The Evolv­ing Role of the CG Di­rec­tor of Pho­tog­ra­phy

The key live-ac­tion ti­tle is gain­ing trac­tion in the an­i­ma­tion business after years of be­ing seen as a largely live-ac­tion only task. By Ellen Wolff.

Animation Magazine - - Visual Effects -

This year, the field of com­puter an­i­ma­tion passed a mile­stone when Pixar’s Sharon Cala­han be­came the first di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy whose work has been purely on com­puter-gen­er­ated movies to be in­vited to join the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Cin­e­matog­ra­phers. Cala­han has re­ceived di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy cred­its since 1998’s A Bug’s Life, and she’s still one of very few work­ing in an­i­ma­tion with that ti­tle.

“It’s weird that it’s not widely rec­og­nized,” says Pixar Pres­i­dent Jim Mor­ris, who cham­pi­oned Cala­han to the ASC. “Be­cause the fact is — to use the stop-mo­tion anal­ogy, where you’re light­ing pup­pets and minia­ture sets — in CG, you’re do­ing the same thing in vir­tual space. Over time, we found peo­ple who were like-minded, and be­lieved that com­puter graph­ics was just another arm of cin­e­matog­ra­phy. It’s just another set of tools to cre­ate im­agery.”

Among the ASC mem­bers who shared that belief, and spon­sored Cala­han, were visual-ef­fects pros Den­nis Muren and Dan Min­del, along with di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Stephen Gold­blatt and two ASC past pres­i­dents: Steven Poster and Daryn Okada. Cala­han faced what Mor­ris calls, “a Span­ish In­qui­si­tion of 20 or 25 DPs grilling her. She does her own light­ing stud­ies, and she brought sam­ples of how she breaks down a scene. She knocked ’em dead.”

Cala­han, who is cur­rently work­ing on Pixar’s 2015 film The Good Di­nosaur, is mod­est about her ASC ac­cep­tance, though she ad­mits it was a decades-long dream. “I just had to be pre­pared to talk about the process. Mostly, they were re­ally cu­ri­ous.”

Some Have It, Some Don’t

It will be in­ter­est­ing to see if Cala­han’s ASC break­through in­flu­ences how other CG direc­tors of pho­tog­ra­phy are re­garded. Among them is An­i­mal Logic’s Pablo Plaisted ( The LEGO Movie) and Blue Sky’s Re­nato Fal­cao, who has di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy cred­its on Epic, both Rio movies, and the up­com­ing Peanuts. Yet ma­jor CG movies like Dis­ney’s Frozen and DreamWorks An­i­ma­tion’s How to Train Your Dragon films didn’t credit a di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy. In­stead, the tra­di­tional an­i­ma­tion job de­scrip­tions of lay­out and light­ing su­per­vi­sors were ap­plied.

“A lot of that is be­cause of how each company’s roots evolved,” says Cala­han. “In the early days, Pixar was a lot like Dis­ney is now. Our first model was what we knew: cel an­i­ma­tion. That was how we started on Toy Story. But through the process of learn­ing how to make movies, we re­al­ized that our process was more akin to how somebody might make a live-ac­tion film. So we thought, why don’t we start think­ing about it more that way in­stead of try­ing to com­pare it to cel an­i­ma­tion, which is a very dif­fer­ent work­ing method. A lot de­pends on where a company — and its tal­ent — is com­ing from.”

At Pixar, the DP credit is now shared be­tween di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy — cam­era and di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy — light­ing, and that’s an evo­lu­tion that also seems to be hap­pen­ing

at other an­i­ma­tion stu­dios that are em­brac­ing the CG di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy role. At An­i­mal Logic, Plaisted re­ceived the di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy credit on The LEGO Movie, but he says the re­spon­si­bil­ity was shared with light­ing su­per­vi­sor Craig Welsh. Plaisted came to his role after work­ing on pre­vis for Mad Max: Fury Road and as an an­i­ma­tor on Happy Feet.

On LEGO, he says, the cam­eras fell un­der the um­brella of the lay­out depart­ment. “The anal­ogy to live ac­tion breaks down a bit here, since cam­era was only a por­tion of what lay­out was re­spon­si­ble for,” he says. “Pre­vis, lay­out, as­set man­age­ment, lens­ing and stereo were all tasks within lay­out.”

The job of CG di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy has been evolv­ing at Blue Sky in yet another way since the ar­rival of live-ac­tion di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Re­nato Fal­cao a half-dozen years ago. “Bring­ing in some­one like me was an evo­lu­tion. It brought to an­i­ma­tion the eye of some­one who’s been on a set,” he says. “We changed the name from lay­out pretty re­cently. I have the cin­e­matog­ra­pher credit, but I’m more of a con­sul­tant on light­ing. In an­i­ma­tion there’s a tra­di­tion of hav­ing a light­ing su­per- vi­sor, but as things con­tinue to evolve, that might change. The lines are blur­ring.”

Changes in the Pipe­line

Cala­han thinks the di­vi­sions of la­bor have evolved due to the se­quen­tial na­ture of typ­i­cal an­i­ma­tion pipe­lines. “Lay­out would hap­pen pretty early in the process and light­ing would hap­pen at the end — and a lot hap­pened in be­tween. The skill sets didn’t nec­es­sar­ily need to over­lap. As we have moved for­ward, we still have dis­tinct roles, but we work more closely to­gether. Our teams are quite large, and you can man­age only so many peo­ple do­ing some­thing at the same time. But I don’t see any rea­son why that can’t change in the fu­ture.”

Im­prove­ments in tech­nol­ogy are likely to con­trib­ute to that de­vel­op­ment, as CG tools be­come more in­ter­ac­tive and feed­back gets faster. “The process is be­com­ing more col­lab­o­ra­tive as the tools be­come more facile,” says Cala­han. “I can be in­volved ear­lier in the process. Light­ing can af­fect story and lay­out and sets and the art depart­ment much more than be­fore. And I can do things to support the up­stream de­part­ments by do­ing pre-light­ing, so they can see what the in­tent of a scene is go­ing to be. We also talk more as a group. There are fewer bar­ri­ers to do­ing that be­cause the tools aren’t in the way any­more. Our men­tal process has been slowly, grad­u­ally, be­com­ing more and more like live ac­tion, where every­body is work­ing to­gether at the same time.”

Live-Ac­tion In­flux

She thinks that might make CG pro­duc­tion more invit­ing to DPs with live-ac­tion back­grounds, and notes the con­tri­bu­tions of di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Roger Deakins to Pixar’s WALL-E, and DreamWorks’ Dragon fran­chise. “Our process might be less in­tim­i­dat­ing than peo­ple think.”

Fal­cao agrees, re­mark­ing: “The rules of cin­e­matog­ra­phy to­tally ap­ply to an­i­mated movies. For cut­ting, you need an es­tab­lish­ing shot, a medium shot and a close-up. Some­times, the sto­ry­boards will break those rules, which is to­tally fine. But DPs have to make sure that the viewer doesn’t feel lost — es­pe­cially in an ac­tion se­quence.”

Plaisted adds a fi­nal caveat. “I put a huge em­pha­sis on the ‘rules’ of clas­si­cal cin­ema, but I do think we are obliged to push for­ward the CG an­i­ma­tion medium. For me, the rules are worth break­ing when­ever story, con­text and maybe even in­no­va­tion de­mand it.”

In the pro­fes­sional graph­ics-card game, Nvidia holds the top tier with its Quadro K6000 card, which is a pretty heavy-duty in­vest­ment. But fear not: the more-ac­ces­si­ble Quadro K5000 has been up­graded to the Quadro K5200. With this up­grade, the Quadro K5200 is much more com­pa­ra­ble to the Quadro K6000 than to its older coun­ter­part, the Quadro K5000.

First, the Quadro K5200 uses the same Ke­pler tech­nol­ogy as the Quadro K6000, in the form of the GK110 chip with clipped wings that lower the num­ber of CUDA cores, tex­ture units and raster units – which is one of the key rea­sons that it’s a “lower-tier” card than the Quadro K6000. The other key lim­i­ta­tion in com­par­i­son is that it doesn’t use the dual-pre­ci­sion float­ing-point per­for­mance of the Quadro K6000, so the Quadro K5200 is more geared to throw­ing images up on the screen rather than hard­core com­pu­ta­tion ac­cel­er­a­tion. This lim­i­ta­tion could be over­come by tak­ing ad­van­tage of com­pound­ing pro­ces­sors for ad­di­tional cards like an Nvidia Tesla.

How­ever, this is not a slight on the Quadro K5200; far from it. The num­ber of CUDA cores is nearly dou­ble that of the Quadro K5000, and the amount of RAM has jumped from 4GB to 8GB, and the com­put­ing power moved from 2.2 TFLOPS to 3.0. But the power con­sump­tion has only in­creased from 122W to 150W. This means that the ef­fi­ciency of the card has in­creased, which means less heat. That’s a good thing.

In my own sub­jec­tive tests run­ning the card in both an HP z820 and the lat­est z640, I re­ally had to push them in Maya and Max to be­gin to see a dif­fer­ence in in­ter­ac­tiv­ity. But where I saw a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence was in the num­ber of and size of my tex­tures dis­played in the view­port. And let’s face it, light­ing and look de­vel­op­ment is get­ting pushed more and more into the view­port, and the more re­sponse you get from the sys­tem, the faster you can de­velop and dial things in.

All this power is avail­able for around $1,900, which is only $200 more than last year’s Quadro K5000. So, re­ally, there is not much down­side to go­ing for the Quadro K5200 when the $4,000 price tag of the Quadro K6000 may be daunt­ing.

The DP’s role has been grow­ing at Blue Sky on films like Epic.

Pablo Plaisted

The LEGO Movie split DP du­ties with a light­ing su­per­vi­sor. CG pro­duc­tion is get­ting closer to live ac­tion for films like Rio 2.

Re­nato Fal­cao

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