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Wednesday, 21 December 2011 15:55

The Affects of Today's DigiFX

Written by  Gordon Meyer
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digitaleffects_doug_ikeler_02-2Visual effects have been a part of movies since 1896 when French Director Georges Méliès produced the first of a series of pioneering films involving special effects. Thanks to computer technology, not only can today’s visual magicians achieve effects that their predecessors could only imagine, filmmakers can create stunning visuals at nearly any budget level. 

Cinematographer Vincent Pascoe works in independent films, commercials and music videos, and describes himself as a visual storyteller with a strong background in computer technology. The DP uses his growing expertise in digital effects (DFX) both as an effects artist and cinematographer, and he’s now better equipped to shoot his raw footage in ways that make it easier to integrate with DFX material.

Pascoe custom built a Microsoft Windows PC that was optimized for both editing and FX uses, like 3D modeling and rendering. His system is centered around Intel’s i7-980X CPU running at 3.33GHz with six cores and hyper threading; the maximum 24GB of RAM that the 980X can support; a pair of solid-state hard drives; and an NVIDIA GeForce 470 graphics board. “Using that machine has allowed me to experiment in the 3D world,” Pascoe reports. Between the native processor speeds and his ability to overclock the system to 4GHz (combined with the amount of RAM he has and the powerful graphics engine), Pascoe says the horsepower of his custom-built system dramatically speeds up the quality and render times of programs optimized to take advantage of the GeForce 470.

digital-effects_lfs060-1735lm_v4For his FX work, Pascoe uses a number of programs ranging from free applications like Google Earth, which he often uses for preliminary mock-ups, to higher-end products like Pixologic ZBrush (a digital sculpting and painting program) and Autodesk Maya for animation. And while the DP works primarily in the low-budget indie world, he uses many of the same DFX tools that studio-based FX artists have. He recently worked on Arthur Christmas, an upcoming CG-animated feature from Sony Pictures Animation and the British animation studio Aardman, and the entire film is the result of DFX technology. Every single visual element of the film — from character execution to lighting and hair — was digitally created from scratch through the visual effects department.

As of press time, Doug Ikeler, a visual effects supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks (pictured above), and his team were working hard to complete Arthur Christmas in time for its November release date. And, even with the resources of a multinational technology company like Sony behind it, Ikeler and his team use many of the same tools that independent artists like Pascoe employ. “The whole core of our pipeline is built around Maya,” Ikeler says. “And I think you’ll find that at most of the big studios, Maya plays an important role. We have our own version of Maya, so we can get our hooks in where we need to get hooks, and so it plays nicely when it comes to the rest of our pipeline.” Ikeler explains that Maya is Sony’s core animation, modeling and rigging tool and SideFX’s Houdini software is their core effects tool. Beyond that, they write everything else.

Arthur Christmas is a true international production. According to Ikeler, while most of the five animation teams at work on the film were from Sony Pictures Animation’s Culver City, Calif. studio, one team worked out of Aardman’s studio in Bristol, England. Every night, an automated system would push data from one location to the other (to keep both the Culver City and Bristol studios current with each other) and shared files so the different teams could work on each other’s files. For example, the digital models would be created in California, animated in the U.K., and then sent back to California for lighting effects and rendering. This multinational pipeline gave the artists at Aardman a practical way to be hands-on with the production, even though the creative supervision was all done in California.

The world of DFX is yet another example of the way digital technology has democratized the craft of filmmaking, as both micro-budgeted filmmakers like Pascoe and mega-budgeted studio artisans like Ikeler can use the same tools to weave their visual magic.

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