Oscar 2012: Weta's Sebastian Sylwan Talks Apes, Art and Technology
As Weta Digital’s CTO, Sebastian Sylwan’s job essentially involves harnessing the company’s software development, academic research and film production infrastructure into a cohesive effort that pushes the boundaries of what is possible in computer graphics today as well as in the not too distant future. Recent films like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Tintin clearly demonstrate the ongoing success of his efforts. We sat down recently to discuss the technological challenges of producing some of the most compelling and captivating visual performances in cinema today.
Dan Sarto: How has technology that supports creative and entertainment content development changed in the last decade?
Sebastian Sylwan: Well I guess we are still very much on the steep side of the innovation curve. The challenges that were there ten years ago are still for the most part present, mostly I think because while at the same time the sophistication of the tools has improved, the sophistication of the audience has also improved. There is no limit to reality and what creativity offers and so what we are seeing is a constant race to go beyond and push the boundaries even further of what is possible to visualize.
DS: How do you balance the need for increasingly spectacular and innovative visuals, across a number of high profile feature films, with shrinking schedules and budgets? Doesn’t that put a huge burden on you and the studio?
SS: I don’t think that it is a burden. I see it much more as a challenge. There is always a new goal to reach and I think that technology helps us. There are at least two separate areas or separate directions in which technology actually helps us meet that challenge. One is doing things or visualizing things that have never been seen before. Breaking the boundaries of what was possible. On the other side innovation also provides you with an increased efficiency. So you can do the things that were possible before, but you can do them much faster.
The two things actually combine because what we’re really after in developing these technologies is providing a tool for the artist vision to be realized. If an artist can get a faster iteration over a simulation or over a render, they will be able to refine it even further. If they can get a visual, or look, or be more realistic in a particular rendition of an effect then its final quality is better for the movie.
If there is a specific look, or graphic effect, or part that still needs to be pushed and realized, then I think that is where innovating and trying to get to a better result is the technological challenge.
DS: How do you decide where to invest time, effort and money in technological innovation. What drives that process?
SS: Well there definitely are practical challenges coming from productions. However, we also know that there are long-term challenges that we want to tackle and invest in because we believe that they will give us a significant step forward, either in something that has never been seen before or in terms of efficiency. So it’s always a balance. It’s not necessarily that we always have numerous activities going on at once. In R&D and in development, some of them are tied to immediate deliveries for projects we are currently working on. Some of them are longer term.