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Creating New Worlds: The Tools Behind CG Environments

Mary Ann Skweres looks into the new tools that are empowering artists to create more lavish and realistic CG worlds.

Ever expanding technology is helping artists bring worlds like the wintry wonderland in The Polar Express to life. © 2004 by Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.

Ever expanding technology is helping artists bring worlds like the wintry wonderland in The Polar Express to life. © 2004 by Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.

The power to create entire worlds is now in the hands of the artist. Specialized software, with applications that include not only the film industry, but also television, advertising, gaming, scientific simulations and architecture, has attained the ability to extend, and even create from scratch, photoreal environments complete with architecture, organic growth and atmospherics.

In their groundbreaking achievement creating a total CG environment on Robert Zemeckis The Polar Express Sony Pictures Imageworks was helped by Maxons Cinema 4D, one of the primary tools used to create digital worlds. The digital environment tools were used to create the sets: the town, the outdoor atmospheres, the train going up the hill and Santas village. Sony is also breaking into full-length feature animation next fall with Open Season, using Maxons Body Paint 3D in the process. Meanwhile, Maxon tools were instrumental in Sony's creation of the CG White Witchs castle in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Thus, Maxon has extended their tools to specifically make digital environments. Paul Babb, president/ceo of Maxon Computer Inc., comments, We have been working in cooperation with Sony Imageworks to create some great tools for quickly and easily creating digital environments. We are going to be releasing those tools to a larger audience after the New Year. The program allows an artist who has done a digital matte painting or a rendering for a director, to take that image and project it across geometry, then quickly and easily utilize that as a starting point to create full environments. The technique is called camera mapping. Most 3D packages have had some sort of camera mapping technology for quite some time. Weve taken it to the next level. It is much more artist oriented as opposed to technician oriented.

Known for ease of use, quality and stability, the program is available at three different price breaks, allowing artists to break into 3D starting with the tools that they want. They can build onto their program as the need for additional tools increases. Babb explains, You might work with a 3D program for years and never touch particles or global illumination, so a lot of these things are separated out. Character animation is a very specific and complex subject, so that is offered as a separate module, because a broadcast artist who is doing flying logos and text may never choose to do character work.

Eight stand-alone modules provide tools for various applications. A sampling of these include:

  • Body Paint 3D is a paint program that is not just used for painting colored textures, but can be used to paint things such as reflections, transparency and bumps in real time. Painting can also be done on multiple channels at the same time with one brush stroke.

  • Advanced Renderer now includes Ambient Occlusion, a feature that lets you render realistic shadows without active radiosity, saving on render time. Another part of the module, SKY, lets the artist create breathtaking atmospherics - realistic skies, 2D and 3D volumetric clouds. Fifty atmospheric presets quickly achieve impressive results when creating outside environments. Typing in longitude, latitude, time of year and time of day will accurately show where the sun is and what the location will look like under those conditions. This feature can also be animated.

  • The reworked Lighting System offers improved operation, many new settings and rendering speeds up to four times faster than before. Area lights and area shadow can now be assigned any shape and color gradient, offering many new possibilities.

Working closely with the artists, Maxon actively seeks ways to make the tools more accessible so they can accomplish in the way that they are typically used to working. The program is compatible with commonly used tools, even those made by competitors. Plug-ins are offered for other 3D packages: Max, Maya, SOFTIMAGE| XSI and LightWave. In addition, broadcast motion graphics can render straight out to a project file in After FX, Final Cut Pro and Photoshop.

Paul Babb, president/ceo of Maxon Computer Inc.

Paul Babb, president/ceo of Maxon Computer Inc.

Babb concludes, My personal philosophy is that were another paint brush. You cant think that an artist is going to use just your paintbrush. We anticipate people are going to use other products because 3D packages all have their strengths and weaknesses. There are things that we do extremely well, but there are some things that other packages do better than we do.

Shai Hinitz, senior product manager at Alias for Maya and MotionBuilder, says, When youre talking about 3D environments, you [have] to build very large amounts of data. Whether its a city scene, a nature scene or a space scene, its typically a lot of stuff varying in complexity and quality. Sometimes its off in the background so you dont want to waste too much effort to make it look great, because no one will see it up close. On the counter side, sometimes its really close so you have to spend time to create the level of detail thats required for pulling off the shot.

Maya has a very comprehensive set of polygonal modeling and mapping tools as well as a whole gamut of texturing, lighting, shading and other tools needed to create different levels of detail. New polygon modeling functionality enhances modeling productivity, providing greater control over form. New UV tools makes texturing faster and easier. New and enhanced tools are also available for scene optimization without loss of detail, a particularly valuable tool for game developers.

The long-standing architecture of Maya allows the creation of networks that contribute different elements of the final look. The program is flexible and powerful in creating very convincing and lifelike looks. The advanced rendering techniques available in Maya, including the built-in renderer, mental ray for Maya, allow the user to hook-up their own or third-party rendering technology. Image- based lighting and high dynamic range imagery have become buzzwords, but they were leading edge technology when they came out with Maya. Those things allow even more convincing and realistic images because they take advantage of sampling the real environment and are used as part of the rendering of the CG environment.


The surreal landscapes of The Matrix films benefited from the advancing technology that Maya delvers. © 2003 Warner Bros. Ent. U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda. © 2003 Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Ltd all other territories (all rights reserved used by permission), unless otherwise noted.

The photoreal CG environment of the subway in The Matrix was achieved by sampling the real subway environment and bringing that into the CG world, recalls Hinitz. The information from the sample was used for the lighting, the shading and the texturing to make the scene that much more convincing. Thats one of the first famous examples, but that continues on today in many of the productions that we see. Maya is in the forefront of that kind of innovation.

One of Mayas unique capabilities, not available elsewhere, is in the area of paint effects. For building convincing CG environments, the program has the ability to add dynamic details such as moving bits of fauna or organic material, a river bed with pebbles, a cityscape skyline, even lights on a marquee or ship, all with a pressure sensitive brush stroke.

Maya not only has the tools to create CG environments, but also the tools to handle the complexity of those environments. The file referencing and scene segmentation tools can manage the enormous amount of data. That data can be grouped and hidden or called up when needed. If you have a cityscape made up of 10 blocks, you can create one block and then repeat it, maybe rotate it here and there so it doesnt look exactly the same, but the amount of data youre carrying is 1/10th in that case. Thats one benefit, explains Hinitz. The other benefit is if you dont want all 10 blocks around all the time because youre focusing on a scene on one corner, the other nine can be unloaded from the scene. However, they are still referenced in. The scene knows that they exist, but the system is not having to manage the complexity of the full amount of data.

Hinitz sums up the guiding principles behind Maya: Give people an enormous amount of power, but also give them an enormous amount of flexibility to customize and create for their specific project.

Although the main focus of Avids SOFTIMAGE|XSI v.5.0 is character production and animation, a character leaves a footprint in the sand. Using the available tools, full CG environments were created for the animated Barnyard and Happy Feet features.


In fact, in developing lush 3D environments for Barnyard (a fall 2006 release from Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon Movies), the R&D teams relied on the powerful architecture of XSI as a backbone to further such invaluable tools as geometry instancing, subdivision surfaces, hair and procedural dynamics. The scale of the production and the vast CG environments required to fulfill director Steve Oedekerks vision have necessitated a large amount of render power. Thus, O Ent. has partnered with Sun Microsystems to develop arguably the largest 64-bit Linux renderfarm to date for an animated indie feature, utilizing more than 1,200 Opteron processors to harness both XSI and mental ray.

Architecture related set-extensions, structures and details were created for projects such as Sin City, and the TV series Lost. In addition, many of the vfx in Sin City and Fantastic Four were created using XSI.

XSI is also used by the gaming industry for 3D games. Creating environments for games can be more complex than the live-action vfx. In films, specific shots are created, but in games the whole environment has to be available, since the action within a game occurs in realtime and is dependent upon each individual playing.

Nevertheless, the same tools can be used for either application. These include architectural/geometric tools that can form a cityscape where each element is constructed alone and placed; organic tools for creating natural environments that use techniques similar to making animation and modeling tools.

There is very good interoperability between Avid and Softimage. The program can render directly to the Avid media so there is no importing process, you just open up the rendered sequences. Also, because many artists have Maya skills, to get rid of any potential barriers in their using the program, XSI is set-up to work a bit more like Maya. Gareth Morgan, senior product manager of Softimage Co. admits there was a conscious decision to use the basic muscle memory that a Maya animator has. It makes life much less painful. This makes it easier for artists to go back and forth between the two programs, allowing the best applications from either program to be used when necessary.

Speed and reliability in rendering is another important feature. Co-developed with mental images, mental ray v.3.4, the built-in render engine, is 10 times more memory efficient, renders files 10 times smaller and up to five times faster. Once a project is loaded into memory, it will render without crashing.

Meanwhile, RealViz has two main products that are used by vfx artists for the creation of CG environments:

  • Stitcher is a professional-level application for the creation of 3D environments/backdrops, reflection maps and textures for film and television, as well as for high-resolution environments and spherical maps for architecture, engineering & CAD projects. It also enables the creation of wide-angle panoramas.

  • ImageModeler is used for the modeling of scenes or buildings from photographs. Vfx artists can construct accurate 3D models with highly realistic textures. It is used for architectural purposes, such as calculations and 3D surveys, 3D virtual visits and photorealistic backdrops, human modeling, industrial design, animation and visual effects. Three-dimensional models and textures created in ImageModeler can be exported to a wide range of other 3D packages, including 3ds Max, LightWave 3D, Maya, SOFTIMAGE|XSI and Macromedia Shockwave 3D for additional editing and modeling work.
The RealViz team brings Stitcher and ImageModeler to the artists of the world. Courtesy of RealViz.

The RealViz team brings Stitcher and ImageModeler to the artists of the world. Courtesy of RealViz.

&idLuc Robert, RealViz cto says, The main benefit of our software products is a marked increase in productivity. Version 5 of Stitcher offers automatic stitching for the very first time, which really takes the headache out of working your way through hundreds of shots a real lifesaver when youre on a tight time schedule.

Recent films where Stitcher/ImageModeler were used to create CG environments include: Bewitched, Van Helsing, I-Spy, 28 Days Later, Minority Report, Tomb Raider and Captain Corellis Mandolin.

A range of automatic tracking products enable the seamless integration of CG elements into live-action footage. These include MatchMover Pro 4, MMTrack for Autodesk 3ds Max and MMTrack for Maya. The MMTrack plug-in products were launched this year at Siggraph in LA. All of the RealViz tracking products are now powered by SMART Scalable Matching Architecture for Tracking a powerful automatic tracking kernel that helps users gain productivity and tackle even the most difficult matchmoves.

RealViz tracking technology has been used to create visual effects in many recent major movies, including: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Aeon Flux, Lord of War, Fantastic Four, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sin City, Kung Fu Hustle, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Millions, The Day After Tomorrow and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Liz Tjostolvsen, RealViz manager of press relations, explains the company philosophy: Our products enable 2D and 3D artists of all levels, to tackle complex digital imaging projects as simply and as cost-effectively as possible, whilst still offering them a world-class level of technology. Our aim is to democratize image-processing techniques and to help companies and individuals maximize their creative potential through the use of our tools. All of our products are built not only on best of breed technology, but also as a direct response to our users out in the field.

These are but a sampling of some of the most common tools used to create CG environments. But, as many industry insiders have suggested over and over again: The most important thing is not the tool, but what is created using the tool.

Mary Ann Skweres is a filmmaker and freelance writer. She has worked extensively in feature film and documentary post-production with credits as a picture editor and visual effects assistant. She is a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.