Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 3 (March 2000)

LA Story

A television pilot features a flythrough of a virtual downtown Los Angeles

By Karen Moltenbrey

When the producers of a new television pilot wanted to focus on scenes that depicted the "real" city of Los Angeles, not the glittery, silver-screen version, they chose not to shoot live footage. In stead, they used a photorealistic 3D animation. That digital scenery is prominently featured in an opening flythrough sequence and as background im agery for Launch City, an interactive music-magazine television show that recently debuted on Fox's FX Networks.

"This scaled-down version of the metropolis brings LA's most recognizable sites-such as the LA River, The 360 Restaurant & Lounge, and the House of Blues-to life," says Steve Brinca, creative director for Liquid Light Studios (Los Angeles), which created the virtual cityscape. "While touring the lifelike scenery of downtown Los Angeles at night, the viewer experiences the inner city as well as the deserted backstreets."

The animation shows dirty, graffiti-covered buildings, rusted storm drains, littered sidewalks, timeworn bridges, hip night clubs-all dramatically lit-setting a sexy but gritty tone, as the Los Angeles River reflects the colorful glow of a grand movie theater's lights against the night sky. Within this CG setting, live footage of musical guests and other types of video clips will be composited into the 3D scene. For instance, the animation sequence may transport viewers through the city's back streets before reaching The 360 Restaurant & Lounge, where footage of a live interview with Elton John may appear. Or, a billboard near the theater may feature an advertisement for The Gap one week and Coke the next.
Using 3D Studio Max, animators at Liquid Light Studios created a realistic virtual model of Los Angeles, using popular sites in the city to serve as a backdrop for a new television pilot.

"The client [Launch Media] wanted to have various sponsors placed within the billboards while the camera is flying through the city," Brinca says. "We built the scenes so if the pilot is picked up by the network, the camera paths and the sponsors within the animation can be easily changed as needed for each show."

To create the realistic street scenes, Liquid Light-known for its creative 3D animations, including a virtual replica of Magic Moun tain's newest roller coaster-utilized its architectural-animation experience along with its ability to create photorealistic textures. With Discreet's (Montreal) 3D Studio Max running on an Intergraph (Huntsville, AL) TDZ 2000 workstation, a team of four artists constructed numerous models for the sequence, using reference photos of landmarks, buildings, and objects in the city. They even gave some of the buildings, such as The 360 Lounge, fully modeled interiors.

The group also used 3D Studio Max to produce the flythrough animations, light the imagery, and render the scenes.
Although the 3D animation focuses mainly on the outside views of the buildings, some landmarks, such as the 360 Lounge, contain completely modeled interiors, which can be used as backdrops for various shots on the Launch City television pilot..

The textures, though, presented a bigger challenge. "We had to avoid animations that looked too clean and too perfect-too computer-generated," Brinca says. "We had to make the city dirty and give it character." To provide the artists with an understanding of how buildings and streets become worn and torn over time, the group photographed areas of the city that were then used as guidelines for creating the textures in Adobe Systems' (San Jose, CA) Photoshop. "We also took pictures of cars, fire hydrants, and litter scattered about so we could replicate that and place it in a realistic way."

Also creating some technical difficulties was the lighting. Because each scene contained more than 300 lights, if each light were to generate the appropriate shadows, these scenes would have consumed too much rendering time-at least an hour per frame. "We just couldn't live with that," explains Brinca. Instead, the group selectively chose which objects would create shadows based on which areas would be shown in higher resolution, as dictated by the camera paths. "We had the client block off the camera paths so we knew right off the bat how much detail to put in the façades of the buildings, for in stance," he says. "If you start putting all the little details in the an i ma tion-every door knob and win dowsill-it would take years to render."

Among the more im pressive CG imagery within the virtual city is that in the bridge scene, with its realistic water and finely crafted graffiti. "The detail is exceptional. I wish the entire animation looked as good," notes Brinca. "But this was one of the shots that was really crucial to the whole project, because [the client] is planning to composite a person spray-painting the bottom part of the bridge into the final cut."
To make the cityscape look dirty and gritty, artists photographed areas of LA and used them as references for creating the desired worn and torn textures in Photoshop.

Could this project have been done without the use of computer graphics? Sure, says Brinca, although more expensively and with less creative control. Using digital imagery was the best choice, he notes, because it enabled the group to achieve some otherwise impossible camera paths-such as flying through storm drains and aquaducts from the river, then resurfacing in the city. For this project, the real deal was not the best option.

Key Tool 3D Studio Max, Discreet (