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The Technology Circle

Over the past five years the changes in special effects technology for film and television have been monumental, causing large shifts and new issues for production companies and the software/hardware companies that service them. Bruce Manning outlines the issues and then sits down with Richard Taylor to discuss. Includes an image gallery from industry veteran Richard Taylor!

Richard Taylor's The Visitors. Courtesy of Richard Taylor.

I first started in the visual effects business at a prominent Hollywood effects company by the name of Robert Abel's. Shooting visual effects as a cameraman, I never dreamt I would see the changes in technology that have taken place in the industry. Back then Robert Abel's was the top of the line. He got his name by doing high-end commercials, spending every last dime of the budget to make it just right. He worked with a lot of innovative people, who are now very successful. Among some of the equipment we used were optical printers, Oxberry down shooters, computer-controlled tracking cameras and Evans and Sutherland's, one of the first digital composite computer systems. My favorite camera was known as "camera two." It was a dark place. There you could shoot 35 mm rear screen projections, you could flop cel animation, and it was a computer-controlled tracking camera all in one. Little did I know, like every camera in the building, this camera would become a giant boat anchor when digital technology came along.

During the past five years the changes in special effects technology for film and television have been monumental. What used to require days of work and heavy equipment can now be accomplished with the click of a mouse or push of a button. However, as simple as this sounds, the proliferation of special effects software has brought with it a host of new issues.

As things continue to change quickly, there is a great deal of speculation about the future of software and hardware companies. The marketplace is flooded with software designed to produce special effects and the companies developing this software just keep publishing new versions. Some special effects professionals are of the opinion that all these new versions aren't really necessary and are being produced just to keep an acceptable profit margin for the stockholder. But how long will this mode of business work for the software/hardware companies? Do we really need all of these new versions? Not every release is as dramatic an upgrade as we are seeing right now with the latest release of 3D Studio Max. Is the demand becoming less? Large studios frequently have proprietary software at their disposal and when do the small boutique effects companies upgrade? How do they contend with re-training while on tight budgets and even tighter deadlines?

Screenshot of the color correction module included in Discreet Logic's flame* package. © Discreet.

Push and Shove

Of course to stay in business, software companies have to stay competitive. Let's say a software company comes out with a software package like Shake by Nothing Real for $600 and it rivals Discreet Logic's flame*, which is a software package that costs about $10,000. What's flame* going to do? They have to make their software very special to justify the $10,000 price ticket. So, they will continue to add features. When it comes to flame*, and inferno*, some feel it's too much software for TV production. flame* now has particle generators and other such fancy features. A lesser software package might work just fine for a number of jobs.

It seems obvious that new versions are being produced solely to make more money and to have a new release to publicize. However, some of the features that software writers produce aren't the ones that the effects artists really need. Developers come up with features that aren't necessarily useful, but are announced with trumpeting importance. Therefore, while new versions are being released the necessity of owning these new versions is being diminished.

A screen capture of Shake 2.3's

Proprietary Needs

Another blow to the sellers is that major companies have their own versions of certain software packages. For example, the effect of animal fur is a "must have" look that digital artists have been trying to perfect for years. Many studios have written their own software versions for animal fur and muscle systems. If they're not happy with an off the shelf version, they have the means to create their own.

In fact, there are some large houses where almost all of the software is proprietary and there are some major advantages in this. Proprietary software can save money and time for large effects companies. They've been working so long with their own product that they've built infrastructures such as file formats, geometry formats and image formats around it. For better or worse, they're married to their own proprietary software and it's difficult for them to break away and use a non-proprietary system. Another nice thing about proprietary software is that one can just walk into the office next door and ask a programmer to write something up really quick -- a cool plug-in or some other nice application. There's no waiting, or required detailed explanation necessary. Plus, if you are at ILM or another powerhouse, you probably have some of the brightest minds at your disposal.

Rachel Dunn, one of Digital Domain's top 2D composite artists.

Rachel Dunn, one of Digital Domain's top 2D composite artists with credits such as Dante's Peak, Fifth Element, Red Planet, Titanic, The Grinch and Super Nova, explains: "If a studio can afford to write custom software they will because writing their own proprietary software gives them the exact features they need in order to do their job. Most store bought software is written for a broad consumer market. Software companies are trying to make everyone happy. The larger studios don't need that. They custom tailor their proprietary software for their own in house artists."

"Our proprietary software Nuke is very powerful. We have about 10 or 12 guys writing software for Digital Domain. A lot of the software we write is translation. We take store bought software and write links to it so it will work with Nuke. So we can get Alias|Wavefront's Maya to work with Houdini, to work with Softimage, to work with Ultimatte and so on and so forth. We can take a blue screen model and read it through five different software packages to get what we need."

"We at DD find ourselves bouncing back and forth between quite a few different software packages when we're doing compositing because some packages do better than others on certain things. We will bring an image through a whole chain of software packages just to massage it into the shape we want. The artists and managers at Digital Domain really evaluate the software carefully because there's a whole lot stuff out there you can waste your money on."

Richard Taylor's Seven Stones Man. Courtesy of Richard Taylor.

Enter the Boutique

Another factor that is changing the face of the way effects are done today is the shear amount of shots that need to get done for certain projects. Some feature films have up to a thousand effects shots. Producers often don't want to send a thousand effects shots to one house. For that matter there are very few effects studios that can even handle a thousand shots! Sending projects to multiple companies is one way of cutting costs and saving time. Some of these companies are small, highly specialized boutiques. One possible drawback about smaller boutiques is that they don't have stages and cameras, while the bigger studios do have access to motion control cameras, big stages and all the bells and whistles. They can also shoot blue screens themselves. There are a couple ways to view this development. Some think this is a healthy development and creates a competitive atmosphere, others think differently as small studios are burned to the ground trying to meet deadlines and make profits in a cut-throat world.

Been There, Done That

Richard Taylor of Tropix Films, a Santa Monica-based production company, was one of my favorite directors at Robert Abel. He is also a well-versed industry veteran. Starting at Robert Abel's in 1973, he did all the miniatures on the first Star Trek the Motion Picture. He was one of Tron's visual effects directors and did the original 7-Up bubbles un-cola commercials. Along with the Duracell battery campaign featuring CGI toys and an arm-length list of other credits, his Cowardly Baskets for Reebok won three Clio's with Rhythm & Hues. His talents have enabled him to maneuver forward through analog and jump to digital. I recently sat down with him and we reminisced about the past and speculated about the future.

Bruce Manning: What's the future for software/hardware companies?

Richard Taylor: I think that it's pretty infinite depending on how you look at it. If you're talking about the visual arts it gets faster, better, more accessible to everybody and easier to use. I use all the latest stuff. I happen to be an effects director so I do a combination of media -- effects animation and live-action all put together. Digital matte painting, total character animation, 2D animation -- you name it. They all get blended together through the software whether you're using Photoshop or After Effects, Maya or Lightwave. Different companies have different tools, but you need to speak those languages. All the software companies are making things easier to do for more people.

Richard Taylor's XLR8. Courtesy of Richard Taylor.

I look at my dailies with the special effects companies that I work with over the Internet. I get QuickTime movies played down to me over the Internet at very high-res. I talk to them by phone and we work through media. I shoot film and do my own matte paintings. I send it to them, and they send me back a composite. Or I make a composite. The walls are burning down.

BM: Have the glory days passed for hardware?

RT: The revitalization of Apple with Steven Jobs jump started that hardware company. Sony PlayStation 2 is a renovation. There are companies that are plugging together Sony PlayStation 2's that will do incredibly complex animation. Rather than going out and buying big mainframe computers, you can plug 10 of them together and you've got an incredible rendering machine for graphics and visuals.

BM: What's your favorite store bought software?

Adobe Photoshop 6.0, a must have for every animation, visual effects toolbox. © 2001 Adobe Systems Incorporated. All rights reserved.

RT: Photoshop. The new Photoshop 6 has the ability to send sound and can do all kinds of other things. It's not just graphics anymore. That's for sure. When I do a high-res print presentation, I use Bryce by Corel, which is an incredibly simple program to operate. That program is so easy for a novice to use it's unreal.

BM: Do visual effects studios need all these new software packages?

RT: Some of them have their own software, and/or some combination. Certain companies like Rhythm & Hues have their own proprietary software like Voodoo. It's very cumbersome, but very versatile.

How many people know Maya vs. Lightwave vs. whatever? Do people need to know all three? Everyone kind of learns Photoshop. When it gets into 3D programs or into animation programs, do you need to know Flash? The question is, can all these different programs be homogenized? The closer they come to each other the better.

BM: Lately smaller boutiques are doing special effects on big films using out of the box software. How is that affecting larger studios?

RT: If the product is television, which is low-res, you can get a G4 and glue together some stuff in a Winnebago and have the most powerful visual effects studio on wheels, if you wanted too! It depends on how much work and how many scenes that particular boutique can do. Digital Domain, Rhythm and Hues, or Sony, those places get most of the big work. These large firms are sub-contracting a lot of their work to these smaller boutiques and you don't even know it. Many of the smaller boutiques will get a job, or a scene, or a movie, and that's it. They'll do a movie, one project. To keep the momentum of a place going you need a sales force, the right representation in the meetings at the right time, bidding on multiple movies. You can get one movie and the major studios aren't afraid to burn some little effects studio down to do their movie. Smaller companies will buy the job and the large studios will say, 'We need that scene,' again and again. It's not right. The smaller companies will do whatever it takes to keep the door open. The big studio doesn't care if they're successful after the movie or not. All they want is their effects the best they can get, for the best price.

BM: Can the price of new technology put companies out of business?

RT: People are still using hand drawn animation. Nothing kind of goes away. Maybe you work a little slower than somebody, but if you do quality work, it doesn't matter. When do I get rid of my VHS and when do I buy DVD? It's a constant problem. When do I get rid of my DSL and put in a T1 line? It's a continual battle. All it really relates to is speed and versatility in the end. There are ways to make slower machines do clever things. It's an economic battle, just like anything else. The new technology always makes you better, but sometimes it's not worth the high investment. You have to decide that for yourself.

Richard Taylor's The Prismix. Courtesy of Richard Taylor.

BM: Are movies better now with the technology boom in software? Look at movies like Star Wars, Close Encounters and Aliens, mostly done with optical printers.

RT: Yes, technically they are better. They're more seamless. You can do things more perfectly now. You can do things now, you never would have considered ten years ago. To compare opticals to the digital world, that's like comparing the space shuttle to a stagecoach. Once things became digital, it became another reality. In the digital world, we see movies like Independence Day and X-Files. The visuals are so complex today, compared to what they used to be. Being able to do particle glow and organic creatures and things. There's no comparison with the things that were done with optical printers. Digital is better by far. Whether they're better stories, or better movies, that's another question.

BM: Are moviegoers more sophisticated now?

RT: I don't know if they are more sophisticated or more worn out by the incredible barrage of visual stuff they see. There's so much stuff that's so complex, and so well done. But a special effect in a movie for a young kid doesn't mean anything anymore; it's just another gun barrel flash to him. People expect an incredible amount of complexity. The amount of visual information in today's society is barraging people so much that they just kind of expect more. It's not intellectual. It's kind of reactionistic, visceral. People watching television don't watch the whole content of the movie, they just kind of skip around, to see what catches their eye. You have to make something that cuts through. Either a great idea, or something visually stunning. When they come together, that's the best. That doesn't happen much. You have movies that have phenomenal special effects in them, which people don't give a shit about. If your heart's not into it, they're not good stories. Special effects are no value in themselves or by themselves.

BM: Did you see that new John Travolta movie?

RT: Oh yeah, Battlefield Earth. Rhythm & Hues worked on that. That's a great example of phenomenal visual effects and lots of things going on, but you can't stand the movie.

BM: Do you like old movies?

RT: Yes, I do. I like John Ford pictures like The Searchers, 2001, of course, and Seventh Samurai. That's just a variety of older films I think are great. Others are It's a Wonderful Life and Best Years of Our Lives. Films like that.

BM: Are there some movies you can't make any better?

RT: Yes, and there are a lot of remakes I'm sorry that they have remade. That has to do with that thing about a movie being a successful film. More than effects, or anything, it's the combination of script, story, actors, photography and direction. All the things that make a movie work. You can't make the same thing twice. Timing has a lot to do with things. Watch television now. If people watched Friends back in the '60s you wouldn't know what the hell they were talking about.

BM: When you see an old movie do you think, "Oh man we can do that better now."

RT: Well, yeah look at Tron. I look at that and say, "Boy could we do better than that now!" I could do more on my G4. The programs that I have in my Mac G4 would blow Tron away. I know what we could do now. We now have Ferraris instead of bicycles.

As a visual effects director on Disney's Tron, Richard Taylor has witnessed amazing growth in visual effects technology since the film's release in 1982. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

As I left Tropix Films and Richard Taylor, I walked down toward the Third Street Promenade. He got me thinking... Would I wake up tonight in a cold sweat next to my Mac G4, screaming at it, "Where's all this technology going?!" No probably not, because I realized that, today it's a mixed media. There will always be new software, faster boxes and better tools.

Historically there have been examples of companies being put out of business because of technology. Richard Edland, Boss Film and Robert Abel are good examples of pioneering companies, which spent very large amounts of money on expensive technology and hardware equipment. The next year the technology cost was cut in half and their newly sprung competitors had much lower bills. Then these pioneering giants spent years trying to pay off their bills for technology and hardware equipment that had already become obsolete. Do we have to spend more money? Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't. It depends on the application. We will buy that particular plug-in for that particular job and in most cases, the old tools, the old software, will always be around just in case.

Bruce Manning, a writer and filmmaker, shoots with a Mitchell 35mm film camera. In the past 10 years he has stock piled an impressive, eye-popping array of images. He edits with a Mac G4 and all the Adobe software he can jam into it. You can find Bruce on his Website at http://www.footage-now.com/

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