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The Digital Eye: VFX — What’s Coming Next?

Peter Plantec pontificates on the future of vfx and where todays hot trends are headed, so plug-in and read on.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

I often sit in my studio just trying to visualize vfx. My brain works in animated color, so I can often see really cool effects in my mind that I havent seen on the screen yet. A lot of us are like that. The interesting thing is that Ive been doing this kind of visualization for more than a decade-and-a-half, and the images just keep getting more sophisticated. At first it might seem my skill is maturing, but, in reality, I think its because external inspiration available to me gets more intense every year. What inspires me? Its the technology. There are thousands of brilliant people synergistically combining ideas, algorithms and interfaces, into tools for creating animated images images that arise from the synergy of creative mind and machine.

A steady flow of new versions of Houdini, 3ds max, Maya or LightWave, Animation Master and even the marvelously unorthodox ZBrush fuel the visions. The depth of each new version is daunting, but it opens new doors and new visual possibilities. Perhaps even more important is the fact that these tools have wisely started with or evolved toward plug-in architecture.

Plug-ins are good business. Sure theyre generally very expensive, but then theyre not mass-produced like the original application. No matter what they cost, if you need them, theyre going to save you a ton of time and money. The advent of plug-in architecture has sprouted an entire cottage industry of small companies working to build tools for new visions.

One of my favorite plug-in developers is Ivan DeWolf of Martian Labs and father of Hydrous Tools, a suite of cutting-edge liquid surface simulation tools for Houdini. Hes been able to live in the gorgeous Crested Butte Colorado for sometime. He told me: This is a good gig, I get to live and work where I want to well to a degree. Im back in Hollywood for convenience sake, but I love the work. Its intense and I make a living at it. I make my own hours and I get to be both creative and technical. When I asked him to look into the future for me and prognosticate, he said: A lot of people seem to think that digital visual fx have hit a saturation point and that theyre going to fade away. Thats not true. Were in a phase of refining things that we know how to do right now. Were just getting much better at it. I asked Ivan to be more specific. Were in a trendy period right now. I think well cycle through different vfx trends; for example, at the moment, hot trends seem to be fluid dynamics and crowd animation. Youve seen some pretty amazing things in movies like Lord of the Rings and The Day After Tomorrow. I think trends will last a few years and then gradually give way to the next trend. I agree with Ivan, I see new trends developing but dont see the current trends fading away at all. I just see them becoming more transparent on screen.

To get a totally different perspective, I called Stefan Trojanski, head of Scanline Prods. in Munich, one of the worlds most remarkable small digital effects houses. In my opinion, they rival the very best that America can produce and they do it with fewer people and with much tighter budget constraints. I met Stefan last year at Stuttgarts fmx conference. As an aside, you should check out fmx April 27-30. The world of vfx is much bigger than we often realize and amazing things are being done abroad. Anyway, I interviewed Stefan for an upcoming article on realtimes impact on vfx, but some of what he had to say fits here as well: We work very hard to stay on the cutting edge of digital film effects mostly effects that you dont see. They come as reality. Scanline has a strong in-house [R&D] department that is continuously developing all kinds of proprietary particle, fluid and hydrofluid dynamics software. Our crowd simulation software is extremely sophisticated with thousands of individually animated elements. I see these as important trends right now. Also, I think we will see more 100% rule-based simulations like Check-in to Disaster. (Its a big download but worth it.) I visited Scanline, and, in my opinion, their in-house software is astonishing. Despite their different perspectives, Trojanski and DeWolf gave me very similar outlooks for the immediate future. So integrating what many people have suggested and putting in my own two cents, heres what I personally see as major trends over the next few years.

On the Face of It

Son of the Mask is here, but think back to the original Mask with Jim Carrey. Youll recall that Jim used digital makeup tracked to his face. Remember that enormous tongue and those eyes? Then there were the talking animals from Rhythm & Hues in Babe. We see entirely too many poorly done talking dogs and cats hawking chow today. Every good idea in vfx gets beaten to death remember the days of morphing?

OK, back on track with Son of the Mask, we really see a serious blending of live actors and virtual human actors. I think were going to see more of this kind of thing. Its a driving technology that stimulates Hollywoods cyclically moribund/brilliant imagination pool. The ability to do things with vfx often leads to a story premise and then a screenwriter is brought in. We can change real people into digital people, so we need a killer story based on that ability and we want it Tuesday next. And, bam, we have a blockbuster.

I also predict were going to have a more subtle, digital cosmetics industry growing up around us. With sophisticated face tracking, amazing reality can be accomplished. For example, you could easily mistake for archival footage, what is actually digital makeup seamlessly integrated into the Discovery Channels Virtual History: The Secret Plot to Kill Hitler. On a tight budget, The Moving Picture Co. created super accurate digital masks of Hitler, Roosevelt and Churchill. Then Eyetronics used sophisticated face tracking technology incorporating some 30,000 moving points to bring the masks alive. MPC then used these hyper-realistic historical faces to create fake archive film. In close-ups, they tracked to the historic faces of live actors. The result is virtual makeup that is nearly indistinguishable from reality and a new way of bringing history alive was launched.

Taking it a step further, I picture the rise of boutique companies specializing in methodologies that will keep expensive lead actors out of the 4:55 am makeup call for five hours of application. The new tools will allow any actor to look like anyone. Tom Hanks might dress up like Lincoln and play him with an exact 3D replica of Lincolns face attached. Were already seeing this sort of thing, as in a short demo clip by Salah E. Djimbanaou from the Comoro Islands. Its worth a quick look. Clearly, technology is also seeping into all the cracks and enabling people everywhere to show their stuff. As a small side-note, the Comoros are north of Madagascar and were hard hit by the tsunami. Fortunately, Salah was here in the U.S. in Georgia at the time. With a growing number of the worlds population having access to technology, were developing an almost endless supply of new creative talent contributing ideas and competing for jobs.

On the one hand, we have real-humans wearing animated makeup, while on the other hand 3D-animated humans are moving like real-humans through the ever-expanding magic of MoCap. Properly exploited MoCap now captures more than moving dots. The super high-resolution techniques can capture human personality. As the technology continues to improve, I see the hottest box office faces being immortalized in vast archives of editable face and voice captures that can be adapted for all occasions. With photoreal- animated characters, you can let your imagination run as to the possibilities. Through the magic of vfx, hot celebrities will star in a picture and never have to step on set. In fact, Brad Pitt might be able to leave a legacy that will have him staring in a future form of 3D visual entertainment 50 years after hes poking up daisies. Paradoxically, these developments will be taking a little bit of life out of some entertainment at the same time that its adding vibrant life elsewhere.

The God Machines of Vfx

The other thing I see exploding in the near future is smart animated vfx. Sequences that animate themselves like Check-in to Disaster above. CEBAS has a smart particle system called ThinkingParticles 2 available as a plug-in for 3ds max. This system allows the animator to build rule-based particle systems that are not necessarily tied to time-based constraints. While researching this column, I discovered that our friend Trojanski was involved in the CEBAS plug development. This procedural approach allows you to build an entire complex particle-based sequence that is entirely self-animated. I believe that well be seeing rule-based physics mediated sequences becoming commonplace if were smart enough to keep animation artistry out front.

Peter Plantec.

As an extension of this approach, well see such sequences created with new kinds of controls. For example, imagine a vfx scene taking place in realtime where the animator has hardware control over the timing and location of events. Lets say there is a battlefield sequence already shot in live action. On playback, the director and vfx supervisor can point with a laser mouse and click where and when they want an explosion or a building to collapse. Theyll probably have a set of midi dials and switches to control the look of each explosion. Its almost like having a vfx paint set. I believe all this technology will encourage a bonding between vfx whizzes and directors. We already see guys like Alex Proyas, Robert Zemeckis and Roland Emerich becoming more intimate with their digital teams. Digital vfx supervisors have been, and will continue to become a more important part of the team. Perhaps theyll become so powerful theyll be able to get the vfx credits moved ahead of the portapotty company.

Sadly, I suspect that digital teams will be replacing much of the traditional film crew. In a decade, well all be remembering fondly when sets, practical vfx, makeup and wardrobe were all part of filmmaking. We will still see vestiges of these crafts, but their glory days may already have passed as digital environments, costumes and makeup join spectacular digital vfx. The final product will be awesome, but much of the fun of movie making will have passed in to the realm of nostalgia like old radio shows and I Love Lucy.

Peter Plantec is a best-selling author, animator and virtual human designer. He wrote The Caligari trueSpace2 Bible, the first 3D animation book specifically written for artists. He lives in the high country near Aspen, Colorado. Peters latest book, Virtual Humans, is a five star selection at Amazon after many reviews. You can visit his personal website.