|A Massive achievement in more than one sense, Return of the King's all-digital crowd scenes achieved unprecedented scale|
BY ROY SPENCER
Weta Digital's work on The Return of the King was significant in that it encompassed a broad range of visual effects: from digital creatures to environmental work; from the use of digital doubles to battle scenes with hundreds of thousands of digital extras; from Gollum to greenery.
"The workload grew exponentially from film to film, with the visual effects requirement for each film being twice as complex as the one before it," says trilogy digital models supervisor Matt Aitken. "It made for a rollercoaster ride when it came to production, but it also enabled the facility to develop tools and approaches incrementally."
Aitken was responsible for delivering all the creature, digital double, environment and prop models on the film; as well as developing new modelling techniques and approaches, especially around the areas of facial animation and geometric detailing. He also did some software development, developing a suite of tools called Grove that Weta used to generate foliage on Treebeard and the Ents.
The movie epitomised many techniques that are now commonplace in large-scale effects work, including crowd simulation. Weta used its Massive software to choreograph the clash of the AI-driven armies. Another highlight was the all-digital Gollum (right), animated from Andy Serkis's reference performance: a rare example of a virtual character both emotionally engaging and technically impressive.
The Return of the King's appeal lay in its ability to combine visual spectacle - including sights that filmgoers had never seen before - with intimate stories of real emotional impact. "I think the film really connected with audiences because of this rare combination," says Aitken.
The battle for Pelennor Fields is the film's highpoint. It combined peerless crowd simulations of the clashing armies with the best creature work Weta had done up to that point, notably the gigantic Mumakil - all in an entirely digital environment.
"It was something we worked on polishing right up to the very last minute," says Aitke
|The first feature-length 3D animation, Toy Story proved that the medium wasn't just for kids - or only manageable within the confines of a short.|
BY RENEE DUNLOP
Toy Story, the first feature-length film done entirely in 3D, gave the world its first real glimpse of what was to come. In 1995, people didn't think a CG film could get an audience to the theatre. Toy Story stuck out its tongue at such a notion. "We proved them wrong," says supervising technical director Bill Reeves. "If you have a good story and good characters, you can use CG to create a movie that does $200 million at the box office and accolades up the wazoo." Using the technology's plastic look to its advantage, Pixar cast the movie with playthings that came to life when no one was around to see.
Oscar-winner Reeves had previously worked on Pixar shorts with a team far smaller than Toy Story's animated cast. Pixar started with four people; three, including Reeves, were in software, and John Lasseter worked as the animator. For four years Pixar created short films, developing the software for six months while Lasseter refined the ideas for the shorts. By Knick Knack, they reached 8-10 people, including the animators and producer. How times have changed.
When contracted to do Toy Story, the company grew to roughly 150 people: an unheard-of number for a CG project. 50-70 were on the technical team under Reeves, developing animation software and RenderMan, one of today's industry standards.
During development, Reeves certainly didn't expect Toy Story to have the impact that it did. He and the team were too wrapped up in completing the project to realise the change on the industry - indeed, on entertainment in general - that they were about to set in motion. It wasn't until Disney previewed the movie roughly a year in advance of its release that Pixar began to get a glimpse of what was to come. Two films were shown, but Toy Story caught the most attention. Everyone who saw it wanted more. "Once you start hearing that, it lights your fire to get it finished and make it as good as you can. And when it got released, it was like, wow, amazing!"
Though technology constantly improves, Toy Story still can hold its own against today's films. While its technical scope, the realism of its renders, and even its box-office takings have all been superseded by later movies, the film remains a genuine classic. It was the first step in the 90-plus-minute playground where the gold star can be an Academy Award.
RenderMan allowed the plastic shaders to work perfectly in a toy world, from Buzz Lightyear's gleaming spacesuit to the moulded green soldiers.
|Over 1,200 VFX shots were blended into the live action of the movie version of Frank Miller's graphic novel. Its sheer scale, on and off screen, reflects its ranking|
BY ROY SPENCER
Zack Snyder's movie is based on Frank Miller's fictionalised re-imagining of the great Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, in which the last remaining 300 Spartan warriors fought vast Persian hordes on ancient Greek shores. The sheer scale of the clash, and the uncompromising artwork that Miller and his colour artist Lynn Varley set out in their comic book, necessitated the use of full manpower from a clutch of top studios including Hybride Technologies, Hydraulx, Meteor Studios, Pixel Magic, Scanline, Animal Logic and Screaming Death Monkey.
Looking back at Hybride's work on the film, its visual effects producer Daniel Leduc remembers spending a lot of time researching what ancient Greece might have looked like. "Although the history of the story is not so important, the set was," he says. "We tried to stay true with the geography and everything, researching pictures and constantly redoing modelling tests."
Hybride's lead CG supervisor Philippe Theroux believes the year-and-a-half they were allowed to spend on post-production affected the final look of the film: while the extended time for deliberation and research and development allowed Hybride to really hone its work on the 25 minutes of the movie it contributed to, it also meant that the team also had the troublesome luxury of being able to change their minds and re-examine their work at any point.
"This is part of the reason why it was a difficult film to work on some times," says Theroux. "When you have a shorter project - we normally only take six to eight months on film projects - people have to think faster and are forced to take decisions and to take direction. 300 had more testing occurring at the beginning, and we were able to mess with effects, saying 'Oh, try that one. Now try that one.' It's fun to do because you are doing plenty of research, but sometimes it can mean you never finish."
Building on its blue- and greenscreen work laid down in the Spy Kids franchise and Frank Miller's previous big-screen adaptation Sin City, Hybride's team of 95 artists put their experience to good use in 300's memorable second battle scene, and the character Leonidas' tense encounter with a vicious 3D wolf at the beginning of the film.
From a 3D perspective, one of the challenges to overcome was the wolf character: a fictitious, frightening and repulsive animal that came from the depths of Frank Miller's fertile imagination, and that had to be re-created, in its entirety, using XSI. A cross-breed of hyena and wolf, with its mass of fur, strange gait and threatening facial expressions, it was a challenge for the 3D artists in charge of modelling, animation and texturing. On the director's request, an internal shader tool was developed especially to capture the snowflakes trapped between the wolf's coat hairs.
|The first film to star realistic CG animals set the bar for creature effects, opened directors' eyes to 3D - and, ultimately, rendered animatronics extinct|
BY BARBARA ROBERTSON
Why did so many people vote for Jurassic Park? No one knows the answer to that question better than does Dennis Muren at Industrial Light & Magic, who won one of his eight visual effects Oscars for the film. "It was the first time we had been able to put living breathing synthetic animals in a live-action movie," says Muren. "No one had seen anything like it. The reality hadn't been done before; the naturalism."
Muren credits dinosaur supervisor Phil Tippett and, of course, director Steven Spielberg for pushing the unsafe documentary film style. "We wanted the animals to create the feeling that we wouldn't know what was going to happen next," Muren says.
Because creating CG animals was so new, Muren set up two systems: stop motion and CG. "The animators hadn't worked on real animals," he says. "No one had." Even though the CG animals soon proved themselves, Stan Winston's puppets starred in close-ups in most of the film. "When we started, I didn't think we could do anything closer than a full-length dinosaur in CG. But we pushed closer and closer. Near the end of the film, in the rotunda sequence when the T rex walks in and the raptor jumps on its back, I was confident enough to try close-ups."
ILM's 56 CG shots and 6.5 minutes of screen time also included a digidouble for the lawyer (actor Martin Ferrero) as the T rex snags him out of a bathroom, and a face replacement for a character who falls through the floorboards during a raptor attack.
Muren recalls: "George [Lucas] came by occasionally, and one time said, 'This looks pretty good.' I said: 'Yeah, I'm hoping we can do something like 2001, something brand new.' He said: 'You guys are doing it and you don't know it.' It wasn't until it was over that I realised he was probably right."
The breathtaking glimpse of the bulky brachiosaurus moving gracefully in a field and the groundbreaking raptor and T rex fight near the end changed creature animation.
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