“For over 20 years, LightWave artists, supervisors, producers, and studios have won more Emmy Awards for animation and visual effects than any other,” revealed a NewTek spokesperson. In fact, the special event opened with an awe-inspiring look back at Emmy Award-winning LightWave artistry. Actress Jeri Ryan (below), who is perhaps best known for her portrayal of Seven of Nine in the hit sci-fi series Star Trek: Voyager, introduced the reel of groundbreaking and award-winning imagery to the audience of more than 500. The impressive visual timeline included scenes from Dune, Firefly, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise, Children of Dune, Babylon 5, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and other award-winning projects.
The night’s festivities included: an informative panel of renowned industry artists, special guests and entertainers, eye-catching computer graphics and visual effects reels, and a glimpse of features new to NewTek’s upcoming LightWave Version 11.
A link to the event video can be found here: http://www.newtek.com/features-video.html.
The VFX Minds panel, moderated by Variety magazine features editor David Cohen, provided insight from industry legends and newcomers, including: Ron Thornton, the “godfather” of contemporary television VFX, who contributed visual effects to Babylon 5, Star Trek: Enterprise, and many more TV series and films; Chuck Comisky, visual effects supervisor, stereoscopic expert, and stereo supervisor for Avatar; Doug Drexler, visual effects artist, designer, sculptor, illustrator, and Academy Award-winning makeup artist currently working on Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome; and Eric Hance, supervising artist on the new Steven Spielberg series Terra Nova (see “Turning Back Time” in the October/November issue of CGW).
The panelists imparted advice on how best to deliver effects-rich television shows, both on time and on budget, such as with the help of the latest innovations in software, hardware, and workflow.
Television audiences increasingly expect visually rich experiences on the small screen, whereas budgets continue to decrease in response to heightened competition among a larger number of TV networks. At the same time, studios are under growing pressure to deliver effects in greater quantity and quality in less time than ever before. CG and VFX are bridging the gap between expanding expectations and tight budgets and schedules.
“While there is a lot more fuss over visual effects for feature films,” Cohen said, “people in television are doing it almost as well on much less budget, in much shorter time, and with fewer resources.”
“It’s a real challenge,” Thornton admitted, “because budget constraints are extremely tight.”
Not long ago, there were three networks; yet, with cable and now Internet programming, the pie has been split so fine that studios are afraid to invest money in a show, Drexler explained. Competition for advertising dollars is steep, and shows are being cancelled after just two episodes. “Although there isn’t a lot of money to spend, there has never been a better time for [CG and VFX artists]. We are going to get more work. The studios are going to find out that you can do these shows with less of a budget than you had before, and you can go bigger.”
More with Less
Big was certainly the goal when it came to Terra Nova on Fox. At VFX studio Pixomondo, “the goal was to take the incredible high bar that [the company] has been achieving in film and bring it to TV screens,” Hance described. For taking incredible film technologies to the small screen on a weekly basis, Hance credits the people on his team; the software, including LightWave; and the production pipeline.
“Our operation looks very much like a feature film,” Hance enthused. “We’ve got an animation director, a compositing supervisor, and on-set VFX supe, and between animation and compositing are the CG generalists. It’s our job to make sure that the creatures are sitting right in the plate and the subsurface scattering through the skin and all the beautiful, primeval vistas—those things you don’t normally associate with a weekly television series—look right.”
“Methods that would have only been used in film in the past are going to become more commonplace because of developments like GeoCache and FBX in LightWave,” Hance predicted. “Different software [packages] are going to talk to each other better. I see a bigger pipeline and stronger talent resulting in bigger and bigger and more beautiful work.”
“They say the best innovation happens in small groups. I’m a firm believer in that,” Thornton said. “There has always been a certain amount of trickle down from big studios like ILM to the TV world. That gap is shortening. The stuff that is being done on the features now is available to us to do on television budgets almost immediately. That is going to be ongoing. Artists are able to do an awful lot more with the tools that they’ve got.”
The bleeding edge of technology typically comes at a very high cost, and it’s often beyond the reach of people and studios. InterSense’s Vcam system—the system used on Avatar to do virtual walkthroughs for the art department—has a $60,000 entry point, for example. “Many TV productions and art departments can’t afford that. It is out of reach for a lot of us,” recognized Rob Powers, NewTek’s vice president of 3D production. “The tragedy is that the virtual process is so crucial to the types of filmmaking and television advancements that we’re seeing today. Innovation is really part of the process.”
Powers and his team at NewTek, devoted to empowering innovation at all levels and budgets, have implemented a software development kit (SDK) into LightWave’s architecture. The SDK enables the use of off-the-shelf technology, such as a Sony PlayStation Move controller or 3Dconnexion input devices, in the same way as one would use an expensive Vcam.
LightWave’s virtual studio supports the use of multiple devices, and the motion is recordable. “You could have devices driving different things, such as a light, a camera, or anything that can be animated,” Powers added. It is perfect technology for art departments, independent films, architectural visualization, walkthroughs for clients, exploring a set, and virtual location scouts, he explained.
LightWave 11 made its first public appearance during the event, providing CG and VFX professionals in the audience the first glimpse of features new to Version 11.
Native instancing in LightWave 11 enabled Powers to show render instances of an object with a heavy polygon count—1.6 billion polygons, to be precise—in full OpenGL. “The quality level just skyrockets,” he said. “These kinds of things were impossible to load into common memory before; you just couldn’t get this level of detail.”
LightWave 11’s new flocking system simplifies and speeds the production and animation of herds, as Powers demonstrated digitally with herds of running dinosaurs and flocks of flying bats. “It is intelligent flocking—they detect each other and don’t collide,” he explained. “You can have them attract and repel, and get really quick, beautiful flocking for birds, airplanes, helicopters, swarms of bees, and so on.
The latest LightWave interchange tool was met with a roar of audience applause. “The new one is GoZ, a button push that takes you from [Pixologic’s] ZBrush directly into LightWave, and back and forth,” Powers (below) continued.
In the past, pixel-perfect camera matching between Autodesk’s Maya and LightWave was difficult, Powers admitted. “We have nailed it with LightWave 11. We’ve cracked that nut. You can load objects from Maya directly in LightWave, and that’s what Pixomondo artists are doing with the dinosaurs in Terra Nova. These tool sets allow you to integrate LightWave into any production pipeline.”
“VFX artists, like me, love to blow things up,” Powers revealed. “When we implemented tools to be able to do this, we wanted a complete workflow.” Artists can load any object into modeler and the new Fracture feature breaks it into pieces. In other software packages, each broken piece is a separate item; whereas in LightWave, all the pieces can be contained in a single entity. “You have the choice of saving the broken pane of glass as one object,” he said.
Additional features in Version 11 include Bullet, a production-proven, interactive physics engine; enhanced render buffer support with presets; render enhancements, including print render setup; a shadow/reflection catcher; Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR) surface selection; and optimized handling of large data sets. “We want you to get your shots done as soon as possible,” Powers affirmed. (See www.cgw.com/Press-Center/News/2011/NewTek-debuts-LightWave-11.aspx for a detailed description of Version 11.)
“All these features are coming,” Powers enthused. “They are in the software, and studios are using them in their shots.” In fact, a team of roughly 20 artists at Energia VFX in Finland is taking advantage of LightWave 11 beta software in the production of Iron Sky, an innovative independent film already garnering attention for its tremendous CG and VFX quality.
“It’s mind-numbing to see the visual effects they are doing with such a small crew with LightWave,” Powers added. “People are doing great work with Version 11, which is delivering real benefits right now.”
LightWave 11 will ship before the end of the year. In the meantime, registered users of LightWave Versions 10 and 10.1 can now download and begin to test drive a prerelease version from http://www.NewTek.com.