Post-production isn’t a great term for what we do anymore,” says Framestore’s head of commercials, Helen Stanley. “Visual effects production is better. Yes, there’s still post – titling, conforming and cleaning up areas of sky, taking out a bit of rig or wires etc – but a lot of companies such as Framestore create up to 70% of what you see on screen. It’s intense, it takes a lot of skilled people, it’s creative. More and more, what we’re doing here doesn’t happen after the event. Directors [such as James Cameron, with whom they are working on forthcoming feature Avatar] collaborate with us before going to shoot.”
Jordi Baras, head of 3D at The Mill agrees. “In the last four or five years, things have moved really fast to a stage where now it’s very common for us to be involved in meetings before a job actually starts. Having a clear plan of action from the start can save money and time.”
Baras cites the recent Barclaycard Waterslide commercial from agency bbh as a great example of working in this way. “One of the key things on that job is that we were in at the beginning. We were able to define things so that by the time we went to the shoot, we knew exactly what needed to be done and how it would all look because we’d done so many tests and planned the whole thing thoroughly.”
Regular cr readers may recognise Baras’ name as we interviewed him about his work on TBWALondon’s Mountain ad for PlayStation 2, on which he utilised the then commercially unavailable, cutting edge, crowd-generating software package, Massive. The software had been written by Stephen Regelous for the making of the Lord of The Rings trilogy of films and marked a breakthrough in vfx, allowing vast amounts of CG characters to behave realistically in crowd scenes. Baras and his team created about 40,000 CG extras for the ps2 ad back in 2003.
According to Baras, Massive has led him and his team at The Mill towards a more abstract way of working, where, rather than animating one specific movement or character at a time for a specific shot, software systems allow much more experimentation. “We’ve invested a lot of time in developing systems that can handle hair, cloth dynamics, fluids, water and all of those things,” he says. “Now we are starting to look at procedural ways of building things such as buildings or trees.” This involves software that is loaded with enough knowledge to be able to respond to a set of requests. Knowledge, for example, of how buildings are constructed or how trees grow. So rather than creating everything from scratch, you can literally check boxes in a window of the software to say you want a Roman-style villa with so many floors of a certain size and the software, which knows the difference between a Roman brick and a breezeblock, conjures up such a building.
All this means that creating CG environments as vast as a city is becoming faster and faster. “We can explore things because we have more time,” says Baras. “In the past we’d have to commit to an end goal or vision – now we have the time to at least try various avenues until we’re happy. The ultimate goal is to be able to change almost everything right up to the last minute. In Guinness Tipping Point we built the final giant pint made up from lots of books in CG in such a way that if the client wanted, they could change loads of things about it really easily – they could change the number of books, the size of the books, the height of the pint, the speed of the pages flipping etc. And, just two days before delivery, it was decided we needed another row of books but, because we built it using a set of rules, it was not a problem to make that change. Actually that change took about five minutes.”
Over at The Moving Picture Company (MPC), software has also been developed in-house that can deal with animating different objects. “We have a big research and development department here: we were working on fluids and crowds and environmental work but the focus recently has been on creatures,” says Graham Bird, managing director of commercials and TV at MPC. “We’ve invested a huge amount of r&d to create Furtility – which is our fur-system – but also to create our in-house rigging and muscle systems. When you put all of these different packages together it gives you the ability to produce almost any creature you want.”
While MPC’s creature-creating capabilities are up to broadcast standard right now, Bird reveals that there is something looming on the horizon which will be
a major milestone in vfx history: the production of photo-real humans. “We’re working on a couple of shows at the moment,” he tells us, “which are requiring us to create photo-real digital doubles of actors, which are able to stand up on screen alongside human actors and which are that good that no one can tell the difference, even if that digital double delivers a line.”
Jordi Baras at The Mill suspects it will take several years before convincing CG humans hit our screens but suggests that people coming into VFX companies from diverse backgrounds such as anatomy, or engineering (Baras himself comes from an architecture background) can only help this and other advances in CG capability. “There’s a new complexity in computer graphics at the top level,” he says. “We now need to hire mathematicians and physicists to help us because the things we’re trying to do are so tough.
Before we had people who knew about computers but now we have a mix of artists and proper engineers. Now we need people whose knowledge goes beyond simply ‘this should look a certain way’ into the territory of ‘this should behave like this’, which then defines how it looks. The next step is getting into the confluence of multiple disciplines like architecture, urbanism, crash simulation, demolition work, where people working in specific areas will start to release tools that simulate the things they’ve been studying for years. Things that we can do now, but now we’d do them as artistic renditions, which look great but lack the true realism that years and years of research can bring.”
One such tool not developed specifically for the vfx industry but which Baras and his team at The Mill now use regularly is the Spheron SceneCam (pictured below) – a camera which captures photographic images that enable them to recreate any given environment more accurately than ever before in 3D. “What it does is rotate 360 degrees and take one single photo to end up with a single sphere of visual information – one huge image, 18,000 pixels wide that has multiple exposures. This means we can recreate the environment very accurately – change the exposure, luminosity, saturation of a CGI reconstruction using this information. This gives you extreme flexibility to change the lighting or manipulate the environment much faster and much more realistically than we used to be able to. Before the work done in 3D would be an artistic interpretation – which is great – but now these things are much better and more accurately informed.”
As well as this r&d drive to go beyond merely assimilating objects, environments, creatures and humans – and create physically and anatomically correct CG models – there is something else going on in the large vfx companies at the moment. And that is a common-sense shift towards digital work for ad agencies and their clients. “We’ve got the ability to roll out content across a huge range of on-screen media,” says Framestore’s Helen Stanley, “If clients are going to run a digital or online campaign alongside a cinema or TV spot – whether it’s a microsite, an escalator campaign or an iPhone app – they should be working with one company on creating and then re-using the assets across all the different media channels. Yes you’re using slightly cheaper kit but also, more importantly, you’re reusing what you’ve already created rather than going to a separate company that ‘does digital’.”
The Mill Studio, a department of The Mill full of Macs that’s barely a year old, exists precisely to do this kind of project. It recently worked on the six virals that form part of 180’s latest Adidas campaign starring Zinedine Zidane. “The Mill was halfway through working on the TV spot, when 180 Amsterdam’s digital arm, Riot, gave me a ring,” recalls Mill Studio’s Luke Colson. As well as the 90 second and 30 second TV spots they needed to make six virals that looked as good as the TV ads but explained to Colson that they had about half the money and about half the time to make them.
“Riot knew that we’d be able to do this job because we would be able to take some of the shots being worked on here for the TV, we’d be able to rework certain things to fit into these new edits for the virals. We were able to get the colourist that worked on the TV spots to work on them too so we could keep the continuity throughout, we could access the various digital assets such as the Massive crowds that fill the stadium in the TV spot and we could tap into all these elements when creating the environments for the virals. This is a great example of exactly why the Mill Studio was set up.”
The post-production/visual effects industry is changing rapidly, offering more possibilities and solutions than ever before. Now all it needs is a catchy new name.