Vidgame-inspired innovations go mainstream

From the early days of Pong onward, millions of gamers have been entertained by animation that changes instantly in response to the player’s every move, even though such real-time graphics have mainly been a clunky cousin to the sophisticated CG of movies like “Toy Story” that were rendered slowly, frame by frame. Yet today real-time graphics are getting some serious respect — and beginning to transform film and television production.

“The first thing everyone always asks is: When are real-time graphics going to be as good as what we see in the movies?” says Dan Vivoli, senior vice president at nVidia. “The answer to that is probably never.”

Today’s most advanced graphics chip is still 15 years to 25 years behind what massed computers in a render farm are able to achieve. A frame that takes four hours to render on a farm would take 17 years using a single graphics-processing-unit chip like those found in PCs.

Even so, real-time animation is playing an important and growing part in film and TV production.

Warner Bros. was impressed enough with Digital Domain’s game engine for “Thundercats” to ask DD for a test to see whether the engine could be used for an animated feature version of the property. While Warner ultimately passed, it points to the seriousness with which people are taking real-time graphics.

“I’d say we’re at the point where it’s pretty significant,” says DD’s CEO, Cliff Plumer. “You’re not going to do something on the scale of photo-realism like we did on ‘Benjamin Button,’ but if you’re going for a more stylized look, you can achieve that today.”

French studio Delacave took the next step, making the feature “The True Story of Puss ‘n Boots” with real-time animation. It’s currently working on a new version of “Cinderella” made with the same technique.

“You can test something, then you can try something new and it costs nothing,” says CEO Pascal Herold. “When you have done one film like that, you cannot imagine going back to the old way.”

To underscore the technology’s growing acceptance among CG experts, real-time animation will be included for the first time in Siggraph’s Computer Animation Festival this year, though not in competition.

“I think it makes the festival more current, more relevant,” says Ronen Barzel, chair of Siggraph 2009 conference. “It helps join in breaking down the barriers between the games world and Hollywood.”

In Hollywood, real-time animation is getting a toehold through visualization of virtual sets.

Visualization during shooting — some wags thus call it “dur-viz” — is crude compared with the final product, but it’s good enough to be passed along as a starting point for the artists who will finish the shots.

ABC’s reboot of the alien-invasion skein “V,” for example, uses the Zeus system from Culver City-based vfx shop Zoic Studios, which lets actors work on minimal sets in front of greenscreens. Zeus replaces greenscreens with digital sets, letting the director and d.p. check the lighting in front of something not far from the final background.

“What real time allows us to do is give the director an excellent indication of what they’re going to be looking at, so the cutting process is smoother and the approval process is smoother,” says Andrew Orloff, Zoic’s creative director and visual effects supervisor.

That cut turnaround time for the visual effects from the standard six weeks or eight weeks down to just three weeks.

Admittedly, there are some compromises with real-time animation. The precise control of a frame-by-frame approach is sacrificed for shorter turnaround times and easier visualization. And it could impact some Hollywood professions. Painters and set builders, for instance, could see demand for their services slow down. But visual effects artists would thrive, becoming more active on set, conferring with d.p.s to ensure a scene’s look is correct, Orloff predicts.

It will also further open Hollywood to artists who have cut their teeth on videogames using real-time animation.

“I think you’re going to see a merging of the skill sets of the gaming world and the film world in a very real way,” he says. “Two TV seasons from now, you’ll see more and more shows doing this. It’s not decades away, it’s (just a few) years.”

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