The twofold challenge currently touching technological development concerns quality control and improving productivity. The first three presentations look at tools that are directly related to this perspective, while the last talks about "virtual filmmaking", a major development in the creation/production process.
Senior Vice President, General Director Manager
Autodesk Media & Entertainment
Walking The Dog
Agence de Doublures Numériques
Pascal Mueller is CEO and co-founder of Procedural, Inc., a company based in Switzerland specialising in creating urban environments for architecture, design and other CAD fields. Two years ago the company decided to hit the video game and film markets, two sectors that are becoming increasingly more attentive to this type of creation. "Our main sectors of activity are based on architecture and town planning and environment modelling and mapping for clients like Microsoft, Thales or Boeing, etc., as well as training."
"More and more films are including urban environments in main sequences and our tools not only save time in creation, but can easily remodel part of a district, or even a whole neighbourhood." The example of the recent Batman films perfectly illustrates this as the creation of Gotham city represented eight man-years, which is extremely time consuming and inflexible. Pixar and DreamWorks have shown interest in the work carried out by Procedural, precisely because it is based on procedural modelling software called CityEngine, now in its third version. Instead of modelling by hand, the software takes care of everything, with all modifications carried out swiftly by changing one of the many parameters.
The interface is user friendly with an equivalent range of layers. Since everything is procedurally generated, based on rules, a parameter can be modified and the change immediately takes place in real time. Access to all the different libraries is done via the menu on the left. There is also a viewing window to look at the object to be integrated before carrying out the operation. The rules are set up through a classic tree structure, as in any 3D software.
Pascal Mueller will be using Siggraph 2010 to unveil some new functions in the software for inverse modelling starting from real photographs to create a 3D model of buildings and will also present a tool based on sketch-based procedural modelling.
Procedural already has many references in the world of film and video games, like the preview of the city of Prince of Persia before it was finally created at MPC, a commercial for the Toyota Prius, the kinematics for the Dark Realm game and many more. The company is also continuing its main activity, with the modelling of the future eco-city of Masdar, commissioned by the government of Abu Dhabi, along with the renovation of different districts in Marseille for Eiffage. Thales is also using its expertise to recreate Paris in a simulation of the great flood of 1910.
Stéphane Singier, from Cap Digital, asks about the feasibility of putting libraries of buildings online for users of the software. Procedural's CEO says that the possibilities are currently being discussed but there is no fixed timetable at the moment.
Anton Roebben and Frank Van Reeth then presented research carried out at the Belgian animation studio Walking The Dog and the University of Hasselt in Belgium, for Enzo d'Alò's production of Pinocchio, based on drawings by Lorenzo Mattotti.
Mattotti's work typically contains single brush strokes and colours that are difficult to reproduce on a computer. This has led the studio, and particularly its art director, Anton Roebben, to examine the possibility of creating digital tools based on real elements. They first tried out simulations of painting on canvas using a frame fitted with a camera that analyses the movements of the brush in real time to reproduce them, as well as the orientation of the brushes and the pressure on the screen. They have also tried using brushes on a tactile surface that records the inflections of the tool to create the digital painting strokes. After these experiments, real tools, like brushes and airbrushes, and techniques like watercolour, pastels, gouache and pencils will soon be available virtually.
Painting on glass animation is also being considered. The animator will then only need his hands to bring colour and animation to a tactile screen. "Next frame" functions will also be available in one click, along with flipping a series of still images, for approving the animation.
These programmes also contain all the classic animation features like lasso selection, rotation and re-dimension changing tools, colouring, smart free form deformation, curve deformation, preview etc.
Although most of the tools are only at the development or prototype stages, Anton Roebben explains that "they will be commercialised more like added services to the software rather than in market software packaging".
Arnauld Lamorlette, co-founder of Buf Compagnie, and Erwan Maigret, both formerly employed at DreamWorks, created the animation and development studio founded on their own expertise, The Bakery, in 2007. While at Dreamworks, Arnauld Lamorlette was FX supervisor and Erwan Maigret head of R&D. Today, The Bakery employs eleven full-time staff, with seven of them working in the R&D department.
Relight is their first software suite that brings a new approach to lighting. "Lighting is the final stage of the film and is inevitably costly," explains Arnauld Lamorlette in his introduction. Costly in time, because there's a lot of toing and froing to get the quality right; costly in human resources, because the crews working on this stage of production range from ten to one hundred people; costly in machines, as a render farm represents between 100 and 4,000 computers, a storage capacity of around 15 TB, a secure computer network and many other expensive elements (i.e. cooling the room). Added to this, two more new elements have recently come from the transition to HD and stereoscopy (with its extra costs estimated at 10 to 20 %), not to mention the question of compositing.
Why is it so costly? Arnauld Lamorlette explains that the current process is to render a single layer at a time, light after light, then one atmospheric effect after another, etc. "Then we add a z-depth and the artist plays with the settings till the desired render is reached. This method is not very efficient and resembles compositing in that it is also not very creative." Of course, this approach is possible – and is the case in many films today – and anyway, "3D software available on the market is not specialised in lighting," continues Erwan Maigret. "Most studios use 2D compositing to shorten lighting cycles, but often at the expense of quality."
With these points in mind, The Bakery is offering a single tool for both lighting and rendering. "Our software has been designed from the get-go to hone the lighter's workflow. Instead of having a 3D programme coupled with a separate renderer, we propose constant visual feedback in the rendering engine itself. Thanks to a fully multithreaded implementation of state-of-the-art rendering algorithms, combined with a unique caching mechanism of our own recipe, lighting iterations that would take minutes or even hours with a traditional approach can be performed in seconds."
"Relight caches all the calculations and reuses them. Each calculation, however small, is treated after each modification of the 3D scene, allowing for real interactivity with the user. There's no need to wait for hours to see the results... which sometimes are not up to scratch and have to be recalculated anyway," explains Arnauld Lamorlette, and adds, to avoid confusion, "that this is not in real time but for just the more interactive cycles because they are lighter." This interactivity obviously depends on the image size and complexity of the scene, and Erwan Maigret emphasizes that this in a WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) situation and not a preview.
Using Relight means a 300 % gain in productivity for The Bakery, coupled with swifter results, fewer retouches and reduced compositing (fewer floating-point images to store, more bandwidth and more capacity for stereoscopy). Erwan Maigret concludes: "Using Relight on back-end processes should be able to give us a 50 % gain financially."
Arnauld Lamorlette explains that the software will be marketed as a support and not in the form of a package. To date, besides Bibo Films for the feature A Monster in Paris, a lot of other studios are testing Relight. "Everyone finds it interesting, but as most of them already have a pipeline in place, changing this on one point would disrupt everything, which is not the ideal solution. We need to do more promotional presentations, but, young start-up studios that are still working on their technical processes should be more open to the idea."
As mentioned in the introduction to this conference, the "arms race" of studios seems to have calmed down. The software market is progressing with every new update, but there’s less of a quantum leap than before. Marc Petit, Senior Vice President of Autodesk Media & Entertainment understands the situation and explains that the two major challenges facing the industry in 2010 are "creative innovation and production efficiency. Not long ago, creativity tended to be overshadowed by technique which meant that its ambitions were sometimes reduced. But now, with technological advances, the decision is once again in the hands of creators which is definitely a good thing."
Like many, Marc Petit talks about the before and after James Cameron’s Avatar. "He has put into practice what we call virtual filmmaking, which links all film crews together, right across the line from pre-production to post-production. This is something that did not exist before. The fact of being part of a whole and not just a department creates a greater interaction and exchange of ideas and allows large film crews to get together and talk."
He then went on to give a broad outline of the principles of virtual filmmaking, which are digital production, practical production and post-production. Digital production starts very early on in the process. He believes that preview has an important role in the life of a film and is set to have an even greater one. "It’s not there to restrict the director. Instead, it allows the director of photography, FX supervisor and of course, the director to anticipate events and, where necessary, by-pass the problems by listing them beforehand and putting solutions in place." It also concerns all the digital or physical work or real time FX carried out by the art department.
"The work environment has diametrically changed with Avatar. Two other examples illustrate this: basic motion capture was filmed before the main shoot in order to establish the best moves and camera angles for the live action. In a different vein, James Cameron’s company Lightstorm worked on a very advanced preview to help actors immerse themselves in their scenes."
These particular trends, highlighted by Marc Petit, and previous presentations, paint a picture of an extremely competitive industry with tools that are on a same par. The differentiating factor comes from creativity, but also from the multitude of talent, both internally and externally, around a single platform encompassing the entire chain of production.