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NAB2005 Overview: Working the Workflow

In this months Digital Eye column, Peter Plantec looks at the nomadic nature of the visual effects industry.

Workflow and Adobes $3.4 billion purchase of Macromedia were the hot topics at this years NAB. © National Association of Broadcasters. All rights reserved.

The good news at NAB2005 was that attendance was up at the Las Vegas Convention Center from 97,500 to 104,000, and that the buzzword was workflow rather than interoperability. The message was basically the same, though: that the digital revolution currently underway is now all about refining and simplifying the workflow to enhance efficiency and performance in these leaner and meaner times. No wonder there has been an explosion of DI and DAM products lately. So, it really shouldnt come as a surprise that the biggest news to emerge from NAB2005 was Adobes $3.4 billion purchase of Macromedia. As the announcement suggested, The combination of Adobe and Macromedia strengthens Adobes goal of helping people and organizations communicate better, combining Adobes PDF format and Macromedias Flash.

And the fact that Alias, Autodesk Media and Ent. (formerly Discreet) and Softimage are much more cooperative with mutual partners underscores how the sharing of assets and technology are vital to the success of any production. Or, as one Autodesk marketing exec suggested, the goal is to leverage technology for problem solving. Yet collaboration isnt enough: automation is the key to making the process more efficient to increase pipeline performance. Thus, as part of its new rebranding strategy, Autodesk will bring together entertainment and non-entertainment modes of operation to solve complementary production problems.

No wonder Autodesk, under the leadership of senior director Tom Ohanian, has extended its consulting services to the media and entertainment industry. These 3D workflow problems are ubiquitous, with pipeline data management as a fuel for creativity. Its a modular approach to production that is more intuitive and interactive. Yet how do you manage databases in overseas sites (such as ILM with its new animation deal in Singapore)? Or how do you custom develop a data translator? Or how do you calibrate your DI pipeline? Or how do you implement, say, Autodesks new Toxik compositing software into your workflow? These are all organizational concerns that need to be addressed by companies large and small all over the world.

Alias made some big changes this year: It divested itself of SGI, purchased Kaydara to leverage MotionBuilder (above), strengthened branding and expanded its partnership with Sony Pictures Imageworks. © 2004 Alias Systems Corp.

Not surprisingly, Alias echoed Autodesks message of workflow problem solving and was beefing up its consulting business, hiring Mark Lasoff as entertainment consulting manager of the Custom Development Center. Last year, Alias divested itself of SGI and purchased Kaydara to leverage their products, particularly MotionBuilder. This year, Alias continued to strengthen the complementary branding of its software (while expanding its longstanding partnership with Sony Pictures Imageworks), and discussed its own consolidation of emerging technologies, education, film and TV, broadcast, games and automotive/design in search of cost effective ways to provide a new 3D workflow.

Meanwhile, NVIDIA discussed the combining of its professional solutions group with the digital film group, under the new leadership of general manager Jeff Brown, merging infrastructure and workflow. Their message was that movie productions could benefit from automotive and architectural workflows, which provide fast, iterative solutions. Conversely, hardware systems with different requirements can read back improvements with the help of NVIDIAs gelato hardware-accelerated renderer. They obviously believe this will expand the 3D pie.

Not to be outdone, Softimage continues to integrate XSI and all the other Avid tools into a seamless workflow, and to work with other partners in trying to solve various production problems. In this regard, Avid co-hosted a Metadata summit with American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). Part of their efforts has been to research parameters for a metadata standard designed to make digital media hardware and software systems interchangeable and interoperable. Theres that word again. Thus, with the rapid evolution of digital intermediate technology, there is an urgent need for a standard metadata system.

You film a scene where a cannonball lands near some soldiers with no physical flame effects, explains cinematographer David Stump. Instead, separate shots of flames are filmed by a second unit crew. All the film is scanned and the elements are composited as a seamless shot. With header information embedded in a standard metadata file, that same visual effects shot can be accurately recreated at any time in the future. The metadata file would identify elements of the composite shot, including color corrections needed to recreate the original look, and all workflow information from preproduction through distribution. Softimage is doing all it can, meanwhile, to integrate XSI and other Avid tools into a seamless workflow

We also saw AMD and DreamWorks Animation forging a greater strategic alliance: AMD will provide the AMD Opteron processor with Direct Connect Architecture for DreamWorks Animations next-generation enterprise servers, workstations, render farm nodes, enterprise desktops and enterprise laptops. The new agreement also includes marketing opportunities for AMD to utilize characters from DreamWorks Animation motion pictures, as well as work with DreamWorks Animation to promote upcoming film and DVD releases.

Apple launched major upgrade Shake 4 which features 3D multiplane compositing, cutting-edge optical flow image processing and unprecedented integration with Final Cut Pro 5. © 2005 Apple Computer Inc. All rights reserved.

Technology Sampling

Here is just a small glimpse of what was unveiled:

Apple launched Shake 4, a major upgrade to the leading compositing software. Shake 4 features 3D multiplane compositing, cutting-edge optical flow image processing and unprecedented integration with Final Cut Pro 5.

Artists can now composite live action and 3D CGI layers with added realism using Shakes new OpenGL accelerated 3D multi-plane compositing node. Seamlessly integrated into the node view, 3D compositing works with the same flexible user interface as every other operation and is as fast and high quality as 2D operations. Shake 4 presents an entirely new dimension by offering the ability to position, rotate and animate unlimited layers and cameras in 3D space.

Shake 4 is at the forefront of integrating the latest image processing algorithms and workflow advantages into a single, affordable visual effects package. Shake 4 features advanced optical flow technology that uses pixel-by-pixel image analysis to create smooth retiming and automatic stabilization. Editors and visual effects artists alike can now effortlessly adjust the speed of any clip to achieve Hollywood-quality results. Shake 4 can also revive unusable content by automatically removing camera jitter from static shots and correcting uneven pans across a scene without setting tracking points.

Shake 4 integrates Truelight monitor calibration to maintain color consistency between the computer screen and the final look of the film, allowing compositors to accurately previsualize the look of their HD or film imagery, saving time and effort. Shake 4 can also distribute visual effects processing across a cluster of Apples Xserve G5 servers or Power Mac G5 desktop computers for maximum rendering performance and efficiency.

Toxik, a collaborative compositing software for the creation of digital visual effects, features advanced creative tools as well as integrated collaboration. It was shaped by feedback from 28 beta sites. Courtesy of Autodesk Media and Ent.

Autodesk Inc. introduced Toxik, collaborative compositing software for the creation of digital visual effects. Featuring advanced creative tools as well as integrated collaboration, Toxik brings new capabilities to feature film production. Redefining the way visual effects are created, managed and shared, Toxiks collaborative engine offers a way to manage this complexity and automate time consuming data management tasks to quickly deliver superior digital imagery.

Toxik software has been shaped by feedback from 28 beta sites, including: New Zealands Weta Digital in New Zealand, Condor in Amsterdam, London-based Moving Picture Co., Lumiq Studios in Italy, Éclair Laboratoires in France, Imagica Corp. in Japan and Asylum.

Digital Vision showcased the newest version of its Valhall Colour Grade system, V2.0, a complete realtime color correction system, with full primaries and secondaries, machine control and an ergonomic work surface. The Valhall control software also supports all Digital Vision DVNR options, including the new line of ME motion-compensated image processing systems.

The Valhall Colour Grade system is used in facilities all over the world to do restoration work and color correct TV shows, feature films and commercials. It is particularly well suited to environments that do not require telecine control, including restoration of library materials and processing of video-originated (electronic capture) program material, including sitcom, feature film, documentary or dramatic footage shot with the latest generation of 24P cameras.

It runs on a Windows XP Platform, and is a highly configurable, low cost and high quality environment for a wide variety of color correction, image restoration and enhancement applications, as well as provides a highly ergonomic, user-friendly interface that each operator can easily customize and manage.

Valhall Colour Grade supports the following image formats: 4:2:2 YUV, 4:4:4 YUV and 4:4:4 RBG in 525i, 625i, 1080i, 1080P and 1080PsF.

Version 2.0 new features include waveform monitor and vectorscope, three layers of primary color correction, true layer handling, user definable transfer functions (curves) and a dedicated vignette layer.

Imagineer Systems showcased monet 1.5, which offers a start-to-finish solution for replacing elements in film and video. It is used frequently for product placement. Courtesy of Imagineer Systems.

FilmLight Ltd., a leading provider of digital filmmaking technology, gave NAB attendees the first look at new features for Baselight v2.2, the upcoming software release for its nonlinear color grading system. Baselight v2.2 brings colorists a host of new creative tools for film and video grading and introduces support for the optional FilmLight-developed Blackboard surface control device announced at NAB. The company also showcased upcoming features for the Northlight scanner and Truelight color management system.

GenArts Inc. featured its entire range of plug-ins, including hands on demonstrations of Sapphire Plug-ins on Avid Xpress Pro HD and for Adobe After Effects, Adobe Premiere, Apple Final Cut Pro and Discreet Combustion. Sapphire Plug-ins provide digital artists with a collection of more than 175 state-of-the-art image processing and synthesis effects. They fully and seamlessly integrate into a number of editing and compositing systems.

Imagineer Systems showcased monet 1.5. Aimed at the broadcast, film and video post-production markets, monet offers a start to finish solution for replacing elements in film and video and is being used frequently for product placement. It is available in two versions, monet software and monet extreme. monet 1.5 further enhances the original feature-set, featuring a host of new tools and optimizations that increase its already impressive price/performance ratio. New features include: the ability to work with proxies and dynamically switch between different proxy resolutions; the export of tracking data to Avid DS; support for working with material with 3:2 pull-down; the ability to place an element in 3D space; support for color highlight and shadow passes; and a completely new tool for the extrapolation of tracks to handle shots where an object disappears from the frame.

Optimization improvements include: better performance when working with HD and film clips; improved overlays; improved keyframe controls and enhanced tracking data export to Shake.

The extreme version of monet 1.5, includes specified hardware, an Aspex Accelera hardware card and an optional SD/HD/2K video I/O by DVS Centaurus and has been designed as a start-to-finish solution for product placement in film and television. Based on Imagineers unique element replacement technology, the system enables product placement of high quality to be delivered in an efficient and cost effective way as a post-production service. This creates new sources of revenue, adds flexibility and provides an alternative to the conventional 30-second spot now challenged by Personal Video Recorders.

LightWave 3D 8.3 offers enhanced vector blur routines, seen above in a test sky composite. It also boasts improved integration with other production tools via updated PSD support. © 2005 NewTek Inc.

InPhase Technologies, the leader in holographic data storage systems and media, held the first public demonstration of the industrys first prototype of a commercial holographic storage device using video clips provided by Turner Ent. Networks. The demonstration of the InPhase Tapestry was conducted with Hitachi Maxell Ltd., a key investor and development partner in InPhase. The prototype is the foundation for a 300 gigabyte (GB) drive that can store more than 35 hours of broadcast-quality high-definition video on a single disk. The family of InPhase Tapestry holographic drives will have capacities that range to 1.6 terabytes (TB) on a single disk.

A breakthrough in data storage, the InPhase prototype demonstrates a new generation of data storage, well beyond magnetic and optical formats, which capitalizes on the companys leadership position in both holographic drive and media development. InPhase has created a new class of photopolymers, and the delivery of a stable recording device, to achieve a working commercial holographic system. The initial commercial units will be delivered to original equipment manufacturer (OEM) customers in 2006.

InPhase has architected an advanced technique, polytopic recording, which provides greater data density by overlaying books of data, rather than pages of data. The InPhase polytopic technique eliminates the space between books of data, thereby increasing data densities. This technique will be implemented in all generations of the InPhase Tapestry product family.

The InPhase Tapestry system has been evaluated by numerous leaders in the professional film and video industry over the past four years for a wide range of applications, including archive, acquisition, editing and effects for high-resolution video.

Iridas presented a full lineup of new products, including FrameCycler Digital Daily System (DDS) 3.5, FrameCycler Professional 3.5, SpeedGrade DI and SpeedGrade On Set. The SpeedGrade products represent both ends of the worlds first unbroken color pipeline from filming through post-production and finishing. FrameCycler is the first 2K playback technology to run on the Windows, Mac and Linux platforms.

A group of partners and customers demonstrated NVIDIA Quadro FX 4000 SDI with PureVideo technology. Courtesy of NVIDIA.

While all Iridas products operate as stand-alone applications, they are designed to work within a pipeline, alongside other applications. FrameCycler Professional 3.5 was demonstrated with Shake integration on Mac OS X systems at the Apple booth. And both of the new FrameCycler 3.5 products are able to playback calibrated, color corrected sequences from SpeedGrade on any NVIDIA FX graphics card-equipped workstation.

NewTek Inc. demonstrated the free update, LightWave 3D 8.3. In addition to full support of the new generation multi-core processor systems, this release offers enhanced vector blur routines and improved integration with other production tools via updated PSD support, as well as a new gradient option for HyperVoxels (LightWaves volumetric rendering system), improved text tools for Modeler, and new features and functions in the Scene Editor and Dope Track.

LightWave users will find integration with compositing applications such as Digital Fusion and After Effects greatly enhanced by the changes to the PSD Exporter. PSD Import/Export has been revised to include a variety of new options, filters and controls, as well as enhanced processing of LightWaves internal buffers for better compatibility on export. Another change that will improve integration is that the point limit for polygons has been raised from 1024 to 16383. This is of particular use for the EPS Importer, which often has to deal with text objects with far more the 1024 points on some polygons. This change will also improve the modeling process in general, allowing the user to create more complex shapes with less concern for that complexity.

NVIDIA Corp. demonstrated its NVIDIA Quadro FX 4000 SDI with PureVideo technology with a group of partners and customers. This professional solution is designed to support a range of applications, from virtual-sets to news, sports and weather broadcast systems, which combine live video footage with animated graphics and text. Film and video production professionals can also leverage this high-definition (HD) serial digital interface (SDI) solution on HD broadcast monitors to see realtime previews of 3D compositing, editing and color grading.

Quantel unveiled Eiger, the latest toolset release for its market-leading eQ (above) and iQ systems for post and DI. Courtesy of Quantel.

Quantel unveiled Eiger, the latest toolset release for its market-leading eQ and iQ systems for post and DI. Eiger (Effects, Imaging, Grading and Editing Release) adds powerful capabilities across the board.

Eiger compositing tools draw on years of Quantel effects expertise in commercials, promotions and film vfx while also adding completely new tools. These include: new process tree ergonomics, motion sensitive blur, layer blend modes and a new mesh-based warper.

Eiger also introduced Quantels new UniKey system, a new multi-format, multi-colorspace precision keying toolset. New software algorithms are powered by Quantels unique hardware and Quantels Resolution Co-existence and Dynamic Rounding technologies to give operators all the tools they need.

The QColor option for eQ and iQ is already recognized as a class leading DI grading system. Eiger builds on this with a powerful new set of HSL-based tools and many ergonomic enhancements. Live pan and scan is now supported along with output image masking, making multi-format versioning even simpler.

REALVIZ introduced SMART (Scalable Matching Architecture for Tracking), a new automatic 3D tracking engine, which is the result of extensive R&D efforts at the companys headquarters in the South of France. MatchMover Pro will be the first of the REALVIZ products powered by SMART, with a release slated for June 2005 on Macintosh, Windows and Linux.

REALVIZ MatchMover technology has been used to create visual effects in many recent major movies, including: The Life Aquatic, Troy and A Very Long Engagement.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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