NORTH HOLLYWOOD — NewTek attracted hundreds of artists, directors, actors and producers to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Leonard H. Goldenson Theater in North Hollywood last week for a special evening in celebration of Emmy Award-winning artists, supervisors, designers, actors and producers in the television industry.
NewTek’s free industry event included an informative panel of renowned industry artists, special guests and entertainers, eye-catching computer graphics and visual effects reels, and a glimpse of features new to NewTek’s LightWave Version 11. LightWave enjoys a long legacy empowering artists to produce Academy Award-winning film and television projects.
The special event opened with a look back at Emmy Award-winning LightWave artistry. Actress Jeri Ryan (pictured below), perhaps best known for her role as Seven of Nine in the sci-fi series Star Trek: Voyager, presented a reel of award-winning imagery to the audience of more than 500. The visual timeline boasted scenes from Dune, Firefly, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise, Children of Dune, Babylon 5, Lost, Battlestar Galactica and other award-winning projects.
The VFX Minds panel provided insight from industry legends and newcomers, including: Ron Thornton, the “godfather” of contemporary television VFX who has contributed VFX to film and television projects, including Babylon 5; Chuck Comisky, visual effects supervisor, stereoscopic expert, and stereo supervisor for Avatar; Doug Drexler, visual effects artist, designer, sculptor, illustrator, and Academy Award-winning makeup artist currently working on Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome; and Eric Hance, supervising artist on the new Steven Spielberg series Terra Nova.
The panelists discussed the challenges associated with delivering effects-rich television shows on time and on budget — all of which they tackle with the help of innovative tools, trends and post production pipelines. The latest post production tools and procedures are helping bridge a growing gap: As audiences increasingly expect visually rich experiences on television, a larger number of networks are competing for viewer attention and advertising dollars, resulting in dwindling budgets in an era of increased risk. At the same time, studios are under increased pressure to deliver more, higher-quality effects within shorter production schedules.
“It wasn’t that long ago that there were three networks. With cable and the Internet, the pie has been split so fine that the studios are scared to death to invest money in a show. Shows are being cancelled after just two episodes,” Drexler explained. “Although the industry is in kind of a tough spot — where there isn’t a lot of money to spend, and networks don’t want to put out a lot of money for expensive sets — there has never been a better time for people like us, [CG and VFX artists]. We are going to get more work because the studios are going to find out that it’s actually less expensive to build these sets in the computer. You can still do these shows and actually do them cheaper, with less of a budget than you had before, and you can go bigger.”
BIG PRODUCTIONS, SMALL SCREEN
Big was the goal when it came to Terra Nova on Fox. When Pixomondo started work on the series, “the goal was the take the incredible high bar that [Pixomondo] has been achieving in the film world and bring it to TV screens,” Hance described. “How do we take these incredible film technologies and bring them to the small screen on a weekly basis?” He credits the people on his team; the software, including LightWave; and the production pipeline.
“Our operation looks very much like a feature film,” Hance enthused. “We’ve got an animation director, a compositing supervisor and onset VFX supe, and between animation and compositing are the CG generalists. It’s our job to make sure that the creatures are sitting right in the plate and the subsurface scattering through the skin and all the beautiful, primeval vistas—those things you don’t normally associate with a weekly television series—look right.”
Tight integration of the CG and VFX teams into the overall TV production workflow is a tremendous time saver, Drexler noted. “To be part of the production saves so much time. It is the key to how we’ve been able to do so many shots in such a short period of time (roughly 1,800 shots in five months) on Galactica, because we’re in there with our sleeves rolled up with editorial cutting shots into the show and doing previs. It’s really unique. I don’t think I’ve even been so close to the process; we really feel like filmmakers.”
MORE WITH LESS
“The visual effects in shows like Terra Nova and Galactica are unique,” Thornton admitted. “The majority of the work that’s going on for TV is things like bullet hits, wire removals, blood splatters, fixes in production, and armpit stain removal. That’s the bread and butter of the VFX industry for television: the shows where the VFX aren’t obvious.”
Post production feats such as these — as well as fixing bald spots and wrinkles, and making location changes—are now required on a much tighter schedule for television projects. “The turnaround times are getting absolutely ridiculous,” Thornton explained. “In the last two years, I’ve just seen laughable turnaround times.” Having 300 man hours’ worth of postproduction work and a weekend in which to do it is commonplace now, he said.
“Methods that would have only been used in film in the past are going to become more commonplace because of developments like GeoCache and FBX in LightWave,” Hance predicted. “Different software [packages] are going to talk to each other better. I see things going the realm of a bigger pipeline and stronger talent resulting in bigger and bigger and more beautiful work.”
“They say the best innovation happens in small groups. I’m a firm believer in that,” Thornton said. “There has always been a certain amount of trickle down from big studios like ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) to the TV world. That gap is shortening. The stuff that is being done on the features now is available to us to do on television budgets almost immediately. That is going to be ongoing. Artists are able to do an awful lot more with the tools that they’ve got.”
THE GREAT EQUALIZER
The bleeding edge of technology often comes at a very high cost and is beyond the reach of people and studios. InterSense’s Vcam system — the system used on Avatar to do virtual walkthroughs for the art department—has a $60,000 entry point, as an example. “Many TV productions and art departments can’t afford that. It is out of reach for a lot of us,” recognized Rob Powers (pictured presenting), NewTek’s VP of 3D production. “The tragedy is that the virtual process is so crucial to the types of filmmaking and television advancements that we’re seeing today. Innovation is really part of the process.”
Powers and his team at NewTek, devoted to empowering innovation at all levels and budgets, have implemented a software development kit (SDK) into LightWave’s architecture. The SDK enables the use of off-the-shelf technology, such as a Sony PlayStation Move controller or 3Dconnexion input devices, in the same way as one would use an expensive Vcam.
LightWave’s virtual studio supports the use of multiple devices, and the motion can be recorded. “You could have devices driving different things, such as a light, a camera, or anything that can be animated,” Powers noted. The technology is well suited to art departments, independent films, and architectural visualization, as well as for performing walkthroughs for clients, doing virtual location scouts, and exploring a set, he explained.
REVAMPED AND REVEALED
LightWave 11 made its first public appearance during the event, providing CG and VFX professionals in the audience the first glimpse of features new to Version 11.
Post production pipelines will benefit from native instancing in LightWave 11. Powers produced realtime render instances of an object having a heavy polygon count — 1.6 billion polygons, to be precise — in full OpenGL. “These kinds of things were impossible to load into common memory before,” he said. “You just couldn’t get this level of detail.”
LightWave 11’s new flocking system (pictured below) simplifies and speeds the production and animation of herds, as Powers demonstrated digitally with herds of running dinosaurs and flocks of flying bats. “It is intelligent flocking, so they detect each other and they don’t collide,” he added. “You can have them attract and repel, and get really quick, beautiful flocking for birds, airplanes, helicopters, swarms of bees, and so on.
The latest LightWave interchange tool, enabling post production artists to move seamlessly between Pixologic’s ZBrush and LightWave, was met with a roar of audience applause. “The new one is GoZ, a button push that takes you from ZBrush directly into LightWave, and back and forth,” Powers described.
In the past, pixel-perfect camera matching between Autodesk’s Maya and LightWave was difficult, Powers admitted. “We have nailed it with LightWave 11. We’ve cracked that nut. You can load objects from Maya directly in LightWave, and that’s what Pixomondo artists are doing with the dinosaurs in Terra Nova,” he continued. “These toolsets allow you to integrate LightWave into any production pipeline.”
“VFX artists, like me, love to blow things up,” Powers admitted. “When we implemented tools to be able to do this, we wanted a complete workflow.” Artists can load any object into modeler and LightWave’s new Fracture feature decimates the object, breaking it into pieces. In other software packages, each broken piece is a separate item. “In LightWave, it’s all contained in one object if you so choose; you have the choice of saving the broken pane of glass as one object.”
Additional features in version 11 include Bullet, a production-proven, interactive physics engine; enhanced render buffer support with presets; render enhancements, including print render setup; a shadow/reflection catcher; Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR) surface selection; and optimized handling of large data sets. “We want you to get your shots done as soon as possible,” Powers affirmed.
BOTH BIG & SMALL
LightWave fits into large pipelines, but it is also a fantastic tool for individual artists and smaller teams, Powers explained. The majority of studios around the world are 40 people or less, for which LightWave provides a complete pipeline — modeling, effects, rigging, animation, and rendering. “It is simplicity and quality at your fingertips, without all the fuss. And the imagery speaks for itself.”
On the screen behind Powers appeared an awe-inspiring first look the independent film Iron Sky, produced by a team of roughly 20 at Energia Productions in Finland using the LightWave 11 beta software. “It’s incredible to see what they have done with a small team in LightWave,” Powers admitted. “People are doing great work with version 11, which is delivering real benefits right now.”
Even more impressive is a team of one, Powers exclaimed as he introduced the North American premiere of Abiogenesis, a short animated film by Richard Mans. One artist had a vision, which LightWave software helped to facilitate. Powers applauded Mans, stating: “One man in New Zealand with inspiration and without a major studio empowering him. One man, one idea, one computer, and LightWave.”
“LightWave started as a film and television production tool that was like a studio environment, like a workflow,” Powers mentioned. “You build in the model shop, you go into the rigging and animation, and then you use the built-in Emmy Award-winning renderer.
“Pixomondo artists are using LightWave to render all the Terra Nova dinosaurs, the scenes, the imagery, and the environments,” Powers added. “LightWave plugs into a pipeline in which you can use it with other tools; but, if you don’t want to have that complexity, you can do what Richard Mans did and create everything you see in Abiogenesis with LightWave. The images speak for themselves, and I’m honored to be in the position of fostering this software for our users.”
Powers brings the virtual production experience he gained from developing the first virtual art department on Avatar and serving in the role of virtual art director on Tintin to LightWave 11, particularly its new SDK.
NewTek anticipates delivery of LightWave 11 by the end of the year. “All these features are not coming,” Powers enthused. “They are in the software, and studios are using them. If you want to get your hands on some of this stuff now, we’re offering a pre-release version to registered users of LightWave versions 10 and 10.1 now on NewTek.com.”