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'Hidalgo' and the Digital Empowerment of Previs

The future is now for visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander, who learned that running a concurrent effects previs on Hidalgo helped to establish a successful digital pipeline.

Concurrent effects previs on Hidalgo helped to establish a successful, working pipeline for the digital artists. All images © 2004 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic.

Ive been to the desert, and one thing I always leave with is a vivid memory of the vistas, the bright skies and colors drenching the otherwise arid air. There is no wider place open for a man to stand and look around and into himself and take it all in, and thats where we find our man, whos been through the desert on a horse with a name, Hidalgo.

Viggo Mortensen, for whom my fiancée would cheerfully bake cornbread, plays a guy on a horse who enters a race across the wicked Arabian desert; to get from A to B and in the meantime find himself a little C along the way. During his journey he comes across some of the most beautiful sites a man can behold; not cities or structures, art or expression, but an empty place as hostile to a man as it can be engaging to his spirit. Frank T. Hopkins, upon whose experience Hidalgo is based, took himself into that fold to emerge the better.

It was the job of director Joe Johnston and the other filmmakers to bring that story to the pop-corned masses; to put them on the horse; to put them in the desert. As intimidating as the Ocean of Fire is to the horsemen who tried to conquer it, creating its reality in a theater requires a special cunning and a strongly connected effort.

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By creating previs dailies while on location, like the old West vista captured here, Tim Alexander, visual effects supervisor on Hidalgo, kept the lines of communication open with director Joe Johnston.

Its easy to imagine that the visual effects of Hidalgo would be instrumental in making or breaking this film. And exactly what goes on during that production can make or break the vfx effort. And thats where the hero of our little piece steps into the picture, Tim Alexander, though Im fairly certain hes not on a horse.

Alexander is very much in touch with the production artists and their process. This is understandable when you look at his own history of working his way to vfx supervision from being on the box as a digital compositor for quite some time.

Communication is truly the cornerstone of a successfully executed film. Since so many people are playing many different roles that culminate in the creation of a single idea, its imperative to harmonize and sympathize; to always know where you stand, and which way youre headed.

To that end, Alexander took it upon himself to visualize the films effects as the production rolled along. This perhaps is not an innovative practice, but is one that can be a huge instrument in defining the path of a films production. Using what was at his disposal, Alexander kept up with the visuals of the film by creating effects previs dailies while on location, and kept a running dialogue using his imagery with Johnston.

Basically, Alexander used digital stills from his digital SLR camera to capture background images and references to match up to the films storyboards, to line up plates, to visualize storyboards. Then, using a DV feed from the video assist system, he was able to cut together and composite scenes with his temporary plates using his notebook computer running Final Cut Pro and Discreets combustion.

He could then present his slap comps to the director to keep the films visual voice perfectly clear and tuned. Pretty soon he found that his practice became a stronger asset to the production as they began hunting for things; exploring new and different ideas from the director; testing their validity and continuity with the film as they went along. They could scout locations and insert the scenes into the newly found backgrounds to make sure everything fit before they committed.

And not only was the running production helped with this, the post-production of the effects work was able to roll along as the film was still shooting. Matte paintings were in motion and were greatly aided by the temp comps posted online for the folks at Industrial Light & Magic to view. Compositors gained greater access and freedom by seeing plates and elements almost as they were being shot, giving them the chance and confidence to try out ideas and report back to the production.

In the long run, running a concurrent effects previs helped tremendously with, as Alexander put it, the organization and knowing [that] you have sufficient elements, so when you go back, youre not stuck. Alexander anticipates continuing to work this way in the future, and were both in agreement that there is a bright evolution ahead as technology marches on to create faster, smaller and better computers and video equipment. The future is to use movement for elements in a shot, to go beyond hi-res stills and slap comps. And that can only give the effects artists back at the ranch even greater options.

Both production and post-production benefited tremendously from the temp comps.

And when artists gain this confidence the pipeline [becomes] quicker when elements are online for the artists to begin. It practically brings Alexander and his team of artists to the shoot to experience firsthand the scenes that make their comps more live. It puts power in the artists hands gives them more options.

Power to the artists.

Dariush Derakhshani is a shaky 32 and makes for an interesting Googlism. Nicely bald and slowly going insane, he has a fear of commitment and having to cook. He has written a slew of articles littered throughout the Web, wrote the book Introducing Maya: 3D for Beginners and contributed to Maya: Secrets of the Pros, Maya 5 Savvy and Getting a Job in CG: Real Advice from Reel People. He is currently working on more Maya books due out later next year. A senior animator at commercial effects house Sight Effects in Venice, California, he can be found at www.painfulurination.com or you can send him viruses at koosh3d@earthlink.net. Hes got flat feet and misses NYC.

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