The Boxer. © TFX Animation.

Coming of Age:
Large Screen Formats

by Judith Rubin

Thanks to a growing network of large-format 3D theaters, a call for films to show in those theaters, and an expanding range of digital production tools, computer animation is finding a place in the large-format film industry.

Large format refers to 70mm film that has 8, 10, or 15 perforations per frame (5 perf may also be included in this category). Large-format theaters in educational institutions or commercial movieplexes usually show 40-minute features; motion simulation theaters and specialty theaters in amusement parks and other venues might show ride films (about 4 minutes long) or other entertainment films (about 15 minutes long). Flat screens in large format theaters range from about 60 feet x 84 feet, to 70 feet x 100 feet. Hemispherical dome screens can have diameters between 70 feet and 90 feet. Early examples of large-format animation include Flower Planet (1990, produced in 2D) and We Are Born of Stars (1984, produced in single-strip anaglyphic 3D -- the old system in which one eye-view is red and the other is blue, with the colors canceled out by the red-and-blue filters in the 3D glasses). Both were created for worlds fairs.

A large-format animator has recourse to all the same software and tools available for working in other formats, but the job is attended by special challenges. Because of the size of the film frame and screen, large-format animation calls for a lower horizon line when framing a shot. It also necessitates high resolution, intricate textures and the elimination of visual artifacts, meaning huge file sizes and long rendering times. Stereoscopic 3D doubles everything.

"The high resolution of large format will show any and all imperfections," says Christina Schmidlin, who is Executive Producer of Large Format for San Francisco animation studio Xaos Inc. "You have all the same problems as with animation in other formats, but enhanced. For instance, a wire frame that wouldn't show in 35mm or video might cause aliasing in 70mm. Then you have to get another piece of software to correct the problem. It's important to test the package, consider its strengths and weaknesses, and look for third-party plug-ins to fill the package out, or input what you need from another package."

Two intriguing new technologies that promise to help develop 3D animation further for the giant screen were announced in early 1998: IMAX Corp.'s SANDDE and Imagica USA/Xenotech's 2D-to-3D digital conversion process. SANDDE, which stands for Stereo Animation Drawing Device, is a technology, still largely untried, that allows an artist to draw or sculpt characters and sets in the air, using a hand-held device. The Imagica/Xenotech process applies a series of proprietary algorithms to convert digitally large-format film footage from 2D to stereoscopic 3D, and can be applied to either live-action or animation.

At least one industry group sees plenty of potential in giant-screen animation. The Large Format Cinema Association has formed an Animation Task Force to encourage and support experimentation and production in the medium. Digital animation for the big, big screen is an exciting new field open to creative artistic endeavor; and studios, companies and organizations are jumping in. Here are the latest 3D ventures:

T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous
Computer-animated dinosaurs provide the interest in this mostly live-action film made for the giant screen with a budget of $14 million. T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous opened October 23, 1998 at Edwards IMAX theaters in Irvine and Ontario, California, and at the Sony IMAX Theatre in New York City. T-Rex tells the story of Ally Hayden, a teenage girl who wants to emulate her father's career in paleontology. Fantasy and reality blend as she briefly finds her way into the Cretaceous period and meets a few dinosaurs.

According to T-Rex Visual Effects Supervisor Sean Phillips, who oversaw Blue Sky|VIFX, the studio that created the dinosaurs for the film, the challenges of designing, texturing and animating the creatures and then compositing the live-action with the computer animation was complicated by the need to make it all work in stereoscopic 3D space. Moreover, because the film is designed to play in educational institutions, it was necessary to adhere to standards laid down by the production's scientific consultants, to make the end result what Sean Phillips calls, "PC: paleontologically correct."

A Tyrannosaurus Rex reacts to Ally Hayden handling one of its eggs in IMAX Corp.'s large-format, stereoscopic 3D film, T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous. © Blue Sky|VIFX.
"It's a narrative film, not a strict documentary, but we had to balance aesthetics with the PC issue," says Phillips. "All the dinosaurs in the film are CGI; the setups didn't lend themselves to using animatronics." He explains, "Animatronics work best in close ups where cables and puppeteers can be cropped out of the shot. In 15/70 3D, a viewer's angular field of view to the screen is quite wide, which means that a wide-angle lens is a normal lens for shooting in this medium. Consequently, anytime you see a dinosaur in T-Rex, even if you are quite close to it, you will see so much of its body on the peripheral parts of the giant screen that you can't make the shot work with an animatronic."

As most of the T-Rex effects shots are supposed to be set in the Cretaceous period, on-location backgrounds were shot in the Hoh Rainforest in Washington State, USA. Five different kinds of dinosaurs appear in the film: Hadrosaur, Pteranodon, Deinonychus, Ornithomimus, and Tyrannosaurus Rex (an adult and a baby). A motion-control system, with a huge, 240lb. IMAX 3D camera on tracks, along with mock-ups of the dinosaurs to set the shots and block the action, was used to film multiple passes for later compositing.

To create the dinosaurs, the team began by using a 3D Digitizing Arm from Faro Technologies, interfaced to Alias Power Animator with custom software from Blue Sky|VIFX, to digitize hand-made sculptures of the creatures. "Current computer modeling is very difficult to use in creating complex creatures, so we didn't even consider using it to build the dinosaurs," says Phillips. "We sculpted half of each dinosaur, then created a mirror image and added deformations [in Side Effects, Houdini] to break the symmetry."

According to Phillips, the film's director, Brett Leonard, wanted the dinosaurs to be colorful. "These dinosaurs are not so much like reptiles as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park," says Phillips. "They're colored more like birds. Their skin is textured with tubercules, not as regular as scales, more like a rhino's in texture, but hanging something like an elephant's." To create models for the skin texture, Phillips researched many photos from scientific sources for the T-Rex paleontologists to approve or disapprove. All texturing was done in Avid's Matador, Adobe Photoshop, Interactive Effects, Amazon 3D Paint, and Alias Studio Paint.

A flying Pteranodon is one of the five CG dinosaurs starring in IMAX's T-Rex. © Blue Sky|VIFX.
According to Phillips, setting the dinosaurs into stereoscopic, three-dimensional space was the hardest part of the job. "It's much easier in 2D," he says. "In 3D, you see instantly if something is not occupying its space -- you see how it contacts the surface and if it is floating or sinking. Our perception is so accurate that in some cases, depth irregularities even at the sub-pixel level are observable." Mark Brown, VP of Technology for Blue Sky|VIFX explains, "We employed a variety of 3D tracking tools, principally our own proprietary software and techniques, but also using Hammerhead's Rastrack and Houdini."

The scene in which Ally approaches and then enters a painting on a museum wall also presented a special challenge, that of creating a 2D effect in a 3D environment." A 2D effect can be harder to accomplish in 3D because it still has to obey all the laws of space and we can see if the depth is off," explains Phillips. "The painting had to appear perfectly flat, not floating beyond the wall or sinking into it, and be tracked and matched one eye to another." Again, Blue Sky|VIFX made use of its proprietary software, as well as custom techniques wrapped around the software mentioned above, to tweak the composited images exactly into place. Ironically, the best method for quality-control viewing turned out to be an old, low-tech trick of positioning a mirror in between and perpendicular to the right- and left-eye images.

A Macintosh computer was used to create one of the effects shots, a 20-layer composite of a fossilized dinosaur egg emitting smoke. It was created in ElectricImage with Sassoon Film Designs' custom plug-in, Shader, and then composited with Adobe's After Effects. "The Mac rendered the composite at the rate of 3.5 minutes per frame," testifies Phillips. "It's an amazing platform."

Most animation was rendered at 3K in Alias/Wavefront's Maya, with composites at 4K and everything in 16-bit color. The finished visual effect shots comprise a terabyte of information. "Computers are naturally suited to 3D production. They're completely controllable, with no limitations, and give perfect optical quality," says Phillips, who is now working with director Leonard on Siegfried and Roy: The Magic Box, a new large-format 3D film that will include many digital sets. Phillips continues, "The quality of the effects in T-Rex makes it the first large-format 3D film that's on the same level as the most advanced Hollywood films, in terms of what you can get the cameras to do, and what you can do digitally."

Encounter In the Third Dimension
Encounter in the Third Dimension (E3D) is a new large-format film directed by Ben Stassen and jointly produced/distributed by Stassen's company nWave Pictures, headquartered in Brussels and Sherman Oaks, California, and by Burbank-based Iwerks Entertainment. E3D had its premiere showing at the September 1998 meeting in Sydney, Australia of the International Space Theatre Consortium (ISTC - recently renamed the Giant Screen Theatre Association, or GSTA). The movie has already been booked for a spring 1999 opening across Canada in several large format theaters in the Famous Players chain, and is expected to have its US premiere prior to that.

Currently, there are about 40 large-format 3D theaters, with a backlog of around 60 more, in addition to more than 200 existing 2D theaters. To maximize distribution, many 3D films are also released in a 2D version, as T-Rex will be. nWave Pictures has taken another approach. "Since E3D is a stereoscopic 3D film about 3D film, and since it relies heavily on 3D effects to tell its story, it was essential to find ways for the existing theater network to viably present the film in stereoscopic 3D," explains Stassen. "Our answer was to digitally master a single-strip, anaglyphic version of the film for the 2D theaters, as well as the stereoscopic version for 3D theaters." The anaglyphic print will enable the 2D theaters to show the film in 3D, viewable through the classic red-and-blue glasses. In addition, a four-minute extract of the film (titled Journey Through the Center of the Earth, in 3D and 2D) has been created for the ride simulation market. It premiered in November at the annual trade show of the International Assn. of Amusement Parks and Attractions, along with a 12-minute version of the film which is being marketed to 3D specialty theaters in amusement parks.

Early wireframe models of the completely virtual CG sets used in E3D. © nWave Pictures.

Working within a tight budget of $6 million, nWave employed various creative strategies "to meet the high expectations of the format without having to use a large-format camera or otherwise rely on technology that doesn't exist," says Stassen. He likes to point out that E3D reverses the usual model of CGI/live-action moviemaking by integrating live-action into the CGI settings, instead of the reverse. Those CGI sets are intricate, Jules Verne-esque tableaux. The film is set in the Institute of 3D Technology, the laboratory of a madcap professor who rarely leaves his gadget-ridden console. Amid numerous mishaps, digressions, and snide exchanges between him and his assistants, the Professor (played by Stuart Pankin) unveils his latest invention, Real-O-Vision, through which medium Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, takes form and sings a spooky song.

The tight budget meant the film had to be designed and produced with a minimum of waste. "Using Alias Wavefront, we modeled a crude digital mockup of the live-action set, exactly to scale in order to establish all camera positions and angles to the millimeter," says Stassen. The live-action set duplicated the virtual set. Says Charlotte Huggins, President of nWave, "We created the digital set, filmed out a few seconds of it, saw that it looked too small, adjusted it, re-filmed it, then took all the measurements and calculated the live-action angles."

nWave avoided the cost of renting a large-format camera, opting to film the live-action in 35mm. "The live-action characters never take up more than one-fifth to one-third of the screen, so the resolution doesn't become a problem." The live-action sequences were filmed on a soundstage to match the size of the Professor's laboratory, with a 4-foot-square greenscreen area to represent his elaborate console and working area, which was digitally modeled in Wavefront and composited in Composer. "My main job was pre-planning the shots," says Stassen. "We didn't waste 500 frames -- we knew exactly where to cut. The film was pre-edited."

nWave used a 35mm camera to shoot the live-action characters against a greenscreen in E3D. © nWave Pictures

"We didn't have a motion-control setup, so the camera couldn't move while the live-action figure was moving," adds Anthony Huerta, production designer for the film. The rich CGI set of E3D was created in Wavefront with a maximum of detail and displayed with a minimum of camera movement, an approach well-suited to giant-screen 3D. The huge image size invites close examination and discovery, and the 3D calls for minimizing cuts and point-of-view changes, which can cause eyestrain. To devise the lab's retro look, Huerta drew on period metalwork designs by Gustave Eiffel, Dillmard, and others. Photos of metal and wood surfaces in old factories were scanned into Photoshop on a Macintosh and used for texture and color, some of which will be sacrificed in the anaglyphic print.

The Professor's (played by comedian Stuart Pankin) crazy invention brings Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, to life
© nWave Pictures.
In addition to Elvira, the Professor, and the voice of Ruth, his offstage assistant, there are two robot characters in the film, created entirely in CGI: Max and Tony. Max is a talkative mischief-maker who flies around the lab and swaps verbal punches and practical jokes with the professor. Tony is a pair of mechanical arms that extend from the back of the Professor's chair and perform a variety of sight gags throughout the film. "Ben didn't want to include Tony," recalls Huerta, "because he said it would take too much time and work to render." But he who sits at the workstation sometimes has the last word! "I put Tony into the opening shots, so that we had no choice but to keep him," muses Huerta, who built a real-life version of Tony and wore it on his back at the Sydney premiere of the film.

The entire production was completed in 10 months. "We had about 10 people working in two teams," recalls Huerta. One team focused exclusively on the 4-minute ride film segment, Journey Through the Center of the Earth; the other worked on the feature. "We had one person doing compositing, one working on textures and lighting, four to five working on decor, and one person to clean everything up and do the compositing mattes."

Very little of the film was ever put on paper. "I made some preliminary drawings of the Professor's lab," said Huerta, "but they were terrible. So I started working directly on the computer. The volume and form of object were better realized on the computer than in my drawings. I first presented the character Max as a finished model, to which we made a few changes." The work was done without traditional storyboards. "The storyboards were in my head," says Stassen. "On the computer, we had technical storyboards, all done with the internal camera."

Plus, very little of the film was seen by the production team prior to its September premiere. "There are no 3D large-format theaters in Belgium where we could have had a test screening," says Huerta, "and there was no time for a 35mm run through. We would do a few video tests on computer and make some anaglyphic stills to check the 3D, then send a piece to Los Angeles for processing. The team at nWave would view it at a large-format 3D theater and give us feedback. The first time I saw the entire film in 3D and with its soundtrack was in Sydney, after a year of crazy work. We were walking the tightrope without a net."

Professional actor Philleppe
Bergeron performed motion
capture for The Boxer.
The Boxer and Making Virtual Actors
Many in the computer graphics industry no doubt remember The Boxer, a 1 minute, 40-second trailer first shown at the SIGGRAPH `95 conference and exhibition. Created by TFX Animation (Montreal) initially for 35mm projection, the film -- which was never released -- is now being readied for display in large-format theaters. Says Gregory Roy, a 3D animator at TFX Animation, "A favorite word around our studio is 'more.' You can't go bigger than large format. We blew up some 35mm frames and test-screened them in a large-format theater, and it was incredible. Large format is more!

A 20-minute, 100% computer-animated, David-and-Goliath tale, The Boxer stars Slim, a small man who meets a big man in the boxing ring, along with a substantial cast of supporting players. Also starring Slim and created as a 20-minute segment within The Boxer, Making Virtual Actors explains how virtual characters are created and illustrates how Slim was brought to life as a virtual actor. The entire 40-minute film project was created by TFX Animation using LIFEsource and flesh, two software systems created by Digits `n Art, an affiliate of TFX. LIFEsource integrates three motion-capture technologies: an optical system that uses a camera to track markers on the face of the actor; a magnetic system for body movements; and sensor-based gloves for hand movements. Flesh is a 3D paint package.

Both The Boxer and Making Virtual Actors are being created using post-rendered performance animation, meaning that actors perform the sequence, and their movements are captured using motion capture technology. The motion capture data is then applied to the virtual characters, and their movements are subsequently controlled and manipulated by the production team using LIFEsource. All rendering is being done in Pixar's RenderMan.
Once the animation has been created, the dailies are screened in-house. "We output in QuickTime and then play it back with monitors in stereo, hooked up to an Ampro projector," explains Roy. "This enables us to watch the dailies in 3D through liquid-crystal display [LCD] glasses."

The films are being shot with a parallel-camera setup often used for large-format 3D, especially animation. Parallel-camera stereoscopy puts the convergence at infinity, meaning that all objects are perceived in front of "the window," extending out into the audience space. "It gives the audience the sense of sitting in the fight stands, close to the action," says Roy. "Usually, you space the cameras 65mm apart, the average distance between a person's eyes. For effect, certain shots are being made with the cameras positioned closer together. This makes objects look disproportionately large, so you see from the perspective of a baby, or a mouse."

The TFX Animation team includes 12 people. Ninety percent of the animation is being rendered in 4K. "Some scenes are very complex due to clothing and hair, effects such as fog, and the sheer number of characters," says Roy. "Slim alone has 60,000 hairs on his head. The more complex frames can take up to 25 hours to render per processor. The opening shot, created in six layers, has more than to 1000 characters."

Taarna Studios, also an affiliate of TFX, is handling the marketing of the new film, which will be packaged and distributed in large-format theaters. Most recently, the film was previewed in a trailer screened at the 1998 ISTC show in Sydney.

Films in Development at Xaos
San Francisco animation house Xaos Inc. reports having several large-format 3D stereoscopic works in development, ranging from 30 seconds to more than 5 minutes in length. Christina Schmidlin is working with creative director Mark Malmberg and animator/designer Lisa Slates on the early development of these projects. The pieces will be initially targeted for screening at film festivals and large-format industry events in order to showcase the company's aptitude for the new medium. Now in its tenth year, the company has already broken into large-format production with animated titles for two (2D) pictures. "One thing we love about large format," says Schmidlin, "is that it allows us to explore the medium more fully than we often otherwise are able to do. A large-format client is more open to experimentation than a commercial ad agency."

The shortest of the new 3D projects combines Xaos' proprietary particle animation systems with kaleidoscopic imagery and character animation.
Malmberg describes it as "simultaneously abstract, organic, and complex. We're using our particle system in a new way that evokes the psychedelic 2D work Xaos has become known for, but allowing the viewer to travel through that imagery and experience it in three dimensions. Adding character animation to the mix takes Xaos into a new realm."

According to Slates, sequences are being created with the Character Studio portion of Kinetix's 3D Studio Max, along with Max Script, a built-in scripting feature in the software for custom functionality. Animators are working on Intergraph TDZ dual-processor workstations equipped with 256MB to 512MB of RAM. For rendering, four-processor RenderRax units from Intergraph, each with 1GB of RAM, are being employed. Xaos intends to premier its first new 3D short at the next annual conference and film festival of the LFCA, which will be held May 18-22, 1999, in Los Angeles at the California Science Center.

All of the people we spoke to see animation playing a bigger and bigger role in large format film, just as it is expanding in mainstream filmmaking. "About five years ago, when I switched from live-action production to animation, a lot of my colleagues thought I was making a mistake," says Christina Schmidlin. "They saw animation as a niche -- I saw it as the future."

"As the large format industry grows overall," predicts Schmidlin, "production budgets and work volume will increase, and some animation houses will adapt their infrastructure more exclusively for large format. The large-format live-action camera package is expensive, and it will be cheaper to do CGI films. Certain kinds of exhibitors, such as educational theater operators, will continue to want live-action for their science films, but overall there will be more digital production for sure, and a lot of it will be in 3D."

Judith Rubin is a freelance writer and publicist specializing in large-format film and entertainment technology. She is based in Oakland, California.

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