Friday Flashback #232

Softimage Customer Story: Rising Sun Pictures Goes Big and Gets Fast On Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

“SOFTIMAGE|XSI is great to use in a rush. XSI lets me work in a hell-for-leather approach if I need to, and on Sky Captain, I needed to.”



Rising Sun Pictures Goes Big
and Gets Fast On Sky Captain
and the World of Tomorrow

SDK, Animation Editor,
Animation Mixer, Render
Passes, Render Tree and
mental ray to turn a big
job around extra fast.

To read more of our customer stories

When we last checked in on Australia’s Rising Sun Pictures (RSP), the
intrepid Australian team had just completed work on a film about the effects
of modernization on an old world. Thanks in large part to RSP’s work with
SOFTIMAGE®|XSI®, Edward Zwick’s epic The Last Samurai (2003) seamlessly
blended Samurai blades with Japanese army cannons to tell a poignant tale
of yesterday’s reluctant surrender to the world of tomorrow. With Kerry Conran’s
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), RSP has performed a similar
miracle on starkly different terms.

With undeniably talented eye candy comprising stars Jude Law (as Sky Captain), Gwyneth Paltrow (as intrepid reporter and damsel in distress Polly Perkins) and Angelina Jolie (as Capt. Francesca ‘Franky’ Cook), this was not a project hurting for scenery. Apparently not satisfied with the already lush look of their talent, however, director Conran and producer Jon Avnet elected to make Sky Captain the first film to be shot entirely on bluescreen. Ironically, the duo used the techniques of tomorrow to create a look and story reminiscent of the WWII serial adventures of 1940’s.

Although the film itself was shot over a four-week period back in 2002, VFX Supervisor Scott Anderson and Co-Producer Brooke Breton first approached RSP in February 2004, inviting the facility to work some of their magic on an exceptionally tight timeframe. In all, RSP delivered 150 shots in just nineteen weeks including the ambitious Rocket Interior (RI) sequence on which the RSP team made great use of SOFTIMAGE|XSI.

“This was a big production,” admits Ben Paschke, RSP’s Adelaide-based 3D Supervisor on Sky Captain. “RSP had some thirty-five people at work on Sky Captain, jointly overseen by our Senior Compositor and VFX Supervisor Tim Crosbie, and one of our fearless founders, VFX Supervisor Tony Clark. For this film our SOFTIMAGE|XSI team, however, numbered just four and we had a lot of work to do on the RI sequence.”

“Being able to use Python
scripting on Linux, we can
directly and easily integrate
existing pipeline.”

The rocket in question turns out to be roughly twice the height of New York’s Empire State building and, as it happens, is hurtling from the silos of an evil villain to a destructive rendez-vous over that little blue planet third from the sun. It is up to Sky Captain and Polly to make sure the rocket is destroyed before the earth. In a scene that would make the SPCA proud, Polly manages to eject a series of containers from the rocket’s interior, each of which in turn release hundreds of small escape pods containing animals. It is, obviously, a scene of epic proportions.

“They wanted the scene to be huge!” says Paschke emphatically. “Much of the modeling was already completed by the time we got our hands on it, but the timeline and sheer volume of shots on the show was a big challenge.
Technically, it was up to us to efficiently turn around a huge number of shots by repurposing models to match our specific shots. This usually meant importing files, then using SOFTIMAGE|XSI to remodel and retexture shots so they could be properly used.”

Not that it was anything like a burden, according to Pashke:
“They were very particular about the final look and finish of the composite and design of the models, but they were also very open to how we might achieve the right look. We ended up having a lot of fun exploring different looks and textures using SOFTIMAGE|XSI. In turn, we were given very clear direction on
lighting and compositing, which really helped us turn the shots around very quickly.”

In addition to great direction and communication from the filmmakers, however, Paschke also credits the SOFTIMAGE|XSI Software Developer’s Kit (SDK) with providing some vital help in efficiently completing the production:

“On every one of our jobs, we end up adding to our custom tools,” says Paschke matter-of-factly. “Being able to use Python scripting on Linux, we can directly and easily integrate SOFTIMAGE|XSI into our existing pipeline. On Sky Captain, most of our geometry processing tasks were handled through very simple, easy-to-write scripts, but without them, we would have been extremely hard pressed to deliver on time.”

For a production this immense, what’s more, streamlined animation was an absolute must. Says Paschke:

“SOFTIMAGE|XSI’s Animation Editor provides a really comfortable interface for working with F-curves. It feels light when you use it and isn’t tedious when you have to perform simple maneuvers. We frequently use the Animation Mixer and ‘animation clips’ to version our work. With the Mixer, we can easily switch to previous versions of a shot’s animation or simultaneously play with multiple versions of the animation. Through it all, we always had to assume that our client would want to chop and change between animation versions at any given time. With the Mixer, we can confidently and quickly tear down and rebuild a shot in order to further experiment with its look.”

And everybody is talking about the look of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Despite its 1940’s style, the look of the film is decidedly futuristic and lush. No imposed grain or deliberate aging here. Which brings us, of course, to rendering:

“XSI’s integration of mental ray is really great,” says Paschke. “Managing multiple passes in a single scene with minimal rebuilding is very handy indeed. Render Passes are also a great innovation. I like to develop most of the look in a single pass, all the while keeping it light so I can play with it. Once we’re confident in the look and design, XSI makes it relatively simple to break down the integrated look into a series of component passes. Once the foundation passes are out and animation is locked off, it’s very simple process to build helper or matte passes for the composite.”

“The SOFTIMAGE|XSI Render Tree offers a fantastic method for building shaders,” Paschke continues. “On Sky Captain, we turned long renders into quick renders by using XSI’s Render Mapping tool to bake any ray-tracing or heavy parts of a render directly into texture maps on the geometry itself. It took some doing to create all the maps for all those pieces of geometry, but once we did it we were able to save a heap of render time. We were also able to render entirely in Scanline mode.”

In the end, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow required that unique blend of seamless artistry and blinding speed on which RSP has established its reputation on such projects as The Last Samurai, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Sky Captain and, coming in 2005, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It is a reputation of which Paschke and the entire RSP team are justifiably proud:

“It was a wild ride,” says Paschke with a smile. “SOFTIMAGE|XSI is great to use in a rush. XSI lets me work in a hell-for-leather approach if I need to, and on Sky Captain, I needed to.”