What’s An­i­mat­ing CG Sci­en­tists?

Stu­dios turn to sci­en­tists to keep the tech­no­log­i­cal cut­ting edge for the tools their an­i­ma­tors use to cre­ate art. By Ellen Wolff.

Animation Magazine - - Visual Effects -

It’s been 75 years since vis­i­tors to Oz were told: “Pay no at­ten­tion to that man be­hind the cur­tain!” But in the mod­ern world of com­puter-an­i­mated fea­tures, it’s in­creas­ingly ev­i­dent that those sci­en­tific wizards are vi­tal to the daz­zling images seen on screen. Storms of fire and ice, rag­ing floods and char­ac­ters with wind­blown hair and feath­ers are now plen­ti­ful — thanks to the way an­i­ma­tion artists are em­pow­ered by the lat­est CG tools.

“It seems like the amount of sim­u­la­tion — and even things that are traips­ing to­wards pho­to­re­al­ism — are things that au­di­ences are lik­ing more,” says Pixar gen­eral man­ager Jim Mor­ris. “Even if char­ac­ters are styl­ized, there’s some­thing about the sur­faces and light­ing and tex­tures that is not so much ‘re­al­ism’ as authenticity.”

Mor­ris should know, hav­ing pre­vi­ously presided over In­dus­trial Light & Magic dur­ing years of tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion. But with many of to­day’s visual-ef­fects houses need­ing to fo­cus on short-term prob­lem solv­ing for their cur­rent clients, it’s prob­a­bly not sur­pris­ing that fea­ture an­i­ma­tion stu­dios are be­com­ing even more no­tice­able driv­ers of dig­i­tal R&D.

“An­i­ma­tion com­pa­nies have to be more long-term fo­cused,” says Ray Feeney, a long­time mem­ber the Academy’s Sci-Tech Com­mit­tee and a four-time win­ner him­self. “Th­ese stu­dios re­quire mul­ti­ple years to pro­duce their films. The in­ter­nal ar­chi­tec­ture of an­i­ma­tion com­pa­nies al­lows for a cer­tain amount of sci­en­tific brain­power to be brought to bear.”

This year, DreamWorks An­i­ma­tion sci­en­tist Ron Hen­der­son and Pixar’s Thomas Lokovic and Eric Veach earned Sci-Tech hon­ors for re­search that has en­abled im­agery in their stu­dios’ movies. Along­side Hen­der­son, notes Lin­coln Wallen, DreamWorks’ chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer, there are more than 100 peo­ple in the R&D group fo­cused on movies.

Hid­den As­sets

“There’s not a great deal of vis­i­bil­ity of the high-per­for­mance en­gi­neer­ing that ac­tu­ally goes into mak­ing an­i­mated movies,” says Wal- len. “But one rea­son that ma­jor tech­nol­ogy cor­po­ra­tions like In­tel or HP work closely with us is that we’re solv­ing prob­lems that other in­dus­tries have yet to en­counter. For ex­am­ple, DreamWorks moved its en­tire pro­duc­tion process to a cloud-com­put­ing model in 2002, even be­fore the word ‘cloud’ had been iden­ti­fied.”

The need for sci­en­tific in­no­va­tion has been es­sen­tial to CG an­i­ma­tion’s suc­cess since its in­cep­tion. When DreamWorks’ PDI branch en­tered the fea­ture business with 1998’s Antz, the fluid sim­u­la­tion ex­per­tise of Sci-Tech win­ner Nick Foster helped achieve the film’s cli­matic flood. The fol­low­ing year, Blue Sky Stu­dios won the An­i­mated Short Film Os­car for Bunny, which show­cased gor­geous images ren­dered with its pro­pri­etary ray-tracer, CGI Stu­dio.

Blue Sky co-founder Carl Lud­wig, who with Eu­gene Trou­bet­zkoy spear­heads the stu­dio’s 14-per­son R&D group, cred­its an­i­ma­tors for con­tin­u­ally chal­leng­ing his tech­ni­cal team.

“The nice thing about be­ing in the movie business is that it’s the great­est beta site in

the world,” says Lud­wig, who’s also a SciTech win­ner. “Artists come up with things we wouldn’t dream of. We’re con­stantly up­grad­ing, av­er­ag­ing about a soft­ware re­lease per week.”

He es­ti­mates there’s a 50-50 split be­tween work­ing on fu­ture-ori­ented R&D and solv­ing im­me­di­ate pro­duc­tion prob­lems. “It’s im­por­tant to iden­tify things we don’t know how to do yet, be­cause in re­search you have to be able to fail. You have to take on risks be­cause that’s the un­ex­plored ter­ri­tory where you find new things.”

Hav­ing a re­search men­tal­ity as part of a stu­dio’s DNA also fa­mously de­scribes Pixar, which has been led since its in­cep­tion by Os­car-win­ning CG pi­o­neer Ed Cat­mull. That Pixar has a sis­ter soft­ware company — Ren­der­Man, which mon­i­tors the tech­ni­cal pulse of the in­dus­try — puts the stu­dio in a unique po­si­tion. As Pixar se­nior sci­en­tist Tony DeRose says: “We’re con­stantly com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the Ren­der­Man folks. It’s almost like get­ting ‘match­ing funds’ to work on projects.”

While DeRose’s in-house R&D group typ­i­cally num­bers fewer than 10 peo­ple, Pixar also em­ploys around a 100-per­son tech­ni­cal team. DeRose, who won Sci-Tech hon­ors for 1997’s Gerry’s Game, sees no short­age of chal­lenges. “In sim­u­la­tion, we’re not there yet. We want to get to a stage where, ul­ti­mately, we can do physics fast enough that an­i­ma­tors can see things es­sen­tially in real time while they’re an­i­mat­ing. Right now, when char­ac­ters are an­i­mated, it’s of­ten with im­pov­er­ished cloth­ing — if any cloth­ing. There are re­ally no ef­fects and very lit­tle light­ing. One of our big tech­ni­cal chal­lenges is to get to a stage where an­i­ma­tors can see a fi­nal per­for­mance in con­text.”

Seek­ing In­tu­ition

Mak­ing com­puter an­i­ma­tion more in­ter­ac­tive for artists is a goal shared by all stu­dio tech­nol­o­gists. DreamWorks’ Wallen says, “We’ve gone from hand-drawn an­i­ma­tion, where an­i­ma­tors could im­me­di­ately ex­press ideas, into the en­gi­neer­ing hell of CG ma­nip­u­la­tion. Now they’re back to an ana­log penon-screen, which bodes ex­tremely well for the medium go­ing for­ward.”

Lud­wig agrees. “I don’t want Blue Sky’s artists to be clerks twid­dling di­als. The tools have to be in­tu­itive.”

One key area where this is hap­pen­ing is light­ing. As Lud­wig ex­plains, “Our code is highly threaded, so an artist can take a hal­fres frame, ba­si­cally change one light and all the shadow and light­ing cal­cu­la­tions on that half-res frame are re­cal­cu­lated in two to five seconds.”

At Pixar, notes Mor­ris: “One of our big projects is a setup where you can move a light and it im­me­di­ately shows you the ef­fect at low res. As you let it sit there, it up-re­ses so you can see all the de­tails. Real time ev­ery­thing is the Holy Grail.”

How soon CG sci­en­tists could achieve that goal is an open ques­tion, but all the ma­jor an­i­ma­tion stu­dios ex­pect to main­tain staffs ded­i­cated to that level of re­search. “It con­tin­ues be a cost-in­ten­sive part of our op­er­a­tion,” Mor­ris says.

But be­ing able to at­tract top young sci­en­tists to the movie business might be more chal­leng­ing at a time when Google and Face­book are also seek­ing tal­ent, says Feeney. “The allure of this in­dus­try is up against some fairly strong com­pet­i­tive pulls. Stu­dios will need to keep their voices ac­tive in the ‘sciences’ part of Mo­tion Pic­ture Arts and Sciences. If they do that, then they’ll be able to foster sci­en­tific cre­ativ­ity go­ing for­ward.”

Tony DeRose

Jim Mor­ris

Lin­coln Wallen

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