CG is E-ticket for giant-screen ride films

Computer graphics are getting bigger — not just in popularity, but also in size. CGI now is appearing more often on giant screens — from Imax movies to ride-simulation films projected on enormous domes.

As revealed in the new documentary “Thrill Ride,” which recently opened in Imax theaters, computer graphics can fill up a giant frame in completely unique ways. Not only can computer images hold their own in large formats; they also can be crafted to unfold as one continuous shot.

This makes them ideal for motion-simulator films, which propel audiences on a “ride” through fantasy worlds via a single, unbroken point of view. The increasing power of today’s technology, combined with the growing number of special-venue theaters, is bringing CGI into a whole new realm.

This trend also is creating opportunities for the select group of animators who have expertise in special venue CGI. Jos Claesen, who created the computer graphics in the award-winning motion simulator film “Devil’s Mine Ride,” notes that he and his collaborators “make four ride films a year now, which is incredible because there is a huge demand for them.”

Claesen’s Brussels-based studio Trix and its sister studio Movida are the computer graphics divisions of New Wave Intl., the leading independent producer of ride films worldwide. Not surprisingly, Trix and Movida imagery is used to illustrate how CGI works for ride films in the “Thrill Ride” documentary, which was directed by New Wave founder Ben Stassen. Because CGI can achieve the kind of nonstop movement that live-action footage cannot, it’s clear why computer graphics increasingly is the medium of choice for the “virtual roller coasters” that ride films provide today.

Which is not to say it’s an easy task. “The difficulty in a ride film,” explains Claesen, “is that you have to create almost a whole environment in one shot. That means dealing with huge databases.” The complexity of the imagery required for large-format projection often results in computer files that are gigantic, and manipulating those files is a time-consuming, costly process. Claesen notes, “It’s not just a matter of saying ‘Let’s move these files to another disk!’ ”

Despite powerful computers, it can still take hours to render a single frame. Yet like many computer animators, Claesen believes that CGI offers a malleability that’s extraordinarily powerful: “You can tweak it until its perfect,” he says.

There’s also a business consideration that works in favor of CGI, which is ironically, the lack of standards in the special-venue marketplace. Today’s 70 mm films for example, come in competing formats that are projected at varying numbers of frames per second.

This presents obvious headaches for live-action filmmakers but not for computer animators, whose original material exists not as film footage but as digital information. Animators can go back to these digital files, adjust the framing and shoot the results out to film. As Movida animator Anthony Huerta notes, “We can render things easily in different formats. You couldn’t do that with live-action.”

Huerta, whose latest ride film productions include Virtual Time Machine and Superstition, thinks the market for CGI will grow beyond simulator attractions to infiltrate the giant-screen nature-film market. “There’s a big revolution with Imax,” he observes. “The problem is that 80% of the theaters are in museums, but people are getting sick of seeing movies about the reproduction of koalas!”

To address the growing public appetite for giant-screen entertainment, New Wave is producing “Encounter in the Third Dimension,” which will feature 3-D computer graphics presented stereoscopically. Because stereoscopic films show a slightly different image to each eye to simulate a 3-D effect, they are ideal for enhancing the look of 3-D computer graphics, which are built with depth as well as width and height.

Rendering two slightly different versions of the same computer imagery is “a bit more difficult,” Claesen admits. “It’s double the work!” But stereoscopic 3-D/CGI is definitely the ‘challenge du jour’ for special-venue producers. The most experienced Hollywood studio in the field, Rhythm & Hues, currently is in production on a daunting stereoscopic project — a 3-D/CGI stereoscopic simulator ride in which the film will be projected on a giant dome.

“It’s never been done before,” says R&H producer Ellen Coss, who should know. Coss was at Universal for the creation of the breakthrough Back to the Future ride, and she was line producer on Seafari, an unprecedented mix of CGI and miniatures that Rhythm & Hues created for a Universal park in Japan. This new ride, slated for Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas, is a joint venture between ITT and Imax, and Coss calls it “the challenge of the century. It’s fantastic, and immersive. But it’s been difficult, and it took a lot of software.”

The necessity of writing special software in order to create these films is something that comes with the territory. All the studios tackling this business have specialists on staff to solve the technical problems that invariably arise.

Such problems are especially likely to happen on films that require combining CGI with live-action footage for projection in a dome. The ride film “Star Trek: The Experience,” which Rhythm & Hues just completed for the Las Vegas Hilton and Paramount Parks, presented this type of challenge.

Coss explains, “It was really difficult because in a dome there’s distortion with the live action. With motion-base ride obviously, you always want to keep the motion going — which is why CG is so great, because you can put the camera anywhere you want for the POV experience. With live-action, you can’t always do what you want with your camera. All of those pesky physics — like gravity — get in your way.”

And while the “choreography” of a computer camera move can be easily reprogrammed, Coss notes, “When you’re shooting live-action, you can’t tell the whole crew to sit tight while you go try out some footage on a motion base.”

Where the process becomes tough for CGI producers is when computer graphics have to blend seamlessly with live action, because as Coss notes, “We have to render the CG at a higher resolution, and that’s a killer. CG is wonderful for the camera motion, but it’s extremely expensive to fill up the frame.”

For the high rollers in Vegas, where special venues are the rage, several ambitious CG projects are underway. A 70 mm dome film for the Atlantis Forum Shops at Caesars Palace was just completed by the longtime Hollywood CGI shop MetroLight Studios. Not only did MetroLight create computer graphics for projection on the venue’s 90-foot dome, it also delivered the imagery that plays on 18 screens around the dome’s perimeter.

As producer John Follmer explains, “It’s almost like Circlevision. You get the feeling that you’re peering out of this structure to the environment around you.” At the finale of the Atlantis themed show, notes Follmer, “the dome structure we built in CG crumbles and you see it falling down around you in the 360-degree projection.” All the fire, water and other physical effects created in CG to suggest the demise of Atlantis kept MetroLight’s computers busy crunching numbers, Follmer says. “It took between two and five hours to render each frame.”

Follmer, who did one of the first CG special-venue films for Epcot back in 1985, sees the business expanding to include more films with realistic effects and 3-D animated characters. Currently, MetroLight is producing an “Islands of Adventure” film for Universal in Florida, which Follmer says “will involve projecting CG onto sheets of water. So we’re developing new techniques with the water screens as well as the imagery.”

It seems clear that special-venue CGI producers will only keep reaching for increasingly spectacular effects.

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