Friday Flashback #331


Studio Ghibli Changes Everything with Spirited Away

… since 1995, the Studio Ghibli 3D team, armed with SOFTIMAGE®|3D, have been more than helping out with the visuals. The full transition from traditional ink & paint techniques and shooting to digital I & P and compositing was made in 1997.

by Michael Abraham

People have come to expect miracles from Hayao Miyazaki. Since he co-founded Studio Ghibli (with lifelong colleague and sometime creative collaborator Isao Takahata) in 1985, the now-revered anime director has been the creative force behind a long list of animated films that simultaneously manage to be intensely thoughtful, critically acclaimed and hugely successful. Any filmmaker – hell, any artist – can tell you how difficult it is to hit all three points. Miyazaki’s latest offering hits all three harder than ever before.

Miyazaki’s formula, if you can call it that, involves using dazzling visuals and engaging fables to suspend our disbelief, thereby clearing the way for some truly trenchant insights. The stories and insights are Miyazaki’s idea, but since 1995, the Studio Ghibli 3D team, armed with SOFTIMAGE®|3D, have been more than helping out with the visuals. The full transition from traditional ink & paint techniques and shooting to digital I & P and compositing was made in 1997.

“We are a traditional animation production studio,” says Mitsunori Kataama, 3D-CG Supervisor at Studio Ghibli. “There are about 150 people presently working here. Within that group, we have three sections using computers for production – ten people work on ink and paint, four in compositing and seven of us in 3D-CG.  We mainly use Silicon Graphics workstations, with over thirty CPUs, including those used as servers. We also use Linux and Mac OS computers.”

That set up makes for an immensely clever, and ultimately virtuous, method, and it is employed to great effect in his most recent film. Set in modern-day Japan, Spirited Away (or Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, the Japanese title) joins the daily life of ten-year-old Chihiro, a somewhat spoiled and ill-tempered girl unhappy to be moving to a new town with her family.

On their way to their new home, Chihiro and her family pass through a mysterious tunnel only to find themselves in a world not of their choosing. When her hungry parents mistakenly eat food reserved for the gods, they are suddenly transformed into pigs, leaving Chihiro as their only hope. A great many things change in this new land: a young boy becomes a dragon, an origami bird transforms into a witch and a filthy bather is reincarnated as a river god. Even Chihiro is forced to barter her real name for her survival with the evil witch Yu-baaba, who gives her the more generic sounding Sen in its place. To rescue her parents and regain her name, Sen must also change from a frightened little girl into a courageous heroine.

In creating Spirited Away, Miyazaki claims to have been making a gift specifically for his friend’s daughters, all of whom were about 10 years old at the time he got the idea. After two years and a painstaking blend of traditional cel animation and seamlessly integrated digital technology, however, it seems that his gift is being shared by just about everybody. At the time of this writing, Spirited Away is poised to overtake James Cameron’s Titanic as the single-most successful film ever shown in Japan.

Although Studio Ghibli works pretty exclusively on feature animations, with the occasional short thrown in for good measure, Spirited Away was a big job even by their standards. All of the animation, backgrounds, compositing and 3D work were accomplished in-house. Working diligently on 100 of the movie’s 1400 scenes, Kataama and his team dealt primarily with complicated scenes impossible to create solely by hand, and including intense 3D camera work and object animation.

“We used several different techniques,” says Kataama matter-of-factly. We added depth information to original 2D images by mapping hand-written backgrounds on to 3D models. In the end, we also used SOFTIMAGE|3D to calculate a reflection and a highlight component, which we then added to the hand-written background. We also developed a unique 2D Texture Shader, so we could have a multiple position camera-texture projection for mapping of our background image. We have also developed a plug-in to make changing a particular field of vision much easier.”

Another significant challenge faced by the Studio Ghibli 3D team involved the creation of realistic, ever-changing sea surface, which required the in-house development of another 2D texture shader and several material shaders. According to Kataama:

“To accurately express the look of the waves, we created a 2D texture shader that would generate a procedural texture. We really appreciate that SOFTIMAGE|3D offers such a valuable environment for developing new functions. The high-quality rendering result was extremely effective in our efforts to draw rays that would act as both reflections and highlights. For that, we were very happy to have the Ray Tracer, which we could not find anywhere else.”

Kataama pauses reflectively before continuing. “Where I used to work, we used separate in-house applications for editing modeling, animation, and texture. When I joined Studio Ghibli, SOFTIMAGE|3D immediately enabled me to do everything in an integrated environment. Even an animator working on his first 3D project can do sophisticated animation work with it right away.”

Looking to the future, Kataama and Studio Ghibli have great plans for SOFTIMAGE|XSI™. Although they are still in the evaluation phase, Kataama has already seen enough to know what will be particularly useful.

“In the coming year, we are planning to switch all work to SOFTIMAGE|XSI,” he explains patiently. “So far, we have been most impressed with Render Passes. In our work, we do final image control at compositing stage, so it is a big help that Render Passes can separate 3D into various elements.  In the past, we needed to prepare scene data when rendering, but using Render Passes means we can make multiple materials from one scene. I’ve also had a chance to look at the Render Tree, which I found very easy to use.  I was very happy because even I can create shader, even though I have no programming skills. We also have high expectations for the Subdivision Surfaces functions.”

Although they have still to evaluate the animation functions in SOFTIMAGE|XSI, Kataama and his Studio Ghibli team already know that the Animation Mixer will soon be coming in handy:

“We are planning to create a human crowd,” says Kataama. “What we have in mind is likely impossible without the Animation Mixer.  We are also looking forward to the new Toon Shader, which will help us to create an even better hand-drawn animation look.”

And, no doubt, another Miyazaki masterpiece. A film by any other name would never look this great.

Friday Flashback #296

ILM use SOFTIMAGE|XSI to score Quidditch points

ILM use SOFTIMAGE|XSI to score Quidditchpoints in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”  With a library of mocap and the XSI animation mixer, these animation legends were able to blend individual moves together into one seamless, broom-flying heart-racing, Quidditchgame.

by Michael Abraham

It’s extremely rare that the second installment in a series surpasses its predecessor. In the case of last year’s wildly successful and fantastically fun Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the pressure was definitely on for this year’s follow-up, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, to blow the roof off a theater near you. Such pressure, as we moviegoers know so well, often leads to the very worst kinds of cinematic disaster.

So it was with profound pleasure, then, that I watched the Chamber of Secrets when it opened last November. Not only did it exceed its predecessor in virtually every area, but the visual effects were more spectacular, exciting and, yes, frightening than any other film I’ve seen. In short, the film was an absolute blast, and for that we can thank, yet again, the extraordinary work of legendary effects facility Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), who have been stunning moviegoers for more than 28 years.

So, while Harry Potter has Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) behind him, ILM has SOFTIMAGE|XSI and SOFTIMAGE|3D on their side.

Anyone for Quidditch?

To create the pulse racing Quidditch match scenes in Chamber of Secrets, for example, Lead Animator Paul Kavanagh and the visual effects team at ILM relied on the SOFTIMAGE|XSI Animation Mixer to mix digital doubles of the actors with a generic library of Quidditch moves.

“For the second film, we wanted to add an element of motion capture to the Quidditch match,” says Kavanagh. “We built a complete rig with a broom, and then had a rider in full mocap gear sit on it as stagehands moved it around. By doing this, we were able to shoot a variety of different scenarios with the rider kicking, punching and that kind of thing. We gradually built up a library of highly realistic Quidditch moves.”

Having a library of moves was one thing, but Kavanagh quickly found himself yearning for a way to tie various moves together and blend them into one seamless action.

“We quickly realized that, if we wanted to blend the motion capture moves together, SOFTIMAGE|XSI was the only way to go,” says Kavanagh. “We took our SOFTIMAGE|3D scenes and imported them one at a time into SOFTIMAGE|XSI.”

Using the SOFTIMAGE|XSI Animation Mixer, the ILM team were then able to blend the individual moves together into one seamless, heart racing Quidditch play.

“SOFTIMAGE|XSI made it very easy to chop, cut and paste different pieces of motion and blend between them,” Kavanagh continues. “Once we had a shot that we liked, we were able to pare it down into a compound that was exportable as a SOFTIMAGE|3D anim file. The anim file would then be imported back into SOFTIMAGE|3D and onto one of our character models. The character would then follow the motion capture moves. We were using XSI to perform the animation we wanted, but, when it came time to export, it was only an anim file. There was no geometry or animation controllers involved in the export, just the animation data. It was fantastic, and I don’t think we could have done it any other way.”

ILM is now deploying version 3.0 of the SOFTIMAGE|XSI environment on Linux workstations and servers throughout its production pipeline. The story of Harry Potter and SOFTIMAGE, however, is far from over.

Please read on.

Leading by Example

Steve Rawlins admits that he likes to lead by example:

“I love to be involved at the very beginning of a project, when the animation is just starting,” says the veteran animator from his desk at ILM in San Rafael. “An early start on a character gives you a nice ramping-up period and an ideal chance to define exactly who the character will be. If you can establish that early, it’s better for everyone, I think. Otherwise, things can get kind of confusing.”

Rawlins should know. As he embarks on his eighth interesting year at Lucas Digital’slegendary effects company, the Lead Animator on such films as Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) has played an early role in some seriously large projects. After an initial eighteen months in ILM’s now-closed Commercial Production division, Rawlins moved straight into animating the return of the infamous Jabba the Hutt for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). Following work as Lead Animator on the title characters for The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), Rawlins assumed the same role on Episode II, helping to create Dexter, the bizarre, yet-entirely appropriate looking diner owner in the film.

“Listing them like that doesn’t make it sound like I’ve worked on much in the last seven years,” says Rawlins thoughtfully. “They were all long schedules and a lot of work, however. They were all great to work on.”

Not much? I beg to differ. For my money, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets alone might have taken Rawlins’ full ILM tenure to complete (much, much longer, of course, if I’d been working on it, but that’s why Steve’s at the best effects facility in the whole damn world, and I’m in Montreal writing stories about him – but I digress).

Just as he did with Dexter, Rawlins used SOFTIMAGE|3D v. 3.9 to define the animation, and, therefore, the screen character, of Dobby, a brand new character in the continuing Harry Potter story. Short, meek and troublemaking, Dobby is a “house elf,” an overwhelmingly obsequious goblin with a penchant for self-punishment. When he discovers a plot to harm Harry upon his return to school, Dobby, despite his instinctual loyalty to his nefarious masters, is determined to rescue Harry from his apparent fate. The methods Dobby uses to keep Harry from being hurt are as hilarious as they are destructive, as disastrous as they are well intentioned.

It was not long before animators Sue Campbell, Kevin Martell and Steve Aplin joined Rawlins to work on Dobby. By the end of the project, a total of fifteen animators, all working on SOFTIMAGE|3D, came together to bring Dobby completely to life.

“SOFTIMAGE|3D definitely enhanced the efficiency of this project,” says Rawlins with emphasis as he begins to explain why.

When Harry Met Dobby…

While Rawlins began his animation work in early January 2002, Dobby had been conceived and modeled in November and December 2001, just a few weeks following the opening of the inaugural Harry Potter film. Confident of the first film’s impending success, ILM had no time to lose.

Fortunately for Rawlins’ schedule, the first scene shot was Harry’s first meeting with Dobby.

“It worked out really well for me,” says Rawlins. “Because the scene in Harry’s bedroom was the first one shot, an edited version was available to us by the beginning of February. It included somewhere around 22 shots and, the finished voice track, everything except Dobby himself. That had the dual advantage of setting the stage for me but still allowing me the freedom to have Dobby move the way I wanted him to.”

Rawlins eased into the project, using SOFTIMAGE|3D to create a simple walk cycle for Dobby, “just to see how he was going to move.” From there, the team chose a single shot on which to test their proposed animations.

“We chose what turned out to be the third shot in the sequence for our reference,” says Rawlins. “Fittingly, it is the very shot where Dobby introduces himself to Harry. It was a great shot to start with, because it provides a good shot of his face, and I was then able to imbue his entire character with the sort of nervousness we wanted to convey. What was great was that Chris Columbus, the director, was able to see Dobby for the first time actually interacting with Harry in the movie. He was very positive.”

When Dobby Hits Dobby…

Once established and approved by Columbus, it was time to make Dobby behave like, well, Dobby. As the conflicted yet kind little being that he is, Dobby is given to feeling profoundly guilty even when he does the right thing. Attempting to assuage that guilt, Dobby spends a good deal of time hitting himself. Both funny and kind of sad, these scenes of self-punishment were some of the most challenging on the film:

“The decision was made early on that Dobby would be created using entirely keyframe animation,” says Rawlins. “It was the right decision, but there is always a tendency with keyframing to make the animation overly ‘cartoony’ in its look. Using SOFTIMAGE|3D, Kevin Martell did a fantastic job of striking a balance between Dobby’s otherworldly look and some sort of realism. When Dobby bashes himself in the head, it isn’t entirely funny. He doesn’t come across as enjoying the pain or just being goofy. It really is rather sad, I think, and the audience feels just a little bit badly for laughing at him.”

Powerful Combination

When asked if Martell’s accomplishment was aided by SOFTIMAGE|3D, Rawlins is quick to answer in the affirmative:

“When you draw with a pencil and paper, you never have to think about how they work,” he says matter-of-factly. “Because of that, you can focus entirely on your creativity. That’s the way it is with SOFTIMAGE|3D. The tools are all right there and extremely intuitive. You can just grab your model and get to work. You never have to spend time fighting to do something.”

“My favorite feature would have to be the dope sheet,” continues Rawlins thoughtfully. “It lets me play and record basic motions and then layer in different variations quickly and easily. Together with the curve editor, the dope sheet becomes a very powerful combination.”

Just like ILM, SOFTIMAGE and Harry Potter.end