Info-tech

Capturing the maya of movies

T.E. RAJASIMHAN | Updated on November 15, 2017 Published on January 15, 2012

Autodesk software   -  Business Line

Most of what you see in movies today isn't real – it's visual effects. Artists rely on software like Autodesk to enable them to create digital content.

Francis Ford Cuppola is oft quoted as having said that “Cinema, Movies and Magic have always been closely associated”. The magic of movies comes from their ability to make you forget that they are ‘make-believe'. Yet, movies today and those of the pre-digital age have one key difference – realism!

Movie-making today largely happens on the computer, while 50-60 years ago it was shot in the great outdoors with elaborate sets. But, thankfully, the wow-factor and the appeal remains the same. For example, take these two films: Ben-Hur (1959) and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2004). Both won 11 Oscars and both featured spectacular settings.

But the difference? In Ben-Hur, every character was real, the one million props used were hand-built and there was no digitally altered content. The Lord of the Rings however, had many digitally-generated characters and huge chunks of the props and backgrounds were created only on a computer.

Today, every movie that comes out of Hollywood or for that matter even Bollywood has some visual effects. It may be in the form of animation, 3D renderings or graphics. But often, people don't even realise that the scene they're watching on the screen has only been created on a computer.

All the Star Wars films were mostly made up of visual effects. Most people come to expect this, but they may not have noticed that the tattoos on Natalie Portman's back in Black Swan were made using visual effects. Whenever she had a nervous breakdown, the tattoos would morph and move around.

Films like Star Wars, Avatar, Real Steel and Tron are all examples of how visual effects have helped science fiction movies achieve success at the box office. One of the companies at the cutting edge of delivering the digital platform for creating such hits is Autodesk.

“Thanks to visual effects, you are experiencing more fake content than you could probably imagine,” says Rob Hoffmann, Senior Product Marketing Manager (Media & Entertainment) at Autodesk Inc. Autodesk is based in the US and specialises in 3D design, engineering and entertainment software. Its software is used extensively by media and entertainment industries

“You would be shocked to discover that what you think is real on television or in a movie may actually be a 3D simulation of something as simple as a waste paper basket on the ground or a car on the street,” says Hoffman.

For instance, if a movie director wants to depict a scene of Mumbai city in 1920, it can be created virtually in hours, and actors just have to repeat their dialogues in front of a blue screen. On the big screen however, it appears as if they are in pre-Independence Mumbai. Visual effect experts can virtually create anything – whether it's the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower or Mount Everest – and at a cost which is significantly lower than creating a real set.

For example, in the action-adventure Hollywood movie 300, no part of the film was shot in the real world – all the scenes were recorded but in front of a blue screen. Once the acting was over, they created the background in 3D. “Everything in the movie was ‘fake' and you wouldn't have even realised it,” says Hoffman.

Avatar effect

For the movie Avatar, not all of the characters were animated. Director, James Cameron, had live characters performing in front of blue screens which were later modified by visual artists. In this movie too, none of the scenes were shot in real-life locations because the movie was set in a planet that doesn't exist.

This has given rise to what people in the entertainment industry call the ‘Avatar effect'. People's expectations have increased tremendously and every time they go to watch a movie, they expect that the movie should be better than Avatar, says Hoffman, who has over 14 years of experience in the digital media market.

Autodesk has been working on a technology called x-Gen, which is from Walt Disney Pictures. It allows the placing of ‘assets' in a scene. For example, in the movie Up all the balloons were created by x-Gen. “Producers want to cut down on cost wherever possible, visual effects and virtual production give that solution,” he said.

Standardisation

One of the biggest approaches that Autodesk is taking right now is standardisation, which is extremely important for production. Today, films, television series or video games are not produced in one location using just one software, but in multiple locations using many tools. It is really important that every artist have access to a standardised data format, Hoffman adds.

For instance, if an artist is working on one project, he can hand it over to another artist to carry on where he left off. Hence, the data should be clean and transportable. This is extremely important when it comes to integrated global production, where post-production centres spread across the world – Los Angeles, Soho (London) and Mumbai – are working on the same project but in different time zones.

The interesting thing is that in the ‘follow-the-sun' model, companies get 24-hour post-production work. For instance, a team in India working on a project, at the end of the day, hands over the project to a team in Soho, which in turn passes it on to another team in Los Angeles. It comes back to India again in the morning, thus forming a full circle. In order for this integration to happen, it is important that all the teams work with a standard tool.

There are many tools used in a facility. One artist must use these tools in the work, and the other artist should also have the same tools like 3D Max, Maya etc. The whole idea is that the software should not be a barrier between the artist and the art that he is creating, said Hoffman.

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Published on January 15, 2012
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