Camilla Havmoller reports on some of the latest industry breakthroughs from Weta and studios closer to home at the inaugural AnimfxNZ 2006 symposium in Wellington, New Zealand.
"Animation is the crack and cocaine of the art world," said the tall, spectacled speaker as he paced back and fourth under a single spotlight. "You don't just dabble with it, it takes you over."
And Tim Johnson, director of DreamWorks movies such as Antz, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas and, most recently, Over the Hedge, should know. Devoted to animation since his early college years, Johnson credits his "addiction" to a past teacher, whose lack of teaching skills led him to make flipbook animations from his textbooks.
It was the second day of the inaugural AnimfxNZ 2006 symposium (Nov. 4-5) in Wellington, New Zealand, a country that has brought to the world, blockbusters such as King Kong and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The two-day symposium opened with a powhiri, a traditional ceremony where local Maori (the indigenous people of New Zealand), welcomed attendees to the Ilott Theatre of Wellington's Town Hall, by presenting a kapa haka, a performance of song and dance, together with a mihi mihi, a welcoming speech.
Positively Wellington Business organized the symposium in partnership with the Visual Effects Society (VES). In addition to speakers from DreamWorks, renowned companies such as Weta and Warner Bros. presented lectures, screenings and workshops.
As Eric Roth, exec director of the VES, noted before the event: "This will be an opportunity for Los Angeles and the rest of the world to see first hand all the cool things that New Zealand is up to. It will offer attendees a mixture of awe inspiring, state of the art effects and pragmatic ways of solving problems -- we'll meet the people who create the magic."
In addition to director Johnson and DreamWorks European rep Shelley Page, other participants included Sander Schwartz, president of Warner Bros. Animation, exec producers Barrie Osborne (The Waterhorse, The Matrix) and Martin Baynton (Jane and the Dragon), visual effects supervisors Jeff Okun (Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai) and Boyd Shermis (Poseidon and Speed) from Los Angeles, and local animation studio directors Brent Chambers, Dylan Coburn and Cristina Casares.
The symposium was also strongly supported by several technical key people from Wellington's own Academy Award-winning visual effects facility Weta Digital, hosting multiple workshops and presentations during the event.
Well-known names such as senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, special projects supervisor Dr. Mark Sagar, visual effects supervisor Matt Aitken, computer graphics supervisor Chris White and Weta Prods.' visual effects supervisor Trevor Brymer were on the speakers' list. The movie that, naturally, was given the most attention for this purpose was director Peter Jackson's latest feature -- King Kong.
King Kong -- A Monkey in the Making
King Kong, featuring a huge gorilla as the lead, set new benchmarks in movie animation. The decision to make Kong entirely CG was based on the need to ensure continuity, flexibility and control of performance during the production process. However, Weta Workshop was still involved in the process, building reference models for computer modelers to base their computer-generated models on.
In the pursuit of realism, Kong was based on an anatomically correct skeleton and muscles. Aitken, Weta Digital's pre-production/R&D supervisor on King Kong, demonstrated the amount of detail that went into the geometry right down to Kong's teeth.
Aitken also discussed the development of Kong's fur. Because of the sheer volume of fur required, proprietary software needed to be created. Also, in order for the fur to look realistic, it too had to be animated as well as the body -- moving and reacting to its environment. The key, said Aitken, lies in treating the fur as volume, using layers of mesh and volumetric simulations.
The building of Kong lasted 2/3 of digital production time, while the remaining 1/3 was used for putting him in the shots. Aitken defended this ratio, maintaining it is important not to rush modelling and risk cutting the building time too short. It is better to be certain the model can account for any and every need required in the plot -- otherwise, once "shooting" starts, it becomes very costly and time-consuming to go back and make any changes to the model.
Motion Capture for King Kong
In addition to assuring every effort was made to make Kong look real physically, Jackson also wanted to be able to build a huge amount of emotions into his lead character's face and eyes. It was imperative for Kong's character to be based on emotion -- this called for an actor-driven performance.
However, the complexity of facial animation is huge; so many things happen simultaneously, triggered by the autonomous nervous system: eye motions, our response to our environment, all resulting in multiple, fleeting micro expressions that communicate to an audience what a character is experiencing, feeling or thinking.
For this reason and to ensure consistent performance of the animation, Weta looked at facial motion capture, the technique of using a live actor to drive the performance of a computer-generated character, as opposed to using an animator to create movement and expressions. Weta had already experimented with this process to drive the facial expressions of the Gollum character in The Lord of the Rings movies.
However, as Letteri, Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor for Weta Digital, explained in the session on "MoCap and the Future of Performance Capture," back then, there was not enough time to complete the system and while MoCap was employed for Gollum's body movements, his facial expressions had yet to be keyframed by animators.
By the time Jackson started to make King Kong, the MoCap system was ready and actor Andy Serkis' facial expressions could now be translated into an animated Kong. The facial performance of Serkis, the actor whose performance was also the basis for Gollum, was captured and transferred through purpose built software to translate the facial structure of Kong into the corresponding expressions of a gorilla.
Sagar, who developed the facial animation system for Kong, gave an in-depth description of the process and FACs, the Facial Animation Code System, initially defined by Ekmann and Friesen, which the system was based on. This model defines groupings of facial muscles, and how they work together to create emotional expressions. A facial motion editing team then worked with the computer generated face, which had 200 controls for adjusting the performance: slowing or toning down expressions, and relaxing muscles where necessary for final touches.
Weta's Latest Projects
Aitken also disclosed that now, after The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, there is more room for Weta Digital to branch out and work on a number of external projects. Weta has been busy with Eragon, The Waterhorse and Bridge to Terabithia, movies all based on best-selling children's fantasy novels.
Weta Digital will be creating visual effects, creatures and digital environments for James Cameron's (Titanic, Terminator, Aliens) upcoming movie Avatar. This movie will be largely digital, in 3-D and intended for release in 2008. Weta is also in preparation for Jackson's next producing project, Dambusters, a remake of the World War II classic.
Visual Effects for Poseidon -- Not an Easy Cruise
The bar for visual effects in movie making is continually being raised in order to impress an increasingly sophisticated audience. Realizing complex visions for visual effects often requires groundbreaking development of software systems and sometimes even computer hardware. This necessitates work on vfx to begin even before the script has been written.
The movie Poseidon, based on 1972's The Poseidon Adventure, was released in May earlier this year and received shining accolades for its visual effects work. In a seminar presented by Boyd Shermis, overall vfx supervisor for Poseidon, the audience was treated to an in-depth view of how key challenges in visual effects were tackled.
Among the main challenges that attracted him to this movie, was the creation of the intro shot, the ship itself and...the water.
The Intro Shot
Director Wolfgang Petersen, responsible for movies such as The Perfect Storm, Troy and the German classic Das Boot, has described Poseidon's intro shot as "the most complicated, challenging, costly, longest, continuous two-and-half-minute shot in the history of motion pictures." Lasting almost 4,500 frames, the intro shot for Poseidon took a staggering eight months to complete.
Apart from a lone actor, the whole shot is computer-generated. Beginning under water, the camera moves below the ship, up through a complex sea surface, taking in the view of an enormous cruise liner. A jogger, one of the main characters played by Josh Lucas, is spotted on deck in the early morning hours. The camera overtakes him, circles around the ship before it sweeps in on a close-up shot of Lucas looking out into the ocean.
Combining the live-action element, the actor running on a facsimile of the ship, with a CG vessel at sea, was one of the key challenges. During his presentation, Shermis explained how the computer-controlled camera filming Lucas was suspended from a rig of four towers, connected by wires, at the San Fernando Valley's Sepulveda Dam. The towers spanned an area of 64,000 square feet.
As the camera sweeps over, passes and dollies around the running actor, grips move greenscreens in order to mask the background accordingly.
Creating the Ship
Renting a cruise liner, assuming there was a company willing to rent a ship given the story line, would have been cost prohibitive. Filming miniatures, on the other hand, would mean a huge amount of work in piecing together the footage. The only feasible option was to create a ship in CG.
However, to create a cruise ship of such massive proportions to a level that looks authentic requires detail. Poseidon needed to be an 1100 ft, 20-story, grand ocean liner, and populated. To achieve this, modular repeating was used with variation, to create the interior of cabins, sun chairs on the deck, etc.
Poseidon was the third water movie for director Petersen since Das Boot and The Perfect Storm. Shermis said they aspired to push the envelope further than before -- "to 'out-storm' The Perfect Storm and 'out-Titanic' the Titanic."
Therefore, another key challenge to be tackled on Poseidon, was the development of a system capable of generating the masses of devastating water required by the script. To get water to perform with the correct characteristics when interacting with solid objects is no easy task.
"Water is one of the most difficult things in visual effects; we are dealing with very complex simulations," said Shermis. While simple, ocean wide shots can be simulated on a home PC, the water simulation in Poseidon called for a 100 strong team of software developers, engineers and artists during a year, to create the proprietary software.
Bugs Bunny in the 'Era of the Long Tail'
Schwartz focused his presentation on reaching world markets in the "Era of the Long Tail," explaining how today's technology allows people to connect quickly and globally. However, this new era has fractionalized the audience, creating a multitude of niches that generate less money. In the early days of U.S. television when choice was limited, a show could reach 25-50% of the market. Today, however, if a show is viewed by 4%, it is considered a hit.
Chris Anderson, managing editor of Wired, coined the term "Long Tail." He states that "our culture and economy are increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of 'hits' (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail."
In line with this concept, Schwartz maintained that these days, instances of a show making high revenue over a brief period of time by reaching a large share of the market is becoming less common. Instead, income is more likely to be earned by reaching smaller portions of a market over a longer period of time. One has to offer a variety of distinctive products. For example, brands like Fantasia, Rocky Horror Picture Show and Star Trek have experienced a second life through merchandising, re-runs and other spin offs.
The fractionalizing of markets also requires a new economic model and structure for funding. The entry costs and financial risk of filmmaking is too high; new sources of funding must be sought, like patch funding or intercontinental co production with other studios.
Schwartz noted the Internet is the best tool in this era, giving increased accessibility to content, "infinite shelf space" and affordable distribution. One example of this is Disney, which sold $1 million worth of movies through the online music store iTunes, within a week of its launch. Robert Iger, ceo of Disney, predicts the partnership will reap $50 million revenue in its first year.
The Current State of the Industry
Schwartz believes that animation is well suited to survive in the era of the Long Tail. Once a character is successful with its audience, it usually stays in the memory. Children grow up and introduce their children to the character - look, for instance, at Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo.
During the technologist's panel discussion on Emerging Technologies and the Future of the Moving Image, shading writer Steve Upstill (The Return of the King, Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life) advertised for a software system to manage animation and visual effects production where currently a "hairball" of software is used. This issue is ever more so important in the age of co-productions across continents where different ends are interacting closely with one another. At this stage, Upstill believes it is just beyond our reach. "This issue is perhaps not as 'sexy' as other technical pioneering issues but nevertheless a huge technical problem and housekeeping issue," added Upstill.
In director Johnson's view, CG animation is still just entering adulthood and he is looking forward to following its development and maturity -- a development that we hope to be able to follow and perhaps even inspire through many AnimfxNZ events to come.
Camilla Havmoller has worked with 2D animation and motion capture for television production and as a university instructor in digital screen production. She is a member of the Auckland chapter of Women in Film and Television and a freelance writer for local, national and international industry magazines for the screen industry.