SIGGRAPH 2012: Virtual Production Heats Up
"You've got to be able to do this onset to be able to make more informed choices," added Weta Digital's Joe Letteri, currently finishing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Therefore, improving the virtual production front end workflow is imperative for Cameron. "He wants to know where the character is when composing his shot because that's integral to the composition and balance. So now we can do a little bit more: It's still not full on virtual reality, but it's better, because, if you're doing it more accurately up front, you're not thrown off by misdirection, something that is an artifact of the limitation of the system like a shot is too soft because it's low resolution or the light's getting into the wrong place.
"Once Jim got involved more and more in the process, he realized that everything adaptable. There are just parts of it that you didn't consider before because you were coming from a different direction. How you have things that are put together in different ways. With our models department building both the sets and the costumes the specialization happens differently in the virtual world. We're just trying to be more efficient in pulling this all together."
Meanwhile, the high frame rate topic heated up with Lightstorm's Jon Landau declaring in a lively discussion that it's an important part of the 3-D revolution. It improves the experience by removing unwanted motion artifacts and restoring brightness. He brought along the same informative frame rate comparison demo hosted by Cameron shown elsewhere. Landau also insisted that The Hobbit pullback is not really a setback since there is no global infrastructure in place yet to screen the first of Jackson's trilogy at 48 fps on very many screens.
As far as overcoming the dreaded "video look," industry pioneer Doug Trumbull (who brought his own Showscan Digital frame rate comparison demo) reiterated that you could combat that through the use of variable frame rates on shots or on characters and objects within shots. However, when Digital Domain's new CTO Darin Grant questioned the added cost in rendering and data wrangling for VFX, Landau shot back that there are "smart" solutions to keep costs down. "Don't render everything at 60 or 48; double expose," Landau said. "Animators don't have to work at higher frame rates. You could limit that to a Panda fight. This is about managing public expectations."
ILM's Dennis Muren echoed Landau and Trumbull's enthusiasm for higher frame rates. He's witnessed mostly positive results in experimenting with higher frame rates on his Sony monitor at home. He noticed, for instance, that Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion seemed smoother on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad Blu-ray even though the Cyclops looked more rubbery.
"I think alternating frame rates is a directorial choice," Muren conceded afterward. "I don't think it's that difficult to do. It might take us out of the story and I don't know if you want to mix it around too much. But I personally think that you just want the movie to be one way. You adjust to the world."
For Cameron, Jackson and Trumbull, higher frame rates help open a window to a more life-like movie going experience. "Nobody knows and it's all just theoretical until you go out and see it," Muren added.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld. He's the owner of the Immersed in Movies blog (www.billdesowitz.com), a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen and features interviews with all six actors.