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The Digital Eye: Picking the Right Technique

Jenny Fulle, evp of production and executive producer for Sony Pictures Imageworks, takes on the Digital Eye column this month, focusing her look at picking the right technique.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

The summer showcases of visual effects from the movies in current release to the dazzling array we see at SIGGRAPH and the recent Comic-Con reveal just how far we have advanced the state of the art. When the creative palette figuratively has every color in the rainbow, choosing the right colors and blending them accordingly through the optimal balance of artistry and technique produces the masterful imagery we bring to the screen.

I cannot think of a time in the history of visual effects when we have had more options to produce the exact images envisioned in the creative process. The challenge for producers and artists today is how to achieve that work in the most skillful and efficient manner. How and why we choose techniques and what impact these choices have on production is the topic of this months Digital Eye.

When we first approach a project, filmmakers either have a concrete idea about how they want to accomplish the work or they look to us to make appropriate recommendations. In most cases, we team a visual effects supervisor with a visual effects producer to breakdown a script or the storyboards that have been provided to us to bid. In todays complex environment, the hundreds of shots that can comprise a movie may incorporate an enormous variety of techniques and require a great diversity of talent and skills to accomplish. Ultimately, we match the vision with the budget. Part of our job is to scale creative ways to bring a filmmakers vision to the screen within the parameters established by budget and schedule.

Broadly speaking, there are three principle techniques: visual effects for live-action production, performance capture animation and all-CG production. At Imageworks, we encompass all three in our pipeline and talent base. The image or vision that a filmmaker has for his project will largely drive the choice of technique.

For instance, Bob Zemekis was very clear when we started to develop The Polar Express that he wanted to faithfully translate the look of the original storybook to the screen and, at the same time, capture the spontaneity and every nuance of live-action filmmaking. To achieve this we conceptualize a new approach, resulting in our Imagemotion technique that we are now advancing with Monster House.

What weve thought of over the years as traditional visual effects is now really an amalgamation of techniques and styles. As the state of the art advances, the more interesting our work becomes. The level of realism that we can achieve in the live-action environment continues at a stunning ascent in quality. Meanwhile, many of the techniques from the live-action realm can be applied in the CG environment. When I look at the Spider-Man movies, there are entire sequences that are entirely CG not a single pixel was shot live. Yet no one would mistake that film as a CG movie. Similarly, when you look at all-CG animated features, the levels of detail add dynamic dimensions to the visual experience. The Incredibles is a great example. The island sequences are notable for the quality realized in the environments and the stunning pace of the action.

On a film like Spider-Man we needed to make some fundamental decisions based on the action and the characters. For instance, when we chose to do a digital city, we did so because the demands of the action dictated an expansive environment through which Spider-Man could fly. A critical element of the directors vision was the idea that the audience would be able to fly through the city with Spider-Man. The creation of a digital environment gave Sam Rami complete control over the camera movement in the urban environment.

Similar factors went into the decision to use keyframe animation to animate the Spider-Man character. While motion capture could have been applied, the resulting data set would have been based on human motion. But Spider-Man moves in superhuman ways, so it made sense to apply the talent and imagination of the animation team to inform the physicality of the character.

In the hybrid environment that visual effects is today, the all-CG feature is an exciting frontier. Animation takes you beyond live action and this is really the key. It enables stories to be told and characters to be created that could not be otherwise. And if they could be otherwise created, in live action for instance, then that would be a reason not to animate. But to go beyond that live-action boundary, animation presents worlds of possibilities.

Once we determine the technique that well use and often times it is multiple techniques within any given project we create a methodology and then lay in a schedule and the right people to get the job done. Increasingly, were finding this cross-discipline approach to be extremely stimulating. Artists find themselves challenged in new and interesting ways. The opportunity to break new ground presents itself to varying degrees in most every project. The talent that we tap to work on any given project depends on where we intend to push the envelope. For Spider-Man it was our work with digital humans and digital environments. With Polar and Monster House, the teams advanced performance capture and all-CG production. The application of Imagemotion is opening the door to all-CG production to individuals who have historically worked in live action or digital effects.

Working across disciplines adds dimension to both the talent and the techniques. The result, over time, is an increasingly well-rounded talent base. Were also seeing increasingly fluid integration between CG and live action as well as increased efficiency. The line between what can be conceived and what can be created is pretty much erased and, more and more, we can accomplish this with a visual verisimilitude that only a short while ago would have been impossible.

What we have effectively done at Imageworks is create three distinct yet complementary production pipelines within the corridors of the company. An artist, for instance, who has been instrumental in the advancement of our digital fur, cloth and feathers in live-action films, can now apply that knowledge and experience in the CG environments of Imagemotion or animated features. Likewise, we have animation talent that is equally adept in both the live action and all-CG arenas. From a creative standpoint, this is an extraordinarily rich and stimulating environment because ideas from across the spectrum can be viewed in the context of different productions. Of equal benefit, technology can effectively be deployed to best serve the technique and production design of any given project. From Monster House to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to Open Season and beyond, were seeing a vibrant creative exchange.

With these innovations, we create new jobs, such as the role of integrators on our performance capture work, and were creating new career pathways for individuals to advance their abilities.

So in this world where we can do just about anything, there is a need to maintain some perspective. As hard as many of us work to achieve the perfect image, the reality in visual effects, as in life itself, is that it is all a work in progress. There is no such thing as perfection. Everything can always be better. It becomes a question of balance. A shot is considered to be final when it serves the demand of the story. Ideally, then, your choice of technique begins this process. The selection of why and how you chose to create an image sets the stage for how it will ultimately appear on screen. You invest in your creative team to be ever mindful of the big picture. Knowing when and how to push the envelope further or simply establish that we are right where we are is a big part of what we do today. It is really no different from any other aspect of the filmmaking process. There are scenes in a screenplay around which the entire story revolves. And there are others, expository, designed to move the story along. In every case, the work we do must keep the viewer in the story and with the characters. Ironically, we are in a business where everything we do is right before your eyes, but our hope is often that what we do fits so well that you will never notice.

Jenny Fulle.

Jenny Fulle.

Every picture tells a story. Fundamentally, we are in the business of creating imagery that supports storytelling. Our choice of technique today enables an enormous range of stories to be told and the choice of technique also determines the shading, texture and substance of the experience from both the audiences perspective as well as the eyes and minds of the creators.

Jenny Fulle, evp of production and executive producer for Sony Pictures Imageworks, joined the company in 1997. Fulle served as executive producer on the Academy Award-winning film Spider-Man 2, Big Fish, Bad Boys II, The Haunted Mansion, Stuart Little 2, the Academy Award and BAFTA nominated Spider-Man, as well as The ChubbChubbs, Imageworks first animated short film and the Oscar winner for Best Animated Short Film in 2002.

Currently, Fulle is in production on the live-action feature films The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, Zathura, Ghost Rider and Spider-Man 3. Additionally, she is in production on the first two fully animated CG feature films from Sony Pictures Animation, Open Season and Surfs Up.