High-Precision VFX

September 28, 2011
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4DMax uses a variety of tools for VFX data capture and processing. Here 4DMax's Jonnie Godfrey uses a Leica total station for a set survey during the filming of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).


In 2008, author David Hughes uncovered The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made. Near the top of the list was John Carter of Mars, based on a 1917 novel written by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. The story features an American Civil War veteran who is mysteriously transported to Mars (also known as Barsoom), where he is drawn into an epic battle between the planet’s inhabitants. Packed with action and adventure, the plot held substantial promise as a film and was almost made twice--once as a feature-length animated film in the 1930s, and again as a live-action film in the 1980s. The latter plan was reportedly abandoned after the director determined that visual effects couldn’t do justice to the characters and scenes in Burroughs’ captivating story.

Today, the creation of visual effects (commonly known as VFX) with digital technologies and computer-generated imagery (CGI) is spawning a massive new industry, one that holds substantial promise for filmmakers and data wranglers alike. In March 2012, Burroughs’ vision will finally come to life on the big screen in Disney’s highly anticipated blockbuster John Carter--thanks in small part to the skills of several surveyors with VFX expertise. And other opportunities are quickly emerging on the visual effects horizon.

3D data of NASA's space shuttle Discovery, captured by SmartGeoMetrics using a Leica HDS6200 laser scanner, will be used in films and video games.

“It’s not something that most surveyors think about as a possible market,” says Travis Reinke, vice president of marketing and business development for SmartGeoMetrics, a support solutions provider in laser scanner rentals, support services and high-end visualization services. “But the visual effects industry for movies and video games is huge, and it’s growing.”

To be fair, visual effects is not really a surveyor’s market. The film industry has been using tools such as total stations and GPS equipment for several decades, generally without the help of the surveying profession. After all, while pinpointing the precise position of a prop or carefully monitoring camera movement is crucially important to creating realistic effects and generating sequels, it doesn’t require a license. As equipment has become more automated and easier to use, visual effects technicians for the most part have been able to acquire their own tools along with adequate knowledge of how to use them.

But a trend is occurring in the film industry that might sound familiar to many surveyors. As the demand for visual effects has exploded, so has the need to create these effects in ways that are faster, better and cheaper. The result is a host of emerging opportunities for individuals who are highly skilled in spatial data management and the broad world of data wrangling. “VFX work in film and television is, fundamentally, coordinate geometry,” says Duncan Lees, co-owner and director of 4DMax, a prominent VFX and forensic geomatics firm headquartered near London. “We take real-world objects and spaces and create accurate computer versions of them. Sometimes this is done photographically, sometimes with lasers, sometimes with GNSS receivers or total stations, but mostly with a combination of several types of kits. The data we deliver is used quickly and to the limits of both its precision and accuracy, so there is a real requirement for quality data.”

3D imagery was used to help create an IBM television commercial titled Data Anthem. The commercial included aerial LiDAR data from Aerotec USA.

Lees, who was part of the visual effects team for John Carter and has worked on other big-budget Hollywood films such as Captain America, X Men First Class and the Narnia films along with 4DMax co-owner Louise Brand, notes that any increase in the quality of data, the speed of its delivery or the integration of geometry and movement improves the end product and increases the viewing experience for the moviegoer--a key factor in boosting ticket sales. These requirements, along with an increasing push toward 3D, have led to a surge in demand for laser scan data in particular. To meet this demand, 4DMax has invested heavily in state-of-the-art software and hardware, including the acquisition of a Leica ScanStation C10 earlier this year. The company aims to be a one-stop shop for all 3D VFX data, providing an integrated response to the varied VFX workload through a single contract.

However, there is room for other service providers, as well, and not just in the film industry. “Video game producers want to make games more realistic and more engaging, and the more detail they can bring with technology, the better,” says Reinke. “There’s a lot of opportunity there.”

That doesn’t mean the opportunity is easy to capture. “In theory, a lot of people with a survey background could work effectively in some areas of VFX,” Lees says. “But in reality, it is not just the technical knowhow that is essential; it is also the networking and people skills that secure the work and keep people happy. No jobs or contracts in VFX are advertised anywhere. It is all word of mouth. It has taken us 10 years to be able to run a thriving VFX 3D data capture and modeling business.”

Lees uses Leica's ScanStation C10 to scan Santiago de Compostela in Spain for the History Channel series Monumental Challenge.

Besides needing the right connections, VFX professionals have to be able to work in an extremely demanding environment. VFX teams have no use for paper plots of floor plans, sections or elevations, says Lees; all of the deliverables are purely digital, and expectations for quality are ridiculously high. Deliveries are typically due in hours or days rather than weeks, extensive travel is required, and 14- to 16-hour days are typical. Lees describes how on two recent movie sets, his team set up and calibrated their equipment in one studio or sound stage; scanned people, props and places for 14 hours each day; and then took down and moved their equipment to another studio or sound stage in preparation for another 14 hours of work the next day. “Every job is exhausting and, at times, demoralizing,” he says.

The flip side is that it’s often a thrilling and highly rewarding experience. “We love working with creative and respectful and talented people who are prepared to let us be professional and who respond positively to our experience and informed problem solving,” Lees says. “The work is difficult and challenging, but the respect is enormous.”

For Will Haynes, a third-generation surveyor and owner of FX Surveys in Los Angeles, working in the film industry provides an artistic outlet for his skills. “It’s fun being part of a creative team,” says Haynes, who recently worked as a set surveyor for Universal’s Fast Five and Disney’s John Carter after several years of strategic networking. “Even though you’re working really hard and long hours, it goes by quickly. The work is often fun, social and interesting--you’re part of a pretty tight-knit visual effects team when you’re on set. And you’re also helping to create an artistic product, even though it’s in a highly technical way.”

4DMax and its Leica HDS6000 on location for X Men: First Class.

Surveyors who are interested in breaking into the VFX market ultimately should expect an uphill battle. According to Reinke, even for surveyors who already own a scanner, the best strategy is often to hire someone who knows how to use point cloud data for special effects or team with someone who has that expertise. “I think for surveyors and engineers, and anyone involved in laser scanning, there’s a lot of pride that goes along with our profession,” he says. “But if we can learn to open up a little bit and reach out to others, very cool things can happen that we can never really plan for.”

Reinke’s own networking efforts have led to projects capturing 3D imagery for the visualization of an IBM television commercial titled Data Anthem. SmartGeoMetrics recently worked with a well-known visual effects company to provide detailed digital 3D models of the USS Missouri generated from point cloud data, which will appear in the CGI portions of next year’s blockbuster film Battleship. More recently, the entire interior and exterior of space shuttle Discovery were captured with high-resolution, high-dynamic-range photography and 3D laser scanners prior to its retirement. Plans to use this data in films and video games are already in progress. “It’s so incredible to see how data is being used to visualize things in a way that would have been impossible 10 years ago,” Reinke says.

Technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace. The emergence of lower-cost laser scanners such as FARO’s Focus3D and Leica Geosystems’ ScanStation C5 is making it easier for professionals to acquire 3D data capture technologies. Meanwhile, the general public is learning to appreciate point clouds thanks to technologies like Microsoft’s Kinect, which captures 4D point cloud data for use with the Xbox 360 gaming system, and developments in open-source software are facilitating the manipulation of data for a wide variety of creative applications. “With all the brilliant young minds starting to work with point clouds and the availability of all this open source software and more-affordable hardware, I think we’re going to see some really revolutionary advances on the software side of things,” Reinke says.

Such advances are already occurring, as evidenced by games like Call of Duty, which has broken numerous sales records largely due to its ability to fully immerse players in the realistic scenes. Other developments involve the use of laser scanning to create games that are easily scalable for a wide range of gaming systems and handheld devices.

In the highly competitive world of films and video games, each new effect will undoubtedly spur other directors and developers to go even farther in their quest for a superior experience. Surveyors looking for a new adventure would do well to keep their eyes on both the big screen and consumer gaming devices. “Moviegoers are looking for more and more visual effects, and it seems like everything is in 3D,” says Haynes. “I don’t see things slowing down in this industry anytime soon.”

5 Tips for a Blockbuster Business Strategy

• Educate yourself. Read books and articles and talk to others who are involved in the field. Take training courses to learn as much as possible about your equipment and software and how you can best apply it to meet the industry’s needs.

• Make the right connections. In the film and video game industry, it’s definitely who you know that matters. Lees has spent a decade carefully constructing a network of clients and colleagues in the visual effects field. For Haynes, living in Los Angeles and working for an equipment dealer gave him an opportunity to build relationships with key people, attend film-related events and spend time on movie sets. Social networking and a compelling website can also open doors. “All the opportunities we’ve had to work in that market have come from having a good Web presence as well as having a good social media plan and then acting on it,” Reinke says.

• Understand the trends. Total stations and other traditional equipment is still widely used for set surveying, but this situation is changing rapidly. Be prepared to invest in state-of-the-art technology … or make sure you have a trusted teammate who can provide these services as needed.

• Be patient--and nimble. Breaking into the film and gaming industry takes time, and the work can be sporadic. “It’s difficult to line up a steady stream of work,” says Haynes, who continues to provide services to a broad range of markets as an independent contractor. “When the work does come, you pretty much have to put anything else you’re doing on hold and give it your undivided attention for anywhere from a single day to three or four months. You have to be flexible.”

• Know your limitations. Simply owning a laser scanner doesn’t give you the credentials to work on a movie set. “A lot of times surveyors will try to branch out and do something that’s out of their realm, but if they try to take on too much it becomes problematic,” says Reinke. “Stick with what you’re good at, which is usually measuring and capturing data. If you want to go after the VFX market, consider hiring somebody who knows how to use point cloud data for visual effects or teaming with someone who can provide those capabilities.”

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