entry-level render farm would have maybe 100 computers," he says. "An intermediate farm for an agency would be 1,500 to 2,000 computers. A larger house in Hollywood would be 4,500 or 5,000. We're actually quite a bit above that."
Ford declined to give a number but says it's near the same level as big Hollywood animators such as Disney.
"It's a very powerful function for us," he says.
The computers build scenes in layers, known as "passes," which can be added or subtracted to create different effects. The computers can simulate different camera effects. There's a depth of field pass that can focus on the Edge in the foreground while the scenery in the background is out of focus. The grunge pass adds effects such as the oil stains or bits of gravel.
An effect called "ray tracing" can simulate actual photons of light in the atmosphere.
"Ray tracing is the closest you can get to actual reality," says Nowak. "It's incredibly computer intensive. Our goal is to get as close as we can to reality -- not just to get it just to look good but to look accurate."
In other words, Ford doesn't want the computer making a vehicle look better than it would in real life.
And that's where Studio 2000X differs from Hollywood animation.
"Hollywood uses a term called 'physically plausible.' They're comfortable with physically plausible. We're striving for physical accuracy. If you don't have that, you're not making physically informed decisions."