ILM’s Ben Snow Talks Pirates, Mermaids and 3D Pipeline
Then for the mermaids themselves, it was really the same sort of challenge as whenever you get a new creature. How do you make a rig for a tail that is animateable, but not so heavy that the person can’t use it and so that the animator can intuitively just pull some portions of the tail and the rest will do the right thing? How do you write a program or a mini program to make that happen? How do we deal with the fact that they have this membrane over the top of their bodies and how does that behave? How does the material on the underside get affected? How do you deal with these things being in a crowd? First it looked like it would be seven, then it grew to fifteen and then it was fifty mermaids all swimming at you. How are you going to have someone animate that?
We set up tools that allowed us to use baked cycles where the animator, just in Maya, could go in, select a cycle and apply it to their mermaid. We had seven different mermaids in the same cycle and could apply [tools] to the different mermaids and work correctly. Then if the animation wasn’t quite working on one of the mermaids, the animator had a tool to say, “OK, I am going to pull this out and animate it again, automatically and then I can just make the tweaks I need.” So there are a lot of tools that we did for handling the mermaid crowds, automatic tools for placing splashes, generating CG splashes, and then replacing the whole water surface if that was the easiest way to deal with it. Sometimes it was easy to forget the water that was in the plate. We are going to generate the entire water surface because otherwise we will never get the splashes to work properly.
D.S.: The name ILM historically has been synonymous with spectacular, cutting edge visuals. While there are a lot more companies today doing excellent work, ILM is still known as the “gold standard.” What drives you and the company to continue innovating and doing such excellent work?
B.S.: I think we are very lucky at ILM to have a huge, rich legacy of visual effects work behind us for years, and a great example of visual effects projects that have made a big difference, that were really at the front end of motion control photography. [ILM] did some of the best work in that [motion control], and then they did some of the really best blue screen composite type work in the optical world in the late 80’s, and then became one of the pioneers of the digital world with Jurassic Park, and Terminator 2 and The Abyss. There is a rich legacy to build on at the company and an attitude that we don’t want to rest on our laurels, we want to improve things, we want to make lighting tools better, we want to make animation tools better, we want to make it faster to do things. I mean the real imperative for every company out there these days is shorter production timeframe, smaller budgets, and the need to up the anti on each movie and up the wow factor for the audience.
So we are looking at tools both to improve the quality of how the shots look and also to make it faster for us to make the shots, to make shots that look just as great but in a shorter time frame, so that we can afford to do the projects. I have to say in the business today there is terrific work coming out of a bunch of companies. I have colleagues that I have worked with at ILM that work all over the world now at different companies and they are all doing terrific work. It’s actually inspiring for anyone to look at the work being done not just at your own company, but at other companies and say, “Wow, this is exciting stuff, it’s cutting edge stuff, and I am envious of this stuff.”
I think that envy and that desire to make it better is great and keeps us trying to make better and more exciting images. That desire, coupled with the fact that we have been able to keep the quality pretty consistently high across projects that even if people hate the film, they can usually rely on the effects being interesting and well executed and fun to look at. Sometimes the effects are the best part of the film. That’s not great, we don’t need to like that, but people really still respect us and they still respect the work and so I think that the company has a certain standard and a prestige. That’s one of our challenges, to aggressively be able to make the films for smaller budgets and smaller time frames, to maintain that standard. It is certainly never questioned that we have to do that. The desire is to not compromise on quality, to recognize that Industrial Light Magic is a mark or a standard for high quality visual effects, and the desire for everyone at the company is to keep that standard. I think that is the key.
Dan Sarto is publisher of AWN.