Oscar 2012: Weta's Sebastian Sylwan Talks Apes, Art and Technology

Weta Digital’s CTO talks about the technological challenges of producing some of the most compelling and captivating performances in cinema today.

Watch Sebastian's video interview from SIGGRAPH 2011, exclusively on AWNtv!

Weta Digital CTO Sebastian Sylwan.

As Weta Digital’s CTO, Sebastian Sylwan’s job essentially involves harnessing the company’s software development, academic research and film production infrastructure into a cohesive effort that pushes the boundaries of what is possible in computer graphics today as well as in the not too distant future. Recent films like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Tintin clearly demonstrate the ongoing success of his efforts.  We sat down recently to discuss the technological challenges of producing some of the most compelling and captivating visual performances in cinema today.

Dan Sarto: How has technology that supports creative and entertainment content development changed in the last decade?

Sebastian Sylwan:  Well I guess we are still very much on the steep side of the innovation curve.  The challenges that were there ten years ago are still for the most part present, mostly I think because while at the same time the sophistication of the tools has improved, the sophistication of the audience has also improved.  There is no limit to reality and what creativity offers and so what we are seeing is a constant race to go beyond and push the boundaries even further of what is possible to visualize.

DS:  How do you balance the need for increasingly spectacular and innovative visuals, across a number of high profile feature films, with shrinking schedules and budgets?  Doesn’t that put a huge burden on you and the studio? 

SS:  I don’t think that it is a burden. I see it much more as a challenge.  There is always a new goal to reach and I think that technology helps us.  There are at least two separate areas or separate directions in which technology actually helps us meet that challenge.  One is doing things or visualizing things that have never been seen before.  Breaking the boundaries of what was possible. On the other side innovation also provides you with an increased efficiency.  So you can do the things that were possible before, but you can do them much faster. 

The two things actually combine because what we’re really after in developing these technologies is providing a tool for the artist vision to be realized.  If an artist can get a faster iteration over a simulation or over a render, they will be able to refine it even further.  If they can get a visual, or look, or be more realistic in a particular rendition of an effect then its final quality is better for the movie.

If there is a specific look, or graphic effect, or part that still needs to be pushed and realized, then I think that is where innovating and trying to get to a better result is the technological challenge.

DS:  How do you decide where to invest time, effort and money in technological innovation.  What drives that process?

SS:  Well there definitely are practical challenges coming from productions.  However, we also know that there are long-term challenges that we want to tackle and invest in because we believe that they will give us a significant step forward, either in something that has never been seen before or in terms of efficiency.  So it’s always a balance.  It’s not necessarily that we always have numerous activities going on at once.  In R&D and in development, some of them are tied to immediate deliveries for projects we are currently working on.  Some of them are longer term.

Andy Serkis' performance capture performance formed the DNA for Weta's amazing character work. All images © 2011 - 20th Century Fox.

DS: So would it be safe to say that most of the innovation and R&D you do is driven by the practical requirements of existing projects?

SS:  Pretty much all of it.  In some cases it’s the current projects, in some cases it’s projects that we will have in the future.  But, yes, all of it.

DS:  Can you talk a little bit about some of the more recent R&D advances you guys have made in areas such as rendering, simulations, lighting and motion studies?.

SS:  The easiest ones to quote are the two papers presented at SIGGRAPH.  We have one paper on a quantitized diffusion model for sub surface scattering and another one on fluid control.  In reality, we are working on almost every area of computer graphics and animation.  These are just two examples.  Rendering better skin, better humans or better apes in some cases is of course always a goal and a challenge.  Conveying the soul of a character is the ultimate goal.  Creating the environment in which that soul can be expressed and enacted is still part of the same challenge.  We are still trying to create an environment in which the audiences can live the dream.

For Sebastian, "Conveying the soul of a character is the ultimate goal. Creating the environment in which that soul can be expressed and enacted is still part of the same challenge."

DS:  Speaking of the soul of a character, can you tell us about some of the challenges you faced on Rise of the Planet of the Apes?

SS:  We developed a number of technologies that were used on Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  The one that probably was featured most prominently was the hair of the characters.  In reality, what we do is provide technological tools to the artist, so that they can create a character that not only is realistic, but also emotes.  So there were a number of technological improvements and advancements that were pushed specifically for this film.

The soul of the character comes through the animation, comes through the lighting, comes through the shading of all the parts.  It needs to be realistic enough to not throw you off from the suspension of disbelief and at the same time be subtle enough to convey the character of Caesar.

DS:  What were some of the advancements made on the film?

SS:  Every project comes with its own set of challenges.  There certainly are some advancements that we made with on set capture on Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  There was also a lot of work on the creature side. The creatures department did a lot of work making sure that the movements of the apes were incredibly realistic.  There was a lot of simulation time spent on the muscles of the creatures.  There was simulation and artist time spent on the hair, the clothing, the textures of the skin of the apes. There was of course a lot of algorithmic complexity and tools that went into making the apes.

But I think that they speak pretty much for themselves.  Not only the quality of the imagery, but also the subtlety that the artists were able to bring to those characters, into the character construction.  It’s definitely one of the things that impressed me the most.

"In reality, what we do is provide technological tools to the artist, so that they can create a character that not only is realistic, but also emotes."

DS:  You guys have a history with this type of performance capture, the animated performances of key characters going back for Gollum and King Kong.   Does having a central character done completely in CG put any additional pressure on you?

SS:  I think there is always extra pressure.  Every movie comes with an extra set of challenges.  And I think it’s always going to be that we are doing the best possible at that point in time.  We are always going to push the boundaries and do a little bit more than what was requested, to have a better character or something that has not been seen before and just do a step further.  We try to take one or many steps further in every project we tackle.

DS:  What are some of your biggest technological improvements and advancements in the last few years?

SS:  Well I don’t think that there is any area that has been left untouched.  There are definitely areas in which we have focused.  Characters and their skin, the way they are represented, animated, hair, cloth, water, simulations, pretty much the way we capture scenes, virtual production and virtual camera, virtual cinematography.  I think that there is really not a single area that we haven’t tried to push the boundaries a little but further.

DS:  Do you see greater growth in any particular area? 

SS:  I think they all grow.  All these areas grow organically and, to a certain extent, have to.  You cannot perfect animation without perfecting the look of a character and making sure that the way light hits it and reflects off it is consistent with the way the skin moves.  So in all of these we are trying and pushing the boundaries of verisimilitude.  We are trying to make a more and more realistic model, doing so with more control whenever possible, so that we can not only do things realistically, but also bend reality, to a certain extent, to the will of the creative intent.  To the will of communication.

DS:  Where do you see Stereoscopic 3-D headed at the studio?

SS:  I think Stereo is another tool in the creative arsenal.  When used properly, it can help tell a story, it can help immerse audiences in a world, it can help as a narrative tool.  I think that there is the challenge for Stereo of going where it’s “just something that needs to be there” and the necessary care is not put into its application.

The policy of the studio is doing stereo well, like the policy of the studio is doing movies well.  Stereo takes a lot of experience and a lot of attention to be done properly.

Technology serves to help artists make better, more believable worlds and characters.

DS:  How does harnessing all this massive technology give Weta a competitive edge?

SS:  Well the real competitive edge at Weta is the artist that makes the final images.  What we provide is a way for them to do that in a much more efficient manner and to convey pieces that actually make a believable world and a believable character.  So it is definitely a matter of efficiency, making the same process faster or delivering a different and better result.

There is always a new challenge.  There is always a new way to render a particular scene or there is always a better way for an artist to express that creative intent.  So what we are giving them really is the ability to express those emotions that will tie with the audiences.

As you said there is always a more complex scene or a more complex world to realize or represent.  And there is always the challenge of pushing the boundaries.  The industry evolves with the technology as well as the artistry.  The vision of directors is always pushing what is possible and what is possible is always pushing what the imaginations of creators are capable of.  So it’s an organic joint growth I think.

DS:  What do you enjoy most about your job?  What gives you the most sense of satisfaction?

SS:  I think that there are a couple of things.  One is the constant challenge.  There is always a new problem to work on there, there is always a new challenge, there is always a new objective to reach.  The second is the ability to work with the smartest people, the most motivated and passionate people in the industry.  I think that is the thing that I get the most enjoyment from.

DSEven though you’re right in the thick of it, does it amaze you what some of the artists at your studio are doing?

SS:  Every single day, every single day.  That is the amazement of working for a company like Weta Digital.  I go into dailies and every day I am impressed by the work of hundreds of talented people and proud to contribute to that.

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Dan Sarto is AWN's publisher.