War Movies
Issue: Volume: 30 Issue: 12 (Dec. 2007)

War Movies

In 2001, a war erupted in the virtual world between a band of human soldiers, led by the cybernetically enhanced super-soldier Master Chief, and an alliance of alien races known as the Covenant. For six years hence, millions of battles between the two sides have been fought in 3D, starting with Halo: Combat Evolved and continuing with the sequel game releases. During this time, mini skirmishes have surfaced in many forms, including a number of planned game titles (including Halo: Chronicles and Halo Wars), novels, graphic novels, toys and games, alternate reality games, machinima, music, and a much-debated feature film.

Recently, the struggle between Human­ity and the Covenant has evolved from the digital to the live-action world within a trio of visual effects-laden, live-action video shorts. The videos, shown on the Web and on TV, were created to whet the appetites of Halo players as they prepared for the final showdown in Halo 3, the final title in the three-game series (see “Making Halo 3 Shine,” pg. 19).
Microsoft and Bungie Studios commissioned the videos, which were directed by Neill Blomkamp (Alive in Joburg, Yellow, Tetra Vaal, and currently District 9), to promote Bungie’s Halo 3. Origami Digital provided the visual effects and post work.

According to Oliver Hotz, VFX supervisor and founder of Origami Digital, the videos are not meant to be representational of a feature film if one were to be made. (Blomkamp even was tapped to direct the on-again/off-again Halo film.) Rather, they are more of a side story within the Halo fiction. “The movies don’t replicate the environments and scenarios of the games. You really can’t identify where you are in the movie settings,” he says. “Instead, they show the struggle of the characters in the game and how that struggle would translate into the live-action world.”
Director Neill Blomkamp, with the help of Origami Digital, transports the virtual characters and concepts from the Halo game world into a trio of live-action short video promos.

All three pieces run between two and three minutes in length—too short to tell a full story but long enough to set a scenario. All are filmed with live actors in costumes, though at times the creatures and some soldiers are CG. As for the environments, sometimes they are real, sometimes not. The same goes for the props.

“Using CG was the director’s choice, though the movies were always meant to be live action,” says Hotz. “[The director] chose to do some shots all in CG because it was easier and faster.”

Battle Scenes

The first piece, called Arms Race, contains the most CGI. According to Hotz, approximately 70 percent of that video is computer-generated. It begins with a request from a battle group for repair and resupply, and features production of various weaponry. Here, the soldiers walking through the armory are real, but the armory itself is digitally constructed, as are the ships and the hangar in the end shot. The shots of the helmets on the production line are also CG.

“The armory [in the short] has no relationship to what is in the game,” says Hotz, iterating where the mini-movies fit within the Halo landscape. Still, the Origami Digital group still had to make the live-action scenes visually fit within the Halo world.

In the second and third pieces, called Halo Combat, Part 1 and Halo Combat, Part 2, respectively, the CGI is less prominent, but present nonetheless. The pieces show gritty urban fighting by actors in Halo-like futuristic military garb. The uniforms, as well as a good portion of the weaponry, were made by WETA Workshop.

“Originally, the creatures in these two segments were to be shot live, but there was more flexibility if we did them in CG,” says Hotz. So, Origami Digital provided a digital assist, creating the alien creatures and the Covenant Brutes in 3D. “There are a lot of digital characters, especially in the third one,” Hotz notes.

The modelers created the creatures, as well as the other models, within NewTek’s LightWave. The bullet hits were made using Autodesk’s 3ds Max. “Bungie was very forthcoming with all the assets we requested; we used them for size relation and concept,” says Hotz. Rendering was done in LightWave and Worley Laboratories’ FPrime. The CG was then composited into the live action using Eyeon’s Fusion.

Moving and Tracking

All the video animation was motion-captured at Origami Digital’s own mocap studio. The mocap facility is unique in that it is located inside Hotz’s home. It comprises a 20x30-foot volume (expandable to 40x40 feet) and a 48-camera PhaseSpace active LED-based system that provides data direct from the markers. Acquisition is faster and the system more affordable than traditional mocap offerings (see “Moving On Up” Part 1 and 2, October and November 2007, respectively).
On the software side, Origami Digital used its proprietary real-time Loco solution, which the company developed a year ago but only made public with this project.
Even though the short videos are live action, CG plays a major role in them. Most of the soldiers are actors, while the creatures are digital. For the most part, the models were created in NewTek’s LightWave, while all the CG character animation was motioncaptured using PhaseSpace and Loco.

“When shooting the mocap, we don’t look at the data or dots on the screen,” says Hotz, referring to the typical “dotted” stick figure many motion-capture facilities look at as a reference for their animation data. “We look at the actual character model moving around the environment in real time. We use Loco to drive that.”

The system integrates a rudimentary version of the performer and the environment, so the technicians and animators, as well as the director, can see the action unfold in context while the mocap is being shot. In this instance, Blomkamp, who was in New Zealand, could view the same screen as the Origami Digital crew, which was in California, during the capture. As a result, Blomkamp could make immediate judgment calls during the session, avoiding the need for a re-shoot.

Files are then saved and opened within a 3D application—in this case, LightWave.
For this project, Origami Digital used the motion-capture system in 35 to 40 shots across all three minis; no keyframe animation was used. Furthermore, the data comes out rather clean, requiring little touch-up. “Approximately 90 percent of the motions were never touched after the capture,” says Hotz of the Halo video animation.

Besides the creatures and Brutes, the team also created digital set extensions to the physical structures, including CG walls and bullet marks. Also, they crafted a 3D environment, vehicle, and passengers for a car-chase sequence in the last piece.

According to Hotz, the most technically challenging aspect of the project was the tracking (accomplished with Andersson Technologies’ SynthEyes), since most of the filming was done in a handheld style with no locked-off shots.

“When you look at some of the shots from a technical perspective, they are very difficult to track,” says Hotz. “The director cares about the creative, and we are always thinking about that and not necessarily about the technical aspect at the time of the shoot. If we need to, we’ll figure out a way around a problem later.”

To achieve the handheld camera effect for the CG shots, the group again used Loco. The software allows the cinematographer to hold a device resembling a real-world camera, which, when you look through its viewfinder, shows the digital environment and characters rather than the real-world representations, explains Hotz. The mocapped actors can wear goggles, allowing them also to be immersed in the digital environment.

At the end of a take, Loco then automatically writes out a Maya or LightWave scene, with the entire content of the capture. “It provides live-action people the ability to work in a completely digital world, using the tools and devices that they already know, without having to get accustomed to a digital workflow,” adds Hotz.

In all, Origami Digital worked on 140 shots during a 2.5-month period. However, work on the first release was fast-tracked; the group had just two weeks for that video. “That was our concentration point,” says Hotz. Afterward, the group—comprising five artists—worked on the second and third shorts in parallel.

In terms of the limited staff and time, Hotz believes the group broke some new ground, particularly in terms of methodology.
In this scene above, the environment (the hangar) is computer generated, as is the helicopter. The artists re-created the handheld camera look of the live-action videos in the virtual world using Loco, Origami Digital’s proprietary software.

“Normally such creature work takes a lot of people, but with our mocap pipeline, we were able to approach it differently,” Hotz says. “We were able to make the creatures do specific tasks by shooting and integrating the animation in 10 minutes because we do not have to go through all the steps that typical motion capture and larger facilities require.”

While the war between the humans and the Covenant has ended for Hotz and his crew, for many gamers, the third battle has just begun.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Computer Graphics World.