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Maya Provides Core 3D Animation Technology for Rings Trilogy

Alias' Maya software played a central role in the development of Gollum, Shelob, the Battle of Pelennor Fields and the Witch King's death in THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING. In fact, Maya has been the core 3D animation software used in all three RINGS films created by Weta Digital and distributed by New Line Cinema. The Oscar award-winning software has allowed the visual effects and animation team at Weta Digital to produce 1,500 CG effects in the last installment of the trilogy, as well as develop the photoreal animation performances of Gollum and the other digital characters.

"The incredibly talented staff at Weta Digital have logged many hours on our Maya software in order to make Gollum's performance, and that of the other digital characters, so completely engaging," explained Bob Bennett, gm of product management, Alias. "Our Custom Development Center team was also able to lend their support, developing custom software tools that enabled the Weta team to spend more time thinking about their art, and less time worrying about the technology behind it."

Added Weta Digital cto Scott Houston: "We were looking to do things that had never been done in the history of the motion picture industry: hundreds of thousands of soldiers for the Battle of Pelennor Fields scene and the incredibly life-like animations of Shelob and Gollum. Plus, there was the pure volume of effects shots we had to deliver: 1,500 as opposed to 500 for the first film. To meet these challenges we needed business partners like Alias who really understood our requirements and were able to deliver solutions. I view Alias as much more than simply a software vendor. Not only has the company provided us with Maya the core 3D animation technology for the trilogy they have also delivered custom software that has enabled us to bring Peter Jackson's vision to life, while meeting our deadlines. I don't think THE RETURN OF THE KING would have had the same level of digital effects without Alias technology."

Randall William Cook, two-time Oscar award-winner for his work on the first two movies of the series and animation designer/supervisor at Weta Digital, was involved in the decision to commit to Maya software from the beginning. "Maya entered the picture very early on," remembered Cook. "I was shown several selections of software and had the chance to test drive them. Based upon my experience in animation, I found Maya to be the most comfortable interface and the technical team could get into the software to customize the code we chose Maya and never looked back.

"Between THE TWO TOWERS and THE RETURN OF THE KING, we added 50% more digital artists. And while many of our artists had experience working with Maya software, some were traditional 2D cel animators with no knowledge of 3D animation. In order to facilitate workflow for the animators, we built an enormous scene management system through Maya, using the software's MEL (Maya Embedded Language) scripting abilities. Using this system, the animators had merely to click on a tab in the Maya interface to bring up crucial scene information from other departments: including camera information, motion capture data, live-action plate files and sound files."

When it came to animating characters, the team took this Maya-based animation pipeline a step further. Jason Schleifer, senior animator/creature technical director at Weta Digital, set up a procedural puppet system in Maya with his team whereby characters could be animated via a set of simple controls and sliders. For the complex, highly emotive Gollum, a set of 135 controls was put in place for his face alone. "This allowed us to really push Gollum as a character," Schleifer explained. "You really see this come through in the movie during the scene where Gollum is lying on the ground sleeping. Although he's asleep and hardly moving, you can see an internal struggle taking place as you look at his face. It's one of the hardest things in the world to animate a character that is not moving. Yet in this scene, you get a sense of the intensity of Gollum's anguish."

The demise of the Witch King, one of the highlights of THE RETURN OF THE KING, put MEL to the test. Schleifer animated the Witch King character using Maya's animation curve tools and MEL. "Peter wanted the character to look something like a submarine imploding," added Schleifer. "One challenge was animating the character's hand, so that it was moving upwards, but with a very 'jittery' feel. Using MEL, I built a tool that allowed me to combine two animation curves, one with lots of high frequency data (for the jittery-ness) and one with primary animation information." Next Schleifer put a user interface around his new Maya tool and handed it off to his other team members. "Our whole Maya-based animation pipeline is built on the premise that animators should not have to think about the technical side of things. We want them to think about their craft and the performance of the character."

One of Alias' key support options for large film and game facilities is its Custom Development Center, based in Toronto and Santa Barbara, California. The center is comprised of senior Maya software developers, who have more than 40 years of experience with the company, and consult on large projects: developing custom software to extend Maya's usual functionality to meet the unique demands of a particular project. For THE RETURN OF THE KING, that meant producing custom animation code, custom cloth simulation code and giving general R&D support.

Life beyond the THE RINGS means preparing for KING KONG: "We pushed Maya to its limits and beyond," remarked Houston. "Our next project is bigger in scale still More than ever, we're going to have to rely on Alias."

As a leading innovator of 3D graphics technology, Alias (, a wholly owned, independent software company of SGI, develops award-winning software, custom development and training solutions for the film and video, games, Web, interactive media, industrial design, education and visualization markets. In 2003, the company was awarded an Oscar for Technical Achievement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for its development of Maya software, the professional 3D animation and effects package.

Weta Digital was formed in 1993 by a group of young New Zealand filmmakers, including Jackson, Jamie Selkirk, Jim Booth, George Port, Tania Rodger and Richard Taylor. Since its humble beginnings, the company has quickly increased in size and skill to now provide some of the highest quality visual effects in the film and television industry. Weta's digital artists use the latest hardware and software, as well as a suite of proprietary tools. Working closely with the other division of Weta Ltd., Weta Workshop, they offer multidisciplinary expertise in conceptualization, creation and technical know-how as well as compositing, bluescreen and background plates, miniature stop-motion footage, motion-capture sequencing, 35mm film scanning, recording and screenings, full design, maquette and 3D scanning services.

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Rick DeMott
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