‘Atlantis’ sails on tech waves

A “first” for 3D computer animation will be unveiled in Las Vegas this December, when the IMAX 3D simulator film “Race For Atlantis” debuts at Caesar’s Palace in the largest IMAX Dome ever built for an attraction. What makes this such a milestone is that the phrase “3D” has a dual meaning — not only were the images rendered in three-dimensional computer graphics; they were designed to be projected stereoscopically as well.

Directed by IMAX’s Arish Fyzee and animated by the Oscar-winning CGI studio Rhythm & Hues, “Race For Atlantis” presented a combination of challenges that none of the filmmakers had ever faced before.

“We were determined to break ground for the IMAX format,” says Fyzee, “and take audiences past the poke-you-in-the-eye 3D gags.” Despite a background in models and miniatures, including line producing the “Back To The Future” ride, Fyzee selected 3D-CGI for “Atlantis.” Building this world as a three-dimensional virtual model enabled the filmmakers to really explore stereoscopic effects as well as choreograph one continuous POV.

“I think computer graphics helped us a lot,” says Fyzee, “because we could control how close or far away an object would be from the audience and also control its scale. Everything was completely malleable. CG also has the potential to do a lot of abstract, ethereal things very well, and in a format like IMAX that looks pretty impressive.”

The ride takes audiences through the legendary sunken city of Atlantis and into fantasy environments filled with surreal creatures, so the project required computer animators who could handle underwater effects and character animation for large format simulation. Rhythm & Hues, which had experience creating the undersea ride film “Seafari,” spent 18 months designing and producing the animation for “Atlantis” as well as creating extensive computer software to complete the job.

R&H technical supervisor Nick Titmarsh calls the finished film “three and a half continuous minutes of mayhem. And except for one small piece of live footage, it’s all CGI.” To evoke the kind of fantasy environments that Fyzee envisioned, R&H designed a Jules Verne-like mix of Mayan, Egyptian and Greek cityscapes. All these curved arches and columns helped address a technical challenge as well. Titmarsh explains that “because the film would be projected stereoscopically in a dome, we could have no straight lines. Everything had to be pre-distorted, so that when projected on the dome they would become straight again. Everything is curved in this ride — that’s why the buildings are such interesting shapes.”

Finding creative solutions to such problems can be daunting, since typical animators’ “tricks of the trade” won’t work in a stereoscopic format. “Normally if you’re making a feature film, you can fix something with paint,” notes Titmarsh, “but that’s difficult if not impossible to do with a stereo image. Whatever you have in the left eye you’ve got to have in the right, so our images had to be perfect. When we’d be screening in stereo, if we’d see something that looked wrong we’d switch from one eye to the other. Then we’d see, for example, that some element may have disappeared for two frames. That element, if it’s missing in the other eye, will simply jump at you and you’ll think ‘What was THAT?’ It’s amazing what your brain will pick up.”

This demanding format means animators “cannot do cheats like they would with a normal project. You can’t scale something up and make it look like it’s real close — it’s got to BE real close.” For “Atlantis,” explains Titmarsh, “we created our own world. Everything was built to scale: One unit in our computer equaled one foot in the real world. Of course, once you’ve built all these pieces, you have a lot of room to choreograph things exactly the way you want.”

The finished film, with some scenes comprised of 100 layers, clearly pushed the computer animators at Rhythm & Hues into new territory. Fyzee recalls that “there were moments when they would say, ‘This hasn’t been done on a software, technical or aesthetic level, but let’s assume that we can, and move on.’ We pulled out all the stops with this one.”

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