NAB2004: An Overview

Bill Desowitz provides an inside look at NAB2004, including some of the latest digital advancements and a revealing case study of Van Helsing.

Opening day in the Exhibition Hall at NAB2004. The buzzword this year was interoperability. All NAB photos © National Assn. of Broadcasters. All rights reserved.

The big buzzword coming out of NAB2004, where 90,000 descended upon Las Vegas in late April, was interoperability, as broadcasters and production houses make the transition to IT with all digital facilities.

In this regard, SGI revealed how it is delivering IT infrastructures and interoperability to tackle these new challenges. SGI InfiniteStorage solutions that are gaining momentum in broadcast and post-production facilities worldwide were showcased.

SGI demonstrated in a broadcast workflow, end-to-end compatibility with the Material Exchange Format (MXF) from ingest to play-to-air. Content sourced from a Sony XDCAM player was ingested on a SGI Media Server for broadcast system, wrapped in MXF and stored on an SGI InfiniteStorage CXFS SAN server. It then interoperated with an Avid non-linear editor, automation from Harris Corporation and utilized software from MassTech for asset management, archive browse and EDL prep for the Avid system. Once edited on the SAN, the file was played directly to air while maintaining its MXF compatibility for later use. SGI additionally replicated a post-production workflow incorporating leading applications, all on different operating systems, from Alias, Apple, Discreet, Interactive Effects, mental images and Quantel.

The other buzzword that stemmed from this and other demonstrations was increased workflow, showing the need to integrate different systems into the same digital pipeline. Thus, the power of plug-ins was quite evident. If you cant beat them, join them, as they say. Although Sony and Apple grabbed most of the headlines with their new product lines, there was plenty of other HD and assorted digital technology on display from the usual suspects and some new ones as well.

Technology Sampling

Here is just a small glimpse of what was unveiled:

The latest version of the award-winning software from Adobe.

Adobes After Effects 6.5, a new version of its award-winning motion graphics and visual effects software features Animation Presets, an advanced clone tool, as well as tighter integration with the other Adobe video products, help professionals meet production challenges and demanding deadlines.

After Effects 6.5 is a core component of the Adobe Video Collection 2.5, which includes new versions of Adobe Premiere Pro 1.5, Adobe Audition 1.5 and Adobe Encore DVD 1.5. Together, these products deliver a complete digital video and audio post-production platform for video and audio editing, motion graphics, visual effects, and DVD authoring at a much lower cost than competing solutions.

Animation Presets enables users to save any combination of layer properties, including text animation properties, and easily apply them to other layers. More than 250 text Animation Presets were added to create sophisticated text animations and more than 60 new effects enable users to create visuals, including light rays and 3D particles.

Alias brought out the next version of its award-winning 3D animation and special effects software Maya 6, featuring hundreds of new features and enhancements requested by Maya users from both large and small organizations working in film, broadcast, game development, digital publishing and visualization markets.

The architecture of Trax non-linear animation has been redone in Maya 6. Motion retargeting and motion redirection capabilities have been added allowing animators a powerful new means to quickly re-purpose animation clips from a motion library on to any character of their choice.

The new Maya Hair toolset features a dynamic curve simulation engine designed to enable long hair to be added to characters. The ability to braid, curl and style hair is integrated with the Maya dynamics engine, allowing for strikingly realistic hair movement with accurate collisions. The Maya Hair dynamic curves represent a major new entity that can be used anywhere NURBS curves are currently used; as well as lending themselves to other hair-like objects such as ropes, chains and wires. This allows such advanced animation effects as dynamic character rigs and surfaces for example, providing dangling tail joint chains, or undulating underwater creatures.

Fluidity is offered in Motion. Courtesy of Apple.

Apple introduced Motion, a new application intended to redefine motion graphics by giving artists the creative freedom and power to deliver stunning results faster and more intuitively at a price of $299. Motion features interactive animation of text, graphics and video, with instant previewing of multiple filters and particle effects, and introduces "Behaviors" that allow artists to add natural looking movement to type and graphics, such as gravity and wind, without the use of complex keyframes.

Motion's Behaviors use procedural animation techniques to create natural simulations, such as gravity and wind, or sophisticated interaction between multiple objects, such as attraction and repulsion. Behaviors provide users with the ability to automatically generate simple or sophisticated fluid motion effects with minimal effort and make modifications spontaneously, all without the complexity or overhead of dealing with keyframes. Users familiar with keyframes can use Motion's Keyframe Editor to plot precise parameter values at specific frames.

Motion also includes an advanced particle engine that enables artists to quickly and easily apply realistic particle presets such as smoke, sparkles and fire to any animation. Using Motion, virtually any graphic element on the screen can be turned into a particle and then modified to create unlimited, customized vfx.

Shake 3.5 offers advancements in morphing and warping. Courtesy of Apple.

Meanwhile, Apples new Shake 3.5, features new shape-based morphing and warping tools for advanced compositing and new shape shifting special effects, fine-tuned to take advantage of the performance and architecture of the Power Mac G5 and Mac OS X version 10.3 Panther.

The new shape-based morphing and warping features in Shake 3.5 use industry standard spline tools, making it more intuitive to create and modify effects than with traditional mesh-based warping tools. Morphing and warping further enhance Shakes visual effects tools, including layering, tracking, rotoscoping, painting and color correction.

Bauhaus Software announced the availability of Mirage v1.2 for Mac OS X and Windows. Designed for artists, Mirage integrates realtime video paint, animation and effects functionalities into a single product, freeing visual artists to explore entirely new creative ideas and techniques. Designed for resolutions ranging from HDTV and film to Web video, Mirage is a complement to existing packages such as Final Cut Pro and Shake, and is a key part of a seamless pipeline for 2D animation film and broadcast production.

Cartoon and 2D animators use Mirage as a unified paint and effects solution, allowing them to sidestep traditional scan/ink/paint workflows, and work from digital pencil tests to final product within a single unified environment. Broadcasters benefit from the speed and ease with which motion graphics can be created and animated in Mirage. Video producers use the software to easily manipulate, enhance and create effects for HDTV and film. Mirage's ability to combine multiple file types, different media and different resolutions in the same project will easily make it a core workflow component of any motion graphic artists working on a Mac.

Kelseus, from Cambridge in the U.K., announced the release of its new 3D animation system, Antics 1.0. Antics allows users to assemble, direct and edit 3D animated scenes in a realtime rendered environment using an intelligent and procedural toolset. Antics is intended to provide a solution to the animator, director or producer who requires a fast, cost-effective tool to produce animations for previs or episodic animated programming where complex multiple character interactions are called for.

Antics provides a unique arena where geometry and mo-cap data, either from within the Antics library, or imported from external sources, can be utilized. Simple point and click commands combined with intuitive scripted instructions allow characters to intelligently navigate their environments, and interact with objects in a sophisticated multi-camera view architecture.

Gelato aims to solve rendering problems.

NVIDIA announced the release of Gelato, the first 3D final-film renderer accelerated by industry-standard graphics hardware. Designed to create the highest-quality digital effects and animation, NVIDIA Gelato is the first commercially available application in the feature film industry that solves rendering problems by using hardware advantages, such as floating point acceleration, 64-bit computing, PCI Express and multithreading. Gelato is now available in versions running Red Hat Linux 7.2, 7.3, 9.0 and SUSE.

Gelato features and benefits include:

  • Speed and power that scale with improvements in the entire system, including graphics hardware innovations, 64-bit CPU technology and PCI Express.

  • A flexible architecture that makes it easy to integrate Gelato into existing film production pipelines such as plug-ins for Maya and Python binding.

  • Accelerated scanline and raytraced rendering, global illumination, ambient occlusion and support for the full range of geometric primitives (NURBS, bicubic and bilinear patches, polygon meshes, subdivision surfaces, points, curves and procedural geometry) for true film-quality images.

  • A new shading language that not only unlocks the power of the NVIDIA Quadro FX hardware, but also adds innovative features, including layered shaders for more precise effects.

The Orphanage, whose recent vfx efforts include Hellboy and the upcoming The Day After Tomorrow, announced the release a key piece of its visual effects technology to the public. Called eLin, the software consists of a suite of plug-ins and scripts for Adobe After Effects 6.5 that allow compositors to work in the expanded photographic color space of film. eLin will be free of charge for non-commercial use.

Softimage unveiled SOFTIMAGE | XSI 4.0, the latest version of the industry's leading nonlinear 3D production environment and has made it available in three distinct configurations at breakthrough prices: XSI Advanced, XSI Essentials and the new entry-level XSI Foundation. Version 4.0 delivers advanced toolsets, dramatic performance enhancements and advancements to the core architecture of the software, including new customization, project management and workgroup capabilities.

Using reference models and reference animation, animators and technical directors can create lightweight scenes, minimize memory usage and share animation scenes by off-loading animations and partial animation sources to external files. New motion trails, ghosting and advanced scene playback options also enhance the in-context visualization of animated content.

The color red was isolated to make it stand out in this ballroom sequence from Van Helsing. All Van Helsing images © 2004 Universal Studios. All rights reserved. Credit: Frank Masi.

A Van Helsing Case Study

Meanwhile, a case study of Van Helsing as part of the Digital Cinema Summit (in collaboration with The Entertainment Technology Center at USC) proved to be very enlightening. Bob Ducsay, producer/editor, Allen Daviau, ASC, director of photography, and Steve Scott, digital intermediate colorist, provided a detailed look at how digital tools were used on set and in the post-production of the May 7 tentpole release. The speakers addressed look management, digital mastering, visual effects and digital intermediate (courtesy of EFILM). Apparently Van Helsing was one of the first instances of introducing DI earlier in the process. The filmmakers intentionally did so to allow more time for color timing and vfx interaction (animatics were blended with temps in dailies). This was vital, since there were 1,200 vfx shots and they managed to avoid any vfx fitting problems, saving additional time and money. Although they used film dailies as reference, previews and interactions with ILM and other vfx houses were scanned last November.

Daviau, who was more than happy to work with the DI process from the outset, said he creatively shot what he wanted. DI was used in a real nuts and bolts way. It is films best friend, the cinematographer asserted. It brings such dynamic range to films. We pushed back the highlights and brought back images in shadows, he said of the monster movie involving Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man.

nab08_AllenDaviau.jpgnab09_VanHelsing-look.jpg

D.P. Allen Daviau (left) spoke at NAB about his work in Van Helsing. On the right, digital intermediate helped get the red out of Hugh Jackmans nose.

Through a combination of masking and tracking (a compositors dream, according to former compositor Scott), the filmmakers demonstrated how they established the look in a number of sequences.

In a complicated ballroom sequence in Draculas castle that was shot in a restrictive church in Czechoslovakia, they darkened the ceiling and brightened the floor, recomposing the image to provide a candlelit look. They additionally isolated certain colors such as red to make them more vivid and to avoid a wash of blues and greens and to remove some fringing.

For a farewell at sunset, which took advantage of a background plate, they used an outer mask for warmth and to hide sun flare, and brightened the grass. This is a perfect instance of interaction between vfx artists and the cinematographer, with the latter getting the last word on the look.

During an early glimpse of Hugh Jackman as monster hunter Van Helsing, his nose came out too red during a cold day of filming. Even though they used da Vinci and inferno as part of the DI process, is it considered vfx? No, says Scott, because youre merely recomposing the original image and not adding any layers to it.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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