Off-the-shelf tools speak same lingo

Software most expensive part of operation

Though the biggest shops still develop all sorts of nifty proprietary systems for dealing with different aspects of feature effects, there’s an increasing emphasis on off-the-shelf software for 2-D compositing and even 3-D animation work.

The reason? More and more chefs stirring the same pot of visual effects on jobs with lots of digital shots.

“On ‘Independence Day,’ we had 500 shots spread around a whole bunch of different companies, and we learned that if something done on an inhouse system was turned over to another house for more work, we were in trouble,” recalls Craig Mumma, an effects supervisor on the 1996 blockbuster.

“Ever since that experience, I’ve believed in off-the-shelf,” adds Mumma, now a veep and supervisor at Santa Monica’s Digital.Art.Media. “Our aim is to be competitive yet compatible.”

For film compositing, Mumma likes Shake 2.4 from Venice, Calif.-based software developer Nothing Real. Selling for about $10,000 a license, Shake offers high-end compositing at a low-end price, he says.

“Studios have gotten very aggressive in their effects schedules but at the same time they’ve (backed off) on what they want to pay,” Mumma laments.

Using lower-cost software like Shake, which runs on SGI, Linux and Windows N/T systems, instead of pricier Discreet mainstays such as Inferno or Flame helps reduce tech costs, he adds.

Of course, the folks at Montreal-based Discreet see things more than a bit differently.

“These are turn-key systems and very serious high-end systems,” says Discreet’s Dave Campbell of the company’s effects and editing systems. “Some of them can cost up to $1 million to buy, but then you will be assured that you have the top machine on the market.”

Discreet recently announced upgrades for Flame and Inferno, and for its Smoke and Fire finishing systems.

Alias/Wavefront’s Maya has been embraced warmly to the collective bosom of the f/x industry since the 3-D animation system’s intro in 1998. At the recent National Assn. of Broadcasters 2001 trade show, the company introduced a Maya 4 upgrade that boosts rendering capabilities of the high-end modeling and animation package.

“We had gotten hundreds of suggestions on how to improve the production pipeline, and we’ve tried to include as many of those kind of enhancements as we could,” says Alias/Wavefront’s Mark Sylvester.

Alias/Wavefront parent Silicon Graphics recently rolled out an add-on for its Onyx and Octane effects systems called DMediaPro. The option offers dual-definition capabilities, which allow for easy maneuvering among varying resolutions within the same f/x job.

Jim Kristoff, prexy at Metrolight Studios, says the L.A.-based company uses Silicon Graphics-driven Maya software for its 3-D work, plus Pixar’s RenderMan.

Metrolight has 17 Maya licenses, with per-unit costs of up to $17,000 for the highest-end package. RenderMan costs about $5,000 a pop, Kristoff estimates.

For compositing, he likes Silicon Grail’s Chalice — which can be had as cheaply as $3,000 a license and is also available for rental — and is anxious to try out new Chalice upgrade Rayz. For its paint systems, Metrolight employs an up-to-date version of Adobe’s venerable Photoshop, and Avid’s newer Elastic Reality and Matador programs.

“Software is the most expensive part of your operations,” Kristoff observes. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Metrolight’s recent effects jobs included several shots in “Blow,” “Driven” and “Josie & the Pussycats.”

Meanwhile, though proprietary systems may not promote easy transport of jobs among different vendors, f/x giant Industrial Light & Magic still uses a lot of software of its own devising. For one thing, the Marin County, Calif.-based company boasts a 1,400-employee work force of sufficient size to handle jobs smaller companies would have to share.

Cliff Plumer, ILM’s director of digital production technologies, says he is particularly high on some recently developed systems that help film directors “visualize talent in a synthetic environment.”

On one recent pic — he can’t say which — a helmer wanted some help visualizing a scene set for heavy digital overlay in post-prod. To allow him to “re-compose” the shot for live action as he’d visualized it on storyboards, the ILM applications took images of thesps acting out their lines and wrapped them into a virtual set.

“It was like doing a real-time composite on the set,” Plumer explains.

In the same spirit, ILM used a real-time motion capture system on “The Mummy Returns” to composite a computer-generated character with performers on a separate stage. That way, director Stephen Sommers was able to view more complete dailies as the production progressed.

And for George Lucas’ next “Star Wars” prequel, ILM is building systems to allow the use of digital cameras on motion-control stations for miniature work.

“That’s so that on the same day as we’re shooting digital, a creative can see instant feedback on a move,” Plumer notes.

But even ILM uses some off-the-shelf software. For instance, Plumer is thrilled that Maya soon will be available in a Macintosh version, which Alias/Wavefront has promised will be available this summer.

It will be a great boon for ILM’s pre-production and visualization operations, where the company has used Lightwave software that isn’t compatible with systems used in post. ILM has had to convert Lightwave files for post, which makes for more work and subjects materials to data drain.

“There hasn’t been a lot of strong (off-the-shelf) 3-D applications historically,” he observes. “So, now working with Maya … provides a strong 3-D application that integrates well what we do in post-production.”

Helping ILM link its post pros and studio production execs –often over great distances — is Picture PipeLine, an L.A.-based venture controlled by tech group TRW, with minority support from Warner Bros. Picture PipeLine helps ILM and other clients through software- and hardware-based services that facilitate the exchange of digital dailies and execution of data file transfers, among other tasks.

Still, with an f/x empire so vast, ILM likely will need to continue developing proprietary systems of various sorts, if only to integrate its many tools into a seamless process.

“It really is a big systems-integration process,” Plumer says. “There is no single system you can just buy off the shelf and plug in and play.”