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Avatar marks a watershed in the use of technology for filmmaking, and in its aftermath, some of the world’s leading exponents of CGI are promising even more. Software giant, Autodesk, is on a whirlwind ‘Blockbuster Tour’ taking in Auckland, Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing, with a team of leading FX engineers to look into the crystal ball of movie technology. Andrew L. Urban joined the Tour in Sydney to file this report.

Avatar was two years in the making (not counting development time), but it would have taken many times longer had it not been for some sophisticated software developed by Autodesk and used by the FX houses working on the film, such as Weta Digital, Lightstorm and ILM.

"great flexibility"

One of the key programs used enables directors like James Cameron to direct complex CGI scenes as if they were live action, and in real time, giving them hands on control of the digital elements and great flexibility. Not that James Cameron needs such tools, being a scarily well informed filmmaker on matters digital. But for directors who find the digital world a tad alien and hard to visualise, Autodesk has pre-visualisation software that make the task not only practical but exciting.

Research and development is the backbone of the technology business, and Autodesk has a huddle of research scientists focused on the future, informed by feedback from their clients, including Australia’s Animal Logic, currently completing the CGI driven Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, set for a December 2010 release. Across all its divisions, Autodesk spends US$500 million annually on research.

"major changes in film technology"

The Blockbuster Tour panel outlined some of the major changes in film technology since Avatar; the big deal is ‘previs’ – previsualisation, a tool that enables a director to actually see how a live action scene will look when married with the CGI elements. This is a significant change because until this tool became fast and friendly, some of the control has been slipping away from the director to the visual effects supervisors and their teams.

The development of these ‘previs’ tools is now at a precipice and directors can interact with the work in progress in a more organic way. Even five years ago, trying to explain what the humans see when entering the Na’vi village in Avatar was problematic and clunky. James Cameron was able to direct the scene as if it were all olive action, thanks to the vision on his monitor, which presented the ‘previs’ result.

"Asset management is a priority"

Of course, the more bigger and complex the computer system, the bigger and more complex the risks of technology failure. Every company has its own rules and procedures to secure their ‘assets’ – the individual pieces of CGI that make up the pictures. For example, a digitally created tree is one asset. It has to be stored somewhere and easy to locate when required. Asset management is a priority, with hundreds of thousands of assets to store and manage – and to call up quickly.

A ‘render wall’ which does the grunt work of pre-programmed image rendering, runs to 4300 individual computers. A computer crash here is potentially devastating, so back ups are essential. Likewise energy: each operation is served by a huge UPS (uninterrupted power supply).

For these companies, working globally means they are in a constant 24 hour production cycle. As Singapore wakes up, Los Angeles goes to sleep …

There are other significant benefits for filmmakers: when Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau wanted to completely change the ending, the digital team generated an entire sequence using previously crated assets, avoiding the need for a reshoot.

"the creation of a viable virtual actor"

The digital domain is also helping to bring the creative and technical worlds of the videogame and the movie closer together. One of the last challenges facing technologists is the creation of a viable virtual actor. But because this creature is more readily acceptable to consumers in a videogame, that is where it will most likely make its first appearance. That, and work is well advanced (at ILM among others) on creating virtual versions of dead actors. Cameos by Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart in new movies may not be far off.

The other distant but predictable development in movie technology is the hologram movie. Already used in medicine (where motion capture was also first developed) the hologram would give audiences the mother of all 3D experiences. Small groups could huddle around miniature stages where holograms of the action would play out.

Continuing the world on the web is also on the horizon; using assets from games and films (like Avatar), the virtual world of the internet will soon be expanded. The internet is already one of the most powerful tools of the digital post production houses, who use it for global communication, but also for streaming and refining actual content, often using their own dedicated ‘pipes’ across the world.

"to make tools faster"

All the while Autodesk is working to find ways to make their tools even faster; the use of CGI is growing exponentially and expectations are rising (faster than movie budgets). “We’re trying to make tools faster so they don’t stand in the way of creativity,” says Paul Hellyer.

Published July 1, 2010

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Mohen Leo, Studio Supervisor, ILM Singapore

Nolan Murtha, Digital Effects Supervisor, Lightstorm Entertainment

Shawn Dunn, Animation Technical Supervisor, Weta Digital

Rob Hoffman, Senior Product Manager, Autodesk

Paul Hellyer, Media and Entertainment Business Manager, Autodesk

The Autodesk* Blockbuster Tour Panel:
*Autodesk is a 25 year old software company specialising in 2D and 3D design and engineering software.

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