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Urban Environments: A Growing Digital Need

Vfx designer Eric Hanson, who has developed three instructional DVDs on 3D urban environments at The Gnomon Workshop, discusses this thriving sector with Karen Raugust.

Eric Hanson has pushed backgrounds and environments to the forefront of CG films. All images © Eric Hanson.

Eric Hanson has pushed backgrounds and environments to the forefront of CG films. All images © Eric Hanson.

Eric Hansons visual effects career has included everything from working as a supervising lead and supervising artist, respectively, for the digital cityscape elements on The Day After Tomorrow and The Fifth Element, both for Digital Domain; creating shading and lighting on Cast Away for Sony Pictures Imageworks; serving as lead 3D matte painter for Bicentennial Man and Mission to Mars for Dream Quest Images; and acting as lead visual development artist for interstitials on Fantasia/2000 for Disney.

In August 2004, Hanson decided to take a break from visual effects design and put his experience to work in a new way. He joined The Gnomon Workshop as senior producer, charged with updating and broadening the content of Gnomons digital library. His tasks include developing the Gnomon Workshop Production Series, which focuses on artist-driven DVDs that deal with real-life production issues. Im revitalizing and expanding the digital offerings we have, offers Hanson, who has taught at The Gnomon School of Visual Effects, USC School of Cinema/TV and other venues.

As part of his work at Gnomon, Hanson got the opportunity to create his own instructional DVDs, starting with a three-title series on digital urban environments.

In 2004, Hanson took a break from visual effects design and joined The Gnomon Workshop, where he developed its Production Series, which included his own DVD set on digital urban environments.

In 2004, Hanson took a break from visual effects design and joined The Gnomon Workshop, where he developed its Production Series, which included his own DVD set on digital urban environments.

A Growing Need

Creating CG environments, both urban and landscape, is quickly growing into a prominent specialty within the visual effects business as it relates to film, television and commercial work, of course. But the creation of digital urban environments is also an increasingly significant activity in non-entertainment fields such as architecture, urban planning and geographic information systems (GIS), and animators working in these fields can learn from the film industrys experience.

The architectural visualization field today is still in need of some cinematic, media-based grounding, says Hanson. It could be enriched by the cinematic qualities we work hard on in visual effects.

Architectural visualizations historically have been slow and somewhat labored, according to Hanson. Animators have even timed how fast people walk in order to accurately recreate the experience of walking through a new building. But all Americans have become accustomed to cinematic libraries, Hanson suggests, by watching films, television series and online productions, and expect to receive information that way. Therefore, those involved in architectural visualization would enrich their work by employing techniques developed for film vfx.

Conversely, experience gained through architectural visualization can add to film production as well. The thing I feel Ive brought to film is the sensitivity and architectural eye, Hanson adds. Theres a lack of that in film. For example, cityscapes in film often are created naively, Hanson believes, due to a lack of architectural training.

Todays studio backlot is digital. Directors want to maintain control by working within digitally manufactured environments. The images above are from Design Sets 3: Rendering and Compositing.

Todays studio backlot is digital. Directors want to maintain control by working within digitally manufactured environments. The images above are from Design Sets 3: Rendering and Compositing.

Although there is great crossover in the skills needed to create both entertainment and non-entertainment 3D urban environments, there are also key differences between the two. Each has a unique sensibility. In architectural visualization, its not necessarily the dystopian, decayed universe that you see in film, Hanson emphasizes. Its about built architecture, fresh off the factory floor, clean and gleaming. Film is more about gritty reality. There are also technical differences: the primary software used for digital environments in film is Maya, for instance, while animators working in architectural visualization typically use 3ds max.

While Hansons DVD series is Maya-based and targeted toward the entertainment industry, he believes it will greatly benefit architects and others in non-entertainment businesses. The principles are the same, and many of the concepts stressed in the DVDs, such as striving for an efficient workflow, apply to both. Those working in non-entertainment fields also can take advantage of the opportunity to learn how to capture the cinematic literacy that were all kind of attuned to as were receiving media to make their work more effective, Hanson explains.

Urban Environments in Film

Meanwhile, digital urban environments are growing on the film side as well, requiring a change in traditional mindsets that closely identify vfx with character animation. Vfx and CG have been fueled and driven by character animation from the very beginning, explains Hanson, crediting landmark films such as Jurassic Park with leading the way. Production pipelines were set up for character work. [Creating CG environments] wasnt a category of work back then.

With films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Spider-Man movies relying heavily on digital backgrounds, however, things have changed. Now backgrounds and environments play a huge role in all CG films, Hanson continues. In a sense theyre on an equal footing [with character animation], but the pipeline is not tooled for environments.

Hanson puts todays reliance on digital backgrounds in a historical context. Today, its like a return to the backlot that existed in the studios in the 1940s, he explains. Back then, directors used scenic painted backgrounds and sets in a soundstage-based environment so they could control every detail. Then, in the 1960s, directors began to go back out into the world. They wanted life as it is, instead of being constructed, says Hanson.

But now the pendulum has swung back, as directors once again desire to maintain control, this time by working within digitally manufactured environments. Films such as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow illustrate that trend. In the case of Sky Captain, any element that did not come into direct contact with an actor was created digitally to give the director control. Meanwhile, other films use CG to reinterpret photographic footage into a fantasy-based cities or landscapes, as in The Lord of the Rings, or to make spectacular effects look real by having them interact with a realistic-looking digital environment, as in The Day After Tomorrow or Spider-Man, both of which were set in cities that looked real but were almost entirely digital.

The growing need for digital environments has resulted in a period of great creativity in digital matte painting and related disciplines. Above is a shot from Design Sets 2: Lighting and Texturing.

The growing need for digital environments has resulted in a period of great creativity in digital matte painting and related disciplines. Above is a shot from Design Sets 2: Lighting and Texturing.

The growing need for digital environments has resulted in a period of great creativity in digital matte painting and related disciplines. Directors have to fabricate things entirely, Hanson says. Its an extremely rich time creatively. In addition, the freedom of camera movement these days is much greater than when designers relied on miniatures and mechanical rigs. Today the cameras have no presence or mass, so you can have exceedingly dynamic camera moves. As an example, Hanson cites the chase scene through Coruscant in Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones, made possible by new technology, compared to scenes in older films such as Blade Runner.

The growth in digital environments also has led to challenges as well as creative opportunities. Hanson believes that, while studios and vfx houses are working to overcome one challenge by bringing their production pipelines more in line with todays reality, some continue to underestimate the difficulty of creating digital environments. They think environmental designers can use simplistic, proven models to solve problems when, in fact, those designers face strategic decisions at every turn.

There also is a risk that designers and directors can get carried away by the technology and its potential. I like to compare visual effects today versus classic physical effects, says Hanson. With classic effects, filmmakers used their ingenuity to create the most direct solution to the problem. Today you can take an indirect path. Its easy to lose sight of the forest through the trees. Theres a loss of common sense sometimes, as youre led down a technical path.

DVDs for Working Designers

A common sense approach characterizes Hansons new video series, Digital Sets I, II and III: Urban Environments, as well as the other DVDs in Gnomons digital library. Im an artist and designer first and foremost, more than a programmer, Hanson says, noting that his DVD series features a survey of good, practical approaches to production. Its a compilation and consolidation of approaches Ive learned over the years. A big part of it is showing professional techniques. It teaches how to navigate through the technical and the artistic to create an image, with a minimum of stress.

The series offers a multimedia experience, with bullet points and explanations of terms and concepts, rather than a linear production showing the whole process from beginning to end. Its a series of vignettes applied to a digital set piece, Hanson explains. It distills the essence of the process.

The three-title series focuses on creating urban environments using Maya, but the lessons apply to all 3D software; Hanson reports that one LightWave user told him 90% of the content was applicable to any package, which was the intention. Similarly, while Hansons experience comes mostly from the world of film, the DVDs content applies to TV and commercial work as well. While the timelines and certain issues, such as the color space and some compositing details, are unique for film vs. commercial work and television, nearly all the tools are exactly the same.

The three DVDs, which include six-and-a-half hours of lecture, all told, are for the advancing intermediate digital artist. Some of the topics covered include architectural design principles, setting up a scene, modeling techniques using both NURBS and polygons, camera work from motion control to camera projection, global illumination and lighting principles, direct interior and exterior lighting techniques, digital set texturing and using procedural shaders to weather surfaces, rendering and compositing. Each disc uses a sample urban environment to highlight all steps. The focus is on Maya, but discussions bring in other software, such as Adobe Photoshop and Shake, where relevant.

Hanson wants to impart the professional techniques hes learned over the years in his DVD series. They feature a survey of good, common sense approaches to production.

Hanson wants to impart the professional techniques hes learned over the years in his DVD series. They feature a survey of good, common sense approaches to production.

Ive had in my mind the idea of doing instructional DVDs for a while, says Hanson, who has been teaching for about 10 years and has written a book, Maya 6 Killer Tips (New Riders Press, August 2004). The book is a collection of snippets on how to use Maya 6 more efficiently and effectively, a good format for most designers. Its very accessible, not weighty and ponderous, Hanson reports. Were all very tip-driven in the vfx world. DVDs have certain advantages over print, however, including being able to go deeper into the subject with more visual content and a richer multimedia experience.

Hansons next project for Gnomon is a three-DVD series on natural environments, one on digital terrain using digital elevation model (DEM) and spherical panoramic imaging, and two on natural landscapes. Hanson has recent experience on this topic: his last project was working for Digital Domain on Rob Cohens Stealth, which is scheduled for release July 29 by Columbia Pictures. In the film, which is about pilots in a secret military program, futuristic jets travel at Mach speeds through landscapes. Its a landmark film for digital backgrounds in terms of landscapes, Hanson reports. The viewer wont be able to tell its all effects.

Meanwhile, Hansons expansion of Gnomons digital library the Workshop has an analog series about art and manual techniques as well includes discs by professionals such as Alex Alvarez and Greg Downing, covering topics such as head sculpting techniques with Zbrush and panoramic imaging and photogrammetry using Realviz Stitcher and ImageModeler. They have been very Maya-centric, Hanson says about Gnomons past digital offerings. Were moving away from Maya and into a myriad of techniques.

Hanson points out that environment creation, whether natural or urban, realistic or fantastical, is a rewarding sector of vfx in which to work, allowing designers to exercise their artistic talent and eye. You get a lot of screen real estate for your effort, he says. It conveys a larger scale than even character animation can do.

Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).

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