Visual effects breathe life and mischief into Tolkien


Had media and entertainment visual effects software not existed when director Peter Jackson took J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic series Lord of the Rings from the page to the big screen, he would likely have had to find an actor with a suitable physique to portray Gollum.

“Today, production facilities can create objects whether animate or not, or even unrealistic creatures like Gollum,” says Rob Hoffman, Autodesk senior entertainment product manager in Toronto.

He jokes that it would have been an arduous task casting a human being as “scary” as Tolkien’s mythical creature. “Essentially, you’ve got the actual geometry [of the object] and a rig inside of it like a skeleton. The software then allows production facilities to create things.”

Gollum came to life through Autodesk Maya, a modeling and rendering tool and one of 10 movie visual effects products in the Autodesk suite that boasts a complete, end-to-end solution for movie makers.

Hoffman believes visual effects tools have emerged partly in response to higher expectations from savvier movie goers.

In addition, bigger and better effects need to be created on a conservative budget and time frame. “Budgets have gone up 30 per cent, but the amount of work [we’re being] asked to deliver in the film has gone up 200 per cent,” laughs Hoffman.

The Autodesk suite also includes Inferno, Flame, Flint and Toxik, compositing tools used for scene creation where images or image sequences are pieced together, as when actors are removed from a blue screen and placed in front of a landscape that was filmed separately.

“Instead of a crew of 20 carpenters building a city street, they can have a few animators sitting in a back room,” says Hoffman.

Final editing and finishing tools, Fire and Smoke, grant production crews, not just the convenience of editing in low resolution, but also the magic of cleaning a scene of obstructions or inappropriate objects, such as modern street signs or traffic lights from a 1940s-era setting.

Finally, there’s Lustre, a colour-grading tool for creating a bright or ominous mood, or for contrasting an object against the background. There’s also 3ds Max, another modeling and rendering tool.

Not having to build elaborate movie sets certainly makes for a shorter production cycle, according to Chris Capell, VFX producer with Buzz Image Group in Montreal. “We’re on a production calendar, and the fact that we are getting something done in two days as opposed to 10 is great.”

The movie producer has used Autodesk Flame to create scenes such as those in The Fountain, where a character has flowers sprouting from his body after drinking from a fountain.

Capell also used Flame to create a burning house by digitally creating an extension to a house he previously filmed and then inserting bellowing flames.

He attributes the sharp rise in the use of visual effects tools to mounting audience expectations as well as film directors getting more comfortable with such applications.

This rising comfort level facilitates the pre-visualization process for any movie, says Kevin Clark, manager, global marketing and corporate communications, for SoftImage, a Montr