Vine Creates Digital Magic for BBC's Merlin
This simplicity of workflow was a key selling point for Middleton, who also considered using RenderMan, 3Delight, mental ray, V-Ray and Houdini's Mantra renderer for the work. "With Arnold, we'd typically only have around three lights per scene: a key, fill and edge lighting. If you were lighting a similar shot in RenderMan, you would typically end up with quite a few area lights to get the set looking nice, but with Arnold, an awful lot comes from the environment itself."
And because Arnold does not need to precalculate secondary data like point clouds, shadow maps or irradiance caches before commencing a render, the calculation process itself is memory-efficient, placing minimal load on servers and network infrastructure, and requires little human intervention.
"If you're generating point caches, you have to go through and debug them. There's more TD-ing to do," says Middleton. "Because Arnold is handling all of that for you, it's a lot simpler."
While Arnold excels at rendering complex organic characters, they aren't its only strength. Vine's other effects for Merlin included digital environments, set extensions and hard-surface props: tasks the company expects to repeat on future jobs.
"Arnold worked beautifully for this particular project, but we're not going to disappear at the end of the show," says Illingworth, who is now negotiating a range of future TV and movie effects projects. "We regard our pipeline as a long-term investment."
Vine uses an eclectic range of tools for its 3D work, from 3D-Coat to Houdini, but its workhorses are Maya for asset creation and animation, and Nuke for compositing. Arnold links into this pipeline seamlessly, with Maya writing out files in its native ASS file format via Solid Angle's MtoA plugin, and Arnold spitting out a range of render passes, both standard and user-customized, ready for compositing in Nuke. All Vine had to do was to write a few low-level Python scripts.
"We knew that we weren't going to have time to do a big setup or write shaders," says Middleton. "That Arnold worked out of the box was as important to us as what it could do as a renderer."
This combination of ease of setup, raw render quality, and what Middleton describes as "very competitive" pricing, made Arnold an ideal choice for a small start-up facility like Vine. The fact that its workflow felt familiar to users of other popular render engines was a further bonus.
"Because we're a very small facility, we have to go with tools we think the artists we hire are going to pick up quickly," says Illingworth. "We thought RenderMan lighters from the movie world would be comfortable using Arnold, as well as people from TV backgrounds using mental ray."
And with Arnold now rapidly expanding from its original user base within the major Hollywood studios, Illingworth expects other small-to-medium sized studios to take advantage of its power.
"It's one of a range of fantastic tools that do tasks that would traditionally have been done by teams of in-house developers," he says. "Now small companies like us can buy them off the shelf."
Most of all, Arnold enables CG artists to concentrate on what they do best: on creating great images, not on technical troubleshooting – something that makes both creative and financial sense, given that an artist's hourly wages are often estimated to be around a thousand times greater than one hour of CPU processing time.
"If we hadn't used Arnold, a lot more of the work on Merlin would have to have been done in the composite," concludes Illingworth. "We would have had to bully the render passes into working in the way we wanted. What was impressive with Arnold was that, even with just a single light, each creature sat in its environment pretty much out of the box. They looked fantastic straight away."
Source: Solid Angle