by September 12, 2002 0 comments

Tune into Star Gold and look at the opening titles of a movie and you’ll see simple words on a plain background or a background score with animated titles. Observe an action sequence in the movie–cut to cut shots of the hero beating up the villain, a shot showing him jumping from a terrace and the next panning a man on the ground from feet to head. 

Then, flip to the latest from Bollywood that your cablewallah is airing. Look at the finesse of the titling–the styling of words, the shadows, the halos and other effects that add to the feel of the movie. Observe Akshay Kumar in action, executing slick 360-degree kicks or taking leaps that would put a long jumper to shame. Take a break and look at the ads–the halo around a toothpaste pack, a woman holding a reflection of the moon in her hands. None of this is real, we know. That a lot of it is virtual is something we never realize. What make it possible are high-end systems from the likes of Discreet.

A creation in Flame 
Courtesy: Method

Discreet’s array of solutions for online finishing, editing, broadcast, animation and other areas can be divided into four main categories. Visual effects comprises Inferno running on SGI Onyx (which is the highest end available), Flame running on Octane coming next, Flint on Octane below this and Combustion that runs on desktop systems (Windows or Mac). Editing systems consist of Fire on Onyx and Smoke on Octane. In animation, there’s 3D Studio Max and Character Studio that run on Windows or Mac, and for Web designers, there’s the Cleaner Studio, Cleaner Central, and the Plasma range of products. 
We went through Discreet’s high-end offerings in visual effects and online editing and finishing. Most of these use tablets instead of mice as pointing devices, because of the accuracy and fineness of the work required. 

In both these, the interface and toolsets within systems in the same line and even across lines is very similar. That is, Inferno, Flame, and Combustion would have the same interface and nearly the same capabilities; what differs considerably is the speed 

with which you can work with loads of processing–power intensive data and how fast you can see the changes you’ve made. Also, Smoke and Fire share toolsets similar to those in the visual-effects systems, but the capabilities are different because they’re meant for different purposes. Also, all of Discreet’s high-end systems let you work on various formats–NTSC, PAL, or HDTV.

Slick action
The visual effects range of systems is used mostly for film editing. Its capabilities are thus tuned to enhancing each shot, making it as realistic as possible, and doing things like color correction to make the final product look consistent.

Once the film is shot on 35mm or 16mm reel, teleciné is used to capture the OK shots from that onto digibeta tapes and these are transferred to the hard disk of the system. Once the editing is through, reverse teleciné is used to take the shots back on film. The higher-end systems in this range, Inferno or Flame, are powerful enough to let you work on uncompressed video extremely fast without spending too much time on rendering. The desktop-based Combustion, of course, is slower.

Cut to Prime Focus, a studio in Mumbai that runs a lot of Discreet systems and works on film and ad-film editing, and visual effects. One of the basic things that film editing, especially in action sequences, requires is ‘wire removal’. When, for instance, the hero jumps over a ten-foot gate (you can catch this in one of the sequences of Maine Dil Tujhko Diya), he’s actually been harnessed to a crane that takes him over the gate and deposits him on the other side. On a system like Combustion or Flame, the wire is painstakingly erased from the shots, keeping the background colors and other effects constant. The shot is then speeded up to simulate a high jump. Wire removal becomes more complicated when not only the person on the screen is moving, but the camera capturing the shot is also moving. In that case, the person and the wires attaching him move, and so does the backdrop. This requires a process called tracking, where a point on the screen is tracked for movement from shot to shot, so that consistency can be maintained once the wires are removed.

However, Flame and Inferno are capable of much, much more, an example being The Gladiator. The film spent almost a year in post-production, as visual effects were added to recreate the grandeur of ancient Rome and the Roman

This ad’s smokin’!
Coming to what are called the ‘finishing’ systems–Smoke and Fire–are used to polish and add finishing touches mostly to ad films. Prime Focus also uses Fire to do title sequences in films.

The color warper in Flame gives loads of options for color correction–scene to scene color correction, finetuning tool for high-precision adjustments, vector scope and a graphical 3D color tool

Smoke lets you work in RGB 4:4:4 color space and uncompressed video. Again, the OK shots based on the Edit Decision List (EDL) are taken from reel or digibeta to hard disk via teleciné, and then the finished product is transferred back to one of these. Usually, before an ad comes to one of these systems, it has already been through an offline editing process on a system like Media 100 or Avid’s solutions, where its size, structure and story have been defined. It comes to Smoke or Fire for final effects and finishing touches only, mainly because they are extremely expensive compared to the ones used for offline editing.
You can view the shots in different views here–like a storyboard, or the first and last frame of each shot. Color correction, too, is an important element here too, and the possibilities are endless. You can turn a shot taken in daylight to that of dusk or dawn. If two shots have color variation, you can homogenize the color. Also, once you’ve applied a particular color correction scheme to a shot, you can simply copy it onto other shots where you want the same effects.

Chroma keying is another important feature, where two disparate characters or situations are shot separately and then combined. For instance, Preity Zinta endorsing a fruit drink is shot against a blue backdrop, but what you will see in the ad is a vibrant red-and-yellow background with fruits dropping from the top of the screen to the bottom. In this case, the animation is created separately in an animation software like 3D Studio Max and then imported into Smoke or Fire. Simultaneously, the figure is cut out of the blue background. A white matte of the figure is made and placed on the animated background. A technique called ‘garbage masking’ is then used to clean the matte of any other elements that are not part of the picture that has to be placed. The matte is then adjusted to define exactly what portions of the screen and background the figure will cover. The process is laborious and pains have to be taken to make the final product look natural.

Inserting animated pack shots or logos is a breeze with Smoke. Here, too, if the pack shot is animated, it’s created in an animation software. Though you work with 2D graphics in Smoke, you can bring in 3D shots and place them to look like a part of the picture. So, you can do effects like a 3D character flying across a 2D background.

The Smoke 5 editdesk library, the timeline with plugins and matte container features

You may have noticed ad films where logos of the product or service appear on buildings or somewhere in the background. This, too, is easy with Smoke. You bring the logo into the software, place it in whichever shot you want and blend it with the background by applying fine color corrections. 

For transitions between shots, the number of wipes and dissolves you can create and apply is quite huge. You can define the shape of the wipe or dissolve, how soft or hard its outlines will be, how fast or slow it would work, and so on. Among the loads of other things you can do on Smoke are changing the speed of shots, putting trails on shots, and playing with audio-adding reverbs, or sweetening the sound. The possibilities are endless, so rather than what can be done, the editor has to focus on what treatment a particular ad film needs. 

The next time you watch an ad or a film, you may find yourself looking for all the effects that have gone into it. Doesn’t that take away the pleasure of watching a movie?

Pragya Madan 
We thank Yogen Rai and Aby Mathew of Discreet, and the team at Prime Focus for their inputs

Rome comes alive for The Gladiator

Rome today is nothing like what it used to be in the days of gladiators. So, for the movie The Gladiator, Ridley Scott and Co. constructed sets with old-fashioned
houses and buildings. However, they constructed only the first level,at which people were  shown to be walking or interacting. The roofs of single dwelling, arches, statues on arches, and other storeys of huge buildings were added digitally. The
Colosseum, too, was digitally restored to its original glory. The gladiators were shot separately from different angles and perspectives, and the digital Colosseum and real-life characters were put together in Flame. The fact that Flame lets you work in a 3D environment and import images created in other programs helped the authenticity.

Roman Colosseum, which was digitally restored for The Gladiator

The crowds in the virtual Colosseum and in the streets of Rome were largely virtual, too. The technique used for this is rather interesting. Five or six people of different ages and with different physical attributes are shot doing different actions. For instance, one might be cheering with his hands raised, another might be clapping, a third could be hooting, and so on. The shots are taken from different angles and perspectives so that accurate 3D models of these people can be made. Once the 3D models are made, these people are arranged into different groups to give a feeling of heterogeneity. In the case of The Gladiator, these groups were then replicated all over the digital Colosseum to create a crowd of 40,000-50,000. This is a commonly used technique where a large number of people are required. This technique has also been used in some Indian ads, like the one in which Sachin Tendulkar hits a six and endorses an energy drink in a stadium filled to capacity.

The final example that we’ll take from this movie is a shot where Russell Crowe’s character is fighting with a tiger and just about manages to slip out of the tiger’s claws. The tiger in that shot was created virtually and combined with the real shot of Russell Crowe going through the motions of escaping the tiger’s clutches. It’s hard to tell the difference in the movie, though.

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