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Feature-quality VFX for Episodic TV

Jan 26, 2010 12:00 PM, By Rodrigo Washington, CG supervisor, Encore Hollywood

The challenges of building VFX for television.

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For this project, we only had 10 weeks from concept to delivery. Due to the time constraints, we had to conceptualize and adjust our pipeline even before the script was finalized. As with other elaborate jobs, my work started with a client conversation to get direction for creating a preview of each shot. I built simple objects in 3D and provided basic movements for each preview, which we then used as a starting point to discuss each shot.

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We took the client's feedback and broke down the work based on the tools and artists available. We made extensive use of 3ds Max for the character animation, which provides an excellent 3D tool, and also of Pixologic ZBrush to add fine texture and detail. (If you think in terms of traditional clay animation, ZBrush would help you work out the texture of the skin and clothing on a character, and then you'd use Max for your actual animation). Some artists prefer to start this process with the movements in Max and then refine the textures in ZBrush, and others prefer to take the opposite approach. Either way works, but as I plan the project, I need to consider how each member of my team works best and take that into account.

VFX for episodic television is particularly challenging because budgets and timelines are constrained compared to those for features or commercials. As CG supervisor, I draw on my years of experience in animation to analyze the strengths of each of our artists and compositors and the tools at our disposal to best maximize resources.

We make use of Autodesk's BackBurner package, which turns every bit of unused computing power among our 40 HP workstations into one big render farm that renders shots in the background while our animators and compositors work. The volume of material we generate at Encore also requires powerful and efficient data management. For one season of one series, we can easily generate 15TB of data just in the 3D department and even more from 2D work, and that requires an enormous SAN and our powerful, proprietary networking capabilities.

For every sequence and every shot, I ask myself: How much tracking, texture, and modeling is required? Does the modeling involve hard surfaces or organic ones? Can the enviroment be built with a matte painting, or should it be totally 3D? Could we use a hybrid approach? When animating a character, do we want to use the precision of motion capture or the freedom of keyframe animation? How complex is that key? Even more importantly, it's essential that I understand my team of artists and where their strengths lie. Who's better at what? Who's faster? I put that puzzle together.

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