Friday Flashback #469


By Michael Abraham

Ever get the feeling that you and your significant other just aren’t seeing eye-to-eye? Wouldn’t life be great if she (or he) would come around to your way of thinking, instead of persisting with her (or his) totally twisted take on the world? Wouldn’t the sun shine brighter, the wine seem drier, and the food taste spicier if those we love would just learn to think as we do? Wouldn’t it?

Happily, the answer – as implied by an innovative new spot for Levi’s – is a big “No!” Indeed, the 60-second “Twist”– the collaborative artistry of ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), director Frank Budgen of Gorgeous Productions (London, UK) and the tremendous effects work of The Mill (also of London) – embraces diversity and spontaneity just as lovingly as a brand new pair of Levi’s Engineered Jeans. According to the spot, the new cut of denim is quite literally “Twisted to Fit,” as the tagline goes, combining traditional Levi’s detail with higher-performance fabric and a twisted side-seam that will apparently hug your booty like an intimate friend while allowing you to twist and shout with a bunch of strangers.

Shot in the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, “Twist” brings a car full of remarkably limber young people to a roadside restaurant. A comely young woman rebels against the crowded confines of the backseat by stretching her long legs well beyond the natural limitations of bone and muscle. As miraculous as her contortion appears, it proves to be only the beginning.

Encountering a locked rest room door, one of the male passengers takes advantage of a supple young woman emerging from the ladies’ room. With a little creative twisting, the young man trades the young woman’s head for his own and promptly takes advantage of the available facilities. Featuring music by famed dance trio Pepe Deluxe, “Twisted” makes ample use of passionate imagination and some of the best effects the commercial world is likely to see.

“Ultimately, ‘Twisted’ was making unnaturally stretching and morphing limbs appear natural,” says Russell Tickner, Senior Animator at The Mill. “Although mainly a compositing job, there were a couple of pretty complicated 3D shots in ‘Twisted’ with which SOFTIMAGE|3D v.3.9 really helped us out.”

A 3D designer and animator for over thirteen years and a six-year veteran user of SOFTIMAGE|3D, Tickner’s background includes architecture, graphics and multimedia work for projects such as Lost In Space and the always-interesting Bjork’s album “Homogenic.” Since joining The Mill as a freelancer, he has worked on a plethora of 3D intensive commercials, including LincolnNew York LifeDaewoo, and Evian, and is creating effects shots with sister-company Mill Film for Simon West’s upcoming feature Tomb Raider. “Twisted” provided Tickner with some significant 3D challenges.

“I had to make various kinds of limbs and heads that were very closely modeled on the live action,” says Tickner. “We have an in-house texturing tool that allows us to take a 3D model and rotoscope it from the camera’s point-of-view. Once the live action material is added, you have a certain degree of extra movement that lets us move things around 15 degrees in each direction without seeing any distortion in the texture map. That way, we are able to make our 2D characters sort of appear to be 3D.”

For the scene in which the bathroom-bound man twists and then removes his own head, Tickner was provided with a live action scene in which an actor holding his head and moves his head as far as it would go to either side. The rest was up to the 3D artist.

“The scene required that this guy lift his head approximately four inches off his shoulders,” say Tickner with a smile. “Obviously, you can’t do that naturally. It involved some interesting rotoscoping, texturing and lighting to ensure that things matched the live action. They shot the entire spot in an extremely soft grade which is probably the most difficult type of lighting to match with 3D elements. Invariably, 3D has a vaguely plastic look, with high contrasts between darks and lights. When we held the 3D up against this very well-exposed live action footage, the look just wasn’t right.”

To solve the problem, Tickner went straight to the fully-integrated rendering wonder that is mental ray ®. “The latest version of mental ray has a great feature called Final Gathering,” explains Tickner. “It basically helps to light a scene based on information from texture maps. What I did was create a mock-up of the scene using the live action footage and texture maps, and then used that as my Final Gathering light source. So, all the lighting that landed on my various limb and head models was based on the actual, physical set. Rather than using point light sources and area lights to try and simulate the proper light, we were able to very quickly replicate the light in the scene. That really made such a huge difference to the spot’s natural look.”

Referring to the use of the newest version of mental ray as “vital” to the spot’s success, Tickner was also able to cut down on much of the color grading performed by the compositing artists.

“They did a little bit of color grading, just to polish things,” says Tickner. “The whole commercial was then played back out to film, then brought back into the Telecine where it was given its final, more polished grade. The fact that we used the very soft technical grade to match the 3D elements was very different from our normal procedure.”

In the end, Tickner can’t say enough about The Mill’s commitment to mental ray and SOFTIMAGE|3D. “Using mental ray in SOFTIMAGE|3D was one of the nicest parts of this job,” he says emphatically. “The reason we’re so committed to mental ray at The Mill is that we have the best directors in the world bringing in some of their best live action footage shot by the best DPs and graded by the best Telecine artists. With this top quality footage, we really need to provide the very best CG and 3D stuff possible. mental ray gives us that extra level of rendered image that we need to do the best quality work.”

Friday Flashback #403


by Michael Abraham

L03_link_pic_refine_1_smEvery story needs a beginning. Ask around and most digital artists are more than happy to tell you theirs. Every story is different, of course, and usually interesting in its own way, but most of them inevitably involve New York, Los Angeles, or London. I ain’t complaining, you understand, but you’ll understand how my ears pricked up when Sandy Sutherland started telling me his story.

“I got into 3D when I was still living in Kenya,” says Sutherland, now Senior Animator at The Refinery in Cape Town, South Africa.

Getting started in Kenya. Now, that’s a beginning. I mean, how many people can say that? Not many can, according to Sutherland.

“I started out freelancing with my own equipment, which in those days consisted of an old Commodore Amiga equipped with Sculpt Animate. When a local post facility decided to get into high-end animation, they bought one seat of TDI Explore running on a Silicon Graphics 4D 25 and I was hired to drive it. I was really the only person in Kenya with any 3D experience, so that was my big break.”

And, of course, it is from big breaks that great careers grow. It was Sutherland’s success in Kenya that brought him here to Cape Town – and to a crucial position at one of South Africa’s largest post-production facilities – nearly six years ago. Specializing in high-end television commercials for both the African and international markets, The Refinery is based in Johannesburg, but Sutherland calls Cape Town home. He is also quick to praise SOFTIMAGEÒ |XSIÔ v1.5, his system of choice for 3D character animation. When asked how SOFTIMAGE|XSI fits into The Refinery’s production pipeline, his answer is simple and succinct.

“XSI is our production pipeline!” says Sutherland emphatically. “It simply has everything we need for the type of work we do.L03_link_pic_refine_2_sm The Render Tree, the Animation Mixer and the vastly improved modeling tools, which in version 1.5 cover every style of modeling, from basic polygonals to complex subdivisions and very strong NURBS tools: it’s all there.”

Sutherland’s fervor for the latest version of SOFTIMAGE|XSI is such that he can speak with enthusiastic authority about virtually every new feature.

“The entire workflow is greatly improved in the latest version,” Sutherland explains. “I can now spend more time on animation and, thanks to the Custom Parameter sets, almost no time on character or system setups. All the setups that I used to have to do using sliders are a thing of the past. Softimage really seems to have been watching how people work and have responded with a well-thought out system.”

Singled out for special praise, however, is the SOFTIMAGE|XSI Animation Mixer: “The Animation Mixer has allowed me to experiment more,” explains Sutherland. “Now, I can mix different animations until I have what I want, all without destroying animations that were close, but not quite there! What I like most about the Animation Mixer is that it functions much like a nonlinear editor: you can drop a section of footage or an animation onto the timeline to mix it into another piece. That simplicity lets me focus on particular pieces instead of the whole character, then add the bits into one using the Animation Mixer tools, all of which makes things more flexibility and efficient. Weighting was for me a nightmare before, but now with tools like the weight painting, it makes things far easier. I have used the new weighting tools recently, and I love them!”

Nowhere were the benefits of the Animation Mixer more apparent than on a recent project for Bubbaloo Chewing Gum, a long and particularly challenging project for Sutherland and The Refinery.

L03_link_pic_refine_3_sm“With the Bubbaloo cat character that we’ve been focusing on most recently, we had some animation on which another of our animators had worked. With an earlier setup version, it would have been far more difficult to bring the animation across to another system but, thanks to the toolset in SOFTIMAGE|XSI, it was a breeze to transfer and reuse. More than that, one of the scenes of the Bubbaloo cat included some motion capture work. When the clients saw it initially, they didn’t care for some of the larger motions we’d used, so we used the Animation Mixer to maintain the basic motion capture look, while softening the motion to the client’s satisfaction.”

In a business where clients are rarely, if ever, satisfied the first time around, Sutherland sees SOFTIMAGE|XSI’s animation editing tools as a godsend. “The non-destructive philosophy of SOFTIMAGE|XSI has been great for me so far,” elaborates Sutherland. “We always have clients who make certain creative decisions, then reject them and want to return to an earlier version. Now, all we have to do is change the strength of the sliders in the Mixer, rather than having to search through previously saved files in order to find the ‘previously preferred’ animation. The immediate updating of parameter in the Render Region also speed things up immensely. I was working with the director of the Bubbaloo spot recently, and he asked if we could change the color and tone of the lights, as he had gone for a golden tone on his footage in telecine. I put some footage in the Rotoscope Camera, and using the render region we were able to quickly and easily adjust my lights to match the footage. The director was amazed, mainly because he was expecting to have return later to see the changes. I was able to show him right away.”

Sutherland concludes: “We’ve found XSI’s subdivisional surfaces provide an absolutely wonderful turnaround in our modeling methods. We used to model exclusively using NURBS; now, we almost always use ‘subdees’. We use XSI pretty much exclusively now.”

Friday Flashback #389

Blue Line Guy



1smIn a recent spot for AT&T, ad agency Wunderman and New York’s Quiet Man emphatically proved they know when and how to draw the line. “Blue Line Guy” is a 60-second animated spot designed to promote AT&T Worldnet Service Plus, the telecommunications leader’s all-in-one internet package that encourages all you prospective users of the service to draw from your imaginations about perfect service. By way of example, the spot offers a particularly imaginative character doing just that.

According to spot director David Shirk (Quiet Man’s head of 3D) and his team, the challenges of “Blue Line Guy” were substantial, and only exacerbated by the project’s very tight six-week deadline. As a result, most of those twenty-one days were eighteen hours long. The results, however, were definitely worth the great effort.

“It’s a good thing that we all love this job, or this project would probably have been impossible,” says Shirk with a chuckle. “The creative team was fantastic to work with. The agency producer, Sue Chiafullo, was impeccably organized and really understood what it takes to do animation. We ended up having a great time, and SOFTIMAGE®|XSI™ was a great help.”

Set against a paper-white background which occasionally and conveniently tears to reveal vital information, “Blue Line Guy” opens with an outstretched outline of a stick man using a deep-blue crayon to draw both himself and his dream internet service. When the voiceover speaks of faster log-ons, the Blue Line Guy transforms into a Zorro-type character, using his blue crayon to slash time off connection speeds. When the topic changes to instant messaging and chat services, the character speaks to his crayon and is joined by another character. Finally, slightly more fleshed-out characters appear on a crayoned computer screen to represent video email.

4smClearly unfinished but completely fluid in his motions, the crayoned character of the Blue Line Guy somehow manages to convey both the creativity of simple hand drawing with the precisely-organized planning of a blueprint. The effect is one of the purely imaginary about to made real, brilliantly exemplifying AT&T’s declared effort to turn the every day into the extraordinary.

“From the beginning, the agency knew what they didn’t want to see in the spot,” says Shirk. “They had a good storyboard, but they told us right away that they did not want the spot to look as if it were traditionally animated. Even though they wanted this character to be drawn with and carry around a blue crayon, they did not want the quirky, hand-drawn quality that the scenario might imply. It was very important to them that the Blue Line Guy look three-dimensional and have the coherence of a genuine character. Our technical director, Bradley Gabe, did a great job with shader development to help us determine how this character might look in 3D space.”Asked to describe some of the project’s bigger challenges, Gabe hesitates for a moment before replying. “Geez, where do I begin?” says Gabe. “Maintaining a level of consistency from frame to frame was one of the biggest challenges. In a texture that is meant to look like a crayon drawing, there are all kinds of problems regarding distortion whenever you’re using 3D. That was kind of tough to figure out, but the Render Tree in SOFTIMAGE|XSI helped me to develop some really great shaders. With some help from SOFTIMAGE|XSI, I was able to come up with a solution that would give us the right look, and still not hit our computers too hard.”

With just six weeks to complete the entire job, the Quiet Man animation team admits to some concerns about creating a believable animated crayon drawing in 3D. “We were quite concerned about how the final animation would look,” admits Michael Wharton, senior animator on the project. “Crayon tends to look very granular, like a bunch of dots really. With only six weeks to produce the entire spot including pre-production and rendering, we had to ensure that our production pipeline was completely established technically. For me, the challenge was animation, animation and re-animation. Following Dave’s lead, we all worked hard to get it right.”

3smPart of “getting it right” required some further yeoman service from technical director Gabe. Working through the many iterations of “Blue Line Guy”, it became increasingly clear that it would require an unusual amount of switching between FK animation, where a character’s limbs travel through space seemingly on their own power, and IK animation, where a character’s limbs are momentarily rooted to a portion of the environment it inhabits. Unlike most commercial animations, FK-IK switching was often required within a single animation.

“What I wanted to do was create a rig that would keep things as simple as possible for controlling this biped character,” Gabe explains. “When we realized that the character would have to do things such as pull a crayon and be pulled around the scene, I knew I would have to create a rig that was slightly more complex. Essentially, it was my job to set up a rig that would allow the character to do perform both FK and IK animations and occasionally switch between the two in the middle of an animation. This character rig really had to do everything.”

2smAs the project progressed and evolved, however, Gabe’s rig had to keep up with the many changes being implemented. It was at that point that SOFTIMAGE|XSI was of particular value, according to Gabe: “SOFTIMAGE|XSI has some fantastic tools for moving animations from one object to another. If you maintain a consistent naming convention that can be recognized across iterations of the character, you can transfer the animations you’ve already done to each new version of your character. We had some things to iron out, of course, but now that we’ve worked through this very challenging project, we’ll be able to use this rig on future projects.”

“The SOFTIMAGE|XSI Animation Mixer was also a big help in facilitating the process of this project,” agrees Shirk. “With all the retroactive changes made to the character’s rigging, we were able to use the Animation Mixer to create animations and easily transfer them to the new characters. We could make all kinds of changes, and it would literally take just a minute or two to get the character up again in its new version. That was awesome, because we never had to be afraid of going back to make changes. It was really, really simple to propagate them back through the chronology of the spot.”

Gabe concurs and continues: “A lot of seemingly impossible things were possible in SOFTIMAGE|XSI,” he says emphatically. “Setting up a lot of different render passes and that kind of thing took a minute instead of the hours it would have taken before. That was fantastic, especially towards the end of the project.”

And, in just sixty seconds, “Blue Line Guy” truly says it all.



Friday Flashback #373

PLF uses SOFTIMAGE|XSI to pre-visualize challenging scenes in the Wachowski brothers’ second installment of The Matrixtrilogy, The Matrix Reloaded.

FREE YOUR MIND…ONCE MORE PLF Pre-viz Helps Reload The Matrix

by Michael Abraham
In The Matrix Reloaded, the first of two sequels this year from directors Andy and Larry Wachowski, the ingenious filmmakers behind The Matrix (1999) continue a cinematic trilogy that invites audiences to imagine their existence on different terms.  Again plugging into their unique vision – and to the talents of key collaborators such as Senior Visual Effects Supervisor John Gaeta – the directors take a truly comprehensive approach in bringing the movies from novel creative and technical concepts to the screen.The need to visualize in 3-D many of the most challenging scenes for both “The Matrix Reloaded” and for the third film, The Matrix Revolutions was integral to the Wachowski brother’s approach, as well as to the planning and production of the visual effects.

Pixel Liberation Front (PLF), whose pre-visualization work using SOFTIMAGE|3Dand SOFTIMAGE|XSI on such motion pictures as David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) and Panic Room (2002) and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) has been turning heads around Hollywood, was hired to provide the pre-visualization for the film.

When Colin Green founded PLF in 1995, he worked on such action fare as Judge Dredd(1995), which starred Sylvester Stallone, and Eraser (1996), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Green interfaced closely with John Gaeta on these projects, and through this process developed a shared understanding of the methodology for approaching the VFX production process – a process that would ideally encompass extensive pre-viz, technical planning and execution to ensure creative continuity from pre-production through to post. When Gaeta was given the chance to supervise visual effects for “The Matrix,” a then little-known film being created by the all-but-unknown Wunderkind directors, he sought out Green and PLF.

Although scheduling conflicts got in the way for that production, the timing was right when Gaeta came back to PLF to collaborate on the sequels.”We were, of course, thrilled at the chance to work on ‘The Matrix’ sequels,” says Green.   “It was great to work with John Gaeta again, and it was a given that the ideas behind the effects would be groundbreaking.  When we first saw the storyboards and concept art (drawn primarily by Steve Skross and Geoff Darrow) for the Freeway Chase in ‘The Matrix Reloaded,’ we knew we had a very rare opportunity to be involved in something really special.”The Freeway Chase is one example of the film’s mind-blowing moments, with Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) battling agents, crashing cars, jumping from bridges and maneuvering motorcycles against traffic. It’s also an example of how PLF’s pre-visualization process came into play to ensure that the sequence lived up to the directors’ vision, and could actually be pulled off by the production crew on set and the visual effects team in post.

The entire process was carefully studied, not only by Gaeta and the rest of the VFX crew, but also by Stunt Supervisor R.A. Rondell, DP Bill Pope as well as many others to ensure that everything was coordinated creatively and technically to make the sequence as good as it could be.As was the case for all the shots on which PLF worked, the Freeway Chase seamlessly combines unbelievable stunt action with unprecedented CG and virtual cinematography. Lead Pre-viz artists Laurent Lavigne and Kyle Robinson created accurate digital models of all the elements in the sequence, including the set, characters, key props and set dressing.  They also added virtual cameras that allowed the filmmakers to pre-determine each shot and scenario right down to the type of camera lens that should be used.“We could tell from the start that the Freeway Chase was going to require a lot of very precise pre-viz to achieve the level of precision choreography and stylization that was evident in the boards,” says Green. “We worked in SOFTIMAGE|3D and SOFTIMAGE|XSI for over four months to create and polish the sequence design with John, Larry, and Andy.”  PLF’s artists then traveled to Alameda, California, to spend several more months supporting the shoot on set, translating the sequence from Softimage scenes into physical specifications that could be used by the location and stunt crew. Simultaneously, other members of the PLF team were developing pre-visualizations for the scenes to be shot in Australia.

All told, Green and PLF devoted the better part of two years to working on the productions, with Green spending nearly eleven months at Fox Studios in Australia, where he was joined by fellow PLF team members Lavigne, Robinson, Alex Vegh and Rpin Suwannath. The PLF team was joined in turn by Aussie artist Rob Nunn and Coordinator / Editor Duncan Burbidge.

The PLF team used XSI to pre-visualize in 3-D the filmmakers’ design of the so-called Mega-City, which appears in, and is central to, each of the sequels. “The Mega-City is really the ‘Downtown’ of The Matrix,” explains Green. “All of the action from both sequels was located within a comprehensive 3-D city map, which we built in XSI. We created some absolutely enormous scene files, and were definitely very happy to have SOFTIMAGE|XSI to help handle the task. The great polygonal modeling tools made this process much easier than it would have been in other applications.”
Green used SOFTIMAGE|XSI extensively on such scenes as the one showing Trinity’s dramatic exit out the window of a Mega-City skyscraper. The elaborate and complex screen action, which follows the character as she is pursued by an agent, required a full pre-visualization from PLF in SOFTIMAGE|XSI.

“To pre-visualize the complex camera animation style of these shots, we made considerable use of the Animation Mixer, the Constraint Blending capabilities, and easy rig-building interface in XSI. Having access to all of these tools inside the fast and responsive interface in XSI made a big difference for over-the-shoulder shot design sessions. It was wonderful to work with these tools.”