Computer Graphics World

March/April 2014

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8 ■ CGW M a r ch / A p r i l 2 014 Planes are cool. They look cool, they do cool things. They can go super fast. Some have guns. It's every boy's dream to be a fighter-pilot at some point. So, if it's such a fascination to so many people, why can't we get the motions correct in CG re-creations for film and television? I was once one of those people who thought that making a CG airplane fly around in a piece of software would be a cakewalk. "Just put a keyframe here, a keyframe there, and bank the plane. How hard could it be?" Well, let me tell you, it's a lot harder than it looks. I started in this business about 10 years ago; my first job was animating characters at a small company in Min- nesota called Wet Cement. But when my friend in Los Angeles called me about a job involving animating air- planes, I jumped at the chance. I moved to LA to work at a studio called Radical 3D on the TV show Dogfights: Greatest Air Battles for The History Channel, and became the lead animator on the show for the two years it was on the air. After that, that same friend called me to Zoic Studios to work on a show called Jeri- cho, which had a flight sequence the studio needed help with. Shortly after, I had learned that ILM and Lucas were working on Red Tails, and they came to Radical 3D for the flight animations in the film thanks to the accuracy of the Dogfights series. Later, I was hired by Disney Toons Studios to help out on its animated feature Planes, because they, too, were unhappy with their initial digital flying. I ended up going back to Radical 3D, this time as VFX supervi- sor to complete a show called "Why Planes Crash" on MSNBC as well as a film called Red Sky (directed by Mario Van Peebles). Weighty Matters If ILM and Disney were having trouble with digital flying, there must be some- thing special about it. So, what is it? Well, there's a long and a short answer. I will start with the long ver- sion. The main issue that most films and TV shows have when it comes to virtual flying is weight. Weight, weight, weight. People see these machines fly- ing at Mach 2 doing barrel rolls and loop de loops, and they see how effortlessly they do it. The problem is we forget how much power is actually behind these accomplishments. For example, an F/A-18 Super Hornet can go from zero to 60 mph in .8 sec- onds, but it weighs over 32,000 pounds. So, obviously it's not because its super lightweight, but it actually has two GE F414 jet engines kicking out 22,000 of pounds of force each. That's a lot of kick, so it's easy to see why one would think these things move quickly. The problem comes when we have fast-moving air- planes over short distances. These things have a lot of mass and a lot of speed, and any maneuver is going to require a certain amount of lag. So, when they do these maneuvers in a short distance, the planes end up looking very lightweight, too fast, and very unrealistic. On every plane project I have worked on, we always made the planes fly at real speed and at real distances. This meant that at least the scope of the maneuver was reined in to at least a realistic starting point. But, I may be getting ahead of my- self. Before we even started animation, we required the plane to have a control rig. We usually had a three-locator hierarchy, the first for X,Y, Z transla- tion, the second for heading and pitch rotation, and the third for bank rotation. Under that, the plane was parented to the bank locator. This simple rig gave us so much control over the motion of our aircraft that we never had to fight competing curves again. Having this simple setup is great and all, but it's only part of the rig. The loca- tors need to be placed where the plane would realistically pivot in flight, which isn't necessarily the center of gravity. It's actually center and back, just before the flaps on the main wings. I have seen a lot of animations where people put the pivot point back on the eleva- tors near the tail, and that throws off the entire look. Too far back and it will look like your plane is doing a wheelie, and too far forward will look like it's doing a nose slide. Another problem I see in nearly ev- ery film and television aerial sequence is another simple yet overlooked aspect of flight. When people animate Flying In a CG World By Tom Bremer P O I N T v i e w A E R I A L A N I M A T I O N Tom Bremer has more than nine years of experience as a visual effects artist, working on movies such as The Hunger Games, The Amazing Spider-man, and Disney's Planes. In 2010, he received a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Series for his work on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. He is currently an in- structor at The Digital Animation & Visual Effects (DAVE) School in Orlando, Florida.

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