When ATI Technologies launched the latest generation of its Radeon graphics technology in April, the company wanted a visual demonstration piece that would show off the card's realtime rendering and graphics capabilities.
To develop a special promo piece that can be rendered in realtime using the ATI card, the company turned to director Harry Dorrington and the New York-based visual effects company rhinofx. The piece will be used at trade shows and public events to demonstrate the capabilities of ATI's latest graphics technology, and the spot's characters will form the basis of a worldwide ad campaign.
After five months of work with a team of more than 20 artists, the result is an action-packed 1:30 promo called THE DOUBLECROSS, which tells the story of Ruby, a special agent who has to face off against four ninjas to retrieve a diamond orb from Optico, the villainous gangster kingpin.
"Every time we launch a next generation of technology, we create visual pieces which showcase the technological advances and features of the architecture," explained Stephen Smith, ATI's director of marketing communications. "Over the years, we've tended to produce smaller vignettes that showcase a particular feature of the technology. But when we started planning for this launch, we wanted to take things to the next level. We wanted to create a piece that showcases both the technological features of our product, and also has a marketing angle that we can build equity and branding around."
"ATI came to us last summer with little more than an idea of what they wanted to demonstrate," explained Rick Wagonheim, rhinofx senior exec producer and partner. "Usually, as a studio, an agency will come to us with the characters already drawn or a storyboard with the idea already sold. Here there was no firm idea or concept. There was no story and there was no character. At that point, there was only the vision of what the piece wanted to achieve as a demonstration piece. They wanted both a technical and a creative partner in this process and I think we showed them that we could be that partner."
Director Dorrington went to work on the blank canvas starting from scratch with concept design, character development and plot development. "We felt very much like an agency at that point," he said. "That kind of freedom is almost unheard of, but still, we had to balance that with technical constraints."
Animating for a realtime graphics card designed for the computer gaming market required a whole new workflow for rhinofx, which is used to rendering CG frames with an unlimited number of polygons and light sources, (and waiting for frames to render). For this demo, everything would have to be rendered based on rhino's Maya files, which meant the artists were limited in the number of polygons and light sources they could use. Yet, Dorrington was able to work with effects such as depth of field, hair, realistic skin tones and some complex lighting -- standard fare in the TV and film business, but still something of a holy grail in the realtime world of videogames.
"The gaming market has these ambitions and they want to be seen on a cinematic level," Dorrington said.
"A key part of what we're trying to do with this demo is show game developers and the gaming community at large that we're at a crossover point when we're going to be looking more and more to Hollywood and the techniques and the processes used there in terms of generating the next generation of content," explained Callan McInally, manager of ATI's 3D Application Research Group in Boston, Mass.
"We had never really gone into realtime rendering because we'd never needed to. So we had to change the way that we approach the job. We had to change the way we light things and how we build things. We had to work within those restrictions, but also at the same time, we had to make it as good as we possibly could," explained Dorrington. "It's a very different way of working, and it shows the studio's flexibility -- we can work on high-end commercials and we can adapt it and work to this."
Adapting meant that the company had to work closely with ATI's 3D Application Research Group while the card was still being developed to make sure that the piece would meet the specs of the card.
"There were some interesting challenges on both sides in terms of actually making that work. I know that we broke rhino's process on a number of occasions," added McInally. "The way that they traditionally do things doesn't always work well for our domain. They also pushed our team to think beyond what we would normally do. So we ended up having to tweak our processes. That was a very interesting challenge because the two worlds are very different."
To animate the spot's action-packed martial arts scenes, the company went with motion capture, turning to fight coordinator, Declan Mulvey and New York-based Perspective Studios.
Lead animator Jeff Guerrero, was called on to develop a special scalable rig in Maya that could accommodate each of the spot's six characters.
"Since we were using motion capture, we needed to develop the rig so that we could bring in the data and at the same time, do keyframe animation on top of it," Guerrero said. "Its not like we could develop a rig for a specific character, because it hadn't been approved yet, so we did a scalable rig where the rig would be consistent with all six characters. And they all had different scales -- Ruby was 58, the kingpin was 64 and the ninjas were 62. And their extremities were different. Ruby had longer legs and the ninjas had longer arms. On the other hand, the rig had to be read by the ATI card, meaning we had certain restrictions. For example, we had a specific amount of bones per character, because of the specifications of the graphics card. So we had to make sure that there were bones where they needed to be."
Keyframe animators at rhinofx massaged the motion capture data, and worked on hands, facial animations and hair.
In terms of lighting, lead lighter and project lead, Joe Burrascano, was limited to three light sources, and the lighting had to be precooked into texture maps.
"Usually we have no limitation on the number of lights that we can use and the types of lights. In this case, we were limited to three lights. It was like going back to the basics -- a very old-school way to work, but it was interesting and it was a good way to light," said Burrascano.
To tackle the 76 shots in the piece, the rhinofx's software developer Jim Callahan developed a proprietary in-house asset management system called Pipeline.
"If we didn't have Pipeline I think it would have been pretty hard to do," said Guerrero. "It is basically a file management system that works with any software. It was still in beta testing, so we needed an opportunity for us to test it on a job and this was the perfect job. Because of the schedule everybody had to work at the same time, so the animators were working on one thing, the previs person would be working on another thing, while the lighting and texture people were working on another element, all at the same time. And once we were all happy with it, we could put them together with Pipeline. It would create the file on the fly and we were able to go back and forth with various versions. It kept a log of versions every time we saved it. The programmers were able to see where mistakes were made, where there was a problem or an error, and allocate the problem exactly to the person who did it, and why it was done."
For ATI, THE DOUBLECROSS represents the first step in a process of building brand equity, explained Smith, so we can expect to see more adventures of Ruby with future product launches.
* Harry Dorrington (director)* Rick Wagonheim (senior exec producer/partner)* Camille Geier (senior exec producer)* Karen Bianca (senior producer)* Harry Dorrington & Daivd Zung (story and concepts)* David Zung & Ji Yoon (storyboarding/visualization)*Jeff Guerrero (lead animator)* David Barosin (technical consultant & animation)* Dan Vislocky (animation/modeler)* Joe Burrascano (lead lighter and project lead)*Chimin Yang (texture artists/lighter)* Ido Kalir (texture artist/lighter)* Natalia Senko (lighter)*Dylan Maxwell (shader/texture artist)* Martin Boksar (texture artist)* Paul Liaw (modeler)* John Velazquez (modeler)* Shin Kull (modeler)* Michael Ware (3D artist)* Ji Yoon (technical animation/dynamics)* Jesse Clemens (technical director)* Guy Atzman (compositor/titles)* Chris DiFiore (compositor/graphics)* Marc Steinberg (editor compositor)* Jim Callahan (software development)* Paul Tsung (systems engineer)* Chris Green (Photoshop artists/graphics)* Kirsten Ames (Mo Cap production manager)
* Stephen Smith (project director, creative)* Callan McInally (project director, technical)* David Gosselin (programming lead)* Eli Turner (art lead)* Thorsten Scheuermann, Pedro Sander & Jason L. Mitchell (shader programming)
rhinofx (www.rhinofx.tv, formerly Rhinoceros Visual Effects and Design) is located at 50 East 42nd Street, New York, NY (212) 986-1577.
ATI Technologies Inc. (www.ati.com) is a leader in the design and manufacture of innovative 3D graphics and digital media silicon solutions. An industry pioneer since 1985, Based in Markham, Ontario, Canada, ATI claims to be the world's foremost visual processor unit (VPU) provider and is dedicated to deliver leading-edge performance solutions for the full range of PC and Mac desktop and notebook platforms, workstation, set-top and digital television, game console and handheld markets.