User Focus - 2/04
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 2 (Feb 2004)

User Focus - 2/04

"This is not an effects film, so everything we did had to blend perfectly with the live-action footage," says Ben Girard, president/founder of the Burbank, California, studio.

For several sequences, including the final battle, Digital Dimension replaced prop weapons with CG swords and lances, which were used mostly when a particular weapon had to penetrate a victim. It's easier and more effective to use CG to simulate this action, says senior animator Justin Mitchell, than to employ a practical effect, such as a retractable spring-loaded blade tip.
Digital Dimension crafted period weaponry for a number of scenes in the film The Last Samurai.

According to Girard, as the star (Tom Cruise) stabbed an enemy with the loose grip of the sword, the artists had to match his action and timing. One of the problems the team faced was that the sword handle would rotate unrealistically in the live-action footage.

"It's very difficult for an actor to simulate the action, or inaction, of a sword being stuck into another person's body and react to their movement," Girard says. "This meant that sometimes we had to replace the entire sword to make the shot work, while other times we just replaced the blade."

To model and texture the objects, the team used Discreet's 3ds max running on Dell Precision 650 PC workstations. The artists rendered the images with Chaos Software's V-Ray, and using eyeon Software's Digital Fusion, composited the objects seamlessly into the actors' hands while paying particular attention to the lighting. "At times we built environments around the CG elements so that the reflections and shadows would be accurate," says Mitchell.

The team also developed shaders to alter the reflections of the swords based on their angle to the camera. As they do for most projects, the artists complemented the commercial software with in-house scripts and tools, enabling them to achieve the desired level of realism while remaining efficient.

In addition, the studio completed a great deal of compositing tasks, color correction, and crowd replication work for the film. —Karen Moltenbrey

3ds max, Discreet
Digital Fusion, eyeon Software

Velocity Design Group in New York City helped HBO coordinate a sing-along for a television branding campaign featuring 35 of the network's hottest stars from shows such as The Sopranos and Sex and the City. In the spot, the individual actors and actresses are shown in quick succession singing—or, more accurately, lip-synching—to Mel Torme's rendition of "Comin' Home Baby."

To create the spot, producer Kathy Rocklein and the Velocity staff sifted through scores of tapes from the shows to find the longest moments of serendipitous synchronization of the actors' lip movements to the song lyrics.

While some of the snippets appeared perfectly synchronized to segments of the song, others were not. For these, the group had to put words, or more accurately, lyrics, into each star's mouth by juxtaposing the numerous clips with the music and re-timing the video to match the song using RE:Vision Effects' ReelSmart Twixtor.
The actors (such as Sarah Jessica Parker) appear in character for the sing-along, making it more interesting to watch.

According to Bryan Fernandez, president and senior designer, the biggest concern was making the idea work. "The question was whether we could find clips to support the bulk of the lyrical content of the song," he says.

Familiar with HBO's content from previous work, the editors were able to screen the tapes at five times the normal playback speed, enabling them to search through a large number of tapes quickly. The majority of the clips were found this way and incorporated into the edit unadjusted. For the remaining clips, the group re-timed the footage with minimal degradation. —KM

ReelSmart Twixtor, RE:Vision Effects