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Archive for March 2011


Reflections on SIRT Conference

A recent opportunity allowed me to make new friends up in the Toronto area. Sheridan College and the SIRT Centre (Screen Industries Research and Training Centre) invited me to represent the Previsualization Society and speak on its educational mandate. In addition to my talk on the types of previsualization, I participated on a panel discussing the interaction between previsualization artists and the rest of the production crew. Two other Society representatives were present. Ron Frankel from Proof gave an interesting talk on his experiences with the Previzion system from Lightcraft and David Morin supplied his usual speaking sophistication to the event's keynote lecture.

The event was held in the Pinewood Toronto Studios facility. John Helliker and his team did a tremendous job of transforming one of Pinewood's sound stages for the event. The space was nicely divided up into a lounge space, vendor booth areas, a motion capture volume, and the main speaking stage.

Viacon Mocap Volume

There was a great array of speakers. I particularly enjoyed Parag Havaldar's overview of Sony's virtual production pipeline. Starz Animation's Rob Burton gave us a sneak peak at his company's live action / CG hybrid production Lovebirds, and the various motion capture demonstrations showing the value of virtual cinematography were presented by Jimmy Corvan (Viacon), Jarrod Kozeal (Vicon), Jeff Beavers, Rob Aitchison (Autodesk) and Brian Gedge.

Events like these are very important. Not only are they a venue for new technologies and production techniques, but they also play a critical role in emphasizing the value previsualization provides to any production. Previsualization not only provides effective planning and conceptual sequence design to large scale vfx films, but it also seems to awaken the sleeping director within. So many people seem to instinctively gravitate towards previs because previs is at a stage where it can act as a doorway to those wishing to break into the film, game and television industries. In other words, previs makes the idea of filmmaking accessible to all. This is being further emphasized and reinforced by the advent of Virtual Production. Granted, films like Avatar give the impression that Virtual Production and previs is only a game for the financially equipped, but I would suggest otherwise. People see the potential of these technologies and techniques and want a piece of the action. I intend to expand on the differences between these to disciplines in another blog post.

CN Tower

After the event on Thursday, a group of us went out to dinner. Being in Toronto, we came to the quick conclusion that a trip up the CN Tower was in order. This is quite a structure and the views were spectacular. I must admit that the "revolving" aspect of the restaurant at 1500 to 1600 feet left a little bit to be desired, but the food was fantastic. Thank you to all who participated, particularly those who picked up the tab.

View from the CN Tower


Beautiful Singapore

Singapore is really beautiful...not to mention really, really warm. Why didn't I realize that its only a few degrees off the equator? I can't imagine what it would be like living there in the heat of true summer. For the locals, its all taken in stride. I however broke out in heat rash.

I traveled over to this wonderful city to teach a 2 day master class at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. By Singapore's standards a polytechnic isn't a junior college and its not really a full university either. Essentially its a private preparatory school designed to prepare students for going to a university.

Ngee Ann's curriculum is diverse and they've taken upon themselves to provide Singapore with a very comprehensive computer graphics and animation program. A smart move when you consider Singapore's ability to attract companies like ILM and Double Negative to set up shop a few miles away.

The class was divided into two days. The first day was for a comprehensive set of lectures between Rob Dressel (Disney), Hock Hian Wong (Dreamworks) and myself. Both Rob and Hock work as senior layout artists, a field closely related to previs. The second day was a dedicated class where I presented a concentrated, but abbreviated version of my 10 week Gnomon class here in LA.

Overall, I thought it went well. I could have used a third day due to time constraints. Its difficult to cram so much information into such a short period of time. Thankfully we did get a day or two to sight see. Saw some cool religious temples and here are a few pictures of the Singapore Flyer, Singapore's skyline and some colorful birds from the Jurong Bird Park for your viewing pleasure.


Up in the Flyer

Jurong Bird Park

Star Trek at the Academy

I consider myself really lucky to be able to address the public and my peers at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' main theater. (The Linwood Dunn Theater). As part of the Previs Society, we were approached to discuss the topic of previsualization by the Science and Technology Council and the Public Programs and Educational Subcommittee of the Academy. Star Trek was a pretty successful film and it was the kind of high profile gig the subcommittee was looking for.

The program was relatively simple. Chris Edwards from the Third Floor would begin the lecture with a brief historical overview of previsualization. It would then be followed by the main Star Trek presentation and finally a third, shorter overview of the value of previs would be discussed. The moderator was Damon Lindelof.

David Dozoretz and I presented two sequences. The Space Jump sequence and the Mind Meld sequence. Each were intended as examples of the "good" and "bad" that previs can offer a production. Space Jump, for all intensive purposes, was a success. It was unquestionably a great example of what previs can offer a director. Our team spent many months creating multiple versions of this sequence, but it was necessary to really capture the essence of what JJ Abrams' wanted for this particular scene. Along with it being a good example of conceptual sequence design, it also provided some solid technical data.

Mind Meld on the other hand was filled with too much exposition. It was a long and drawn out sequence that droned on and on but if it wasn't for the previs, it could have been difficult to make this determination so readily. David Dozoretz has it right to say when previs "fails" its still of value because it allows the director to know what he does or doesn't want in his/her film. This distinction is just as important as creating a sequence that everybody falls in love with. By seeing this sequence play out, both JJ and the editors had a better idea of what to cut in order to make the sequence work. Its the process doing its job.

Roger Guyett, Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey's comments about the value of previs to the VFX and editorial process were well received. I thought they had some valuable observations regarding the interexchange between editorial and previs. The ability to co-locate these departments together is something that should happen on every film whenever possible.

Finally it was time for Wally Pfister and Alex McDowell to take the stage to discuss with Chris Edwards and Damon Lindelof the value and limitations of previs. During the main presentation, there was a lot of talk about taking previs "too far". This was particularly observed regarding how much character animation and emotional expression previs animation should possess. Lindelof and Pfister grabbed onto this topic and ran with it during the third presentation.

Pfister argued that there was no room for emotional expression in previs. Technical data is previs' core purpose and spending time and money on unnecessary animated articulation and emotional expressions were basically a waste of time. It was the actor's job, not the previs artist, to supply performance. From a practicality perspective I can understand his position. However, I didn't agree with it any more than me telling a storyboard artist not to draw body language, gestures or facial expressions into his boards.

My experience tells me that an emotional response from previs is not only possible, its expected. Many times I've seen clients get so invested in the previsualization that they forget they're watching the film in such a "crude" form. Emotional energy can be conveyed in so many ways. Not only do we have the animated character's rough performance, but once you start adding sound effects, a sound track, and a dynamically edited cut to improve continuity and pacing, the result automatically begins to set an emotional tone. This "tone" can influence not only the director, but the various studio executives (for approval or budgetary enhancements) and actors alike (especially if the actor is conveying an CG character).

Critics should realize that the budgetary "cost" of including extra articulation and facial expressions is relatively inexpensive. Blend shapes, exchangeable animation, the tracks editor, full body IK, and motion capture are part of our toolset now. There's no reason why we shouldn't take advantage of those technologies to improve the communication process within the scene.


Anigames and Columbia

One of the benefits of Siggraph 2010 was the opportunity to meet Jimmy Martinez from Naska Digital. He had a proposition for me. A new conference was developing down in Latin America called the Anigames Expo. Intended as the first of its kind, Jimmy extended an invite for me to come down to Columbia to talk about previsualization to his students. How could I say no?

Like most Americans, from what I gather, I was a little concerned about the idea of traveling to South America. Our general impression of Columbia is a country riddled with strife, drugs, and unrest. I'm not going to say these things are not a concern of Columbia, there were its share of armed guards on the streets and drug sniffing dogs stationed at the entrance of my hotel, however what I found in Bogota was a pleasant surprise.

The Dome

Bogota is a thriving and modern city. The Expo was held at what appears to be a science and technology museum of sorts. The most impressive part of the facility was its domed theatre. It could house at least 400 to 500 occupants and utilized a threefold projection system. As a result, lecturers could display three different streams at one time, or for high definition output, the image could be spliced together across the three projectors. The result was nearly 130 degrees of viewing area. Pretty cool. It kind of reminded me of a mini Cinerama Dome.

There were a reasonable amount of vendors located on the show floor. Small by US standards. But the message was clear. Columbia wanted to prove that there was an interest the animation and gaming communities. I saw various recognizable gaming vendors, local broadcast design companies showing off their capabilities, and of course the obligatory booth babe...Columbian style.

The Columbian government was also on hand represented by the organization known as ProExport Columbia. This group worked with the show organizers and the lecturers to obtain more information on how Columbia could become a center of animation talent. I'm finding a number of countries are trying to export their talent base as a means to attract more business into their region of the world. If Columbia fosters more events like this one, along with improving its educational base...who knows....in 5 years we may be exporting roto and wireframe removal tasks to Columbia rather than India or other various asian countries. Personally, I was impressed. Hats off to Naska Digital for helping to organize a fantastic event.

Tasty Soup

One the last night of my trip, the organizers of the event took us out for a traditional Columbian meal. The main course was a very tasty chicken corn chowder. Although I'm not that much of a drinker, they did have a nice selection of beers. The desert was a form of flan or pudding. Also very good. I highly recommend it.

Update: Here's a nice video overview of the event.


Siggraph 2010

Siggraph 2010 was like most Siggraphs, a treat for my inner techno geek. I was slated to speak at the Autodesk booth each day on behalf of the Previs Society. In addition to that I had the opportunity to speak at the Autodesk Educational Summit that proceeding Monday.

Each presentation was packed. I was truly impressed by the level of interest folks are showing towards previsualization. This is a good thing. It means the message is getting out there. But even more interesting than the folks out on the main show floor were the teachers and instructors who approached me after the Educational Summit. Everyone was curious about obtaining teaching materials that concentrated on previs.

Its true that there is very little available on the subject previs that is being taught at the various art, animation and film schools around the country. Thus I really want to take on this mantel to ensure previs instruction and the Society's message gets out to those interested in hearing it.

As far as the rest of Siggraph? Well there were the usual suspects present. It was nice to see the latest offerings from the various software firms out there. But as most people seem to realize every year....Siggraph keeps shrinking. This really comes at no surprise considering the costs involved in obtaining a booth. A number of companies are "virtualizing" their presence at Siggraph by providing a streaming simulcast of what's going on at their booth. Autodesk was doing this and it seems a good strategy.

I doubt we'll ever see the Siggraph's of the late 90's again...but we all must change with the times.