Hello again! Another year, and another SIGGRAPH is here. This is my first time in the Anaheim Convention Center, which is somewhat exciting, as I've always wondered about the inside of the Arena building since I was a child coming to Disneyland long ago.
The venue is quite nice, a bit smaller than LA, but clean and easier to navigate. I was finally able to make it here, as work obligations took priority at the beginning. After a two-hour, heavy-traffic drive from home, I arrived to begin my day.
My first visit was to the "Production Session for Oz, The Great And Powerful," presented by some of my ex-colleagues from Sony. The main topics they covered were about the digital environments, VFX, animation, and character work. The presentation was well done, and they had some nice shots from on-set in Michigan, which definitely helped the talk. Some of the more interesting topics included shots which had the entire set, including the ground contact, replaced entirely (which seems more common these days), but that these plates had to subsequently be scaled down in frame to emulate a much wider lens, and still hook up properly with the extensions - a more cumbersome way to work for sure, but well done to say the least.
One thing that always sticks out in my head is the extra steps they are usually able to take on the set for these large films, such as LIDAR scans of the set. Not only having access to the equipment (or the budget to outsource it), but the time to run the scans and the cooperation of the production crew in acquiring them is a huge benefit. As someone who has spent the past six years almost exclusively on commercial production, these luxuries are usually impractical, both time- and money-wise. I'm always forced to solve these problems a separate, often less-accurate way.
As with any other technology in this business, I'm anxiously awaiting the day when I can purchase a LIDAR scanner for 10 percent the current price (there's a $50K model on the expo floor being demoed), and that runs faster than the five to ten minutes it takes currently. On a commercial production, you're lucky if you can get the crew to pause for :30 for you to manually shoot an HDR as fast as you can, and heaven forbid anyone clears the set: just standing still in one place is about as much as you can hope for.
After the environment portion, the discussion shifted to the FX department, responsible for stormy skies, snow, wind, water, fireworks, explosions, crowds, destruction, rainbows, bubbles, etc. The talk finished up on the character animation, and the part I enjoyed the most was their use of what they termed a "puppet cam" - basically a hand-held boom with a monitor and video camera on the end. The other end of the set-up was a second monitor and video camera in a trailer, where the voice talent sat. This enabled the actor on-set to verbally interact with the non-existent CG character in a method far better than a ball on a stick, allowing them to see each other and react to their facial cues and such. A great idea if you ask me.
After this, I visited the exhibit floor for a bit. As seems to be the trend, it was smaller than the previous year. I'm not sure if this is due to the location, the rising costs associated with having a booth, or both, but in either case, it's unfortunate. Nevertheless, a few things stuck out. For one, there were less motion-capture booths than before, and of the few I saw, one opted to get rid of the girl in a skintight suit and went for a skater on a mini-pipe enclosed by a net to stop an errant skateboard from whacking some unsuspecting visitor.
Having skated myself when I was a teenager, I couldn't help but feel a bit bad for the guy in his ever-so-revealing suit. Oddly enough, I happened to walk by at the exact moment he munched it hard, causing a large group of people to react in shock at the loud noise. I half expected the cloud of bees to show up and form the shape of a needle and yell "Skate Or Die" at him, but alas, that didn't happen. I would be curious if they could track the motion of each bee in the swarm though... that would be impressive! But I digress.
There were a few 3D scanner companies and services showing, but not as many as I would've liked to have seen. Of the two big ones, StrataSys and 3DSystems, only the former was present. It doesn't seem like the prices have come down drastically on the machines, which is a bit unfortunate. There were definitely less scanning systems, and as far as I could tell, only a couple glasses-free 3D displays (which was nice for a change). One company was there showing their new fluid simulator, Flux, which I intend to have a deeper look at. Overall, I would say there wasn't anything in particular on the floor that really stood out as new and groundbreaking this year.
My next stop was the "Man Of Steel Production Session," held in the very cool Arena (which was smaller inside than I had expected). There seems to be a greater push this year in the sessions to really pound home how they don't want the attendees recording the sessions through any form. There are now volunteers pacing up and down the aisles trying to enforce this as well. To be honest, anything more than a simple mention of it is distracting, and I found the people walking around during the talks to be slightly annoying as well. In many ways, it reminded me very much of my visit seven years ago to the Sistine Chapel. The entire time in the main room, while everyone stands shoulder to shoulder in an effort to view the indescribable beauty, you are bombarded with people half-yelling "no photos." They used to use the claim that the flash would ruin the paint, but it sure seems the reality is that they just want to sell you the pictures THEY have taken instead. That seemed oddly similar to what was going on here, and considering some clown will likely record the thing anyway despite the rules, it just seemed like more of an annoyance to have nearly 10 minutes of the "due diligence" speech. Anyway, on to the presentation.
Five VFX studios were represented, including Weta, Scanline, LookFX, MPC, and Double Negative. Now personally, I haven't seen the film. In fact, I rarely see movies anymore simply because my current schedule and other factors make it difficult at best. However, looking at the footage each company showed, to be blunt, the work looked absolutely fantastic. The extensive use of digital doubles was close to flawless in what I saw, and the sheer volume of set work, building destruction, volumetric FX, and such really looked great. It was interesting to note that multiple shops are using Esri CityEngine for building creation, adding their own custom functionality to it where needed. I remember doing my own city builder development nearly 10 years ago in anticipation of some work for the last Superman movie, but this tool seems to be a great solution for what used to be a difficult problem.
The fact that there's a commercial solution out there now that is extensible and pretty full featured really solves this problem in a big way. Weta's work on the liquid geo display sequence was very inspiring and well done, and MPC's Enviro-Cam solution, where they used a 5D to capture HDR style panoramas, only with a single exposure, but using 74 pictures to stitch together into a 55K image instead of a 7-8K image you would get with just three shots. Again using LIDAR to build a virtual set, these environment spheres were then projected onto that geometry, giving you a relatively photorealistic set (angle limited of course).
I actually wrote about a similar technique last SIGGRAPH, used in a similar way but with actual HDRs, so you could light the scene off this geometry as well. It's a bit of a time consuming process to build, and can be done either using off-the-shelf software designed for this, or using projections in a package like Nuke and then re-exported back out into Maya or whatnot.
At some point as time permits, I'd like to play around with this same technique, but using the actual images as an input to photogrammetry to bypass the need to scan the set. If I could set up a pipeline to do this task on a commercial schedule and budget, that would be absolutely fantastic.
In all, it was a good day at the show, and I had a chance to catch up with a few old friends for a bit and actually have a meaningful (non-whiny) discussion about the state of the industry and some well thought out potential solutions. I'm hoping to be able to attend the talk on Thursday about this subject, and possibly shed a little bit of light on one area that I think is worth talking about. In the meantime, please feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com for questions, comments, or random thoughts about any of this you may want to talk about. And now, time to get some sleep and get ready for another day at the show!
David Blumenfeld is CG Supervisor at Brickyard VFX (www.brickyardvfx.com) in Los Angeles. The studio also has a location in Boston.