With multi-core processors, high-performance graphics cards, and 64-bit operating systems now the de facto standards in the workstation market, the world’s top animators and computer graphics artists are taking audiences to incredible places. Children’s stories and long-appreciated fictional characters spring vividly to life before our eyes, and stories that some feared could never be told properly in a movie format are delighting young and old alike.
The teams at Framestore, one of the world’s leading digital film and video studios, are committed to creating original imagery so real it suspends belief time and again. Equipped with Intel®-based servers and a portfolio of Autodesk’s market-leading software tools, all fully optimized to set imaginations free, Framestore has been pushing hardware and software vendors alike for over 20 years, just to keep up with the ongoing expectations for improvements in visual experiences.
Rob Hoffmann, senior product marketing manager at Autodesk, put it in terms that anyone connected to computing can understand. “The pace of change in our industry exceeds even Moore’s Law,” said Montreal-based Hoffmann, a 15-year veteran of both the hardware and software sides of content creation. “Whether you’re talking about the move to high definition content in TV, or the increased consumer expectations in film and games, our customers are having to produce considerably higher quality output in much less time, and for smaller budgets than ever before.”
It’s a pace that feeds on itself and shows few signs of abating. Computer graphics creators are some of the most demanding customers in the business, and they know what they want. “As toolsets mature, virtually anything is possible. Customers are not looking for flashy new features,” Hoffmann said. “Instead, they want tools that are easier to use alone or in combination, that they can customize and extend to optimize their pipelines and provide differentiated capabilities, and that help them to finish projects from paying customers faster.”
Tools of Choice
Achieving new efficiencies in the production pipeline can yield big benefits, and using the right tools can help attain that goal. Autodesk, a world leader in 2D and 3D design, has been supplying those tools in the form of engineering and entertainment software for the manufacturing, building and construction, and media and entertainment markets for over a decade. The last 15 Academy Award winners for Best Visual Effects used Autodesk software within their CG effects and animation pipelines. The newest versions of Autodesk tools have been optimized to run at peak efficiency on the latest multi-core hardware, provide one-click interoperability among various applications, and deliver enhanced nondestructive and collaborative workflows.
One of the key tools for animators in professional studios, such as Framestore, is Autodesk® Maya® 2011 3D animation software. Newly available for Mac OS® X 64-bit, Maya 2011 offers enhanced tools for creating and reusing character animation; an invigorated user interface; new solutions for 3D editorial, color management, scene segmentation, and rotoscoping; a high-performance viewport display for large scenes; and a completely new UI toolkit.
Both Autodesk® 3ds Max® software and Autodesk® 3ds Max® Design software provide powerful, integrated 3D modeling, animation, rendering, and compositing features that enable artists and designers to quickly ramp up for production. The two versions are used by game developers, visual effects artists, and graphic designers as well as architects, designers, engineers, and visualization specialists. Autodesk® MotionBuilder® software is used for high-volume game-animation pipelines, director-driven virtual cinematography, and real-time character simulations, while Autodesk® Mudbox™ software is a highly intuitive digital sculpting and texture painting solution.
Using Autodesk software along with Intel® hardware helps to keep the hits coming. To see why, it’s worth taking a look in more detail at Framestore’s production pipeline and the challenges that go with it.
Peer into the Pipeline
Hoffmann explained how a modern pipeline is essential to handle those giant, pixel-pushing jobs. “There are four pillars in the modern pipeline,” he explained, “together, they can help our customers overcome the incredible challenges they face every day.”
The first pillar is performance—with tools that leverage state-of-the-art hardware that features high-quality displays, 64-bit architectures, accelerated GPUs, and multi-core processors – like Intel® Westmere-based workstations that offer up to 10 cores. Framestore’s Mike Mulholland, an 11-year veteran of the VFX industry and currently computer graphics supervisor, said it’s hard to keep up with the technology, but their IT staff is constantly rolling in new equipment: “The hardware continues to improve at a rate where things we would have thought impossible just a few years ago are now commonplace.”
Alongside raw processing power, Autodesk provides tools to help customers handle massive data sets by segmenting them into manageable portions. Scene segmentation enables artists to pull up specific parts of a complex scene and work on just that aspect – not only increasing interactive performance, but also providing opportunities to work collaboratively in parallel. And the latest toolsets also offer increased, scalable rendering capacity to help customers achieve their final output faster.
The second pillar relates to productivity. By streamlining workflows, and developing enhanced, in-context user interfaces that let the magic happen in a natural and fluid manner, Autodesk enables artists to complete the same tasks with fewer clicks, leaving them more time and energy to devote to finessing their work. What’s more, by providing focused toolsets for specific tasks, Autodesk offers optimized environments that help artists be more efficient, and to concentrate on their creativity. “Artists are able to work faster and more effectively, which is very exciting,” said Mulholland. “For example, our recent adoption of MotionBuilder has opened up new options for performance capture that will allow new and exciting ways for us to work with animation and previsualization.”
The third pillar focuses on creative capabilities, Hoffmann explained. Combining the power of a Westmere-based workstation with the newest tools helps to give artists the features they have been asking for: faster ways of blocking out a shot, high-speed modeling tools, and accelerated workflows for character skinning and rigging. The simulation capabilities and rendering tools are better, also. As fast as users can dream up new things to ask for, they put those features to use and ask for more.
Framestore’s Mulholland agreed with Hoffmann on the importance of creative toolsets, explaining that while production challenges facing Framestore continue to grow, the tools have been able to keep up. “Framestore has been using Maya and the Autodesk tools for many years,” Mulholland said. “The current Autodesk tools are an evolution of what we’ve used in the past, and they’re helping us improve the workflow and quality of our assets. Maya 2011 brings numerous modeling and rigging improvements that have helped our teams. The work in visual effects becomes more complicated every year; the amount and resolution of our assets increases every year. The Autodesk suite of tools allows us to deal with the complexity of the shots while producing stunning work.”
The fourth pillar of the modern production pipeline is based on pipeline efficiencies. Hoffmann noted that Autodesk tools support nonlinear workflows, where multiple artists can attack a project from multiple angles simultaneously. “You can’t think of production in a linear fashion anymore,” Hoffmann said, “where you have to do step 1 before you can do step 2, before doing step 3. Instead, step 3 can be done at the exact same time as previsualization is taking place.” Hoffmann pointed to the new virtual moviemaking work that took place with the production of Avatar, where Framestore teams pulled in the actual motion-capture data and created the final scene geometry before they even created the character.
Recently, with the Maya software, Autodesk moved to the Nokia Qt* user interface. This enables increased customization of the user experience, so artists in the production facilities can modify the software to best fit their production work needs. “With Maya 2011 we are taking advantage of the latest versions of Python* and Qt to update our internal pipeline and internal tools,” explained Mulholland, who is a big fan of the new flexibility. “We’ve found that the ability to customize and extend Maya is its greatest strength,” he said. “Some very specialized artists focus only on modeling, texturing, or lighting, and now they can tailor the user interface specifically to the task at hand, increasing their efficiency.”
For Framestore, the sheer number of tools its team uses is staggering. “We use a wide range of software packages,” Mulholland explained, “including Maya 2011, [Pixar] PRMan*, [Foundry] Nuke*, [Apple] Shake*, [Side Effects Software] Houdini*, [Adobe] Photoshop*, [Autodesk®] Mudbox™, [Pixologic] ZBrush*, Mari, [Autodesk®] ImageModeler™, and MotionBuilder. We are hoping to see greater convergence of the 3D packages. For example, we have recently installed a new 3D motion capture suite and have begun to use MotionBuilder. Having MotionBuilder more tightly integrated with Maya will really help this process.”
Keeping the ‘Wow’ Factor
Studios that have modern production pipelines, regardless of whether they are in films, games, or television, must constantly balance the requirements to deliver higher volume and higher quality against tighter schedules and smaller budgets. Those who can manage in that environment will survive—it’s that simple.
Staying competitive in today’s very aggressive markets means studios must be running on the latest processors and architectures, have the fastest operating systems and the optimal graphics technology, use the freshest software tools, and employ the best people to pull it all together. Studios that continue to invest in their technologies will gain a competitive advantage because they’ll be able to bridge the gap between the resources they have and what they are being expected to deliver.
In the past, a great film might have had 150 to 250 3D shots, tops. Today, there might be several thousand 3D shots within a film. The level of detail has increased to the point where the eye-popping “Wow!” factor has been replaced by something completely different—audiences don’t even recognize where reality stops and computer-generated assets kick in. Autodesk’s Hoffmann explained it this way: “Basically, the biggest compliment an artist can be paid is, ‘I never saw your work.’ In other words, the scene was so photorealistic, it passed unnoticed. Try this test the next time you’re watching television: look closely at the ads from the top automobile manufacturers. Most of the car commercials that you see today don’t have real cars in them.”