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Imagina 2008: What Will the Next VFX Thrill Be?

Visual effects are no longer the sole game in town at Imagina. Is this typical of the new direction Imagina has taken, or is it heralding a more fundamental change in the future of vfx work?

This year's Imagina put forth the opinion that the thrill in visual effects is gone. Even with the tremendous achievements in animation and film vfx, we've seen it all. The industry has entered a plateau. Unless noted, all images courtesy of Imagina.

For the last few years, Imagina, one of the most important European 3D events, has been re-imagining itself. The recent 2008 edition clearly showed the results of this reorientation. Held yearly in Monaco since the early '80s, the Imagina Festival used to be a place where mad graphic artists met with crazy scientists to produce the new images that would wow us all. But times have changed. Vfx have become increasingly common. With the expansion of 3D usage, software and hardware vendors started looking for new customers. Imagina decided to follow the trend and shifted its focus to new markets such as architecture, landscaping, urbanism and industrial design.

Yet, strangely enough, this new direction may herald a new era for the vfx industry. As Electronic Arts CTO Glenn Entis outlined in the opening session, the thrill in visual effects is gone... What he meant is that, by now, we've seen it all. There have been tremendous achievements in animation and film vfx, so much so that we've become somewhat jaded and that the public, and perhaps the professionals as well, are in need of something really new. This may be a blunt statement, but the truth of the matter is that the usual behind-the-scenes presentations of this year's big films seemed to be a rerun of other presentations seen so many times before.

Does it mean that the thrill usually associated with our jobs is completely dead and gone? Of course not. But it does appear that the vfx industry is now in some sort of plateau phase, where everybody is polishing techniques that have been developed in the past few years through extremely intense hard work by leading artists and researchers.

An interesting question arises from Imagina: where will the next thrill come from? The most obvious answer is that it will emerge from a combination of videogames and cinema. 

Automating Emotion

And so, an interesting question arises: where will the next thrill come from? The most obvious answer is that it will emerge from a combination of videogames and cinema. The games industry, with its realtime constraints and its need to produce persistent worlds that can auto-generate themselves, is tackling extremely complex problems with far smaller budgets (per image) than the vfx industry. Even if his statements left out many parameters, Enntis reminded the audience that feature film renders average three frames per hr., whereas realtime videogames are at the 216,000 frames per hr. mark. This means a price performance ration of 1:540,000 between film and games! The only way the videogames industry can make up for this huge disadvantage is by developing tools able to automate the creation of strongly believable worlds, characters, animation...

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Once again, EA showcased its new developments in Procedural Awareness solutions. These now allow non-player game characters to come alive with facial emotion and true body language, making these otherwise lifeless characters more in synch with their environment. During this presentation, Entis also introduced a new concept that may be a powerful way to look at what creates the famous Uncanny Valley in terms of ultra-realistic CG characters. Imagine a graph with the horizontal axis being Modeling Fidelity and the vertical axis, Motion Fidelity. Draw a diagonal line starting from point 0,0 and bisect the graph in two perfect halves. Entis called this line the Zombie line. Under this line, the modeling fidelity of the character exceeds its motion fidelity, and that's when you get the zombie-like character. The conclusion then is that CG artists and animators now need to work on how the human emotions and all their subtleties translate into motions and micro-movements.

Going in this direction was Bernd Bickel's presentation showcasing a new MoCap technique designed to capture the movements of wrinkles on the human face. Developed at the Swiss federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich, this technology, based mainly on computer vision and video image analysis, achieves quite stunning results. A face animated with a standard MoCap solution for facial animation looks like a self-deforming mask, regardless of how good its texturing and rendering may be. But add the wrinkles, and the 3D face suddenly springs to life.

Students Strike Again...

As 3D tools become easier to learn and master, new solutions will continue to revolutionize the way people work today. As Jovan Popovic demonstrated in one of his talks, it is now possible to skin and rig 3D characters automatically and to transfer animation from one character to another with an ease previously unthinkable. This striking presentation made it clear that very soon, any child with a computer will be able to set up, rig and animate a 3D character with a high level of believability. The conference of Alexei Efros, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, emphasized that the future of compositing and matte painting is also wedded to automated technologies: they will make image retouching a breeze thanks to computer vision and automated processes that can automatically identify and transform a scene's lighting conditions, erase or add specific elements in an image, etc.

With such automated technologies enabling the production of increasingly professional-looking photorealistic results, the strength of the vfx industry will lie in its ability to diversify itself, and to work with highly talented individuals. And once again, the Imagina Awards were an opportunity to see that there will be no shortage of that. As always, the student films stood out and made a strong impression on the Imagina crowd. Two shorts from Supinfocom were honored this year. The very funny and hysterical Bolides by Francois-Xavier Bologna, Theophile Bondoux, Lyonel Charmette and Vincent Le Ster from Supinfocom Arles (France) won for Best School-University. The strange and poetic Camera Obscura by Matthieu Buchalski, Jean-Michel Drechsler and Thierry Onillon from Supinfocom Valenciennes was awarded the Jury Special Prize. And Julien Bocabeille, François-Xavier Chanioux, Olivier Delabarre, Thierry Marchand, Quentin Marmier and Emud Mokhberi from Gobelins l'Ecole de l'Image (France) were awarded Best Animation for Oktapodi, a film that can arguable challenge the best shorts from Pixar...

Expanding Vfx Reach Beyond Filmmaking

The conference given by Frederic Thonet, CGI operations director with Ubisoft, also hinted at what the future of vfx might be. The videogame company is now in the process of developing a new branch geared toward the production of short series and even feature films based on the intellectual property developed for its games. Thonet, who used to work in the vfx industry at Duran in France, one of the oldest vfx studios in Paris, showed a long clip from Assassin's Creed. The clip was a live recording of a gamer playing the game, but the result had a strong feature-like feel, thanks to the use of many cinematographic tricks such as depth-of-field blurs and sound design used in a narrative fashion, realtime editing of various camera angles that integrated seamlessly with the player experience and a strong mixture of action and dialog.

This new approach to interactivity is undeniably a preview for what tomorrow's movies and vfx will be. It is highly foreseeable that soon vfx artists will be asked by game companies to work on realtime game effects. And, indeed, the German company Crytek, renowned for its hit title Far Cry and its outstanding realtime 3D engine, has already taken steps in that direction. Cevat Yerli, Crytek's CEO, explained how his team developed the look of its Crysis game : "First, we asked a vfx studio to create a photorealistic 3D cinematic for the game. Then, we used their clip as a benchmark for what we'd have to achieve with realtime rendering. In the end, I think that, in certain ways, we even managed to exceed the quality of the original clip."

Another promising direction for the vfx and animation industry is the renewal of in-theater feature presentations thanks to stereoscopy. As John Tarnoff, head of show development at Dreamworks Animation, stated in his keynote address, "[The studio] is currently working on making the switch to stereoscopic rendering. All our releases starting in 2009 will be available in this 3-D-with-glasses format."

But it's plain to see that vfx will no longer be limited to the film industry, and this may have been the biggest message Imagina 2008 had to offer. 3D imagery is popping up everywhere, and will be increasingly available to the masses through simple yet excellent tools (such as Google Earth) or with totally new applications still hard to imagine today. As an example, Jovan Popovic, assistant professor at M.I.T., presented a new and completely autonomous motion capture solution geared for 24/24 use! Though it does require a small backpack to carry the operating laptop on which it runs today, it will very soon be able to run on something like an iPod. The system is based on a combination of gyroscopic and ultrasonic sensors rigged on the subject's body, without the need of external sensors such as optical cameras. It can be used to capture movements such as skiing or bike riding, but as Popovic said, "Many applications can be thought of for this kind of set-up: since we can monitor and record the movements of a person throughout very long periods, we could use it for health monitoring, sport training..."

This may not seem like vfx at first, as a student kindly pointed out, yet all this data will need to be visualized in an elegant way. The massive presence of architectural and industrial visualization solutions on the Imagina trade floor (in free access this year), made it obvious that the visualization industry is in sore need of the experienced artist's eye. Most of their products looked like ancient videogames, lacking the appeal found even in today's worst 3D game or animation series. The aforementioned Crytek has licensed its rendering engine to the architecture industry, yet the difference between what Crytek has achieved in its games and the images produced by the architects using the CryEngine is striking. There is a real need for artistry, script development, camera placement and visual skills.

This was particularly true during the Imagina Awards, in which the only architecture/industry/urbanism films that stood out were those based on a truly artistic vision. Albeit a "simple" architectural visualization, the CNIT film Entrez dans la Lumiere (Walk into the Light) created by Sparx-fx, a renowned French vfx and animation house, was resolutely outstanding and well deserving of its Industry for Best Promotion award. It gave a poetic vision that was far superior to any other visualization presented at the competition or on the trade floor.

Undeniably, Imagina isn't the vfx industry show it used to be. And in many ways, the massive invasion of suits tones down its glamorous past. But don't write off Imagina for that reason. They also represent new markets for vfx houses, which can provide them with the skills and the vision that they would take much too long to achieve by themselves...

Mireille Frenette and Benoit Guerville have been reporting on digital effects and film technologies for several years in Europe and in 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.

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