Virtual production and higher frame rates dominated the conversation at this week’s SIGGRAPH conference in LA, just as they did at FMX earlier in the year. Despite Warner Bros. scaling back on the number of screens that it will play “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” at 48 fps on December 14, the two go hand in hand in paving the way for a more immersive and engaging theatrical movie going experience.
Autodesk, the animation software giant, immediately grabbed the spotlight in announcing a technical alliance with James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment and Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital that will improve the virtual production workflow for the upcoming “Avatar” sequels. This means quicker and better onset rendering capabilities in real time as a result of new developments to Autodesk’s MotionBuilder software.
“You’ve got to be able to do this onset to be able to make more informed choices,” Weta Digital’s Joe Letteri told me. The Oscar-winning senior visual effects supervisor, who’s in the homestretch on “The Hobbit,” said that improving the virtual production front end workflow is imperative for Cameron. “He wants to know where the character is when composing his shot because that’s integral to the composition and balance. So now we can do a little bit more: It’s still not full on virtual reality, but it’s better, because, if you’re doing it more accurately up front, you’re not thrown off by misdirection, something that is artifact of the limitation of the system like a shot is too soft because it’s low resolution or the light’s getting into the wrong place.”
Autodesk is also working on improving the rendering later in the process to accommodate larger and more complex assets, “especially on stage because this would help with that transfer from stage to the Avid,” Letteri added. He suggests that you want to fix anomalies in lighting, performance capture, editing and other areas. Full on virtual production of the “Avatar” or “Tintin” variety is all about breaking down the filmmaking process with digital tools to make it as transparent and as comfortable as possible for the director. The goal is to be able to interpret the director’s ideas almost on the spot, testing them out virtually before going to all the trouble of executing them.
Likewise, previs is improving the onset process as well. Daniel Gregoire, owner of Halon, which recently worked on Fox’s “Prometheus” and “Life of Pi,” has teamed with OptiTrack in getting a virtual camera for doing contiguous, cohesive pieces of action. “Previs is a natural fit,” Gregoire said. “It’s become technical filmmaking. My latest pitch is developing a creative brain trust, starting as early as the pitch and visual development and maintaining it right through pre-production, principal photography with onset solutions and a couple of artists, right into post-production and post vis, which sits right outside of editorial.” Again, it’s all about helping the director make more informed creative choices.
Meanwhile, the high frame rate topic heated up with Lightstorm’s Jon Landau declaring on Wednesday in a lively discussion that it’s an important part of the 3-D revolution. It improves the experience by removing unwanted motion artifacts and engages the viewer. He brought along the same informative frame rate comparison demo hosted by Cameron. Landau also insisted that “The Hobbit” pullback is not really a setback since there is no global infrastructure in place yet to screen the first of Jackson’s trilogy at 48 fps on very many screens.
As far as overcoming the dreaded “video look,” industry pioneer Doug Trumbull (who showed up to 120 fps in his demo) reiterated that you could combat that through the use of variable frame rates on shots or on characters and objects within shots. However, when Digital Domain’s chief technical officer Darin Grant questioned the added cost in rendering and data wrangling for VFX, Landau shot back that there are “smart” solutions to keep costs down. “Don’t render everything at 60 or 48; double expose. Animators don’t have to work at higher frame rates. You could limit that to a Panda fight. This is about managing public expectations.”
ILM’s Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren echoed Landau and Trumbull’s enthusiasm for higher frame rates. He’s witnessed mostly positive results in experimenting with higher frame rates on his Sony monitor at home. He noticed, for instance, that Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion was vastly improved on “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” Blu-ray even though the Cyclops looked more rubbery.
But that can be adjusted. Indeed, for Cameron, Jackson and Trumbull this virtual production/3-D/higher frame rate experiment is like opening a window for a more ultra-realistic movie going experience. It’s all part of a new frontier and an effort to get people back into theaters.