Mireille Frenette and Benoit Guerville traveled to Imagina and discovered that all-around improvements make Imagina 2006 better this year.
Imagina 2006 was a pleasant surprise, after a disappointing 2005 edition. With several organizational changes and a renewed focus on the professional tradeshow, Imagina intends to revert to the great European event it once was.
Imagina 2006 offered its usual technical conferences, presented by high-level professionals and researchers, along with special presentations, a film premiere and, of course, the Imagina Awards, with Prince Albert of Monaco in attendance.
In this years edition, Imagina organizers also came up with several new events attendees enjoyed. The large student contingencies from France, the U.K. and Italy had access to all-day open classes on topics such as, Tips for Better Skinning and VFX in Combustion, plus conferences on art and technology. Tradeshow exhibitors were given access to a new communication tool, the Privileged Information meetings, where buyers and sellers met in special conference rooms for elaborate demos and discussions. The tradeshow this year was physically located at the heart of the event, which made it much busier than before and provided a venue for all sorts of spontaneous encounters between friends and fellow conference attendees.
This years presentations and conferences brought to light a particularly interesting trend. VFX professionals now appear to have reached some sort of technical plateau after the innovations developed in the Matrix and Lord of the Rings trilogies. The focus has now shifted to leveraging this know-how by pushing the limits of actual technologies, such as crowd simulation, HRDI rendering, camera mapping, fur tools, etc.
And, instead of trying to come up with the latest totally new fx-of-the-day, vfx houses are hard at work managing and renewing increasingly complex pipelines. Indeed, film projects now require increasingly heavy amounts of data and are spread out over longer periods of time. Two studios discussed these new directions Rhythm & Hues, which was responsible for generating and rendering massive amounts of virtual creatures for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe and Double Negative, whose work on Batman Begins was spread over 18 months.
Looking for Realism in Performance
While the quest for the perfect digital actor continues to be many a studios avowed objective, several presenters felt that most technical challenges appear to have been met. Therefore, at Imagina, the videogame industry appeared to be the one leading the charge in technological advances. Frank Vitz, project director at Electronic Arts, presented of the brilliant work behind the Fight Night 3 game and gave us a glimpse of what may well be tomorrows 3D. After perfecting an impressing demo reel for the game, his team had to shorten image render times from 35 minutes to 1/30th of a second! The key sequence is basically an adaptation of the famous superpunch in Matrix Revolutions, courtesy of George Borshukov who joined Frank Vitzs team. Now that it is played in realtime on a game console, one cant help but marvel at what the future holds, when complex film vfx will be done in realtime.
Interestingly enough, and while the project does not reach the technical level of Electronic Arts, French animation studio Duboi is producing a 26x26 animated TV series, Ugly Duckling and Me. Using a textured 3D environment baked with a global illumination render, the series was created in realtime with the help of StoryMaker, Dubois proprietary previs tool. The only concessions to traditional production were the re-renders at three times the size to avoid anti-aliasing and definition issues.
Visionary professor and scientist Ken Perlin kicked off the Imagina conference cycle with a keynote on The Illusion of Life Revisited. He presented a series of expressive and funny applets. They can be used to produce small, automated animations and were a hit with the audience. While more geared toward fun or educative purposes, Perlins work prefigures a new approach of character animation, by combining procedural behaviors with motion capture databanks and piloting everything with very simple controllers (he particularly likes the piano keyboard), a user playing the animations can become a virtual puppeteer.
The presentation of French scientist Frédéric Kaplan at Sony Labs in France on the development of Sonys little robot dog, Aibo, was particularly interesting. Despite the fact that Sony recently announced it would no longer manufacture Aibo, there is much to be learned from this experiment. The audience was treated to the birth of one of the programs that gave life to the artificial animal and allowed it to discover the world just like a newborn or an animal would. Watching this small plastic creature learn to walk or recognize objects, the audience was entranced, reacting to the illusion of life reflected in the robots awkward moves. The researchers found out that, rather than programming Aibo to do or learn specific tasks, they could program it to be motivated by learning in itself!
Its easy to imagine what such programming could do for tomorrows videogames, but more difficult is to clearly see how it affects animated film characters. And yet, wouldnt humans be fascinated by programs where virtual people would develop and discover life and the world around them? Its pretty much a certainty that new intelligent artificial life forms will play a role one way or another in the future development of filmed entertainment given the convergence of cinema and videogames and the trend of film trying to burst out of its linear form of storytelling.
Ramesh Raskar, senior research scientist at Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs, presented a conference on augmented reality that foreshadows another kind of revolution. Raskar is using a mighty weapon to get rid of virtual realitys cumbersome stereoscopic glasses a mini video projector barely bigger than an iPod coupled to a tracking camera and a computer. With a setup straight out of a Star Trek episode, Raskar can scan the environment around him and project on it all sorts of information. The whole world becomes a screen a portable, interactive and intelligent screen. The projector functions more or less like a flashlight that not only illuminates the environment, but also reveals its hidden meaning. Imagine pointing it toward a book in a bookcase and instantly seeing the books summary appearing next to it. This truly innovative project paves the way for countless applications, not just in videogames, but also for interactive film projections, particularly ones with computer-generated content.
In essence, if we were to tie in the technical presentations at Imagina, we could imagine a 3D realtime TV cartoon with semi-automatically animated characters that could react with a certain form of primitive imagination to improvise beyond the original script. Such a show could then be projected anywhere by viewers using mini video projectors (which, according to Ramesh, will be embedded in our cell phones within the next five years). The image walls thus created could even interact with one another and, just like characters, be traded in online game communities. Fictitious characters could also be traded by transferring them from one projector to another. The digital cinema era has only just begun.
A fine example of digital filmmaking was Renaissance, a French feature film that premiered at Imagina (to be distributed in North America by Miramax). This film noir set in a futuristic Paris and geared for the 15-35 crowd was created entirely with motion capture. Beyond the very strong black-and-white-only graphic choice, Renaissance achieved a true technological challenge. It hints at what tomorrows movie-making can be, when the separate phases of pre-production, production and post-production wont make sense anymore, with actors performances captured before shots are framed during the editing process.
After such dizzying visions, some of the presentations on the making of 2005s big films seemed a bit, well, boring, notwithstanding the fact that all the work was technically and artistically excellent. However, students and independents could be counted on to leave their creative mark on Imagina 2006.
The Germans from Studio Soi presented two delicate short films, one on road safety (Torvald) and one aimed at preventing the deaths of children who play on train tracks (Olis Chance). By broaching such topics head on, yet with poetry and sensitivity, the studio has created two absolutely admirable films. The films can be viewed on the studios website. Also, worth seeing is Klic Klac, a simple but poetic film by Aurélie Fréchinos, Victor-Emmanuel Moulin and Thomas Wagner from French vfx school Supinfocom Arles that won the Imagina Grand Prize.
Lets also mention matte painter Paul Topolos from Pixar, whose master class in art direction for The Incredibles was particularly inspiring to the many students. MacGuff Ligne also presented superb images created for Lodyssée de la vie, a documentary that follows the first day in the life of an embryo until the end of the pregnancy. The young and already talented French studio Def-2-Shoot was on hand as well to show how it had recreated a space station for the feature film Un Ticket pour lEspace.
There were few technological breakthroughs at the tradeshow. You may want to keep an eye on the multi-platform development solution from StoneTrip that can generate interactive environments for games, the Web or any other 3D application on PC, Mac, PDA, etc., as well as on the rendering engine RTSquare a GPU-based engine that can shave a considerable amount of time off renders.
During the Imagina Awards ceremony, IBM and Apple said they were happy with their involvement with Imagina 2006 and committed then and there to come back next year. Indeed, Imaginas organizers are already mulling over improvements for 2007. After overcoming last years deficiencies, Imagina looks set to reclaim its position as the leading 3D event in Europe.
Mireille Frenette and Benoit Guerville have been reporting on digital effects and film technologies for several years in Europe and North America. Through their production company, they are currently setting up a research lab on alternative filmmaking technologies with a film project already in development.