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Archive for March 3rd, 2010

AVATAR, Star Trek, and District 9, oh my!

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

I visited the Autodesk Gallery at 1 Market St., in San Francisco last week to meet the special effects gurus and video colorists behind some of the latest block buster movies.  As it turned out Autodesk software and expertise is at the production heart of 2010 academy award nominees Avatar (Lightstorm Entertainment), Star Trek (ILM) and District 9 (TriStar Pictures, Inc.) and is used by virtually all the major studios.



In making “Avatar,” James Cameron’s creative vision was brought to fruition when Lightstorm Entertainment filmmakers used Autodesk MotionBuilder performance capture software to apply live acting performances to digital characters.  This combo was then viewed in real time in virtual environments prebuilt with MotionBuilder and Autodesk Maya visual effects, animation and rendering software.  The Lightstorm Entertainment team also used Autodek Mudbox digital sculpting software to create assets, and then Maya was again used for final scene creation and finishing.

The MotionBuilder experience is one that has to be seen to be fully appreciated.  I was fortunate enough to get a copy of the Making of Avatar which presents a behind the scenes look at this latest technological leap, and I’ve posted it here on ShareCG for your viewing enjoyment.

Star Trek
Star Trek

Industrial, Light & Magic (ILM) relies on Autodesk’s digital entertainment software to create the effects for their hot releases including “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” “Terminator Salvation” and “Star Trek.”

For “Star Trek” ILM created 797 shots on some of the largest CG models it’s ever built using a combination of tools, including Maya and Inferno.  Using the hardware rendering tools of Maya, ILM was able to animate 70 shots in five days – a process that typically takes months to produce.

In this summer’s upcoming Harry Potter installment 80 artists contributed 165 shots to the film using a combination of Maya and inferno.  The scope of ILM’s work on this film includes extensive photorealistic fluid simulation of fire and water and crowd duplications scenes that include thousands of animated characters in a single shot.

District 9
District 9

The animation and visual effects work for District 9 was awarded to Image Engine by TriStar Pictures, Inc.  The Image Engine people were tasked to create creatures known as prawns, which live right among us in a recognizable setting – Johannesburg, South Africa.  The challenge was to crate aliens so credible that people would simply accept them and the premise from the start.

To do this they wrote dynamic simulations for the rigs that facilitated and automated the animation of their facial expressions, like the movement of the creature’s antennae and tentacles.  The creatures also have bright skin colors and textures inspired from the insect world, and the challenge was to make them appear realistic against the subdued Soweto landscape.

All the creatures were principally animated using a combination of key framing, rotomation and other animation techniques available in Maya and Autodesk Motion Builder software so they could move in ways humans can’t, like leaping off a roof!

Academy Award Winning Lustre 2010
Academy Award 2010
I got to witness Lustre 2010 in action.  Color determines the underlying mood of a movie.  If you’ve seen the Matrix you’ll most likely remember its green tinted not quite real look.  The coloring in this and many movies sets its underlying mood and even sways the way an audience feels about the experience.  Lustre is a video colorist’s dream, and allows him or her to alter this mood frame by frame, scene by scene, or across the entire film.

I was shown how Lustre’s up to 48 secondary layers allow the colorist to draw attention to or from specific elements in a shot.  In my demonstration the colorist quickly drew a highlight outline around an actors face, adjusted its light intensity, and then I watched as this targeted intensity setting followed the actor through the scene.   He also used this technique to darken a portion of a scene to pull it back visually from its surroundings.

I was also impressed by the way Lustre brings details, like complex cloud gradients into sharp relief.  I’ve been playing with a photographic technique called HDR Tone Mapping which does the same for still photographs, and was wondering if there was a video counterpart.  When I saw the results produced by Lustre I knew there was, and it was powerful.  I’ve posted an example of HDR Tone Mapping on ShareCG so you can get the picture.

Lustre has helped shape the look and feel of hundreds of films, including “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “The Da Vinci Code,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.” And, to top it all off, Autodesk Lustre was honored with an Academy Award on February 20, 2010 for design and development of Lustre for digital color grading for film and television.

It was a great day in the ‘City’ and after being bombarded with information at the Gallery, I finally kicked back, strolled through SF and took some photographs – there’s one of the Bay Bridge that you might want to look up on ShareCG.  If you’d like more information about HDR Tone Mapping, just ask.  I’m happy to help.  If you need more information about some of the software and techniques mentioned here, I’m sure that Autodesk will be more than happy to give you the straight skinny.

Till next time —– Enjoy the site!


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