For the most part, the sprawling cityscapes and elaborate buildings created by set designer Vlad Bina, chief executive officer of XY Blue Design, live as bits and bytes in a hard drive, not as wood-and-plaster structures in a physical location. That’s because he’s working as a digital set designer, a profession that’s been around for some time under a variety of labels.
“Only in the past few years have we started to consistently see the terms ‘digital set designer’ or ‘art director for digital sets’ showing up on screen when movie credits begin to roll,” says Bina. Sometimes, Bina’s credit appears under “virtual background designer” or “virtual cinematographer.”
Originally from Romania, Bina is an architect by training. He obtained a Master of Architecture degree from Pratt Institute in New York before attending MIT as a Fulbright Scholar. Since 1995, he has been involved in digital set design, working on films such as The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, 13 Ghosts, Catwoman, Sin City, Spider-Man 3, and The Da Vinci Code.
“Digital set design as well as previsualization are integral to the production design process, and they should be considered as such,” says Bina. “Today’s production designers are beginning to understand the challenge of having to produce both a real and a digital version of their set, both of them perfectly interchangeable, allowing for a wider range of camera choreography and postproduction work. Having only parts of a set built and the rest completed digitally is likely to become the norm.”
The use of an architectural CAD program allows show/conference designer Paul Hammond to predict the views and perspectives available from various points on the set.
As digital sets have become more and more integrated into film production, Bina started to work more closely with the crews responsible for preproduction and production designs. (For more on previz, see “Preconceived Motions,” October 2007.) Bina, citing Tino Schaedler, art director for the digital sets in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, V for Vendetta, and Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, says this:
“The digital set designer speaks both the language of the production designer, which is predominantly architectural, and that of the postproduction team. The digital set designer becomes thus an intermediate between production designer, art department, and postproduction.”
Bina observes that CG for film production is moving from representation towards simulation, from interpretation of visual situations towards physically correct reproductions. “In truth, we shall always find ourselves somewhere between the two,” he adds.
To explain the complementary relationship between digital simulation (using global illumination algorithms to light a digital set shot, for example) and digital representation (projecting rendered or painted images onto 3D geometry, for instance), Bina recounted an anecdote involving two Hollywood giants: Lawrence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman. The incident, first reported in The Times (London) and later recounted by Hoffman in an NPR interview (“Talk of the Nation: A Conversation with Dustin Hoffman,” December 4, 2003), went more or less like this: One day, Olivier saw his costar saunter onto the set of Marathon Man (1976, Paramount) looking disheveled and sleep-deprived. Upon finding out Hoffman had voluntarily fatigued himself to get into character, Olivier was supposed to have famously asked, “Why don’t you just act, dear boy?”
Olivier was a product of the repertory theater school and Hoffman was coming out of New York’s Actor’s Studio. “We can say that the repertory acting technique is akin to representation, and the method acting, with its ‘getting into character’ tool set, is akin to simulation,” Bina explains. “The two acting styles complement each other perfectly, resulting in a good film. And most of the time, simulation and representation working together can do the same thing for digital film design.”
XY Blue Design
Digital Sets On Demand
Bina’s characteristic workflow usually involves gathering as much quality visual information as he can before the actual design work begins—high-resolution set reference pictures, historical references, concept artwork, production design sketches, CAD files, and so forth. In the end, the quality of the digital set, irrespective of the technology involved, rests with the right balance of compositing, lighting, texture detail, 3D detail, camera projection, and frontal UV surfacing. “All this is a highly collaborative effort, and my main priority is keeping in sync with everyone else,” he says.
Oftentimes, Bina and his XY Blue Design company integrate live action shot against greenscreen (as depicted at the top of this image) within a digital set, taking care to work within the optimal color space and bit depth.
To facilitate the marriage of the physical set to the digital set, Bina pays attention to color space and bit depth. “We try to shoot all the photographic survey pictures in 16 bit,” he notes, “always being careful to manipulate all the photographic data in a nondestructive way—no downsizing in resolution, minimal stretching, and so on. In the end, the final match lies in the hands of the compositor.”
Sometimes Bina imports the 3D scan of the physical set into the digital environment for further development in Autodesk’s Maya. The import to Maya is a two-step process, he says. For this, the group uses Leica’s Cyclone software (used by surveyors to manage the scanned 3D site data, among other information) to process the point cloud data, and then imports the geometry and position markers from Cyclone.
On Matrix Reloaded, Matrix Revolutions, and Catwoman, the team also used the ESC virtual background tools from ESC Entertainment, a digital art production company, for photogrammetric reconstruction and extended dynamic range texturing methods.
A Stitch in Ray
Bina augments his 3D digital set-building arsenal with Mental Images’ Mental Ray rendering engine (within Maya) and a collection of MEL scripts for Maya. For 2D image manipulation, he employs Adobe Photoshop with PTLens (a Windows-based software product for correcting lens distortions, from ePaperPress) and PTGui’s panoramic photo-stitching tool.
According to Bina, the big advantage to using Mental Ray (besides working with float images) is the ability to have mipmap pyramid textures. With pyramid textures, a person can paint, capture, or stitch pictures that are up to 6k in resolution (6144x6144 pixels). Furthermore, artists can camera-project large matte paintings onto simple geometry without paying rendering penalties. For wide CG panoramic shots, they can render one frame for one or two cameras at 4k or 6k resolution, and then re-project those images through the same render cameras onto the geometry.
“It’s like doing a real set reconstruction, but this time you create both the projection cameras and the projected images in Maya,” says Bina, noting this can be a big time-saver when encountering sampling issues and facing long render times on lengthy 3D sequences with relatively simple cameras. Because lighting conditions for digital sets do not usually change over the duration of the shot, this re-projection technique can be routinely used.
Nevertheless, there are no convenient methods or established pipelines at this time for transferring 3D data from production design (usually done in CAD) to preproduction visualization, then to postproduction usage. “We had projects whereby the production design department handed the CG set team only blueprints of the real set, and we had to re-measure and rebuild the sets digitally from scratch,” Bina says.
In architecture, BIM, or Building Information Modeling, the practice of deriving all the construction documents and structural information from a single 3D model, is catching on. “I can’t see why intelligent, centralized 3D models with multiple and complex layers of data couldn’t be beneficial to film design, too,” Bina says. “The best idea would be to first bring everything under the same 3D umbrella, having one single 3D database from preproduction to postproduction. And the digital set designer, who is interfacing with both groups, seems to be the best qualified to maintain this database.”
Paul Hammond Design
Live, from Treasure Island
There’s a pair of old seaplane hangers on Treasure Island, looking out into the San Francisco Bay. Built for the World Expo in 1939, they featured upper galleries for spectators. During WWII, US bombers shared the 3300-foot runway leading to the hangers. But in 1999, long after the facility closed, a luxury sedan—a Lincoln LS—landed on the same site, accompanied by fireworks, fanfare, and a flourish of rock-and-roll music. The automaker, Lincoln Mercury, had ferried in a group of dealers, guests, and reporters to the locale for the inaugural gala of the LS unveiling.
Paul Hammond, who now operates his own Paul Hammond Design firm, was at the time vice president of the design communication group for Caribiner International (no longer in existence), the agency contracted by Lincoln Mercury to produce the show. To make sure the cinematic display panels, message boards, and spotlights were situated correctly, he and his crew used Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD architectural design package. The team relied on the architectural simulation features in the software to figure out beforehand the available camera positions—before the actual stage was built and before the cameras were installed.
“Most of the people who hire us don’t know how to read 2D diagrams and construction drawings,” Hammond says. “Gone are the days of carousel slides. And a laptop and a PowerPoint presentation rarely cut it nowadays.”
As a result, set designers like Hammond are becoming moviemakers—they make fairly complex animation sequences, usually based on dimensionally accurate architectural CAD models, to show what the client can expect. “Clients are now starting to request more engaging and dynamic presentations,” he says. “The relative ease of being able to create a fly-through or 360-degree view of any environment greatly enhances the client’s understanding of any given project, which sets clear expectations and reduces approvals times.”
Now You See It, Now You Don’t
“Experiential design” is the term Hammond likes to use to describe his firm’s set-design specialty. When designing a live event, such as the Lincoln LS launch, the show producers have only one chance to get it right. So the set designers prefer to work in a software package that lets them repeatedly simulate the show elements—lighting conditions, shadow castings, lines of sight from various vantage points, to name but a few—until all the interested parties are satisfied.
“We started with two empty, derelict aircraft hangers—no power, no AC, no seating, nothing,” Hammond recalls of the Lincoln LS launch. “When we were finished, we had a 100-seat theater, several classrooms, a restaurant that could feed 500 people on the mezzanine level, and an elevator [so we would] meet ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements.”
Describing his typical workflow, Hammond notes that the group uses ArchiCAD to create initial concepts, and then changes to Maxon’s Cinema 4D or a similar 3D modeling package for adding textures and lighting. The company is also looking into using Adobe After Effects to add video, soundtracks, and pyrotechnics.
The detailed renderings used at Paul Hammond Design enable clients to see precisely what they can expect in the finished set once it is constructed. Typically, the firm uses ArchiCAD for initial concepts and Cinema 4D for modeling, texturing, and lighting.
Currently, Paul Hammond Design is working on a project for Carnival Cruise Lines to create branded onboard environments, to be rolled out across the client’s fleet. “These are different classes of ships, each one with a different [spatial] footprint,” Hammond explains. “Unlike in typical construction, if we find a wall obstructing our design, we can’t just move the wall to the left. We have to work within the existing space of the ship. So we work out how each of these spaces are going to look using the computer—before anything gets built.”
In the past, before CAD was integrated into the workflow, Hammond would hire illustrators to produce presentation drawings for such projects. “The artists would rarely get to see the site,” he recalls. “They would have been given some basic dimensions, and they would use their experience and a lot of guesswork to create the hand-drawn color illustrations.”
Now, Hammond has advanced to using Graphisoft ArchiCAD 11. He uses the same CAD model to produce both the presentation drawings and the blueprints for the construction crew. Frequently, the conceptual drawings and the construction drawings are developed simultaneously—something the sequential workflow of the past didn’t permit. And the clients are pleased with the shorter turnaround time, Hammond points out.
Bridge Over Troubled Water
“Move that bridge.” In essence, that’s the request that came from the fire marshal after he reviewed the initial design of the Lincoln LS set. The set designers had envisioned a 185-foot bridge connecting the entryway to the aircraft hangers, though the fire marshal was concerned about the space beneath the bridge. “What the fire marshal said,” recalls Hammond, “was that he needed to be able to drive a fire truck all the way around the building without any impediment.”
The solution was to raise the bridge and redesign it at a different angle. That meant changes not only in the 3D model, but also to the elevation drawings. Since ArchiCAD retained the parametric relationships between different architectural components, the affected areas were automatically updated in the model after the change. Thus, a new set of elevation drawings was easily produced from the updated model.
“We’re a boutique design shop, but ArchiCAD allows us to compete on a national level—even on an international level—on all types of projects,” says Hammond. These currently range from cruise ships to theme parks and retail stores to product launches. “It’s our most useful tool,” he adds.
The Shape of Sets to Come
The semicircle desk on the set of The Colbert Report (Comedy Central) is anchored on a circular pedestal, with strings of text flowing around its base like a stock ticker. Meanwhile, the set of KGTV San Diego features several transparent counters and two short flights of stairs guarded by curvy rails. The set of KPNX Phoenix is recognizable from the flying saucer-like light box that hovers over the anchors’ desk.
The aesthetics of live broadcast has evolved significantly since Ed Sullivan’s days, not just in color but also in shape. Today, curvilinear panels with light boxes, dangling backdrops with streaming video, and bended Plexiglas are becoming the norm, not the novelty.
The prevalent style for today’s TV sets, in part inspired by the unorthodox designs of architect Frank Gehry and his contemporaries, cannot be realized without a stalwart CAD program, notes Jacob Gendelman, managing partner of Blackwalnut, which builds scenery for television, theater, exhibits, and special events. For him, Nemetschek’s VectorWorks Architect software is an indispensable tool.
A Portable Environment
Working in conjunction with Jack Morton Production Design Group (PDG), Blackwalnut helped design and construct the sets mentioned above. Gendelman and his crew are also responsible for the set of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, while their latest project was the TBS Major League Baseball (MLB) postseason show, set to go live this fall.
“We were hired to build a set that went on top of the existing TBS NBA set,” explains Gendelman. “The objective was to build something that’s completely portable, so they can drop it in place or take it out with minimal effort, in a small amount of time. This way, they can switch between the two sets.”
To satisfy the portability demand, Blackwalnut had to keep many of the set components rigged to the ceiling. This meant Gendelman and his staff had to calculate the load bearings needed to operate the set pieces via motor chains and mechanical pulleys. To this end, the group used VectorWorks Architect to figure out the construction process. They received a grid drawing in VectorWorks Architect format from Jack Morton PDG, and then used the software to determine where the pulleys and the motors would be installed.
This image depicts the left camera’s viewpoint of the TBS Major League Baseball program’s set, as seen in Vectorworks Architect.
By simulating the movement of the movable panels in the software, Gendelman and his staff were able to visualize the possible collisions and clearances for the transformation of the set. Since the set pieces needed to be individually manufactured, Gendelman’s crew used the software to determine the best way to break apart the proposed set.
The team also used Autodesk’s AutoCAD for drafting. The 2D construction drawings can automatically be derived from the VectorWorks Architect 3D model, but in the case of Blackwalnut, AutoCAD is needed in order for the computer-numeric controlled (CNC) machining process to produce some of the set pieces. “The CNC machine can read AutoCAD files, but not VectorWorks Architect files,” explains Gendelman.
Using its in-house CNC machines, Blackwalnut was able to swiftly produce the light boxes with round holes, the surface of the anchors’ desk, the floor tiles, and the aluminum high beams, among other items.
The Green Horizon
By and large, the kind of simulation done by physical set designers fall into the physics-based variety. Because they deal mainly with physical sets, these designers rarely find the need to resort to the representational illusions (the kind that give the appearance of volume and mass without actually computing all the physical properties) that digital set designers employ from time to time. But what if greenscreen-projected virtual sceneries become a factor in live broadcasts?
“We’ve built some sets that incorporate virtual displays, like the Weather Channel set,” observes Gendelman. “In my opinion, the technology isn’t quite there yet.” One major hurdle, says Gendelman, is that in order to make the camera angles in the virtual scenery look right, “you would need a greenscreen room that’s the size of the virtual room you’re envisioning.” And that’s a space demand that cannot easily be overcome by digital manipulation.
Gendelman is closely monitoring the greenscreen technologies on the horizon because if this application turns out to be the future, he’d rather be a part of it than sit by the sideline. If virtual-scenery technology is refined enough and the output rivals the footage produced with real sets, the reduction in product cost alone would make this method irresistible.
For the moment, physical set designers don’t need to lose sleep over the possibility of their craft becoming threatened by virtualization. But in the not-so-distant future, Sir Lawrence Olivier may come to deliver the ominous line, “Why don’t you just act, dear set designers?”
Kenneth Wong is a freelance writer who has covered the digital video, computer gaming, and CAD industries. He can be reached at Kennethwongsf@earthlink.net.