Janet Hetherington reports on Montreals conference on digital arts, including a chat with keynote speaker Phil Tippett, and discovers that smart trumps trendy in the world of vfx.
The motto for todays vfx delivery always seems to be Faster, Better, Cheaper, but for professionals attending the //ADAPT 2007 (Advanced Digital Art Production Techniques) conference in Montreal from Sept. 24- 28, that adage may be changing to Faster, Better, Cheaper -- and Smarter.
Working smarter means scrutinizing all of the possible methods and tools to approach a project and choosing the path that will provide the best (and often most cost-efficient) result. That may entail using the latest in technology or going back to the past to use tried-and-true vfx methods, or using a combination of both past and present methodology.
Veteran vfx guru Phil Tippett set the tone for the conference during his keynote address on Monday evening. Fresh off of his latest film project, The Spiderwick Chronicles (based on Holly Black and Tony Diterlizzis best-selling children's book series of the same name), Tippett spoke to a rapt crowd about his career that was sparked by seeing Rudolph Zallingers dinosaur illustrations in 1955, when Tippett was a child.
Seeing King Kong on television further fueled Tippetts fascination for the entire process of achieving vfx. He acknowledged that as a young man starting out, he got lucky by being exposed to shooting, editing, costumes, miniatures and sets. He had the opportunity to work at Cascade Studios where Tex Avery was one of Tippetts mentors.
In his talk, Tippett remarked on working on such films as Star Wars (the Cantina scene), Piranha, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Dragonslayer, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, RoboCop II, Willow, Starship Troopers, Virus, Evolution, Starship Troopers II, Blade II, Catwoman, Hellboy, The Mask II, The Shaggy Dog and Charlottes Web.
Tippett acknowledged Jurassic Park (on which he also worked) as a pivotal film for vfx. Things turned very quickly to computer graphics, he said. It requires a different kind of thinking from 2D animation. When asked what he thought of the digital effects for Jurassic Park (at the time the film was being made), Tippett replied, I think Im extinct. That line was later used in the movie.
However, Tippetts vfx expertise has proven far from extinct; rather, it is in high demand. He (and his Tippett Studio) just completed work on Spiderwick Chronicles (where the task was to biologize the fantastical creatures), worked on Enchanted (creating all kinds of animals and creatures) and Golden Compass (providing shots of wolves, among other things), and is currently involved in a secret J. J. Abrams project, presumably the Cloverfield monster movie.
Tippett believes vfx knowledge -- and technology -- should be used wisely and well. Like the fashion industry, technology tends to sell itself and be impressed with itself, Tippett told VFXWorld.com. The result is that hot vfx can be overused, resulting in moviegoers having to endure the season of water or the thousands of charging men.
For Tippett, it is less about the technology than what the technology can create. Im a performer hired to perform on a number of different shows because of the stylistic approach that I bring, he insisted.
Mark Breakspear, Rainmaker vfx supervisor and a speaker at the conference, echoed Tippetts sentiments. Were about creating a visual sandwich, he said. What we do is more about the taste than the ingredients. The idea is to enjoy the final moments when you bite into it. When you embrace this theory, it affects the choices you make to solve problems.
Breakspear attended //ADAPT 2007 in between problem-solving on his current project, Tropic Thunder, a DreamWorks comedy war movie starring Ben Stiller and Jack Black. As vfx supervisor, Breakspear is utilizing various options in his arsenal for the film. You choose the technology to convey the imagery, Breakspear said. Theres a lot of factors: how much money, the talent and the schedule.
For Tropic Thunder, the vfx arsenal includes old school effects -- explosions. We had the largest peace-time explosion on set, Breakspear added. After his ADAPT presentation, given with Rainmaker colleague Ed Jones, Breakspear headed back to Hawaii and then Los Angeles to complete work on the film.
Jones noted during the Rainmaker presentation that, its vital to know how technology works. Computers are enablers. Computers rank with the discovery of fire when it comes to inventions. Fire gave us heat, allowed us to see in the dark and to cook food. Computers affect all aspects of our daily lives. In the future, there will be no technology boundaries to limit film-making.
Touching on another emerging theme of //ADAPT 2007, Jones offered, Its all about the story. This technology is ours to define and use only as a tool to tell a story. Happy Feet used motion capture and it won an Oscar. That was the right tool for that story.
Motion capture was used extensively in the computer-animated film. Jones described how the dancers -- the performers who played the penguins -- all were suited for MoCap, and Happy Feet director George Miller wanted to immerse himself with the dancers. To do this, he sat right in the middle of the dancers until he got the performance he desired.
Jones said that Rainmakers animation arm is busy with the animated film Escape from Planet Earth, a CG feature about a bunch of rag-tag aliens who want to beak out of Area 51 and get back to their home planet, due out in 2009.
Meanwhile, Jones said that he is looking forward to seeing James Camerons Avatar and what hes going to do with the technology, as well as Robert Zemeckis Beowulf. I want to see if the technology allows him to tell the story he wants.
Speaking of Avatar, senior illustrator, master painter and //ADAPT speaker Ryan Church recently finished work on the movie and confirmed that Cameron was involved in everything. Hes a good director, a perfectionist and a fantastic artist, Church enthused. He has it in his brain and in his fingers, too. Church commented that while Cameron had never used a Wacom tablet before, he witnessed Cameron deciding to try using one. He picked up the stylus and just started drawing away.
Church also admitted that Aliens is his all-time favorite film and confesses to being the biggest James Cameron fan ever.
Church, who specializes in environmental and vehicle designs, was hired to be a first pass concept artist on Avatar. He uses Corel Painter X to realize his visions, and while creating digital art is fast and of little impediment to the workflow, Church noted that old school techniques are also being revived and used on projects such as Avatar. Matte painters are coming back with a vengeance. You can get such a photorealistic result.
Church previously worked on the Star Wars films when he was at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). He is currently providing concept art for another popular space franchise --J.J. Abrams Star Trek. He takes the challenge seriously because its drawing on the whole history of Star Trek. Again, Churchs main focus is on environments and hardware, but he admitted that he is getting to play with an extreme icon of the Star Trek universe.
Church tends to juggle three or four projects at a time. He provides services for both videogames and film, and is also presently working on Robert Rodriguezs Barbarella. He commented that he especially enjoys the time when he can freely conceptualize for the first three or four days of a project, before the script comes in. When asked if he regrets not tackling painting Barbarella, the bodacious space queen herself, Church said, Its all very specialized. You either do characters or you do environments and hardware. The only person that I know of who does both is Syd Mead.
Meanwhile, the legendary Mead was a return speaker at ADAPT this year. In his presentation, he spoke of how high-tech, or digital, painting has proven to be an education for someone who is used to painting by hand using traditional media. I know ADAPT is an acronym, he said, but thats what you have to do. Conference attendees were eager to listen to Mead talk about his extensive work experience, soak up tips and techniques, and to obtain his autograph after the talk.
Another master painter and ADAPT speaker, Andrew Jones, brought a different perspective to creating art. Like Church, Jones uses Corel Painter X (Jones art graces the box cover), but brings to the digital tablet 10 years of training as a classical painter. He began his career working at ILM and then went on to serve as creative director of Massive Black. Today, however, Jones classifies himself as a shape-sifter.
Im not an artist. Im not a digital painter I shift through shapes until they please me, Jones said, noting that digital painting is perhaps the most pure medium, because the artist is effectively painting with light. Jones creates his work from a place of celebration and provided a spontaneous live painting performance at the //ADAPT 2007 Halo 3 launch party.
For Jones, working smarter means exploration: working from an internal compass and making art without direction. While Jones acknowledged how important it is for artists to serve yourself and feed your creative side, he noted that for those just starting out, taking art classes and learning the discipline of art is important. In fact, to learn figure drawing, Jones took the first year of medical school so he could better understand the anatomy of bodies.
In 2002, Jones created www.conceptart.org, and now travels the world teaching and performing his live painting demonstrations. I suppose Im an artistic motivational speaker, he said. He has created works at events such as Burning Man and on-stage, inspired by various bands and disc jockeys. On these tours, I completely demystify the artistic process because they can see it evolve right before their eyes. It takes the mystery out.
Since Jones paints digitally, he produces high-quality canvas prints of his original works and massages them so that each painting is unique. Its never the same print twice. Its very personal.
Jones equipment is also very personal. His laptop computer lid features an eye-catching design and his drawing tablet has a specially fashioned guitar strap for easy carriage. His transportable amazing magical manifester presents yet another theme related to working smarter: portable technology.
In his ADAPT presentation, Halon Ent.s Dan Gregoire explained how he has a 30-lb backpack with all the equipment he needs to perform previsualization work locally on set, and on the road (laptop, camera, GPS, cables firewire and Sprint wireless modem). I often have to beg, borrow or steal Internet, quipped Gregoire.
Calling previs the wild west of the CG industry, Gregoire noted how previs has become an extremely useful tool for vfx problem-solving, asset planning, sequence development, element gathering, scheduling, budgeting and more.
Gregoire has worked on such projects as Avatar, Speed Racer, Halo 3, Ghost Rider, War of the Worlds, The Spiderwick Chronicles and the new Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Gregoire said that for directors, previs is about solidifying the message so directors such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and his team, can make informed decisions and perhaps forestall expensive shots. Using Google maps to scout locations virtually and used in previs can help immensely with exact location and set planning.
Gregoire even performed a hands-on previs exercise during his presentation, showing how the 3D imagery can be used to create a type of precise animated-action storyboard. He said that, though rough, previs work could be integrated into the final product, as was the case for the animation and core functionality for Star Wars III.
Previs was used extensively in War of the Worlds. The previs imagery may not be refined, but Gregoire added, Steven [Spielberg] doesnt care as long as he can tell whats going on. Gregoire said that pretty visuals are not the goal of previs. The cold, hard fact is that most directors will not wait, Gregoire insisted. If technology gets in the way, it will go. One extra step will hold up the operation.
As for faster rendering times, Gregoire commented that the Unreal engine was experimented with on Minority Report, but ultimately not used.
Indy and Vader Got Game
However, Indiana Jones and his newest videogame are enjoying the benefits of realtime previs. ADAPT speakers Rob Clarke and Chris Voy of LucasArts explain that Zviz allows them to follow and capture the action of performers in MoCap suits -- but see them as the actual characters in the game. They can also track the MoCap of props, all in realtime.
The new Indy game also benefits from the LucasArts intuitive Euphoria process, based on NaturalMotions endorphin system, which allows characters to adapt seamlessly to their environments. For example, Indy can push an attacker and he may fall down, stay down or bounce back up.
Clarke and Voy stressed that the Indiana Jones videogame is independent of any movie, but is set in 1939 after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The classic-styled, mystery-solving game will play on Xbox 360 and PS3 and other platforms.
Clarke said that the developers enjoy great access to the Lucasfilm archives and props to create an authentic Indy experience. (Indy does lose his hat in the game, but it always comes back.) Voy noted that the art director on the game is really trying to be authentic in the depiction of Chinatown and other locales.
Interestingly enough, assets from the Indiana Jones game are being shared with the new film.
LucasArts also has a new Star Wars game in development, set for release in early 2008. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed will present an entirely new story that covers a part of the Star Wars saga between Episodes III and IV. It will tell Darth Vaders story and introduce and entirely new character -- Darth Vaders apprentice.
In addition, Clarke and Voy said that LucasArts recently started work on a completely new intellectual property (IP) independent from established franchises.
Deep Space Mass Effect
Edmontons BioWare is also launching an original videogame called Mass Effect, an SF adventure game for Xbox 360 with a mature rating that took four years to develop. BioWares software of choice for Mass Effect is 3ds Max and the game itself offers a lot of choices. Mass Effect ships on Nov. 20.
This is a next-gen game with a modified Unreal 3 engine, said Adrien Cho, lead technical artist and ADAPT presenter. The lead character is Shepard, the commander whom players may choose to make either male or female. Its fully customizable, Cho said. You can change features, skills, paths, armor, vehicles and more.
The enemies are aliens, but Cho commented that the game is not just a good-versus-evil procedural. There are hidden agendas and deeper themes, which is why its geared toward a more adult audience. There just may be romance to spice things up in outer space too, if players choose to follow that path.
BioWare, which started out making medical software before it turned to videogames, is working on other projects such as Sonic the Hedgehog for handheld platforms, as well as another original IP game, Dragon Age.
Halo 3: Play Smarter
Halo 3 saw its launch during ADAPT week, on Sept. 25. And while other speakers were addressing how vfx can work smarter, Halo 3 was showing how vfx can play smarter. Halo 3 is officially the biggest entertainment release, reported CJ Cowan, director of cinematics at Bungie Studios, at ADAPTs special Halo 3 presentation. It made $170 million in one day and sold 2.54 million copies in the U.S. alone.
Cowan showed off the impressive opening cinematics for the game, which utilize proprietary in-engine cinematic tools. But a new feature for Halo 3, which will give credence to players bragging rights and appeal to animators, is the save films function.
Animators will enjoy looking at the save films too, because you can pause animations, run cycles, walk cycles and see it all in complete 3D perspective, Cowan explained. No one has ever done anything remotely like this before.
Cowan noted that Halo 3 also offers a new online co-op feature, where up to four people can play against each other while still on the same team. They can compete for kills, Cowan added.
Facial animation in the cinematics has been improved as well. In Halo 2, the faces had five or six bones, Cowan said. In Halo 3, there are 20 bones. Theyre custom animated so that eight or nine different languages can be lip synched all handled by the engine. The game features some 35,000 lines of dialog.
Transition and a Turtle
Its been a long road to videogames such as Mass Effect and Halo 3. ADAPT speaker Greg Punchatz, senior creative director for Janimation, recalled working on the Doom games before CG was even a viable option for videogames.
The Dallas-based artist first specialized in make-up effects and stop-motion animation. When he joined Janimation and became convinced that his skills could be transferred to computer use, Punchatz took Softimage XSI 3D training, but the transition was not easy. I was convinced I was going to be fired, Punchatz remembered. But I stayed longer and worked harder than anyone else, and Ive now been there for 13 years.
Janimation is currently working on a commercial spot for the University of Maryland featuring the universitys turtle mascot. In the spot (shot like a Busby Berkeley musical), the turtle has his brain scanned and then shakes off a wire frame from his shell like a dog shaking off water. We face new challenges every time, Punchatz said. Shaking the wire frame off has proven to be difficult. I figured out how to do it one hour before I was leaving to come to ADAPT.
As senior creative director, Punchatz is involved in pitching for jobs, and he recalled a quick three-day turnaround test for Blockbuster that he had to do: make a dragon. We shot footage, modeled, rigged and composited in three days, Punchatz said. The result earned his firm a standing ovation and it won the bid.
From there, Punchatz took the cue to work smarter and used the dragon assets that had already been developed for the pitch to complete the final product. We cleaned him up and filmed the background, Punchatz said. We only do the work thats necessary and spend the money on stuff that counts.
Punchatz is interested in seeing where 3D animation is going, especially when pushing new boundaries and traversing the uncanny valley of creating realistic CG human beings. Punchatz believes Frank Millers 300 is a milestone in vfx. Its not absolutely realistic and the use of paintings and illustrations in the film is amazing, he commented.
A New Journey
Pierre Raymond, president and CEO of Hybride in Montreal, was intimately involved with the making of 300, and its predecessor, Sin City. 300 is actually the third benchmark in these vfx developments, said Raymond of the greenscreen/bluescreen next gen approach used in shooting the film, adding, Spy Kids was first, then Sin City, then 300.
Spy Kids 3-D also led the way to Hybrides newest project: Journey 3-D, a stereoscopic movie due out in summer 2008. When a group of youngsters discover Jules Vernes original manuscript of Journey to the Center of the Earth and realize that Verne himself had taken the trip, they decide to embark on the same quest.
This is another movie in Montreal being entirely shot on greenscreen, Raymond says. All the environments are virtual they have to be, because theyre visiting the center of the earth, he chuckled.
Hybride is providing some 250 shots, but because the production is stereoscopic, Raymond said, In reality, its double. Raymond noted that some 3-D processes are more costly than others; from low-end to high-end are red and blue (cyan) or left-eye and right-eye glasses, polarized glasses and LCD glasses needed to enjoy the effects. Journey is very high-end, Raymond commented.
Raymond wouldnt say what kinds of creatures appear in Journey, but reminds that the movie draws on the source material of Vernes book.
Raymond reports that principal photography for Journey has finished and his company has three weeks to go to finish its work. Weve been using XSI since day one, Raymond said. In addition, his company plans to do a lot of research and development to adjust the database and build utilities, including upgrades to its HySync application.
In his presentation, Raymond showed how Hybride realized scenes from 300 and other productions such as Marie-Antoinette, a French television series that shot all the actors against greenscreen in Montreal and then dropped in all the elegant, authentic, historical backgrounds reflecting the era of the doomed teen queen. The results were remarkable, and met the expectations of quality, delivery time and budget -- another example of working smarter.
For Aaron Holly, lead character TD at Disney Animation and return ADAPT speaker, working smarter means making maximum use of the talent that you have. Were taking advantage of existing talent, Holly said. Disney, because of its history, is working from a perspective of classic animation -- taking that 2D knowledge base and moving to 3D.
Holly noted that the look of a production depends upon the directors vision for that film. The Incredibles had a sharper look to it, while Ratatouille was more painterly, he offered.
Bill Kroyer, senior animation supervisor at Rhythm & Hues (R&H) and ADAPT presenter, said that the imagery being achieved in todays vfx is quite astounding. Were being asked to do shots that we would not have been asked to do before.
Kroyer maintained that while todays movies are looking great, they are not really getting made faster or cheaper. On the other hand, he observed that games are using realtime technology and hoping that it looks good. R&H has started a new venture to make projects using alternative production techniques, including realtime engines, but these will involve stories, not games. Its a venture into creating content, Kroyer offered.
R&H established itself as expert animal animation house on such projects as Garfield, Scooby Doo and The Chronicles of Narnia. Kroyer said that R&H is currently working on The Mummy III, the new Hulk feature, Golden Compass and Alvin and the Chipmunks.
The R&H team has grown to some 950 people, and Kroyer noted that one of the best things about working there is the sense of family that the company enjoys.
Kroyer said that extensive reference is used for each job -- including the dogs that are allowed by employees to be brought to the office. Were always going and looking inside the dogs mouth, for example, to see the teeth, the gums, etc., Kroyer said.
Kroyer added that R&H benefits from using custom in-house software. While that means that new people must be trained on the software, the upside is that if problems arise, a quick fix is imminent. We just email the software guys or walk downstairs and talk to someone, and they can fix it or invent it.
More Than Meets The Eye
Todd Vaziri of ILM, sequence supervisor for Transformers and special ADAPT speaker, agreed that every single movie presents new challenges. While Transformers required the creation of 14 robots from scratch (We didnt anticipate the amount of complexity that was required), other projects such as Lions for Lambs, starring Robert Redford, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep, have war sequences that need invisible, seamless effects. Lions for Lambs is due out in November. Vaziri commented that other ILM projects include The Spiderwick Chronicles, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Jon Favreaus Iron Man.
Vaziri noted that vfx are very tied to the production cycles of Hollywood. His response to any perceived box-office slump was remarking that this summer boasted a number of event pictures, including Spider-Man III, Transformers, Ratatouille and Shrek III. He is also interested in the re-emergence of 3-D, or stereoscopic, pictures. He said he is all for a process that will drive people to theaters to see movies.
Its a real thrill to see real 3-D, added Vaziri. People want to see blockbusters in theaters, but we have to make the theater experience exciting.
Cost-Effective Movie Magic
//ADAPT 2007 began with a keynote by Tippett and ended with a comprehensive panel on how to create a CG feature film, with speakers Tim Johnson (director, Over the Hedge), Carolyn Soper (VP, production, Walt Disney Animation Studios) and Lydia Bottegoni (co-producer, Surfs Up, Sony Pictures Animation). For this trio, working smarter means working creatively -- including necessary pipelines and budgets.
This experienced panel talked about the people and processes involved in producing an animated feature. Johnson first focused on the most elusive of all things -- getting a good idea. He categorized them as: epiphaNOT, CSBI (good-sounding bad idea), getting ideas while driving (carspective) and inspiration during bathing (procrastashower).
Soper presented a humorous list of steps experienced during every production:
1) Enthusiasm2) Disillusionment3) Panic4) Search for the guilty5) Blame the innocent6) Reward the uninvolved
Soper gave an update on Rapunzel (a 2010 release). Her 50-foot long hair is going to be a character itself, she commented. Glen Keane is the director. During the pre-production and development period, we will be doing tests to answer questions about the hair and bring problems to the surface.
Bottegoni spoke about the role of the vfx supervisor and how important the job is of making technical choices. Surfs Up involved a lot of water technology and lots of choices had to be made the shape of the waves, the lighting the vfx supervisor has to decide what tools must be used.
Those decisions, of course, have an impact on the budget. One of the questions that has to be addressed is, How big is your pie? Bottegoni said. You have to decide how you are going to divide your pie up.
Sony is currently working on the animated film, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. We have five CG supervisors on it, Bottegoni noted.
Despite all the visual tricks and treats, in the end, any film must appeal to an audience. It has to be accessible, Bottegoni said. It has to sell a lot of tickets.
With regard to ticket sales, //ADAPT 2007 reported that the conference enjoyed an attendance of some 1,078 from all around the world, a slight rise from last years debut weekend conference.
Many of those attendees participated in such activities as the //ADAPT theatre, which showed a variety of shorts; the //ADAPT Art Show, presented by Corel, which also offered the Corel Quick Draw challenge and a chance to win a copy of Painter X and a drawing tablet; and the //ADAPT job fair.
The //ADAPT Conference, which received $100,000 in funding from the Province of Quebec in 2007, has confirmed that it will return in 2008. Until then, au revoir, Montreal!
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada, with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.