Friday, November 10, 2006

The Manufactured Image: Ideas for Change (part 1)

Sorry for the delay in getting this last installment issued in this series of posts. I never intended for this topic to grow like it did, but I kept finding thoughts and ideas that needed to be expressed.

Anyhow, this is where I stop saying “It’s broken” and start saying “Maybe this could help.” But before I get into specifics, I think it’s important to clarify my thoughts on pipelines. Many assume that because CG films are made on computers that CG production pipelines are technical in nature. In fact they are not. They are rather creatures of task organization, asset delivery and revision/approval control. In other words, pipelines don’t get improved so much by technology or new PERL scripts or programs. These things are tools used in applying a fix, but the fix does not come from the tool. Pipelines are fixed on paper first, in how you think about and organize your task and approval systems. It’s more about the bigger picture and less about what tool you develop to shuttle and track data from point A to point Z. And how you think about your primary goal in the system determines much about how you build that system. So how can we bring more of an integrated sense of artistry into the CG film production system (aside from having good directors and art directors)? By adjusting the arrangement of asset creation tasks to better accomplish the simple goal of making better art in our films. More after the jump….

I’m a big believer in applying the right kind of solution to the right kind of problem. If your problem is isolated task management, a lack of macro artistic excellence and a parts inspector approval paradigm, then a data tracking software system isn’t gonna be enough. Nor will an asset publishing regimen meet the need. While these things are valuable, the truth is that software solutions are not functional remedies for managerial shortcomings. That calls for someone with skills that range more in line with macro problem solving, multi-faceted organizational skills and, inevitably, a negotiator’s knack for brokering deals between various combating task groups (ie: departments). Absolutely technology is a necessary component of any solution, but in itself no technology is THE solution. Just as a wrench in not the solution to what ails my car, but rather it’s the application of that wrench that is the true secret to success. So my suggestions for improvement will carry this idealogy- it’s not the technology that needs fixing, it’s how we think about the challenges.

Now, here are some ideas, in no particular order, about how to adjust the current Cg large budget paradigm to allow for better integrated artistry in the images on screen.

- Thoroughly workbook every scene from both a technical AND artistic point of view. Vital.

- Very early on have your director, production designer/art director & DP think through the working script to define key scenes that they can already ’see’ in their minds. Rough sketch those ideas to create the beginning of a scene catalog. Create rough color keys for these scenes. It will change later, but the idea is to get key artistic people thinking whole imagery over assets as early and often as possible.

- Hire experienced DP’s from live action to tighten up the use of cameras and scene blocking. CG is lazy and uses too many unique camera set ups simply because they can do so with no added cost. For instance: One film I worked on had a sequence that was 67 shots long. If it was a live action shoot it would have been cut down into 4 blocking scenarios (for 4 different takes- usually more than enough for a director to get his coverage for editing) and a total of 17 unique cameras. By live action standards even this amount of condensing would be considered a ’sloppy’ blocking solution to the scene. With 17 cameras coverign 67 shots that’s something a line producer will try and get reduced to keep the budget in line. But the sequence in the CG film used 46 unique cameras for those 67 shots- all arranged in a way that couldn’t be described as any kind of cohesive blocking set up. This makes the task of creating artistic images that much more difficult because the workload is too high. Fewer cameras = greater ability to focus on each composition. Fewer blocking scenarios = greater ability to build a set to best match the views used. Not to mention it makes a film feel more professional and tight.

- Get your rough CG sets built as soon as possible and with absolute minimal detail. At Big Idea we taught our concept artists (yeah, the blue pencil guys) how to build rough sets using Maya. Very simple stuff- cubes, planes, cylinders. They developed the basic structure of their sets as they drew them. No details, really. Save the details for the drawings. Just get the set existing so key creative people can start to see it and work in it. This is very early in pre-production we’re talking. But we blurred the line between pencil and Cg and as a result we had rough (and I mean rough) Cg sets to start working from as early as storyboarding.

- Board from the rough sets. Create tools so story artists can take quick snapshots of camera angles they like. If things change, things change. The sets are cheap enough at this level. But boarding and story blocking from the sets allowed the story artists to fly around and find where the action could work, get interesting staging angles- all informed by the Cg asset, not in a vaccuum. (and save the camera positions for later use in rough blocking). And if the set didn’t work for the story we changed the rough set- it was easy at this stage. And cheap. We also had the DP look them over along with the head of story. The basic idea here is to get some kind of representation of the Cg set in front of artists eyes (especially the artists responsible for macro artistic decision making) as soon as possible.

- Use colorists for more than thumbnail color scripts years before production begins. Hire and use colorists in actual production. How? Read on.

- After approved rough CG layout (right after story reel is approved for a scene) have colorists create tonal and color keys for every unique camera set up. If your DP is good this won’t cost too much because the camera set ups will be smarter. (see above). The colorist can do this ‘offline’ by painting over a screen grab of the rough Cg layout and putting the image into the scene packet for later handoffs. Or better yet they can do it “in scene” by making use of camera based projections. Basically project their tonal and color paintings right onto the rough geo for the rough CG set from the camera view. And here is the perfect place where you would use technology to help the larger solution. A programmer can develop an easy to use tool for the colorist to accomplish this task. Now when you look at the openGL render you can see the tonal and color right in the camera. Get it in there and let that ride right thru the rest of the pipeline by attaching this info to the scene camera so it gets referenced into every variation of the scene no matter the task or time. This way all downstream artists (both asset and footage) can see the color and tonal keys for the scene and make informed artistic decisions about their individual tasks.

- Expand on the above idea by having a skilled traditional layout artist (yes, a pencil guy) draw up a very quick rough layout sketch for the scene to play out in. Do this before the colorist gets it (ie: before you do what I just described in the previous item). Here they can start to develop the details of the set in inexpensive pencil form. They would take their cues from the approved concept sketches for the set as well as the rough Cg sets they see in camera. With art director and director feedback they can tighten down many of the specifics of the scene layout. And camera adjustments can be made here as well to accomodate different scenes working together. This helps the set evolve from the camera/scene point of view rather than the ‘bird’s eye” concept art overview. Anyhow, project this pencil data onto the scene in CG. Then when the colorist gets the scene they have details of form to work with. Informed compositional data flowing down the pipeline? Revolutionary! heh.
Overall use camera projections more. It’s an old technology but it works great.

more in part 2...

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