Rick DeMott and Darlene Chan have curated a showcase of 20 of the best animated productions to premiere on the Web in the last year.
Imagina is one of the biggest European events covering the 3D industry. In fact, it was the first worldwide event, before the emergence of SIGGRAPH, with roots going back to the early '80s This annual rendezvous has a history of ups and downs, and for the last few years, has changed hands and is still reinventing itself. Located on the sunny shores of Monaco in the south of France, Imagina is spread over three days of conferences, with a renowned awards ceremony and a trade show. Since last year, Imagina has also been the home of the European Forum of 3D Visualization, which targets architects, urban planners, engineers and the automotive industry.
One of the best parts of Imagina is undoubtedly the research conferences where scientists from around the globe present their latest work, sometimes in a sneak preview of their SIGGRAPH presentation. If the latest two Imagina editions were largely focused on image-based technology, this year, mathematics and simulations were the rule. It is always interesting to note that even us CG geeks are sometimes wary of mathematics and automation, when it comes to artistic creation. But as German researcher Olga Sorkine, from TU Berlin brilliantly reminded us, the beauty of nature has everything to do with mathematics. She showcased an application that creates the best possible color harmony in images: the only images that could not be improved were painting masterpieces and photos of flowers and other natural elements.
This provided a good insight as to how procedural creation is about to unleash a major transition into CG works and creation: as procedural simulation tools become increasingly effective and efficient, the various conferences this year gave an insight into how complex natural and even human behaviors can be recreated to a totally realistic degree with a set of simple but smartly used parameters.
Oddly enough, this revolution does not stem from the vfx industry but from what has always been considered its poor relations: video games. Video game technology was taking its revenge this year at Imagina. Most of the breakthroughs showcased there were directly related to video games. Zoran Popovic is a researcher well-known to SIGGRAPH attendees. This year, he took a sabbatical from the University of Washington in Seattle to cross the border to Vancouver and spend some time with the Electronic Arts research team. Popovic brilliantly sums up the difference in approaches that led him towards the video game instead of vfx: "When you work on vfx, you just need your simulation to hold for a few seconds, just so you can get the shot you need. But in video games, the simulation has to hold up endlessly to create a persistent universe that the gamer will be able to interact with."
As the quality of real-time rendering becomes more and more photorealistic, the video game approach is increasingly making sense for vfx, and what Popovic and others demonstrated is sure to be of high interest to everyone in this industry, with this year's keywords being procedurals, photorealism, and real-time. Popovic explained how, through a simple set of equations, he has developed new real-time simulations for crowds that are based on flow rather than agents. It uses a simple mapping technique that creates what we could call hot and cold spots based on topology, obstacles and danger that attract or repulse individual characters. Popovic showed various examples, all in real-time, where dense groups of people interact with each other and the city. You could see people walking on sidewalks, waiting at the stoplights, crossing through car traffic, evacuating a building on fire or running away before a giant flying saucer. To provide a comparison with tools like Massive, he ran an animation of a 2000-people army fleeing on rolling hill terrain and pursued by another army three times its size, all in real-time. The simulation showed a wide range of behaviors, from well-planned retreat moves to total panic on rough terrain. Popovic also demonstrated real-time fluid simulations that were equally stunning, and where pixel rendering too longer than running the simulation!
The use of procedural technology radically changes the way images, and therefore vfx, can be made, because of its auto-generative approach. When some basic parameters are set, the procedural software can automatically and endlessly generate content, thus reducing the technical workload and allowing the user to concentrate on the creative side of things. This was obvious in two very different presentations, one from Patrick Mueller on automated creation of urban environments and one from Frank Vitz, on automated character animation.
What makes vfx believable is the highly intricate level of details needed to recreate realistic images of the real world. We generally tend to assume that this cannot be achieved just by playing with sliders and parameters, perhaps because this approach gave birth to software like Poser or Bryce, that have been geared mainly towards the general public. But Patrick's presentation -- as well as Frank's -- showed that with cleverly designed sets of parameters and algorithms, one can recreate the complex patterns of nature or man-made products. There have been many movies with large cityscape environments in the past few years. Recreating and detailing such complex works is a daunting task but Patrick's work opens up new perspectives for the creation and customization of these environments through highly automated processes, not only at the city planning and implementation level, but also for the creation of each individual building in the cityscape, with the ability to automatically change the architectural style, the size and the shape of the building with the simple move of a slider. No more endless hours of modeling and remodeling!
On the other end of the spectrum, the character behavioral simulation tools showcased by Frank Vitz were also stunning and yet, so simple. Frank is senior art director at Electronic Arts and his team is well-known for having ported the Universal Capture technology developed for the Super Punch sequence in Matrix 3 to a real-time video game engine. But, as said Frank, "This technique was not yet effective enough to cross the Uncanny Valley, the space where a human character is highly believable yet extremely zombie-like", such as seen in Polar Express or Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. So, in order to give life to ultra real characters, Frank's team, EA's Worldwide Visualization Group, worked on isolating a series of micro-level behaviors like eye or head movements, body and facial expressions, etc. By mapping all these characteristics into the Personal Awareness software, they can generate automated reactions of the virtual character to its environment in real-time. When the character is presented with several objects or other characters that have been defined as interesting, dangerous, annoying, or whatever, the character will be able to look at them, track their motion in space, and give them maximum or minimum attention. His emotions towards his target will also be reflected on his face and in his body language. Using sliders to define the level and type of reaction of the character, it is easy to create very different personalities that will automatically react to their environment in human-like and truly believable ways. An entire character animation is automatically generated and can be used throughout an entire video game, or even a film for secondary animation. As Frank Vitz says, "Animators will more and more become performance coaches of virtual characters".
Popovic also told about his forthcoming SIGGRAPH presentation on an automated lip-synching tool that will be able to apply any speech audio file on any facial 3D mesh to animate it with lip synch as well as expressive attitudes.
Imagina is also the place to see great "making of." Even if there have not been many astounding movies vfx-wise since Matrix and Lord of the Rings trilogies, there were several inspiring presentations this year. It was interesting to note how the 3D artists and the vfx world in general are increasingly open to new creative approaches, resulting in films that transcend the 3D genre. Such was the case with Flushed Away, presented by Simon Otto, supervising animator at DreamWorks SKG, who showed how much care went into recreating in 3D the stylistic hallmarks of Aardman Studio and their claymation signature style. Modelers and animators reproduced unique features of clay animation, like the facial expressions given by bending the eyebrows of characters, such as Gromit's unibrow, for example. Other stylistic nuggets like static bodies with highly caricatural and animated facial expressions, heavily-accented head-bobbing during speech that was originally designed to hide the changes of mouth positions on the clay puppets, all of those were ported to the CG feature film, even down to the character set-ups based on the actual wireframe articulation on which clay models are usually built.
The French feature Arthur and the Minimoys (Arthur in the Invisibles in the U.S.) by director Luc Besson, used another method to combine traditional miniature imagery with CG. Crafted by vfx house Buf Compagnie, the film tells the story of a little boy who is shrunk to the size of fairy-like tiny creatures living in his grandfather's garden. In the early beginning, this project had been conceived as a CG animated character film with real miniature backdrops and sets. But the first tests showed that this approach was too complicated because microphotography of a real vegetal environment in which the miniatures were to be built was a real nightmare. The Buf team suggested using a camera mapping approach instead. All the miniature sets were built as per the storyboard, and then recreated in 3D. The miniatures were lit and photographed. The photos were then projected on their 3D counterparts. This gave the film a decidedly unique look that is a combination of real photography, miniatures and CG rendering.
The Imagina trade show was buzzing with visualization products this year. Imagina's general manager Laurent Puons sees visualization as reaching a much bigger market beyond vfx, and a growing one at that. Many vendors were presenting various products to help design and showcase car prototypes, buildings or urban developments. Interestingly enough, video games are also part of the visualization industry, such as in the partnership between video game company Crytek and French visualization service provider ImagTP. Crytek and ImagTP have developed a real-time viz tool based on the highly photorealistic and versatile Cry engine, the game engine at the heart of every Crytek product. This tool enable the architect and his clients to experience architectural project as they would in a first-person shooter video game. It also allows for highly dynamic and interactive modifications of lighting, movable elements, time of day, etc.
The Imagina Awards were not as impressive as other years'. Worthy of note was Codehunters (U.K.) by Ben Hibon with post-production by Axis Animation and The Mill, which won the Imagina Award for Best Short Film. The Best Student Film Award went to renowned school Supinfocom for En Tus Brazos (France) directed by François-Xavier, Edouard Jouret, Matthieu Landour, that tells the story of two tango dancers. Also the winner for Best Advertisement is Snowball (U.S.), an ad for Travelers Insurance directed by Dante Ariola (MJZ -- Los Angeles) with post-production from Weta Digital Ltd.
Imagina is still in a revamping process and it is hard to tell if it will evolve as a new rendezvous of digital imaging revolutions and breakthroughs or as a more business oriented and thus less vfx event. Could it be both? Check it out next year at Imagina 2008.
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.