User Focus - 3/04
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 3 (March 2004)

User Focus - 3/04

Since then, digital effects in film and television have be-come far more sophisticated and realistic. Yet when producers recently brought this classic back to the small screen in a two-part miniseries for the Sci Fi Channel, they decided to pay homage to the original show by using state-of-the-art tools and techniques to replicate various effects from yesteryear.

"We had a lot to live up to," says Lee Stringer, CG supervisor at Zoic Studios (Los Angeles), which created the digital content for the four-hour miniseries. "We took hints from the original show and then took that a step or two further by adding another level of detail and realism."

In particular, the artists mimicked the look of the practical models/miniatures. To accomplish this, Stringer searched for retro model kits similar to those from the late-1970s to detail portions of the Battlestar Galactica spaceships. Using these practical model-kit parts for reference, the Zoic artists re-created the spacecraft in the computer using NewTek's LightWave content-creation software running on Pentium 4 Xeon PCs with Nvidia Quadro 4 graphics cards.

Using LightWave, digital artists created this large nebulous environment for the miniseries Battlestar Galactica, a retelling of the 1970s classic science-fiction television show of the same name.

"I wanted the look to resemble what it was years ago," says Stringer, "but I didn't want the parts to fit perfectly." The audience may not have noticed these inconsistencies, but Stringer believes that, subconsciously, it helped remove the pristine CG edge from the 3D models. This was further accomplished by keeping the amount of hand-painted CG textures to a minimum, employing, instead, photographic textures applied with Adobe's Photoshop and Corel's PhotoPaint.

On one hand, the artists were trying to add flaws to the imagery; on the other, they were focusing on realism, particularly when it came to animating the spaceships. In addition, they created realistic digital people, set extensions, and complete CG environments.

For further realism, the team incorporated the studio's hand-held documentary camera style that it had used for the short-lived sci-fi series Firefly, for which Zoic received an Emmy last year.

"That jarring style—which is intended to give viewers the feeling that they are part of the action and story—is something that would have been tremendously difficult to do years ago," says Stringer.

For a retro look, the artists replicated the spaceship-building technique used in the '70s, only this time using CG.

To render the CG imagery, which was shown in 1920x1080 (high-definition) resolution, the artists used LightWave. They first completed a film pass for the lighting using ambient occlusion to take the CG edge off the models and to add subtle nuances typically achieved with a radiosity-based renderer. Then they created key and interactive passes for an added layer of believability.

The group composited the imagery using Discreet's combustion and flame. In addition, all the animators used NewTek Video Toasters coupled with television monitors, which allowed them to do temporary compositions in combustion and Adobe After Effects that they could then review in real time within a simulated TV viewing environment.

As a result of this work, Zoic was able to preserve the charm of the original series while infusing it with some "out of this world" effects to retell the Battlestar Galactica story and make it appealing to a whole new generation of potential fans. —Karen Moltenbrey

LightWave, NewTek

Game publisher Microsoft Game Studios (Salt Lake City) recently teamed with developer Power & Magic Development (Paris) to serve up ultra-realistic action for their recent Xbox title Top Spin, bringing world-class tennis action into the virtual realm of computerized gaming.

Top Spin, which offers singles or doubles matches, pits players against 16 of the sport's leading tennis stars, whose signature moves were motion captured and incorporated into the animation for authenticity. A local tennis pro "played" against the ranked players, enabling the Microsoft team to acquire the most realistic movements from the stars.

According to Bruce Gil, motion-capture manager at Microsoft Game Studios, the group acquired more than 750 specialized movements during separate mocap sessions with tennis greats including Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis, Lleyton Hewitt, Elena Dementieva, Jan-Michael Gambill, Anna Kournikova, and Barbara Schett. Microsoft Game Studios secured access to the busy pros during a two-week time span as they rotated through the NASDAQ 100 tournament in 2002. As a result, the team had little notice for setting up its Vicon mocap system, attaching the light-reflective markers to each player, and then capturing a wide range of movements.
Microsoft Game Studios used a Vicon MCam 2 motion-capture system to acquire authentic moves of top-ranked tennis players for its Top Spin Xbox game.

The group, which had just purchased the Vicon system for its Xbox game division, had one week of training before heading to the Miami Convention Center for its first capture session. There, the technicians positioned 12 high-res Vicon MCam 2 cameras around a 40x40x10-foot capture area.

To create a realistic environment for the players, the team installed a tiled SportCourt surface, and taped lines on a mock half-court. So the tennis stars could move naturally within this space, the technicians mounted the MCams on a 60x60x12-foot box truss, which was suspended high above the space as to not hinder the players' actions.

Each pro was then suited up for digital play, as 45 Vicon markers were placed on the person's body, while a set of lightweight 9mm markers were attached to the racket frame.

"This enabled us to record unique nuances while encouraging the players to move and react as they normally would," says Gil. "We recorded two full minutes of the players doing their moves the way only they would do them, which gave us long, pretty much unbroken sequences of movements, including the preparation of the serve, the serve itself, the serve follow-through, the reaction, and the return."
One of the featured players is Lleyton Hewitt, shown in the video game (left) and being motion captured (right).

The capture sessions ranged in length, from a little more than an hour to several hours, depending on the player. Sampras, for example, spent a long time on the simulated court. "He didn't hold back; he gave it his all," Gil says.

Once the group acquired the movements, it reviewed the animation data in Kaydara's MotionBuilder software, and applied it to the 3D game characters, which were created in Alias Systems' Maya for use by Power & Magic. The data was so clean and accurate, states Gil, that the artists were able to practically incorporate the moves straight into the game engine, saving a tremendous amount of development time.

"Even with the large size of our capture volume, the data we acquired was amazingly accurate," Gil notes. "If something passed out of the volume—like Sampras' tall frame jumping to unbelievable heights—we had enough collective information to reconstruct the move." —KM

MCam 2 system, Vicon