All The World’s a Virtual Stage in Disney’s New Camera Capture System
Lights, Virtual Camera, Collect Data!
Here’s how the Camera Capture system works. The action all takes place within a stage similar to what you’ve seen in countless motion-capture studios. With Disney’s new system, through the use of a handheld or mounted “virtual camera” device, the operator controls a virtual object inside Maya. Movement is tracked using sensors within the performance area and fed into Maya. The camera movement is captured in real-time within the virtual set.
According to Evan, you can use different input devices, including handheld and tripod-based, depending upon what type of motion you want – something fast, something smooth, something really precise. Once you’ve chosen your input device, you need to define your stage. Literally, you define where within the “action” you wish to be, from what size perspective and from what vantage point within the scene. You set the scale of the environment. You could be in the middle of a single room or an entire city. Sometimes a step on the stage translates to a step within the scene. Sometimes a step translates into 300 yards of movement. Whether you’re a plane flying over New York, or a mouse facing off against a cat, the environment is all based upon the scale of the defined stage.
The system allows you to populate your virtual stage with actual production assets, including characters. It also provides you with a set of “take management” tools, like those used by an editor, to comb through potentially hundreds of different takes and pull only the ones you want to use. As Evan explained, with regards to assets used within the virtual set environment, there are many parallels to previs, where low-res assets are often used for proof of concept and then thrown away. Camera Capture uses all real assets. There isn’t a separate team creating assets specifically for virtual layout. Optimization tools have been created to allow for faster playback, given Maya’s limitation in how quickly it can display such a large amount of high-res production data.
It’s a Great Big Virtually Beautiful Tomorrow
Camera Capture represents a significant paradigm shift in the way directors can layout an animated film. According to Terry Moews, a layout artist intimately involved in the system’s development, “Now, we can put a director virtually into a set and he can look 360 degrees in every direction and get a sense of the scale and placement of everything within the scene. He can plan shots. We can hand him this device and we can watch him visualize the scene. It used to be the other way around. They’ve always had to watch us. We were always their eyes and ears into the set.”
Terry went on to describe how changing assets within a virtual scene is a simple process. A director can look at a scene and say, “Let’s take that guy out of this scene. Now get a close-up.” You can instantly capture camera positions, angles and record the camera arcs the director likes and later integrate them with the actual scene. The director can “bless” the layout, giving artists a firm position from which to create a scene. This preempts, for example, a review session where the director might say, “Wow, this feels really cramped.” That’s all eliminated before it ever has a chance to happen.
As Terry explained, traditionally, the director gives layout some input and ideas, and then he won’t see any work for several weeks. The Camera Capture system lets the director and layout artists collaborate in a real-time virtual environment to make layout decisions together. “Working with a director, we were walking through hundreds of shots in an hour, passing cameras, creating ideas, thinking about stuff. Iteration, from a layout perspective, is our biggest achievement. The faster we can iterate on story points, find the shots, find the ideas that we like, the better the movie. When you have the director involved in that process, it’s just gold.”
Though on Wreck-It Ralph the Camera Capture system was used primarily on Hero’s Duty, directors working on new projects at the studio are actively looking to use the system on their entire film. As Terry says, “It’s coming.”
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of AWN.com.