Learned How a VFX Animation Pipeline Works (233/366)

233AnimationPipelineTop“I’m not under too much of an illusion of how smart or un-smart I am because filmmaking ultimately is about teamwork.”
~ Guy Ritchie


N works in the Visual Effects Industry, and most of our friends are either in VFX as well, or Animation (SF FTW!), many of whom we met when N was either going to school, or at work.  But while I might know a lot about the people we’ve met, as far as their life outside of work goes, there are plenty of times when I ask N, “Now what does so-and-so do at ILM again?”  For example, N met several of our friends back in their “TA” days – a TA at ILM is a “Technical Assistant,” which sounds pretty broad, but what that means in layman’s terms is that they hang out (sometimes from the middle of the night to the wee hours of the morning) making sure shots render properly; basically artists use computer software tools to create the visual effects for the film during the day, at kind of a “proof-quality” level, and the computers render or process that work at night after everyone’s gone home.  The TA’s watch the computers to make sure everything’s running correctly, and when there are big problems in the rendering of a shot (which can cost many hours of more work if not caught early), they call the necessary people and let them know, so the problems can be fixed.

N used to tell me that “most TA’s go on into ‘Lighting,’ and at the next level they’re called ‘ATD’s’ (Assistant Technical Directors).”  N is a “Creature TD” or “Technical Director” but in the Creature department.  Fancy [sounding], huh?  There are actually lots of “TD’s”, and loads more “ATD’s.”  There are also “RA’s,” and – oh, I can’t even remember all the initials.  You can see where this is going – “Wait, who does what now?  And whassat mean?  And … huh?!”

So today, I asked Nick for a good, basic breakdown and explanation of what goes on in the VFX wing of the movie-making process, and how the effects move down the production “pipeline.”  For our discussion, we talked about when a VFX house creates an entire character for a film (for example, Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean, some truly amazing art by Industrial Light + Magic).  Here’s a video of some of that spectacular work:

And here are some bullet points or definitions of what I learned – definitely not everything is covered, but there really is A LOT of VFX work going on in just about every single shot of today’s movies (and I don’t want to overwhelm this post with too much information).

– R&D (Research and Development): A lot of people think “the computer does all the work” in VFX, but the computer is simply a tool that *computes* data.  For example, a computer by itself knows nothing about physics – the brainiacs in R&D basically have to write programs to give the laws of physics to the virtual reality being built, enabling other artists to be able to achieve the look of realism in shots that use Visual Effects.

– Modeling:  A character that has been drawn and also usually tangibly modeled (in clay, for example) is created in the computer, using 3D modeling software.  Thousands of polygons (“simple” shapes) are combined, molded, and finessed into a complex form – the beginnings of a digital 3D character.

– Rigging: The 3D model gets its “skeleton” put in.  The model is “rigged” with bones and joints, as well as rules as to how those joints work and move together, so the animators can later use this system to make the character move in specific ways.

– Painting/Texturing: Does the character have lizard skin?  Spots?  The outside appearance of the character begins to take shape – even more details are created on top of what has already been modeled.

– Effects: Hair?  Cloth?  What about “beard” tentacles?  Due to the complexity of these pieces, traditional animation is too time consuming and costly – so these elements are brought to life by “Sim Artists,” who create computer simulations so the element can appear how it might in real life.

– Shading/Lighting: Is the character’s skin wet or slimy (like Davy Jones’s)?  Is it reflective?  The way the light interacts with the character’s surfaces is handled in the lighting aspect.

– Compositing: The final character is composited with the film “plate” or footage, bringing the magically created entity to life.

This is a totally basic rundown of what goes into a the VFX process.  As I said, there is SO much work that goes on to bring the visual effects we enjoy to the big screen – and VFX are used so much in today’s films – and it is done so masterfully – that most of the time we don’t even notice it.  But it truly is movie magic.


Related Links:
Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Innovation
Pirates of Caribbean 1-4 Blu-ray Quadrilogy (The Curse of Black Pearl / Dead Man’s Chest / At World’s End / On Stranger Tides)


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