All The World’s a Virtual Stage in Disney’s New Camera Capture System
When you consider Disney’s animated feature film legacy, it’s easy to overlook the studio’s history of camera technology innovation. Going back to the 1930s, Disney introduced the multiplane camera, bringing an unprecedented visual depth to films like Snow White and Bambi. In the 1990s, they introduced CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), a revolutionary digital version of the analog multiplane system that enabled integration of CG elements and camera movements into complex shots never before possible. With the release of Tarzan, Disney introduced Deep Canvas, which enabled the camera to move through a digital painting, allowing the audience, for example, to surf through trees alongside the King of the Jungle.
With the release of Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s camera technology focus has gone “virtual.” The development and implementation of their new Camera Capture system represents a fundamental change in how animated films can be produced. The proprietary tool suite provides artists a quick and easy way to visualize and stage environments, layouts, camera movements and the placement and interaction of visual elements within a scene.
The goal of the Camera Capture development project has been to replicate the feel of a live-action camera, providing a higher quality, more lifelike camera motion. Using rough layouts with simple geometry or more finished environments, Camera Capture let’s artists see what it would be like to move through each world and create exciting camera moves to meet the demands of the story.
Audiences have become more sophisticated in the visual language of filmmaking and they can tell when things look overly synthetic. Even super sophisticated CG rigs, with many different camera properties thrown together, don’t provide the same organic look as a real camera. A significant amount of keyframing is still needed to make the animation look real.
While Disney is certainly not the first studio to embrace virtual production systems and methodologies, their pipeline integration sets them apart. Assets don’t need to be moved into a separate capture system within a separate pipeline that then requires re-integration of data back into the main production system. The studio’s production pipeline has been built to fully integrate the Camera Capture system. They’ve created the capture system within their existing pipeline, built around their common Maya backbone. As a result, they can access all the assets used in their normal scenes as well as all the tools used in scene assembly for their normal shots.
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The capture system was used extensively within Wreck-It Ralph in both subtle and more overt ways. Hero’s Duty stands out as a more overt use of the system. It employs a more hand-held feel, a rougher first person point of view. Using the capture system to add shake and motion to the camera adds energy and excitement to different scenes, really making them come alive.
There are two facets to any new production technology. First, there is the hardware and the software. Then, there is the studio, the pipeline and the culture. Camera Capture represents a true blend of all these facets, bringing together new virtual production tools that enable a new way to visualize and create movement. The cultural and creative implications are enormous.
The collaboration needed to design and build the system brought together people from every area of the studio – software and hardware systems designers, technical directors, interaction designers, layout artists and art directors to name a few. Like most production innovations, the system is a work-in-progress, constantly in a state of updating and refinement. The Camera Capture studio itself houses development systems right alongside the performance area, enabling ongoing iterative code improvements in real-time.
Three main areas of animation production utilize Camera Capture technology. The first area is digital scouting, or “DigScout.” This entails taking the director, the art director and the lead modeler, for example, and putting them right in the middle of the set, getting their input on what, and whom, should be where and when. As manager of the Camera Capture technology team Evan Goldberg explained, “When you go out on a live action set, you scout the location to find all the right vantage points. Now, we do it in the digital world. Now, we can have people who were never proficient in a 3D package such as Maya stop hovering over someone’s shoulder saying, ‘Oh, go over to the left. Now look over there.’ Now, they can pick-up the virtual camera device themselves. They can use this virtual viewport into the world and really explore the location in a way they were never able to before.”
The second area is rough layout and animatic, for traditional layout and a first pass at the blocking, additional staging of the characters and initial motion of the cameras. This is where the layout artists, many who have backgrounds in live action and operated cameras, can make the first attempt at getting a nice organic camera motion.
The third and last area is camera polish. Once a scene has gone through animation, artists can make sure everything is exactly where it should be, following the characters through the staging of their final performance.