by January 2, 2003 0 comments

It is not normal for one effects company to be dedicated completely to one project. But Weta Digital of New Zealand has
been working exclusively on the Lord of the Rings trilogy for over three years now
Weta uses a mix of machines and OSs to achieve its task of keeping Tolkien fans glued to their seats wanting more. There are SGI machines running
IRIX, Intel machines running NT and Intel machines running Linux on the render wall. Then there are high-resolution Macs used for
real-time playback of the rendered footage. Some of these are dual-processor machines and some are single-processor ones,
and there are multiprocessor servers, as well. By the middle of 2002, there were over 2000 processors at work on the Lord
of the RIngs out of which 1300 were on the render wall.

Every frame that is shot is scanned in for digital treatment. Each frame is 12.5 MB and each second of film is made up of 24 frames. Storing all this requires a massive amount of storage. Weta has 75 terrabytes (1 TB=1024 GB, roughly equal to 25 forty GB hard disks) of live backup, and by the time the work on the first movie was over, it had accumulated almost 200 TB (5100 40 GB hard disks) of data. By the time the trilogy is complete, Weta could well be holding one of the largest amounts of data being held by an SFX company. By the middle of 2002, it was already the sixth largest. All this data moves from machine to machine over a Gigabit Ethernet backbone, over fiber. The backbone has a minimum of 4 GB bandwidth, and it is not as if all of it is inside the facility. One switch is five miles away from the studio.

After the render is finished, the rendered footage is shot back into film for duplication and distribution.

Impressive equipment by any standards. But that is not the most talked about when people discuss the making 
of the series. That credit goes to Massive.

Massive is the software that was specifically written to create the huge battle scene at Helms Deep in the second of the series, the Two Towers. This battle features over 50,000 participants. Typically, such scenes are done using particle animation. Each participant is treated as a particle, and moves back and forth according to simple laws of particle dynamics–attraction, repulsion, etc. After a sizeable number of such particle interactions have been created, they are duplicated and rendered to give them the required shape. The problem with this approach is that the dynamics become too simplified and repetitive. Massive was written to overcome this situation.

Massive handled this problem by endowing a form of artificial intelligence to individual fighters, with individually adjustable physiques, and other characteristics. This gives a sort of realism to the rendered action, with each individual action by a character being determined by preceding actions of itself as well as the others it is interacting with, which in turn is derived from their individual characteristics. The battle in the Twin Towers features fifty thousand warriors. 
By the time of the third movie in the series, the number of warriors would triple!

But, it has not always been smooth sailing with Massive. Apparently, in one of the earlier simulations with the software, using just two warriors, the two turned out to be so balanced that they never fought! In another simulation shown at the O’Reilly Open Source Convention, some of the combatants from a group seem to have had enough of the fighting. They just wander off from the scene of action! One of them then seems to feel bad about having wandered off, and promptly returns to join battle. To avoid such situations in the final footage, Massive’s programmers test out the characters they generate, weed out the ‘inefficient’ ones and clone the good ones. These clone warriors are then ‘individualized’ by adjusting their individual characteristics. Not an easy task by any account!

Maya is used extensively in the production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is used in modeling, animation and lighting. But, it is not that all ‘creatures’ are of purely software origin. Some, like the Cave Troll, were first created as physical scale models.
The models were then scanned using 3D scanners to create the animation model.

Earlier on in this piece we spoke of the render wall. Now, what sort of a beast is that? We saw the render farm in the first
piece in this section. A render wall is nothing but a render farm, built up of rack servers, mounted on racks that look like a wall. That is all. Let us take a detailed look at this render wall. The render wall at Weta is to take about 800 servers. 350 of these are 1 GHz PIII machines. The remaining 450 are dual processor
2.2 GHz Zeons with 4 GB memory. They run RedHat 7.3. The required animation is broken down into batches and is fed to individual machines on the render wall, using workflow software. There is a set of technicians whose job is to monitor the render wall. And they have an interesting designation,
Render Wrangler.

Bond James Bond

James Bond movies are known for three things: beautiful women, fabulous stunts and effects. We will leave them aside, and go behind the scenes to look at how the effects for the latest Bond film, To Die Another Day, were created.

Let us start with the RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) drives. RAID drives are typically used on computers where you store very critical data, and you want to avoid loss of data through disk failure. Now, what is a RAID drive doing in a James Bond movie?

Well, three 34 GB RAID drives were used on location for the pre-title sequence to store the footage shot. This footage was reviewed the same day as rough cuts. The effects for To Die Another Day were done by Cinesite, a subsidiary of Kodak. Cinesite has over 900 GB of RAID storage at their London facility, and a similar capacity at their Los
Angeles facility.

The facilities are linked by high-speed ATM data links to help move large quantities of video and images back and forth between London and Los Angeles, and with facilities elsewhere. Cinesite also has real-time videoconferencing links that allow interactive viewing of material by people across the oceans, reducing 
travel time.

To Die Another Day uses extensive CG, digital matte painting and both 2D and 3D animation and has the largest amount 
of digital effects (approx 480 shots) for any James Bond Film till date.

The movie makes extensive use of both commercial and made-to-order software. These include, Maya, Maya plug-ins and Renderman 11 Raytracer on the commercial front. A lot of the water effects for the icewave sequence in the movie were done using software developed in-house. Particle animation software was also used to create effects like spray. New Maya plug-ins were written to create and animate some of the icebergs in the shot.

The disappearing car, the Vanquish, involved 3D and 2D animations on a CAD model (3D for the car, 2D for the tire tracks when the car is invisible and moving). Also used was a damaged digital camera that distorted the footage that was being shot! As you can 
see, SFX is not just about using esoteric software, but about using your imagination.

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