MOVIES & TECHNOLOGY AFTER AVATAR
TODAY ALIEN PLANETS, TOMORROW MARILYN MONROE
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.
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
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
"Asset management is a
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
"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