A New Look at Virtual Production
Currently HALON's virtual camera pipeline follows the same methodology developed by James Cameron on Avatar. Record the necessary performances, boil it all down into a setup, and then film it with the virtual camera. This is effective but not very flexible. Inevitably a filmmaker will change their mind and request changes to blocking, timing and a host of other things. These changes nearly always require the file to go back to an artist to be manipulated off the stage, which has the effective outcome of killing momentum on stage and frustrating the filmmaker.
With an eye to making this process far more efficient, the HALON team started speaking with a young company from Montreal founded by a handful of Autodesk and Softimage veterans well-versed in production and software engineering: Fabric Engine.
The Fabric Engine team had just announced a new application platform, called Creation Platform. Still in beta, “Creation” gives studios a framework built with Python and Qt on top of what they call the “Fabric Core,” which is a multi-threading engine that taps into the power of modern CPUs and GPUs. They provide a range of tools and modules built with their own framework -- covering areas like animation and simulation -- but completely open to be changed or replaced according to the customer’s needs.
“Over the years we've squeezed every ounce of performance and visual acuity out of our long-time tool set. But in the last six months we've seen a convergence of technology that finally brings the things we've been coveting from game engines -- real-time performance and beautiful images -- together into accessible reality,” continues Gregoire. “The team at Fabric Engine gets that. Unlike the demands of shipping a single product, which is what most game engines are built for, the Creation Platform is built for the demands of continuous production. The team there has demonstrated a plethora of understanding where we need to go as an industry by focusing on true cloud-based computing, real time heavy data set manipulation, interoperability and strong extensibility.”
Back to the Future
The weekend before this year’s SIGGRAPH conference and exhibition, the teams from HALON Entertainment and Fabric Engine sat down to discuss the virtual camera system and tackle some of the new features HALON needed.
“We agreed to meet on the Saturday before SIGGRAPH on set, and I gave them the details of what we needed,” said Justin Denton, previsualization & VFX supervisor at HALON. “Not only did the guys from Fabric Engine develop a completely custom application in less than a day; they also made it completely live on the vcam monitor and allowed everything in the environment to be manipulated while streaming live mocap data. This kind of real-time visualization and interactivity is key to understanding how changes affect your scene.”
So what exactly did Creation Platform do for HALON? Using its built-in extension framework, the Fabric Engine team hooked Creation Platform into OptiTrack’s Ethernet mocap stream. That mocap data was then retargeted in real-time onto the 3D characters in the scene, complete with support for blendable IK targets. In the SIGGRAPH demo, the 3D set also contained 470 fully textured objects, all rendered in real time by Creation Platform at 30 frames per second in the viewport of the Insight VCS, allowing directors to get a visual grasp of the characters and the scene on the fly.