Phoning in the effects

The vision is becoming increasingly clear — harness telecommunications technology so movie makers can “phone” images across town or around the world, and even collaborate in real time with people at different sites. For practitioners of visual effects, this vision is becoming a reality.

At ILM, online collaboration has become a regular part of the work process, used on such films as “Jurassic Park,” “Twister” and “Dragonheart.” As director of production engineering Fred Meyers says, “We’ve done things as simple as moving pictures and sound over a network to a remote location for a director to review at a later date. And we’ve also scaled our system up to have what you might call a very high-end teleconferencing session that’s tailored to the specifics of creating special effects.” That includes the capability to view images at higher than broadcast quality and dissect each frame. ILM’s system, explains Meyers, “enables each party to step through a scene frame by frame or at variable speeds, as well as mark-up or point to areas on the image.”

Multiple players

The process of online production often calls for more than a two-way conversation. Meyers says, “We’ve scaled our system to include multiple links, where more than two or three sites can participate, getting a director at one location, a producer at another and ILM all involved.”

But Meyers notes that this process still must be approached on a case-by-case basis. He sends this equipment out with an engineer to install it at the remote location, and has three staffers who wrangle the connectivity issues.

One online session might require routing through a regional carrier like Pacific Bell, a national one like AT&T and uplinking to a satellite through Vyvx.

“A single-point service is not here yet,” he says.

It undoubtedly will take time for filmmakers to get used to working online with the meter running. The large bandwidth required for these sessions, Meyers notes, “has a dollar value associated with it, and it’s mileage-sensitive and time-sensitive. It really takes a director or producer at each end of the line to know how to use the system cost-effectively, so they’re not shooting the bull at megabucks a minute.”

Once moviemakers are exposed to this way of working, there’s no forgetting it. Universal Pictures VP John Swallow saw ILM’s approach in action on “Dragonheart,” and became what he calls a “Pied Piper” for online collaboration. Swallow was on location in Rome, where ILM was sending Beta SP images via satellite for review. “It was a very good quality way to look at the dragon being done,” he recalls.

He notes that today’s technology provides images good enough for interim shot approvals to be handled online, but says, “I can’t do anything near a final. That still has to be done on film — at least until we start doing all of our movies digitally.”

In Swallow’s L.A. office today sits a Silicon Graphics workstation connected to the Sprint Drums network. This system, which permits image transfers and real-time collaboration, was first tested by Universal during production of “Dante’s Peak,” and is being used for “Simple Wish” and “Virus.”

To serve the needs of “Virus,” which is shooting in North Carolina and Virginia, Sprint configured a portable system called Drums Roll. Packed into an anvil case are the computer, tape deck, camera, monitor, printer and telecom equipment required to connect to the network. From his East Coast locations, director John Bruno can review the effects footage being shot in L.A., Swallow says. “He can look at the moves we’re shooting with motion control and say, ‘Yes, I like that,’ or, ‘No, I want something else.’

Please hold for image

“The biggest problem,” Swallow observes, “is the time frame required to get a T1 phone line in place. You’ve got to plan in advance to get that to happen.” But in the future, he envisions, “We won’t be trapped on a T1 line. Ultimately it will be satellite, and we’ll just book the time. All I want is to make a phone call — to get images from here to there tomorrow at 1 o’clock — and let the telco companies figure out how to do it. What filmmakers are looking for is the equivalent of a dial tone.”

Once connectivity issues are solved and the necessary computer terminals get cheaper, Swallow believes that the idea of a “virtual studio” will become possible. “Then we’ll be able to access people wherever they want to live, and it will be a whole new ball game.”

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