Compositing program slices steps for busy filmmakers

It was the kind of tech news that is often overlooked amid Emmy nominations, World Cup and LeBronmania.

But Walt Disney Animation Studio’s recent announcement that it is adopting the Foundry’s Nuke compositing software — the first time the Mouse’s toon shop has licensed commercial software — signals an important shift in digital production. Nuke is not only becoming the de facto standard for CG production, it’s changing the way CG artists work, shrinking the vfx pipeline to save both time and money.

“I think it is revolutionizing compositing,” says Mark Breakspear, vfx supervisor at CIS Vancouver, where compositors recently used Nuke to create complex environments for the upcoming film “Salt.” Chris Balog, compositor at Industrial Light & Magic, says, “We couldn’t have done ‘Iron Man 2′ without it.”

Nuke’s biggest impact has been on the way CG environments are created.

In a traditional workflow, when a shot calls for a digital background, matte painters build it using digital models, then send the models through rendering, where they get textures and colors, and are positioned at the correct depth. Compositors assemble the result like a jigsaw puzzle with live action and CG elements.

The problem, especially for 3D movies, is that the 2D images are on flat planes. They look fine when viewed from straight ahead, but when viewed from the side — or in 3D — they look like layers in a pop-up book.

But artists and compositors working in Nuke can paint directly on the models or apply a photograph to the surface to add detail. Then, rather than collaging a final shot, they can look at the scene in three dimensions.

The compositors can easily position a 3D model or another 2D image between the layers at exactly the depth they want. If a supervisor or director wants to change or move an element, the compositor can do it quickly, without involving the rendering and lighting departments.

“We took on Nuke during ‘Avatar’ for its stereo capabilities,” says Ben Morris, vfx supervisor at Framestore. Like many shops, Framestore originally had just a few Nuke workstations.

But for “Prince of Persia,” the company licensed copies of Nuke for all its artists because of its speed and flexibility. “Because it’s a 3D system at its core, it’s blurring the line between what we do in CG and compositing,” Morris says. “And that’s exciting.”

With Nuke, Digital Domain was able to build a CG New York at night for “Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief” early in the pipeline, rather than at the end.

“We had the people who capture information on set, and track the camera, build the city by applying photos they took to simple geometry, and assemble the city in Nuke, rather than going down the traditional route of modeling and lighting, which is a huge operation,” says Thad Beier, head of CG. “It was faster and less expensive.”

Balog used Nuke to attach 2D elements to live action images and CG models for “Iron Man 2.”

“I had shots where I had to blow up cars filmed on set,” he says. “In Nuke, I knew exactly where the car was in 3D space. I could place an explosion on top of the car and it would track perfectly with the camera. Same with the jets on (CG) Iron Man. I could put (photos of fiery plumes) onto his hands and feet and they’d move with him.”

Nuke originally was developed at Digital Domain and earned its developers a 2001 Sci-Tech Academy Award. After Apple dropped support for its popular compositing program Shake, DD turned Nuke into a commercial product. In 2007, the Foundry bought the software. Recently, sales have rocketed.

“People here were nervous when we let Nuke out of the building,” DD’s Beier says, “but they don’t miss the fact that it’s not an inhouse product any more. It works.”

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