The 5D | FLUX at USC (presented by the 5D Institute  in association with the USC School of Cinematic Arts and Autodesk) offered the first in a series of digital design summits about the new paradigm for world building through virtual production, which has ascended since the game-changing Avatar and has been evident most recently in Hugo, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Adventures of Tintin and the upcoming Hobbit, among others. The summit was curated by production designer Alex McDowell (5D creative director), Peggy Weil (adjunct professor, USC/SCA), and Francois Audouy (production designer, 5D founding committee).
World Building is defined by 5D as "the new metaphor for the creation and actualizing of the story space in digital narrative media is the theme of this design summit. It addresses narrative design thinking, the iterative and immersive experience of creating new worlds of storytelling. As such, it expresses the full arc of design’s role through narrative media."
The three-day summit breakdown for world building, as laid out by McDowell (Man of Steel), consisted of Inception (imagining and developing the world); Prototyping (testing the story space and visualizing the world); and Manufacturing & Capture (building and experiencing the world).
McDowell offered that world building is not merely the domain of franchises. He recently worked on the indie Upside Down, a futuristic Romeo and Juliet love story in which Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst are not only separated by class but also by space. The two worlds have their own gravitational pulls but are on top of each another.
McDowell suggested that Upside Down (directed by Juan Diego Solanas) offered the perfect opportunity to test this workflow while also being a definite design challenge. “In order to work within this relatively low-budget film, a convincing way of understanding the world, building backwards here, starting with models and then painting over the models, allows you to really look at the experience of the world, even in Photoshop,” he explained.
They looked at locations in Montreal for converting into spaces that could be built up or down. "The set that we built allowed characters to be composited on the ceiling," McDowell added. "The really complicated thing here was eye line: How do you actually track the eye lines between characters that are performing in two different spaces and have to interact with each other?
"They used a real camera connected in real-time to a slave remote camera with a motion control unit receiving the data from the encoders, with a computer calculating both video signals composited in real-time to allow one frame per image… Some really interesting, complex solutions to this film played out with a d-vis process to get the eye lines to connect and to be able to build these two sets that had to be stitched together."
Among the highlights of the "Imagining and Developing the World" discussion was the revelation concerning the mythology of Superman's iconic S in Zack Snyder's Man of Steel by costume designer Michael Wilkinson. He explained that since they created a "neo-medieval" back story for Krypton (which included the creation of a new language), that it made sense to utilize the suit design as part of the mythology. "Everyone on Krypton wears this suit," he suggested. Using ZBrush and rapid prototyping, Wilkinson came up the blue/gray color and chainmail look. "It has function and purpose and logic to this fantastical world," he added.
Production designer Rick Carter (Avatar, War Horse, Lincoln) said he wished that world building would go away as a territorial battle between production departments and offered a higher philosophical discussion about world and story melding together as cause and effect. Carter spoke about the importance of metaphors in storytelling -- that's what he responds to-- and espoused Jung in describing Avatar as "The Wizard of Oz meets Apocalypse Now" or "EKG meets MRI."
During the "Prototyping the World and the Narrative" discussion, CG cinematographer Jericca Cleland (Arthur Christmas), who has her own Twenty One studio, emphasized the close collaboration with the other crafts to building a cohesive world and unified story, no matter the budget or scale.
Indeed, production designer Patrick Henenberger explained that How to Train Your Dragon took advantage of prototyping as well as more traditional artwork to build the medieval Scottish world while empowering the artists. Likewise, virtual art director Jeff Wisniewski discussed the innovative use of the Simulcam (developed for Avatar) and a robust pipeline so that director Shawn Levy could direct the virtual characters in a real world setting when they shot the boxing matches in Detroit.
Chris deFaria, who oversees development of VFX and animation at Warner Bros., revealed during the "Capturing and Finishing the Story World" discussion that Alfonso Cuaron is turning production on its head with Gravity (Nov. 21), the marooned in space adventure starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Framestore is the lead VFX company and the sci-fi movie is being post-converted in 3-D.
"Instead of trying to create real people and what they're doing, let's turn it around and create almost an entirely animated film and then backwards engineer the people into that film," he said. "As a matter of fact, let's not even engineer the people into the film, let's engineer their faces. So you've got these little faces inside these little helmets. But there was a big hiccup that we came to I didn't realize until later, which was that we began building it as an animated film and Alfonso had an idea that he wanted the shots to be incredibly long, and I said, 'How long?' And he said he wanted the first shot to be really long. And I said, 'You mean, 40 seconds?' 'No, 17 minutes.' So it ends up the film only has 156 shots in the entire two-hour movie, many of them six, eight, 10 minutes long.
"But the moment we went to work prevising this, we went into shot production. We were prevising shots and the assets we were building digitally and the angles we were creating in the camera, we were virtually committing to during that process. But when we began to bring in both the production designer [Andy Nicholson] and the DP [Emmanuel Lubezki], we realized that we were committing to many things, not just shot design but lighting, direction, every prop, every single doorway, every single distance so that when we shot somebody's eyes, they were converging at the right distance point. And we had a myriad of tools to deal with that. But we didn't create the virtual world and let the live action drive what was ultimately going to be the shot. We actually created the shot and then made the live action work within it."
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. His blog is Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com ), he's a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and he's the author of the upcoming James Bond Unmasked (Spies), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of the iconic superspy from Connery to Craig.