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The VFX Pipeline of the Future

eyeon Founder Steve Roberts discusses the immense challenge of efficiently tracking, visualizing and managing data and metadata throughout the entire post-production/vfx pipeline.

Watchmen, with its all-CG Dr. Manhattan, contains complex design and vfx pipeline challenges. All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.  & © DC Comics.

A significant change is taking place in the film world as the use of visual effects increases dramatically. As we all know, it is not just the number of shots on a project; it is the complexity and scale of those masterpieces that are expanding rapidly. These changes say a lot about where we are heading as an industry.

Change Comes in Waves

If you look back through history, you see certain key films that have had a major impact, set a new style, and helped to revamp production as we know it. Once these became established, a new wave hit and things changed again.

A recent example, Sin City, was certainly a great landmark film in terms of design and visual effects. If we look back at the past 30 years, we can spot the films that made things happen, such as the original Star Wars, Alien and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In different ways, these films pushed the art of visual effects forward. We consequently realized that we could go further as storytellers.

Other waves followed, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Blade Runner in the early 1980s, the first Jurassic Park in the 1990s, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. They changed the way we tell stories, and will continue to do so for the filmmaking pipeline of the future.

Managing Complexity

Years ago, one artist did almost everything. He or she was the only person in front of the computer and controlling everything, right through to the final renders.

Now we're seeing those tasks broken down into ever finer specializations, with people doing rigging, others doing animation, some working on looks or surfacing, while even others focus on cloth, fur and so on.

This is especially true on large-scale films. Today, there are many more artists working on one project, and supervisors have to manage larger and larger groups of people, often in different locations. They have to keep communication flowing and the production wheels turning. For both large and small facilities, the biggest challenge now is turnaround time.

With the growth in the number and complexity of visual effects shots in filmmaking today, the challenge of efficiently tracking, visualizing and managing both data and metadata throughout the entire post-production/vfx pipeline is immense. What shots do you have? What's been approved? In what state is the project at this very moment? This was the thinking behind the development of our system at eyeon. Facilities needed ever more complex and comprehensive shot tracking and production management systems, compounded by shrinking budgets and schedules. This is already true today and will be more of an issue going forward.

You need a professional interface for that type of management. Generation is designed to be that front end -- a customizable system for supervising the whole post-production pipeline.

Sin City is a recent landmark film that offered comprehensive shot tracking and production management systems issues. Property of Dimension Films.

The Hardware of the Future

While film will continue to be part of the mix for a long time to come, digital cameras will continue to advance in leaps and bounds as well.

I think the technological development that will really change digital forever is solid-state hard drives. Consider the massive transfer speeds available today, and the price is coming down every day. Within a few years, they will be able to store and transfer at a much faster rate, which makes digital a lot more accessible for feature films.

This will impact workflows regardless of the acquisition technology used. The data, whether it comes from a scan or is shot digitally, is simply going to move faster.

In the process, we keep pushing hardware to its limits. The advent of 2K, 4K, perhaps even 6K workflows, coupled with the re-emergence of stereoscopic 3-D, is going to continue driving the technical specifications upward.

Since we introduced the 3D environment in Fusion, we have been pushing next-generation software to be entirely GPU-based. I believe that GPU-based renderers can do everything that software renderers can, with efficiencies that are orders of magnitude faster than software-based systems. Rather than thinking about a GPU renderer as having to emulate what a "real" renderer does, we will start to see the process differently. Something that took 40 hours to render before can be rendered in seconds with a GPU and controlled from the compositing application -- all in a single step.

Eventually, all of this hardware, with the GPUs as cores, is going to drift into the CPU. We will then be able to take real advantage of them in the hybrid-type CPU of the future. It may be a few years away but it will come.

It Still Comes Down to the Artists

The burnout rate among artists is already high, thanks to a fast-paced, high-pressure lifestyle, which often involves moving from facility to facility, or even from country to country, as projects come up.

Visual effects companies often get the short end of the stick when production budgets and time frames are set. The simple storyboards a facility originally quotes evolve into monstrous shots. The facilities work on fixed prices, and now they have to deliver on time. It is usually the artists who pay, working late nights and weekends. This can be a pretty rough life at times.

We need a constant supply of new artists coming into the system, although new artists may not always understand the history of their industry. They may know the tools that are available today but not what was done in the past, or how these tools came to be. As a result, new artists need to learn the nuances and tricks used to solve different problems.

For the visual effects company of the future, keeping highly skilled and experienced visual effects artists will be paramount. As the technology they use continues to advance, keeping them trained and up-to-date will be a high priority.

This was the thinking behind our new SWAT (SoftWare Artist Training) program: keeping both new and seasoned artists up-to-speed on the latest versions of our software. Of course, we are not the only manufacturer to offer training but, with the emergence of subscription-based licensing models for software that provide regular software updates, with new features and tools right to the artist's desktop, access to comprehensive training resources is going to play a key role in keeping facilities on the cutting edge.

Parallel to this is the growing impact of online artist communities, as the exchange of information is a very important part of our industry's effective production roadmap.

So what’s the implication for the future? People go from junior artists to technical director very quickly, and they don’t have the experience of the past, where problems had to be solved much more simply. The technology of the whole movie-making process is moving forward at an astonishing rate, and so the amount of knowledge people need to be a really good and efficient artist is increasing. The difficulty is that the industry is very fast-paced and high pressure.

Steve Roberts is founder and CEO of eyeon Software Inc. Starting out as a vfx artist himself in the 1980s, Roberts has been part of the VFX revolution in filmmaking, especially in his role as the developer of Fusion, an award -winning compositing application that has been used on thousands of films since its formal introduction in the early 1990s.