Visualizing Indescribable Monsters
The team at Framestore faced some unusual challenges as they created the monsters for HBO’s acclaimed new series Lovecraft Country.
Razer Blade 15 Studio Edition
Of all of the newer laptop/mobile workstations that have recently come out with the latest RTX card, the Razer Blade 15 Studio Edition is the newest and visually the sexiest, in my opinion. The new model has an anodized finish on top of a body milled from a block of aluminum (which I found a little sharp on the edge) and an illuminated color keyboard which could be just glitzy glamor, but I found it practical to map specific colors to keys, similar to the Avid keyboards of long ago (I’m sure they are still around).
But to move beyond the slick exterior: The first asset is the 4K touch display that extends to nearly the edge with a minimal bezel, with a 100% DCi-P3 color gamut — which is the standard that the American film industry has set for movie projectors. This means that you can be reasonably sure that what you see is what should be coming out when it’s projected. And for a laptop like this, that is extremely important. Because, while the Razer Blade Studio Edition runs the latest version of GTA very well, that is not what it’s made for. It’s designed to be a workhorse for creativity. Since this is an animation-centric publication, and I’m an animator, I’m going to say it was designed for us (even though that assuredly is only partially true).
To further prove my point, the display and acceleration is driven by a Quadro RTX 5000 with Max-Q (meaning it is designed to fit within a very thin profile). The system I’m reviewing has a display card with 16GB of RAM, which is pretty robust. The RTX series of Nvidia cards is specifically designed for ray-tracing acceleration. Any software using the GPU has by now been updated to utilize this technology to speed up calculations. And for our purposes, this weighs heavily in 3D rendering from GPU accelerated renderers like V-Ray, Arnold, Redshift, RenderMan — you name it. But it also is important for real-time rendering in things like Unreal Engine. And with real-time technology jumping into lightspeed after the success of The Mandalorian, this kind of technology is no longer simply an option — it’s a necessity. So, if you have that in your 15” Razer Blade … I’ll let you fill in the conclusion.
But, I digress! The Razer Blade has a lot of power packed inside of it, which means that it generates a lot of heat. The designers have mitigated that by using a copper vapor chamber that vaporizes deionized water and transfers the heat away from the components (a.k.a. science things), through its dual fans and out the bottom. Great for the hardware, bad for your legs.
The souped-up model I was reviewing comes in at nearly $5K with the RTX, 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD, which is a healthy investment. But if you are on set providing real-time rendering for directors to look at, it might just be worth it. Website: Razer.com
Price: Starts at $4,299.99
Foundry’s Flix 6.3
Flix is Foundry’s online storyboard and animatic tool geared towards story development and pre-production on film, TV, gaming and animation projects — or whatever medium happens to be invented in the future. Story is story, right? But how is it different from, say, drawing storyboards and cutting them together in something like Avid, Premiere or Toon Boom’s StoryboardPro?
The answer is that Flix acts as a central collaboration hub between team members and software. The key being collaboration — and, more critically in these pandemic times, remote collaboration. Flix is essentially located in the cloud with a server up and running for your account. You can set up your own server, but for this review, I’ll be talking about the Foundry’s cloud service. All of the people on the creative team have their own logins and permissions. And as people make changes to the project, everything is tracked within the database and stored as revisions.
This is a little abstract, so let’s get into some detail. I have a project that has been storyboarded — probably through a digital source like Photoshop or Storyboard Pro, but it could be scanned from actual pencil-on-paper drawings (gasp!). I can import all these drawings into Flix, which stores them on the server. Flix brings them in as a set duration, and you can view the sequence of storyboards as an animatic.
But that’s not so interesting out of the box. So, you can export the sequence into Avid, Premiere or Storyboard Pro, and the editor can fine-tune the cut, rearrange frames, add effects, add sound, etc., and then push it back to Flix so that everyone on the team can see it and weigh in.
The director can go in and use annotation tools to mark up the frames indicating changes. Those are seen by the illustrators on the team who can open up the frame as a layered Photoshop file, which is dynamically linked to Flix, make the changes and push it back to Flix, where it updates — and retains access to the previous versions of the frame. Everything is non-destructive so nothing is lost.
This is a 30,000-foot view of what Flix is about, but it was required to quickly discuss version 6.3, which was released this past spring and has had a few iterations since. Some of the larger changes aren’t sexy, but they are important: Import speeds for images have increased by more than 2x since v6.2 — which is crucial when you have hundreds of boards. Also, Flix can now run over HTTPS, which means your data is encrypted and safe. But Foundry has also added some functionality to the dialogue field, which will travel with Avid exports and be displayed as a SubCap.
I found Flix’s interface clean and intuitive (although I would like to see a prettier UX in the Photoshop plugin). The workflow is clear and responsive. I was able to export and import out of both Photoshop and Premiere without problem. Even though I don’t generate as much material as a whole team, it was readily apparent that on larger projects, the tracking of versions and changes that Flix manages under the hood is essential, and lets you focus on the creative rather than the administrative.
Price: Available on enquiry
Silhouette Paint for Nuke
Earlier this year, I reviewed a number of recent tools from Boris FX, one of which was their paint and roto tool SihouetteFX, which is also a full compositing tool. A few months later, they released Silhouette Paint, which can be launched from within the host compositor of your choice: After Effects, Fusion, Flame and Nuke to name a few. But for this, I was using the version within Foundry’s Nuke 12.2. It’s a Silhouette Light version that is geared toward paint and roto while leaving out the more advanced stuff that the standalone version has.
Here is the genius of this groundbreaking workflow: Boris FX had released a plugin for Mocha Pro that works in a similar way. The beauty of it all is that you are incorporating the tools into a dynamic, non-destructive way that doesn’t stall or disrupt the workflow. You see, in the past, you would export a sequence of files from the compositor, quite possibly after you’ve done a number of processes, and then import that sequence into Silhouette for painting. Then, you would export the result to a new sequence, that you then import back into the compositor. And off you go, back to the compositing work. This can add up to a huge amount of rendering time, and a lot of drive space.
So within Nuke, you can bring in a Silhouette Paint node into your flow, and launch the interface from within Nuke. You do all of your paint work and exit back out to Nuke, and the paint calculates under the hood from Silhouette, feeding the painted footage to the rest of the Nuke script. I tested it out on some pretty heinous paintwork on a 500-frame shot and didn’t notice any significant slowdown in the workflow. While you could save out a pre-rendered sequence, I felt it was unnecessary, as calculations within Silhouette were responsive enough. If I noticed something that I had missed, I could simply go back into Silhouette through Nuke, make the changes, and it would propagate through the rest of the comp.
What is also interesting and critical, is that the data is actually cross-platform, so the paint file can be shared between After Effects, Nuke, Premiere, Fusion, etc.— all while maintaining OCIO or ACES color profiles. You could even open it up in a standalone SilhouetteFX if you needed to use some of the more advanced tools.
Bonus update: SilhouetteFX has a crazy cloning feature that allows it to blend between two different clone sources at the same time! So if you are painting something out that is dark on one side and bright on the other, you can interpolate between the two. This was a life-changing quick tip that I picked up from Boris FX guru Mary Poplin. Thank you!
Website: Borisfx.com/products/silhouette-paint Annual Subscription Only ◆
Todd Sheridan Perry is an award-winning vfx supervisor and digital artist whose credits include Black Panther, Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Christmas Chronicles. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.