Computer Graphics World

July-Aug-Sept 2021

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34 cgw j u ly • a u g u s t • s e p t e m b e r 2 0 2 1 I t was the summer of 2000. We had sur- vived Y2K, and I was busy working on David Fincher's Panic Room. We were attempting to previs the entire film before the start of principal photography. This was detailed and meticulous work. Next to my office was the editor, who was responsible for cutting the previs together into an exciting cat-and- mouse suspense thriller. Farther down the hall were the director's office and a small screening room. It was late. Most people had gone home. I was working furiously to complete a few more shots before wrapping it up for the day. From down the hall I heard David shout for me, "Ronnie!" I found him in the screening room playing Madden NFL. He had just completed a reception and was flying a camera around while watching the instant replay. His question to me: Why couldn't he do this with the previs? Why couldn't he grab his game controller, move the camera around, and design his own shots of Meg, Burnham, Raoul, and Junior? It was a great question. And now, over 20 years later, is a great time to answer it. What Fincher recognized that evening was the power that technology brings to the visualization process. Game engines, like the one he was using, are designed to run in real time, and that is far faster than rendering animation frame-by-frame and then playing it back. Real-time interaction feels more natural and intuitive. The problem was, in the early 2000s, there was nothing intuitive or natural about using game engines for anything other than developing games. People were talking about using game engines for previs, and early experiments were attempted using emerging tools like the XSI Viewer. Still, the workflows were too complex for the quick turnaround world of feature-film previs. Developers needed to write code and test features. Then they needed to train artists on the new animation techniques. All of which might be feasible with months to design a pipeline, but our projects were measured in weeks, with a lead time of days. Fast forward to today and you have a very different technological landscape. Motion- capture technology has advanced and matured. Game engines like Unity and Unreal are common in industries ranging from archi- tecture, to automotive design, to biomedical research. And graphics cards now carry more memory and computing power than high- end workstations from a decade ago. So, how has all of this changed previs? What would my work on Panic Room look like today? Quality The first answer is it would look a whole lot better. Better not because it would look more realistic, but better because I could choose how it would look. Back in 2000, I had very few choices for visual style. I took what I could tease out of my Windows NT workstation running an early version of So- image XSI, and that was that. Now, with more powerful hardware and soware, the visual style is a choice. And with game engines like Unreal, we can apply different looks in real time based on the creative goals of the project. It might look realistic, with natural lighting and atmospheric effects. It could also look more hand-drawn, like Proof's work for The Blacklist Season 7 finale (see "Hybrid Drama," CGW Issue 2, 2020). Filming for the episode was cut short due to the pandemic. That le the studio with little more than half the episode completed and no practical way to finish it. Jon Boken- kamp, the show's creator, wanted to push the graphic novel, film-noir feel of the show, so Proof's team dialed in a visual style, and a few weeks later our previs was aired on national television. Better-looking previs means it is tailored to the taste and style of the project and the filmmakers. The "look" is a creative choice in a field of creative choices. At the other end of the spectrum is our work on Amazon Prime's recently released The Tomorrow War. Proof joined the VFX team on The Tomor- row War during postproduction as they were building the director's cut. The bulk of the work was postvis — adding CG creatures, effects, and backgrounds to the practical plates. We needed to make the shots as believable as possible, while also ensuring a lightning-fast turnaround so the director, who is also an editor, could experiment with the animation and cra the story he wanted to tell. That meant delivering multiple iterations of shots, all with excellent creature animation and nuanced lighting so the crea- tures felt integrated with the plates. Reaching a higher quality was particularly important for the lab sequence where the creature slowly wakes up and begins to struggle against the chains holding it down. This is a quiet, intimate, and tense cine- matic moment. Our animators had to dig deep, imbuing the creature with a sense of emotion and purpose as it slowly becomes aware of the danger it's in. We developed a lightweight rig, giving our animators the subtle control they needed with the creature's limbs and appendages, while also keeping it simple enough to work quickly. The rig was custom-built for the show, although we managed to repurpose an old set of "vines" from another film and transform them into the chain harness that imprisons the creature. These shots go beyond simple temp comps. They are early animation passes that evoke mood, tone, feeling, and story. While the lab sequence showcased our ability to create a dramatic moment, other sequences were all about the chaos of war. For those, our team used MASH within Autodesk Maya to animate hordes of creatures, then layered in specific keyframed PREVIS: TELLING STORIES, FASTER HOW TECHNOLOGY CHANGED THE PROCESS FOR THE BETTER BY RON FRANKEL

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