Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 8 (August 2001)

A 3D Portal

By Karen Moltenbrey

location-based entertainment

Millions of people will descend on the nation's amusement parks this summer in search of thrills and spills, and one new attraction that's not disappointing vacationers so far is the "7th Portal 3D Simulator Experience," which opened recently at several Paramount theme parks. The stereoscopic 3D ride film, created by artists at Blur Studio (Venice, CA), immerses viewers in a world populated by superheroes and villains from the popular "7th Portal" Internet comic series by Stan Lee, creator of classic comic book characters such as Spider-Man and the X-Men. Early reviews of the ride film by visitors have ranked it as one of the park's best attractions.

The 3D adventure begins when one of the villains from the episodes bursts through the screen and drags the audience into the parallel dimension of Darkmoor. There, visitors join six superheroes in a fight to save Earth.

The plot may have a familiar tone, but the 4-minute adventure will take viewers on a unique, true-3D adventure. "We used stereoscopic 3D, so the effects jump right out at you, and they give the audience a sense of interacting directly with the larger-than-life characters on the screen," says Blur's Aaron Powell, who co-directed the project with Yas Takata, the studio's veteran ride-film director. "We thought that having the audience interacting with the characters would be far more compelling than just flying around in space and occasionally bumping into objects-the formula for most motion rides."
During the "7th Portal" ride film, viewers are pulled into a 3D universe by the evil character Krog. Once inside the parallel world, they must combat Krog and other villains in an arena-style "death match." (Images courtesy Blur Studio.)

The designers faced a number of technical hurdles while creating the in-your-face 3D effects. "7th Portal" was the studio's first experience in creating stereoscopic effects, so the design team spent a great deal of time researching the required technology and studying existing stereoscopic films to determine which effects worked and why. Once, Powell even park-hopped among three theme parks in a single day to experience firsthand some of the newer stereoscopic films and the effects they had on the audience.

"We found that the stereoscopic effects worked best when the motion platform was fairly stationary," says Powell. "The effects started to flatten out when the audience was bouncing around too much."

A stereo film may deliver twice the fun, but it also involves twice as much work, and in some instances, far more. Stereoscopic images require the use of two cameras, for a left-eye and right-eye view. So when Powell first created his animatic storyboards in Discreet's (Montreal) 3ds max, he set up two cameras roughly four inches apart, to simulate the focal distance between the eyes. These cameras converged about 15 feet from the camera's point of view, which is where the majority of the stereoscopic effects occur in the film. "That's where the stereoscopic images seemed to be the sharpest, and it gave us 15 feet to throw something out of the screen and into the audience," Powell notes.

The group also determined from the research that stereo effects occurring from a straight-on direction were difficult to visually register, as were those involving thin, pointy objects such as swords. Like wise, stereo objects that appeared too close were uncomfortable to look at, causing the audience to squint. To establish an optical range limit for the 3D effects in "7th Portal," the artists temporarily added colored balls into the animation at 1-foot depth intervals from the convergence point of the stereo image so they could determine at which range their eyes could no longer register the imagery.

Using two cameras, though, meant the group had to deliver more than 14,400 frames of animation-twice the usual amount-for the left and right projectors, used to achieve the stereo effects. The team also had to take into account the differences between the projection systems used by Paramount theme parks and Iwerks Entertainment, which will also be showing both a 2D and 3D version of the film at its various theaters. Therefore, the double-imaged film had to be produced in two different versions-a letterbox format for the parks and a standard size, with about a third more height, for the Iwerks locations.
The "7th Portal" villains and superheroes possess unique powers that are often displayed in a stereoscopic effect. Here a villain "thrusts" his green energy blade out into the audience.

"The effects needed to work on both platforms, so I made sure that all of the stereoscopic effects fit within the smaller, cropped frame, but added plenty of visual detail in the additional space within the larger format," says Powell.

Compositing stereo images also re quires more work. Most films that are made with 3D software are shown in 2D, so many of the effects can be composited separately into the scene during postproduction. When it's shown in stereo, though, it becomes difficult to pick a tracking point for compositing a glow or explosion atop an environment because of the two points of view. Therefore, the stereo effects have to be added directly into the environment for accurate three-dimensional depth, says Powell, resulting in rendering headaches.

All of the "7th Portal" effects were created in multiple layers and composited using Eyeon Software's (Toronto) Digital Fusion. The images were so large and detailed-the digital assets for the park ride alone contain more than 1tb of data-that the compositing process took more than three months to complete.

Rendering these layers, using 3ds max's renderer, presented an even greater challenge, and forced Blur to increase its in-house rendering capability. To handle the enormous load, the studio purchased an extra rack of Boxx Technologies' (Austin, Texas) rendering systems, which augmented the studio's newly purchased Boxx workstations used to create the digital content.

"7th Portal" not only delivers an interactive, effects-heavy experience, but also projects a new dimension in ride-film style. The production, in keeping with its original Internet episode roots, resembles a comic that's come to life, rather than the typical dark, Blade Runner-esque look or one that aims for photorealism. "The film has a rich, illustrative look with saturated colors and sharp edges," says Powell. But what's particularly striking is the level of detail. Powell achieved this by adding detail to the geometry rather than the texture maps, allowing him to use a simple color scheme throughout the film. "Overall, the animation looks more like a graphic novel than typical CGI," he notes.

By using this modeling/texturing approach, the images retain their rich, crisp look when the camera flies through the environments. "In 3D software packages, geometry doesn't get filtered as the camera moves farther way from the object, so you don't get that smeared look like you do when you use detailed texture maps," explains Powell. The artists also incorporated a second rendering pass into their process, this time inside Digital Fusion. "This punched up the brightness, contrast, saturation, and sharpness even more, so that the final images looked very different from the raw renders," he adds.

Also atypical for a ride film is the large number of main characters packed into the 4-minute "7th Portal" production-there are a total of 13 main heroes and villains-as well as the large amount of interaction the audience has with these characters. Fans of the "7th Portal" Web-isode series may recognize some of these characters and their specialized supernatural powers, yet the stereoscopic film stars are far more lifelike than their flat Internet counterparts.
Here, the evil character Mongorr unleashes a giant robotic version of himself, whose movements are synchronized to his own. This animation, as well as that of the other characters, was motion-captured.

This was due in part to the realistic animation, which was captured by the artists using Blur's new 12-camera Vicon MCam system (Vicon Motion Systems; Oxford, UK) and then applied to the 3ds max characters. The animators began incorporating the motion data to the characters during the animatic stage, to time out all the action. They did so by exporting the mocap files from the native Vicon Bodybuilder format into Discreet's character studio biped tool, which the animators used to apply the motion to the character models. The motion-captured data was added to the main stars as well as the crowds in the background scenes. "Using motion capture gave us a tremendous amount of flexibility in creating, re-creating, or modifying our final character animation," says Powell.

In Takata's opinion, the character animation quality in "7th Portal" ups the ante compared to Blur's other ride films, including "Meteor Attack" and "Star Trek: World Tour." He adds: "The film features fully rendered, fully fleshed-out characters that accompany the audience on the ride of a lifetime."

Key Tools: 3ds max, Discreet ( infoNOW 105; RenderBoxx systems, Boxx Technologies (