Karen Raugust investigates how the vfx work featured in new and returning series this fall focuses on realism and subtlety.
If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from ADAPT 2006 by simply clicking on the second image below.
The weather was not very co-operative, but a little rain did not stop digital artists, students, industry representatives and recruiters from attending the first Advanced Digital Art Production Techniques (ADAPT) Conference in Montreal on Sept. 23-24, 2006.
In fact, the ADAPT registration line-up at the Hyatt Regency was a pleasant surprise. The final attendance numbers are very close to a thousand people, says ADAPT organizer Jean-Eric Hénault, president of CG Channel and co-founder of Digital04 Studios. We were quite shocked when we saw the line-ups at registration on Saturday morning.
The robust turnout and strong industry participation prompted Marc Petit, Media and Ent. vp for Autodesk, to declare, Montreal is the center of the CG universe! during his address at Saturday evenings cocktail mixer.
Petit also noted that participants came from across Canada, the U.S. and many other countries, including Brazil, Egypt and Japan, to attend ADAPT 2006.
Those attendees included pros and students alike. A group of digital arts and computer science students from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. made the two-hour trip to take in ADAPTs 3D track and to meet with recruiters. Were here for the classes and to possibly find a job, says digital arts major Peter Jones.
Seasoned professionals were also eager to hear what the high-caliber speakers had to say. Raonell Conouer, senior vfx artist for Ubisoft, attended the show for the seminars in the 3D track. Im looking to learn new techniques, he says.
2D, 3D and Exploration
ADAPT 2006 offered three tracks of programming 2D, 3D and Exploration that ran concurrently. The classes had a late start on Saturday due to the need to process the lengthy registration line.
I didnt expect such a big turn-out at 9:00 am on Saturday morning. This is a packed house, was the pleased observation of 3D track speaker Aaron Holly, who presented a discussion of Rigging for Animation: Applying 2D Principles in a 3D World. His presentation included an example using the Meet the Robinsons trailer to demonstrate how line of action and posture can change the mood or tone of the animation. Holly is currently working for Disney Feature Animation.
Over in the 2D track, Dylan Cole, who has worked on such films as Superman Returns, Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, discussed matte painting composition and design. He provided a hands-on look at creating buildings, bridges and architectural scenes, and offered such tips as flipping the canvas back and forth while in Photoshop, to accurately check perspective. As in the other classes, Cole worked in realtime on a computer, with his images being appearing on a large screen so the entire room could see his work in progress.
In Exploration, Thierry Doizon (aka Barontier) also provided a hands-on look this time at digital speed-painting with a special focus on concepts for science fiction and fantasy environments and characters. Using Photoshop, Doizon demonstrated how to create a mood, using textures and answered questions about how to set up custom brushes to achieve effects. Doizon, who is currently employed by Ubsioft Montreal, recently launched Steambot Studios with a collective of concept artist partners.
After a strong opening, the 11:00 am sessions followed, with Mark Lefitz (Spider-Man 2, The Matrix Reloaded, Reign of Fire) discussing 2D/3D integration, in the 3D track. He illustrated his points with examples from Meet the Robinsons (due out March 30, 2007). In that movie, the Robinsons characters go from the present to the future, and the future city to which they travel becomes evil transforming into a dark, red, industrial city. Lefitz also showed the class how Maya could be used to create a futuristic spaceship terminal by manipulating an existing image. Lefitz originally trained as an architect and worked on such high-profile buildings as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
In the 2D track, Scott Robertson, teacher with the Gnomon School of Visual Effects, explained the fundamentals of physics behind reflective surfaces, and how they are perceived by the human brain. Robertson offered a hands-on presentation using Photoshop to show the physics involved and how artists can handle light.
The Exploration track provided a special presentation of Autodesk products. In addition to providing information on Maya 8 and 3ds Max 9, the seminar talked about www.the-area.com, an online community forum where Autodesk users can view tutorials and exchange information. In addition, the Autodesk 3ds Max 9 and Maya 8 Launch Tour got underway in Montreal on Oct. 5.
Lets Do Lunch
The morning sessions wrapped at 12:45 pm, and attendees were delighted to find brown-bagged lunches waiting for them as they exited the meeting rooms. Others arrived from visiting the job fair floor, where they met with such companies as Hybride, Ubisoft, Industrial Light & Magic, Electronic Arts, A2M and DreamWorks Animation. Weve had a good response, comments Deanne Koehn, recruiter with DreamWorks. While we dont have time to evaluate just yet, weve taken in lots of reels, she says.
Joëlle Lefrançois, a recruiter for Hybride Digital Visual Effects, was also pleased with the talent she saw and the quality of the conference organization. It seems very well organized, she says, adding, we have 14 people here and everyone got registered and got their badges easily.
The comment we heard the most from everyone is how well the event was organized, and people predicting this event could become huge very quickly, comments ADAPTs Hénault. Its very flattering.
The function area and the job fair were not the only places people could network. ADAPT 2006 also featured a compact exhibitors area where companies like Hash Inc., Toon Boom Technologies, CG Channel, Corel, Hotcards, Mendax Microsystems Inc. and more could display their products and services.
Ken Baer of Hash was happily showing off the Animation Master product at his booth, which he says is in version 13, with version 14 in the works. Its about to go into alpha, Baer suggests, adding that the software will offer new rendering/compositing features. Baer maintains that the company does a lot of work with students, and as a way to offer digital artists a way to gain experience (and credits) working on an animated production, the firm is producing a full-length, 70-minute 3D feature called The Tin Woodman of Oz. Anyone who uses the software can work on it, Baer says. Everything comes through us. While Baer says that there is a full-time production manager working on the project, there is currently no hard deadline in place for completing the animation.
Over at the Toon Boom booth, Jean-Raymond Lemieux, director of support and training, demonstrated the companys recently launched Toon Boom Storyboard product, which concentrates on that front-end function of the production pipeline. Storyboard helps you take an idea and translate it into a visual story that will become a complete program, whether animated or live-action, he says. The program can produce both digital storyboards and realtime animatics, and images can be scanned in or drawn in using a graphic tablet pen.
The conference also offered an ADAPT store, where a variety of materials (books, software, instructional DVDs, T-shirts and more) for digital artists were offered for sale. Phil and Marie-France Caouette cheerfully served customers, who bought such items as Syd Meads book Sentury. Mead attended ADAPT as both a speaker and the subject of a special tribute at the show on Saturday evening.
Sharing the Knowledge
Classes resumed at 1:00 pm, and in the 3D track, Chris Williams, project lead, LucasArts, talked about convergence knowledge sharing and asset sharing between the film experts at ILM and the videogame experts at LucasArts. Convergence is really hard, even with a mandate, Williams says, noting, Game and film technology do complement each other. The cultural gap is huge, but next-generation motivates change.
Williams explained that LucasArts believes that next-gen is not just about pretty graphics, but rather about simulating the players experience without scripting. Describing a process LucasArts calls Euphoria, based on Natural Motions endophon system, Williams says, Characters adapt seamlessly to their environment. Theres way less animation, and theres never the same payoff.
Williams described how older games had figures that became limp, lifeless rag dolls, while the Euphoria figures are AI characters who have situational awareness. Using a forthcoming Indiana Jones next-gen game for Xbox 360 as an example, Williams demonstrated that when Indy knocked a bad guy off of a cable car, sometimes he fell off, sometimes he grabbed the car and held on. None of those reactions were scripted, and the same scene, when played, did not repeat. In addition, if the bad guy did fall down, he might put his hand behind him to break his fall (not scripted) or jump back up (not scripted).
With situational awareness, the characters never react the same way, Williams says. Every time you hit or interact, you get a very different result. Were authoring behavior, not animation.
Williams also talked about how next-gen games need to have their environments responsive as well. In the past, physical materials in games glass, wood would break in a predetermined way. Using Star Wars R2-D2 as the protagonist, Williams showed how now, glass could fracture in different ways each time the robot hit it, or wood could splinter differently each time R2 collided with it creating a more realistic scenario.
This demo is data driven, Williams says. You can change the physical properties of the wood by changing a number, not the art.
As for the use of characters such as R2D2 and Jar-Jar Binks in the games being developed, Williams says that LucasArts does enjoy asset collaboration with ILM. I know these games are going to be fun, because doing these demos is fun, Williams comments.
Over in the Exploration track, Mark Schoennagel, hardware certification manager for Softimage, was describing Face Robot 1.5, which recently shipped. Schoennagel told VFXWorld that Softimages XSI, which is in version 5.1, has the next version in development. Its going into beta, he says, and mentioned that Softimage provided two copies of XSI Advance as prizes for lucky artists at ADAPT.
In the 2D track, senior vfx animator John Thornton of Blue Sky Studios (Robots, Ice Age: The Meltdown) lectured on identifying stylized visual qualities found in traditionally animated 2D splash effects and establishing a method for capturing their essence, posing them and animating them in a 3D space.
Other Saturday highlights included classes by visual pioneers Mead and Meats Meier, as well as digital speed painting demonstrations by David Levy and Sébastien Larroudé (aka RainArt). There were also special presentations in the 2D and 3D tracks by Autodesk.
Autodesks Media and Ent. vp Marc Petit took the time to chat with VFXWorld prior to giving his opening address at Saturday evenings cocktail mixer sponsored by his firm. Montreal is a natural place for ADAPT to be, Petit commented. The city has long been a hub of content creation tools. We want to be a good citizen and support this event.
Another way Autodesk aims to be a good citizen is through its online portal, www.the-area.com a community forum. Weve met three times the expectations in terms of registrations, Petit says. Its a place where people can learn about our products, read tutorials, reference good material on the web and be an actor in the community. The site is designed to engage customers and drive Autodesk product, and Petit notes, Its important to have constant dialog because technology is evolving.
Portal visitors can learn about software such as Autodesks Max, and Petit says that its latest version is the best version ever. Weve single-mindedly focused on complexity management for Max.
Autodesks acquisition of Alias means that it has another popular software Maya that clients want to see improve but not necessarily immediately change. Petit says the company is aware of the training and other implications that changes can cause. Were taking a careful approach regarding our strategies for Max and Maya, Petit offers. The products have different persona that can take you to the same place via different routes.
Petit says Autodesk is considering common elements and ways to harmonize the software, and that they may be integrated over time. In his draft speech for the ADAPT address, Petit wrote, Its becoming more and more difficult to integrate growing studios that are increasingly working from around the world on the same project, and employing different software products to do so. Studios need solutions to help them manage all of these assets. Many studios are using both 3ds Max and Maya, and maybe even another product on their productions. Following this years integration of Alias into Autodesk, weve been able to better integrate the new versions of 3ds Max and Maya than ever before. Autodesks FBX format also allows for our products as well as others to work together in a pipeline more easily. Additionally, Microsoft is including Autodesks FBX format in their XNA Game Studio Express to allow hobbyists to produce their own game sequences.
On the hardware side, Petit advised that Autodesk is allying itself with HP, because, Its all about performance. The system needs a machine that is well balanced, and today HP has the ideal hardware. However, Petit notes, Were not here to promote or sell hardware. Were all about maximizing the software.
Presenters were again surprised when 9:00 am classes at ADAPT were filled even after the late-night partying.
In the 3D track, author Jeremy Birn (Digital Lighting & Rendering, 2nd edition) offered a live demonstration of lighting, rendering and compositing techniques. In addition to presenting practical information on the physics and challenges of digital lighting and rendering (with examples available for download at 3Drender site), Birn also spoke to students about the quality of life as a digital artist, and the differences between living and working in Los Angeles vs. San Francisco. Birn is working on Ratatouille, Brad (The Incredibles) Birds new film about a young rat living in the walls of a famous Paris bistro, due out June 29, 2007.
Those attending the 2D track enjoyed conceptual designer, matte painter and art director Christian Lorenz Scheurers (Titanic, Animatrix, Superman Returns) spirited presentation on creating Intellectual Property (IP) for feature films and next-gen videogames.
Scheurer spoke about evolution of videogames and how nearly every movie now has a spin-off game. While noting that some videogame hybrids can be fresh, like the Lord of the Rings game that he art directed for EA, Scheurer also commented on franchise cannibalism, where a videogame is created just to advance the franchise as with James Bond and GoldenEye: Rogue Agent. They just want to make money, he says, and notes that the key concept for many American games seems to be hack people or shoot at them.
Scheurer advocates creating original IP and would like to see more movement from franchises to personal IP. We need to empower the people who actually do the work, Scheurer says. He showed several of his own sketches, concepts and IP properties, including a book called Entropia that features imaginary postage stamps, which the artist would like to turn into a movie or a game.
Scheurer also spoke about Spore, a new kind of videogame due out the middle of 2007, in which the player creates content by choosing from a universe builder. The artist provided 10 prototypes of various worlds, and creatures, to which players can attach arms, legs and feet. Its like a mini-Maya for kids, he says. I cant wait to play this.
Later that day, the topic went from franchise cannibalism to Cannibal Island in Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Mans Chest, as ILM compositing supervisor Eddie Pasquarello addressed a packed house about how vfx for the film were achieved.
Pasquarello noted that a new model of the Black Pearl was required for part two because the ship had been modified. A miniature of the ship was used for close shots while CG was used for the wide shots. However, Davy Jones ship was entirely CG and, as Pasquarello explained, Davy Jones was too.
We asked ourselves, what can we do to get better motion reference? Pasquarello says. It must be robust, and it must be on set. The problem was that traditional motion capture technology is usually limited to a small soundstage. So ILM created Imocap, a flexible, portable motion capture system and software that allowed the actors to wear specially designed caps and suits for tracking movement. With Imocap, there are no camera or lighting restraints, Pasquarello insists.
Once the motion was captured during filming, the digital characters could be built digitally, with the aim to garner the most realistic effect. Pasquarello says great care was taken in the way elements were achieved, including Davy Jones squiddy beard, to preserve that bouncy, calamari feeling. Pasquarello says that the third Pirates movie is due out in May 25, 2007.
At 3:00 pm, Arnauld Lamorlette, vfx at PDI/DreamWorks, spoke about the production process, the differences between large and small studios, and the use of global illumination on Shrek 2. After Shrek, we asked ourselves, what can we improve? Lamorlette comments. We looked at lighting, rendering, skin and translucency, crowds, hair and fur. Lamorlette also talked about how Shrek is not 2D and not live action; as a 3D feature, Shrek reflects a stylized reality. Lamorelette looked to GI to enhance the stylized reality of the animation.
In addition, in order to create realistic, if stylized, effects, the artists had to understand natural phenomena. His team shot considerable live-action reference showing water pouring and spitting, for example, so that the elements could be accurately recreated.
Interestingly enough, some of the most difficult effects to create in Shrek 2 involved magic. Nobody knows how magic is supposed to be, says Lamorlette. With no physical reference to work from, the visual representation of magic needs to be completely imagined, yet grounded in reality to be convincing.
Other Sunday classes included presentations by Aaron Gilman (structuring the animation workflow), James Clyne (design theory and concept art), Emile Ghorayeb (squash-and-stretch), Mark Goerner (compositional exploration and design in painting), Iain McCaig (art direction and concept design), John Spencer-Galsworthy (stop motion and CG), Wayne Murray (dynamic figure drawing), Jonathan Abenhaim (videogame animation) and Daniel Gregoire (previs).
The general consensus seems to be that ADAPT 2006 was a hit. This has an atmosphere of cool to it, says Softimages Schoennagel. Its the first one that I can think of thats dedicated to 2D and 3D artists. Its all about artistic development.
ADAPTs Hénault says, We owe huge thanks to the Hyatt Regency in Montreal, which was instrumental in the success of this event. They always took care of us and our guests and went beyond the call of duty.
As for 2007, plans are already underway. Its a bit early to talk about next year, says Hénault, but we are looking at different scenarios right now. Weve had huge feedback from attendees, sponsors and speakers who all want to come back. People who came to represent their studios or schools told us they enjoyed the show so much, theyd return in large numbers next year, so its very promising.
Hénault comments that the event will be growing next year, and may even feature an Ottawa connection. We look forward to working with the Ottawa International Animation Festival to avoid overlapping our dates, he says. We are looking to have our two events actually complement each other, so people could attend the two events one right after the other while staying in the same area. I think it will be easier for everyone.
Hénault says that ADAPT 2007 is shaping up to be a four-day event. He comments, Two days its just too short. We just had too much to see in so little time!
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi. Janet frequently contributes to Animation World Network.