Wednesday, May 24, 2006

"It's all just done on computers."

You know, I really have to hand it to the good people at Industrial Light and Magic, and the other big special effects companies.

One of the many things that bugs me is when you’re watching a good movie, see a really good special effect, and when you comment on it someone says dismissively: “It’s all done on computers.”…usually dismissively.

To me, this always implies that there’s no talent, artisty, skill or effort put into computer-generated special effects.

In fact, it’s the opposite. You see, with CG effects, everything has to be created by the Effects Artist. Take pretty much any scene from the Star Wars prequels, most of those shots where done in front of a chroma-key screen, and the background added later.

Think of those backgrounds. Everything in there was created by someone, from the physical objects, to the shadows, to the sheen on metallic surfaces.

In other words, it’s bloody hard.

What got me thinking about this was the Lightsaber video I posted a while back. Last night, boredom struck again, so I added the sound effects to it.

It took me absolutely ages. Fair enough, I had to scavenge sound effects off the internet, and my result was only ‘quite good’, but it didn’t take nearly as long as the video manipulation required to create the ‘blade’.

Now, someone might say “Well, it’s obviously easy to do stuff like that on a computer! You’re an amateur, and you managed it!”

Well, the truth is, yes, I am an amateur, but I also have three years of Media Studies, including video editing under my belt. Also, my clip was under 10 seconds long, doesn’t come anywhere near true movie quality, and took me about 4 hours to complete.

You see, it ‘all being done on computers’ doesn’t mean that George Lucas said “We need Lightsabers in this scene” and then a tech guy made it happen by pushing a button.

Creating a Lightsaber, and many other effects, are done through a process called Rotoscoping.

What this involves is going through a scene, frame by frame, and drawing directly on top of the frame.

Think about this for a minute. Movies run at approximately 25 frames per second. So, if a Lightsaber fight scene goes on for 5 minutes, that’s 25 frames, multiplied by 60 seconds, multiplied by 5 minutes…or in other words, 7500 frames! (Bear in mind that Episode III had an epic 20 minute fight scene…in other words, a whopping 30,000 frames, with multiple sabers on each.)

So someone has to sit there and draw the Lightsaber blade 30,000 times. Each time it has to be perfectly aligned with the prop blade, they have to make it thinner as it gets farther away, thicker as it gets closer…and if even one or two frames are slightly off, it doesn’t look right.

Can you imagine trying to do that?

Then, of course, you have to go over that with the flashes as Lightsabers clash, digitally alter the lighting so the Lightsaber casts a glow on the surroundings, alter the glow as it moves behind objects, etc.

I suppose my point is that the Lightsabers are probably one of the simplest Star Wars effects. Creating and animating a character, like Yoda (Who was animated frame by frame, stop-motion style), must have taken forever.

It took me close to four hours to make my 10 second shot, not including processor time.

I had to draw the blade 250 times, then make copies, add different levels of Gaussian blur to the copies, layer them to make a ‘glow’ that gets more transparent the further it gets from the blade, add a monochrome filter to give the glow a color, then finally put all the layers together, and create my movie. Later, I put my completed video in another application, and had to time the sound effects to what was appearing on screen.

All in all, about five and a half hours for 10 seconds…and I wasn’t even taking all that much care!

Now imagine animating Yoda, having to lip-sync him with the voice actor, make him walk and move naturally, not to mention getting him to ‘emote’ successfully.

In short, that character was created and animated from scratch, frame by frame. Someone had to sit there, build the computer model, attach ‘handles’ so that animators could animate him, make sure his skin stretched and moved as he talked properly, made sure his robes looked and behaved like real fabric…everything about him was created by someone.

You end up with a complete character, fighting a real person, with a weapon that doesn’t exist…and it looks real.

Of course, ‘it was all just done on computers’.

In a way, saying that making an effect is easy because it’s ‘done on computers’, is like saying that fixing your car is always easy because you have tools, or that building a house is easy because you have blueprints and bricks.


Kato said...

Yea, I definitely give CG artists credit... it's undoubtably long and tedious work. I haven't checked, but I'd guess that the CG lighting credits alone in SW:EP III are at least a page long and three columns wide.

MC Etcher said...

Yoda was a Muppet.

Paulius said...

not in episodes 2 and 3