Fuel for Success
Finding the right job — or the right candidate for a job — gets easier for the animation and visual effects industries with Animation Magazine’s new Career Center, launching Feb. 13.
It’s no easy feat to successfully blend live-action humans and objects with CGI creatures. If the artists veer too far into the cartoonish, it can be a jarring ride for the audience. But if the visual-effects crew manages to pull together the unreal with the real in a way that sits right with the eyes of the audience, the whole story takes on a new life.
Monster Trucks, directed by Chris Wedge, the co-founder of Blue Sky Studios, set out to do just that. Live trucks and a live-action hero are brought together with “monsters” like Creech, and taken on a wild ride with Lucas Till at the wheel. Visual effects supervisor Nicolas Aithadi was in charge of bringing a believable look to these unreal beings.
“The nature of the creature (Creech) is squishy and wobbly, and in this situation it was already a complex situation to rig and to animate, but then it was made exponentially harder when we had to integrate Creech with the car,” says Aithadi. “So what we did was create a Creech in the outside world — what he looks like just on the ground — and a Creech that looks different when he’s inside the car.”
When it came time to design the character, Aithadi and his crew looked to oceanic crea- tures that had the characteristics they wanted to give to Creech and his family. Given the sorts of things that he does, one animal became a clear choice.
“The rigging was extremely complex,” says Aithadi. “We had to get a very, very flexible creature that you could squish. The reference that we used was an octopus, and we went with the idea of an octopus on the ground or in the car or squishing into the car. So we had the idea of this big creature that could squish its body to get through the smallest space and get inside the truck.”
But finding that source of inspiration didn’t solve all their problems. The crew still had to watch how the character was put together to make sure it didn’t take on any of the unappealing qualities of a sea creature — things that would make it off-putting or even gross to those watching the movie. So, they spent months making sure that Creech still retained a certain cuteness despite his decidedly undersea look.
Aithadi also focused on the interaction between Creech and actor Lucas Till by maintaining good eye lines between the two in their scenes. This made their interaction feel more real and more like a relationship.
“It was very straightforward, old school VFX,” says Aithadi of getting good eyelines. “We had a bunch of props lined up. We had this big latex foam tentacle and a guy dressed in green poking Lucas and interacting with him. We also had a low-tech bean bag and another green-clad stunt person would move around Lucas to get the interaction. All of this was removed and replaced with the creature.”
Walrus Inspiration When it came time to blend the creatures with the cars, color also played a crucial role. Aithadi and his team developed the color scheme for Creech and his family independently of the cars at first. The female was given a different color than the male; walruses inspired the overall color for the CG beings. But the walrus inspiration didn’t stop there. The eyes and movement of these big, wiggly beings also played a part in the character design.
“What makes a character great is always the eyes,” says Aithadi. “We spent a great deal of time trying to give the eyes depth, which walrus eyes have, in addition to being watery, because it’s very easy for the eyes to become
Previsualization is the big thing these days.
It used to be geared more toward complex visual-effects sequences, mainly because big effects sequences are expensive, require lots of people, and the money people want to see what they are spending their money on before they spend their money.
Now the technique has spread into all facets of film production. The ability to make creative choices before 150 people are sitting around a set, waiting for you to make a decision is invaluable.
The norm is that facilities like The Third Floor or Proof are hired to conceptualize sequences, which will then be cut into an edit for discussion. This data is used to determine required equipment in production as well as post-production requirements.
But what about for the smallish shoots that should go through the previs process, but don’t have the resources to hire a previs company? Sure, you could go into Maya, 3ds Max, etc., and animate some cameras and people and props. But you risk doing things that physically can’t be replicated on set or, even if they could, it doesn’t provide you with any information beyond how the shot should look.
CineDesigner R2, created by cinematographer and technical director of photography Matthew Workman, was made to provide a simple way to create previs using real-life camera, lighting and grip equipment.
Its a plugin for Maxon’s Cinema 4D (all flavors excluding the lite version come bundled with After Effects), that brings up interfaces: Camera Truck, Lighting Truck and Grip Truck. Each ties into a library of prebuilt equipment models that correspond to the real-world stuff. For instance, I can put together an Alexa XT sitting on an Arri BPL2 plate, which sits on an OConner head, on a 24-inch JLF-TH offset, mounted onto a J.L. Fisher Model 10 Dolly. Yes, it’s that specific.
The camera is then controlled by sliders within the interface of each piece of equipment. You can pan and tilt with the OConnor. You can raise and lower the camera with the hydraulic lift beam on the Fisher. You move the camera via the dolly — on or off tracks. And if you want to swap out pieces, it’s as easy as importing a new piece — a Mitchell 18-inch riser for instance — and dragging it in the object list so it ends up between the offset and the head. In 3D, the new riser snaps in between the other two pieces. It’s pretty snazzy.
The same works for the Lighting and Grip Trucks. The Lights are working lights in the 3D viewport, so if you build a 3D set in Cinema 4D that represents the set, you can do some broadstroke lighting design. It’s not as 1:1 as I might like, but we aren’t going for photorealism; we are conceptualizing and planning.
CineDesigner is about the idea is that you are designing your shots with the restrictions of the real-world in mind, which then allows you to plan your camera, lighting and grip lists with specific budgets in mind. Things will change once you are shooting — but a solid plan is invaluable.
You can find more at www.cinematographydb.com
I’ve brought up Chaos Group’s VRay, which, incidentally, won a Sci-Tech Oscar this year, and Allegorithmic’s Substance Painter quite a lot these past few years. Mainly because I like ’em, but also because they frequently release updates. I like them both, but they don’t necessarily play together nicely.
The reason for this is because of the way Substance wants to model light and surfaces in its physically-based render setup, and the way VRay likes to handle it, don’t mathematically jibe. As you are painting in Substance Painter, you are getting real-time feedback. You can spin lights around, change the HDR for different lighting situations, etc., but then when you export the maps to render in VRay, they don’t look the same. Sure, you can make them both look cool, and there are workflows to get them to behave, but I’ve found those get a little hinky. And if you are like me, and aren’t painting textures every day, you can’t forget all the little switches and knobs you have to flip and turn.
Well, Kinematic Lab seems to think this is an issue, too, because they released a free plugin for 3ds Max users that sets up your VRay shaders to accept the Substance Maps, places them into the correct channels, adds the appropriate gamma adjustments.
The results aren’t identical, but they are very similar. At least more similar than I’ve been able to get without a lot of fumbling and tweaking.
So, there you have it. A short and sweet review for a piece of free software, written by one of the little guys, by the name of Clovis Gay, who just wants all of us other little guys to be able to make pretty pictures with a lot less trouble.
Check out the Kinematic Lab site for the download and for lots more free and inexpensive tools for 3ds Max. https://hocuspocus-studio.fr/tools. Todd Sheridan Perry is a visual-effects supervisor and digital artist who has worked on features including The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Speed Racer, 2012, Final Destination 5 and Avengers: Age of Ultron. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.