Thoughts on the VFX Crisis

If you’ve been on Facebook or Twitter lately, you’ve probably seen a number of users who have replaced their pictures with green backgrounds. These people, normally used to being invisible, are trying to give a little extra visibility to a crisis that isn’t getting much attention in the media. While almost every industry is being affected by today’s global recession, a disproportionate number of visual effects studios are shutting down even as their own films set box-office records at home and abroad.

90% of the background and 50% of the Avengers will be added in post.

This year, Bill Westenhofer accepted the Oscar for Best Visual Effects while his employer, Rhythm & Hues, was filing for bankruptcy. To add insult to injury, the Academy organizers cut his mic when he tried to mention that his team of award-winning effects artists were now unemployed. This was a painful snub, since on most of today’s films, visual effects artists put in the majority of the man-hours, represent the largest chunk of the crew, and often create the vast majority of what the audience actually sees on screen.

For example, 2012’s Disney’s Marvel’s Joss Whedon’s Avengers’ climactic battle took place in an entirely digital New York City, was fought against entirely digital alien invaders, and usually involved digital stuntmen protecting digital extras from digital explosions. For Life of Pi, most of Claudio Miranda’s Oscar-winning cinematography was actually shots of flat blue walls that were replaced with completely original renders from the Rhythm & Hues team.

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Experiments in 3D Printing

Earlier this year I printed some 3D objects at Shapeways. 3D printing is a fairly new technology, with lots of methodologies and applications. In its simplest form, it’s just like regular inkjet printing, but instead of the print head laying down a drop of ink, it lays down a blob of plastic, and once the first layer is done, the print head starts printing plastic on top of the plastic. After several hundred layers, a 3D object is finished, and can be assembled into a UAV, or a rifle reciever, or a magazine.

Different printers can print different types of resin, plastic, ceramic, and even metal. Some printers have an ink nozzle right next to the media nozzle, so it can paint objects in full color while printing. Other dual-head printers can print a rigid plastic and soft rubber at the same time, or ABS and wax. This is useful for objects with a lot of non-touching moving parts, like gears. The gears and axles can be printed in hard plastic, supported by the printed wax until the object is done and the wax can be melted or crumbled out.

Objet Printed Gear Widget

There are even experiments in printing blood vessels and human organs, cell by cell, custom designed for transplant surgeries. As the printers get more sophisticated, they can do more things. Researchers are building machines than can print optics and electronic sensors directly into objects during printing. One of the great advantages of this system is that the cost is the same to print one object as it is to print a thousand. Mass production of injection molded plastic still might be cheaper in the long run, but there’s no setup cost to print a single custom product.

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Ideas for New Audio Gear

There have been some amazing advances in video tech recently. In post, Adobe has been leading the way, with new workflows, faster everything, and a very cool new warp stabilizer and some extremely competitive 3D camera tracking. Premiere and After Effects both have a whole bunch of new tools, and these are accelerated by a bunch of new advanced GPUs from nVidia.

Also, there’s no shortage of fantastic new HD cameras, like the Blackmagic Cinema camera, which gets you uncompressed 2.5k video for less than $3,000, or Sony’s just-announced NEX-VG900, which is a full-featured camcorder with full-frame 35mm sensor, and next week Panasonic is going to unveil the Lumix GH3. Everything is getting better, smaller, and cheaper.

With pro audio, however, not so much. Sample technology for composition is advancing by leaps and bounds, but mics, mixers, and recorders haven’t changed much since the digital revolution over a decade ago. Stu Maschwitz has a great post up asking for a new revolution in audio support for newbies, or in other words, video guys.

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Building a City in Lightwave

Earlier this year I worked on a project that called for a 3D map of Washington DC, and a semi-realistic handling of buildings, terrain, and lighting. While there are some excellent applications that are specifically designed around the unique challenges of large-scale terrestrial rendering, namely e-on’s Vue Infinite and Planetside’s Terragen 2, I decided to tackle this project in Lightwave.

I was extremely pressed for time, so I had to come up with a solution that would work without global illumination or volumetric rendering. The real trick for aerial shots like this is simulating the effect of looking though several miles of atmosphere. Dust, humidity, and even the air itself will diffuse and absorb light in complicated ways, but I decided to cheat this haziness and distortion with a combination of Lightwave’s fog and some depth-mapped gradients in After Effects.

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Movie Poster Color Design

A few years ago I posted on the color design in Black Hawk Down, using the color charts created by Brendan Dawes. These film mosaics are great way to see the color progression in a single movies at a glance, but wouldn’t it be interesting to see how color design has changed across films from year to year?

Unfortunately, all the films of the last century contain too much data to try to see at one time, but programmer Vijay Pandurangan has come up with the next best thing: a way to chart the dominant colors of movie posters. After downloading 35,000 posters and sorting them by year, he crunched to numbers to produce this image, which shows the color trends over time. The most obvious change we can see is an overall increase in blue over orange during the last 98 years of movie marketing, which vastly accelerates in the early 1980s.

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Drew Struzan and Navigating History

I’ve received a lot of comments, emails, and at last week’s NCFIC conference, lots of questions about the DVD cover for Navigating History. Lots of you have wanted to know who did it, how it was done, why it was done, and if I realized that it was copying Indiana Jones. In short, I painted this poster in an effort to communicate the vision of the first season of the Navigating History show, and I did my best to copy Drew Struzan’s style, partly because he set so many of the visual precedents that we associate with adventure, and partly as a tribute to him.

Navigating History: Egypt

Drew Struzan, now retired, was in many ways the most successful movie poster artist in the history of film. His technical ability was unmatched, and his aesthetic style was incredibly appealing, but his greatest skill was capturing the best elements of a film and making them stronger. He made adventures more adventurous, dramas more dramatic, and the posters were almost always better than the movies. When I became a man I put away childish things (and then watched as George Lucas made them into stupid, infantile things), but even so… I’ve got to admit that looking at the posters makes me want to watch Star Wars again.

Even though his work only involved creating advertising materials for films that were already complete, I believe that he had a significant influence on the direction of Hollywood in the 80s. Films with Struzan posters did well financially, and sequels, spinoffs, and imitations seem to follow the essence of the posters as much as the plots of the films. Also, in the same way that John Williams brought film scoring back to a symphonic and orchestral base after the improvisational synth soundtrack trends of the 70s, Struzan brought more of a fine-art sensibility of portraiture back to advertisements that were becoming crude and intangible.

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Canon’s New Digital Cinema Camera

It’s been a busy day for cinema camera techs, especially for camera techs like me, who picked today of all days to be away from real internet. Canon and RED have announced new products and new details about old products at back-to-back conferences in Hollywood. I’ve had to glean the details from various livebloggers on my phone, but I do have a basic summary. The Red event was basically just new specs and pricing for the long-awaited Scarlet camera, first announced more than three years ago, so I’ll start with Canon’s announcement.

Canon's EOS C300

The Canon EOS C300 is an all new digital cinema camera in the $15-20,000 dollar range. It’s meant to compete with the Arri Alexa and Red Epic, but in many ways is most similar to the Sony Cinealta F3. There are technically two versions of this camera, one with an EF mount, and one with a PL mount, but otherwise they are identical. Both cameras will be shipping worldwide by January 2012.

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Navigating History: Completed

Well, it’s been a busy year filled with many different projects, most of which are winding up at the moment. Earlier this week, we finished the very last of the Navigating History: Egypt masters and proofs, and here’s the first look at the Navigating History: Egypt materials. As you can see, there’s the DVD set with three discs filled with extras, a 220 page book packed with full color photos, and a 39″ timeline that covers 4500 years of history.

You can read more about all the bits and pieces over at Western Conservatory, and here is the new trailer, complete with finished color grading, HD, and spoilers:

It’s been a long time coming, but everything should start shipping in a week or so. Take a look at the cover art for the DVD case and book and let me know what you think.

Cineform Bought by GoPro

I’ve been recommending the Cineform codec to video editors for years. Its speed, quality, and efficiency make it an intermediate codec that is perfect for all areas of post production. However, it would also make an ideal acquisition codec, and so, for years I have also been urging camera manufacturers to purchase or license the encoder so we can more easily shoot “visually lossless” video natively in-camera.

At the moment, the only camera system that records using Cineform is the Silicon Imaging line, most famously used to shoot the Bombay scenes from Slumdog Millionaire and currently hard at work on Transformers 3. There is also the CineDeck, a solid state encoding and playback device that can record the video feed from a camera using the Cineform codec, but so far none of the larger camera manufacturers are using it natively. This is all about to change. Sort of. Possibly.

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Navigating History: Egypt

I’ve been a little bit too busy to write for Outside Hollywood regularly this year, and I’m about to get a whole lot busier. Fortunately, my next project will essentially require me to post regular updates. This project is not a feature, and not a documentary. It’s kind of an experiment.

In two weeks, a four-man video team is heading to Egypt. We will be there for two weeks. During that time, we will post a 24-minute video episode every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We will stream this video live to subscribers on the web and immediately afterwards stream live audio from the team on the ground for 30-minutes of interactive Q&A.

It’s a pretty brutal production schedule, and to make it work we’ll be relying on the blinding speed of Premiere CS5 on two high-powered laptop editing suites, the superior image quality of the Canon 5D, and the extreme flexibility of the GoPro HD Hero. We’re using a mix of shotgun mics and wireless lavs for audio, LED flashlights for lighting, and an assortment of GPS trackers and satellite pagers, not mention a huge stack of redundant eSATA hard drives that we’ll be backpacking around the desert.

It’ll be quite an adventure, but the project is more than a simple travel show. We’re hoping to cover the history and culture of Egypt in a presuppositional way, and look at the consequences of the ideas that have affected it. The four dominant ideologies of the globe – ancient paganism, Greek humanism, Christianity, and Islam – have all owned Egypt at different times. A hike down the Nile will reveal pyramids, Roman temples, New Testament-era churches, and modern mosques, and the effects that these influences have had on the surrounding culture.

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