Autodesk, Flame and the art of virtual movie-making

Autodesk, which makes 3D design software for the engineering and entertainment industries, has just launched a new product called Flame Premium. Flame lets you create 3D visual effects and handle editorial finishing in television, film and commercial post-production. An earlier version of the product was used in the Philip’s Carousel commercial shown below.

Flame is used in the final stage of post-production to perform tasks like color correction. However, when I talked to Autodesk’s Entertainment Industry manager Maurice Patel, he was most excited about Autodesk’s work in virtual movie-making at the pre-production and shooting stages.

Virtual movie-making is the use of CG (computer-generated) characters in live action movies, like Davy Jones in Pirates of the Carribean or Gollum in Lord of the Rings. While these characters were played by live actors wearing a special suit with embedded motion capture sensors, the appearance of the CG character was only added in post-production.

Virtual movie-making begins with a motion-capture camera system. Sensing devices are arranged in a room or on a soundstage to create what’s called a tracking volume; this is the area being filmed virtually. A virtual camera is controlled by an operator moving a tracking controller within the tracking volume. This defines what can be seen in the virtual viewfinder.

For example, the green icon in the image below represents the virtual camera and can be manipulated to get different views in the viewfinder perspective. Some virtual camera systems like the Gamecaster® GCS3™ do not require any sensing devices and can be panned, tilted, craned and zoomed in real-time with real-life camera hardware.

Autodesk’s MotionBuilder product is 3D character animation software that was originally used in games. Autodesk is now rolling out a combination of MotionBuilder and Maya, a product for creating virtual 3D environments, which work with a virtual camera system. This combination allows a director to see the CG characters created by MotionBuilder through the virtual camera’s viewfinder on a rough approximation of the background (created by Maya) on which they will appear. Actors wearing motion capture suits can also be integrated into the view. The video below shows MotionBuilder and Maya being used in this way.

The director can even combine multiple takes into a single shot so that the best take from an actor can be selected and “reshot” from a new camera angle, without the actor having to repeat the take. This makes creating CG animation and visual effects shots more like a live action shoot. Eventually, it will be possible to view live actors interacting with CG actors in real time, but that’s not yet available in a commercial product.

Autodesk was founded in 1982 and has 7,800 employees. The company is based in California.

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