Fred Raimondi, Digital Domain

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How has what you've been able to do and the way you do it changed in the last few years?

In the not too distant past, 3-D was a lot more difficult than it is now. The art form has advanced exponentially, especially in the last couple of years. That is the really exciting part for me. For instance, let's just take a look at two of the essential facets of 3-D: lighting and camera motion. In terms of lighting and integrating 3-D objects into live-action scenes, there is no more guesswork. In the past, we'd light the scene using whatever data was available to us from the shoot. At best, it was an educated guess, but the very nature of 3-D lighting set up the process for failure. In the traditional 3-D lighting model, there would be lights that would have to be applied to a scene, not really emulating the light in the scene. Take, for example, a room where there is really no direct sunlight, but just reflected light from the outside. You can't apply lights to a scene to emulate that. You can try, but good luck. Now however, recent advances in photography and set survey techniques have made 3-D lighting in these situations almost automatic and very accurate to the scene that was shot. We've been doing this for quite a while and have really streamlined the process by writing tools that work for us. This pushes not only the art form of 3-D further, but the art form of filmmaking, as well. By knowing more about light and camera motion we're able to allow directors to work with fewer restraints than in the recent past. This takes effects to the more transparent stage.

The same thing applies to camera motion; we're able to emulate the motion picture camera exactly. Now this technology has been around for a while as well, but we have many custom tools that allow us to streamline the process, thus making more difficult and time-consuming effects now available to the more challenged commercial schedules and budgets we're at the mercy of in 2002.

Talk about your craft and how it has facilitated new areas of creativity. Discuss this in the context of a cutting-edge project you've worked on recently. How has this project represented a new achievement in what you were able to put on the screen?

There have been quite a few fronts we've been involved with lately. Photoreal atmospheric effects and the abilities to create photoreal landscapes have been huge for us. Take a look at XXX; there are terrains, weather, avalanches, water - you name, it we did it. Take a look at the Creed video "One Last Breath," which we did for Dave Meyers. We essentially created an entire world complete with canyons, valleys, a dust storm, statues as big as the Statue of Liberty, dramatic skies, living gargoyles, and had the lead singer [Scott Stapp] fall into a canyon as deep as the Grand Canyon and survive the fall. All this was achieved with no location photography and three days of a greenscreen shoot on the production side. We finished the job in about four weeks, over 100 shots, and it looked great. It looks more like a movie than a music video. Would we have been able to do this even two years ago? Probably not. Once again, it comes down to streamlining certain processes and taking the pain and guesswork out of the process. That's not to say you just push a button and it's there; there are still artistic and aesthetic choices that need to be made and talented artists in every phase of the process to make something come alive.

We've also recently conquered the problem of photorealistic skin for humans, and I guess whatever else we can conjure up. I'm in the middle of a project right now with Joe Pytka where we're using this new technology. It was the type of thing where there were about two dozen approaches on how to do this particular project, and when we showed the test to Joe, he said, "This is it. This is the way to do this project." Once again, this is just a small slice of the effects pie, but synergistically these discoveries feed each other, making the sum of these techniques when put together way bigger than the parts.

What is the most significant, envelope-pushing project (whether you did it or not) of the past few years, and why?

Jeez, it seems like on every project, no matter how small, there is some envelope-pushing going on. Otherwise, why get up in the morning? Two really cool projects I've seen come out of Digital Domain lately; one being the time-travel sequences from The Time Machine, a film that came out early this year. Some of that stuff was really very cool and eye candy to the max. I must have watched the reel of finals from that film a hundred times, every time catching something new. There was just so much to see. The other one being an adidas spot entitled "More Power to You," directed by David Fincher and visual effects supervised by Eric Barba. It took photorealism to a new level. Not to mention it was a fantastic idea. It involved pairs of robotic legs testing adidas. Very cool, indeed.

How have the demands of creatives changed?

The expectations are a lot higher now. The creatives expect a much higher level of complexity and quality in visual effects work. Because advertising follows film so much - just look how many The Fast and the Furious commercial rip-offs there were after that film - I think creatives see something in a film and then right away want to do the same thing in a commercial. What they don't realize is that the schedule on a film might be six months to a year, when the schedule on a spot will be four to six weeks.

When you see good creative, it just sings. It makes everything we do so much easier. The best projects are those where the effects support good creative. You can throw a million dollars of visual effects at a bad idea and at the end of the project it's still a bad idea. Every once in a while you get an assignment that is really fresh and new. Most creatives have become more savvy about visual effects. Which is good and bad. Most of the time we're a lot more interested and amped to do something completely new rather than emulate or copy a convention or technique used in a movie or music video.

Are there any bad trends? What is the equivalent of the morph, the overused trick of the early '90s?

Oh that's easy. The "Frozen Moment". You know, the effect from The Matrix where the camera rotates around a still frame/frozen moment in time. I could go to my grave having never seen another of those.

How has the process changed; for example, the involvement of creatives, your involvement in the production process, speed at which you're being asked to do things.

1. We're now a part of the production process. That is the main way the process has changed. There is rarely a project where we don't do extensive consulting with the director as well as key craft people in any production. Nine years ago this wasn't the case. Most of the time we had little or no involvement in the preparation of the production. We actually have a small production team of our own on almost any project. Especially the tracking and integration people that we bring along.

2. Speed is a big issue for us. More often than not it's schedule, not budget, that dictates whether we'll take a job or not. What we do is an iterative process, and the only thing that makes an iterative process work correctly is time. There are some projects that no matter how much money you throw at manpower it still won't get any better, because the quality only gets better with the more iterations you do. It's not different than any other type of art. Take a painting or drawing, for example. One of the most important parts of that process is standing back and looking at the piece so you can see it with a fresh eye. If you only have three days to do a project that should take seven days, you won't be able to stand back from it enough times to clean your palette and make an informed artistic or aesthetic decision.

3. As I said earlier, some of the real issues for us, like tracking, lighting and integration have become much easier, allowing us to compress schedules.

4. A lot of the really expensive things like image editing [Photoshop], 3-D [Lightwave/Maya] and video editing [Final Cut Pro] have come to the desktop, making it cheap enough for us to previsualize and edit without the rigmarole of booking time at a facility, or hiring an editor or 3-D artist when all you really want to do is maybe spend some time at your desk flushing out an idea or a concept.

What are the most significant technological developments of the past year or so? What has the impact of these developments been?

Speed, speed, speed. We're rendering things faster. More importantly, the workstations are getting fast enough so that we can work in real time with bigger, more complex models, see textures and lighting in real time and work on particles and effects animation with instant feedback. That's the biggest thing. To put it in perspective: Imagine being a painter and having to wait just five seconds to see what every brushstroke would do. That could really hinder the creative process. That's what a lot of CG and even compositing stuff is like. The human animal is much smarter than that. If we could, we'd want to create in realtime. It's only five seconds, but it's a time when you're doing that all day, not to mention trying to make something cool.

After that, software will only continually get better and things that used to be a pain in the ass will get easier. I've been very fortunate to have seen the technology grow. Luckier still that some of the stuff that we've developed has set the trend for whole movements in technology. High Dynamic Range Photography is pretty huge. The missing link in 3-D for me has always been, and I tell artists this all the time, "We have to think like the camera". High Dynamic Range Photography makes CG images seem so more real, so much more like photographed images, it's scary.

How are artists' skill sets changing?

I think most digital artists are rounding themselves out much more. I see a trend where digital artists are starting to cross over into more craft areas. For instance, we've had a handful of people here who have moved from full-time 3-D animation to becoming full-time compositors. Most of the digital artists here have a rudimentary knowledge of compositing. Each one also has a compositing system at his desk, we have our own system called NUKE, which is really very good. It's really important, because the 3-D animal has changed so much. It also closes the iteration loop. Rather than a 3-D artist making an element, sending it to the compositor and then the compositor sending it back, the 3-D artist is now doing a passable composite to see how the element being generated works. They may do quite a few iterations before sending it to the compositor. This is great for everybody involved. The compositor wins, because he spends more time making the element look cool rather than just making it work, and the 3-D artist wins because he ends up making fewer changes. The job wins because we get to the final picture much faster.