H’wood borrows gamers’ toolbox

Barriers between film/tv, vidgames blurred by motion capture, other tech

With today’s games creating increasingly realistic animation and rendering in real time, more technology that originated in games is influencing the way animation and effects are being done in film and TV — and vice versa.

“When you look at the latest cutting-edge games — the ones that haven’t been released yet — the graphics quality is exceeding what’s on television,” says Lorne Lanning, president of Oddworld Inhabitants and creator of the “Oddworld” game.

One example of movie technology that originated in another industry is motion capture. The technology, originally designed by Vicon to analyze the movements of cerebral-palsy patients, has long been used by effects artists but has also become an essential game development application.

“Motion capture allows game designers to create libraries of pre-rendered motions that are instantly blended together during game play,” says Jon Damush, head of business development at Vicon.

Jacob Hawley, CEO, president and founder of gaming-software company TKO, is using the method to produce 10 animated features. “We’re producing them for $400,000 apiece by using libraries of movements and by having a backend rendering farm that is several orders of magnitude more efficient,” he says.

The company also has used motion capture to create realistic likenesses of actor Matthew McConaughey for its upcoming game “Sahara,” based on the holiday movie of the same name.

Other technologies that have found homes in both industries include Discreet’s 3Ds Max, which is widely used by both filmmakers and game designers. Discreet’s Dave Campbell says the device’s speed allows smaller visual-effects vendors to compete with the larger shops. Also, Fountainhead Entertainment’s Machinima technology enables directors to select character and camera position, lighting and all cinematic details instantaneously in pre-rendered 3D environments, creating animated sequences with a twist of their fingers.

Fueling this process is the hardware. Ujesh Desai, desktop products general manager at NVIDIA, says how his company’s latest graphics processor allows much greater realism in animation. “We’ve added a feature called 64-bit texture filtering and blending,” says Desai. “This feature is compatible with an animation rendering technique developed by ILM called OpenEXR.” The new chip, called the G46800, can instantly create such subtle effects as realistic hair, sunlight filtered through water and light reflections off skin.

And on film-to-game projects, the work done on one side can be adapted to the other.

Mark Skaggs, a game developer at Electronic Arts who recently worked on “The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth,” used original graphic elements built for the film with millions of polygons.