Blue Sky / VIFX is an award-winning digital animation and visual effects studio that has completed work on over 250 commercials and more than 50 television productions and motion pictures, including contributing effects shots to the recent feature releases Armageddon, X-Files:The Movie, Titanic, Face/Off and Alien Resurrection. The Company's founders and principals have been on the cutting edge of computer animation and computer generated imagery (CGI) technology creation and application since the beginning of the artform's use in film production in the early 1980s.
To create the dinosaurs featured in T-REX, the effects team and artists had to meet these challenges...
The Design Stage: Painstaking planning of every single shot.
Paleontological Accuracy: How did the dinosaurs really look?
On-Location: Mixing exterior and interior footage with computer generated imagery (CGI),
Digitizing: Loading footage, frame by frame, into the computer for computer manipulation and enhancements.
Sculpting And Digitizing: Using actual 3D models of the film's dinosaurs to achieve lifelike motion.
Texturizing And Animating: Breathing life into skin and bones.
"Pure Digital": T-REX's dinosaurs were created entirely in the computer, unlike with Jurassic Park and other films.
Computers: To put big, powerful dinosaurs on an even bigger IMAX® screen you need big, powerful computers!
The Design Stage"The process [of approaching T-REX] included the steps of design, conceptualization and storyboarding, as well as the drawing and sculpting of the dinosaur models," explains visual effects producer Jini Dayaneni of L-Squared Entertainment, the company co-founded and co- chaired by T-REX: Back to the Cretaceous director Brett Leonard and his partner, Michael V. Lewis.
"During the design stage, every single effects shot in the film had a concept behind it, and a sketch was drawn of what that shot should look like," explains visual effects supervisor Sean Phillips. "From the sketch we could tell what the approximate lens angle was going to be when the live-action shot was done on location, as well as the angle that we needed to approximate for the virtual camera in the computer. This helped us to figure out the concept for shooting the live-action plates and also the conceptual way of approaching how to create the digital dinosaur images in the computer. When we scouted the location where we would be shooting, the live-action plate that the digital effects would be superimposed upon, we were able to get more precise measurements in order to refine our approach and design."(top)
Paleontological Accuracy"We began consulting with paleontologists in our design stage, and continued to work closely with them throughout the filming," says Dayaneni. "We worked with Dr. Philip Currie of the Royal Tyrrell Museum, as well as with several paleontologists from the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, including Dr. Larry Barnes, J.D. Stewart, and museum associate Cara Burres.""We referred to actual skeletal reconstructions of dinosaurs that paleontologists had done, in order to get an idea of the size and shape of them," continues Dayaneni. "Just as with human beings, no two dinosaurs are exactly alike in size and shape, so we had to make some general assumptions based as closely as possible upon what scientists now know. For the design of the skin, we used fossil records that show skin impressions. We consulted with paleo-anatomists to make sure we knew that the muscle movements and the bone protuberances and wrinkles and folds in the skin would be as realistic as they could be."
"Part of the design stage involved the sculpting of the dinosaur scale models," Phillips says. "Getting paleo-artists to sculpt what the dinosaurs look like allowed us to know what the exact shape and dimensions of the dinosaurs would be for our shots. When we came to shooting the live-action pieces, we knew the exact scale of the dinosaur character, and we blocked out that space in the real environment so we knew where the actors should be in the frame, and so that the actors knew where to look and how to interact with the dinosaurs. Knowing the dimensions also helped us to know that when we did put the digital dinosaurs into the plate shot later, that their heads or tails would not be off of the screen because we hadn't measured them correctly."
"The sculpted models ranged from 18 inches [0.46m] to four feet [1.22 m] long," continues Phillips. "Sometimes it was necessary to sculpt additional details of the models. Our full sculpture of the T-Rex was about four feet [1.22 m] long, but then there was an additional detail of the head that was a little over two feet [0.61 m] long. That gave us extra details that could be revealed in the close up shots of the T-Rex head." (top)
Going On LocationThe special effects team traveled to the locations where the live-action footage was being shot.
"Before we filmed the scenes with the actors in them, we had to decide where the digital dinosaurs would be, and what choreography they would be doing, such as moving from one point to another within the frame," explains Sean Phillips. "During this process of blocking the scene, we had full-scale mock-ups of our dinosaurs in the frame, and we used the live-action camera to take a reference clip of film to show us where everything was going to be. We also had a lighting reference in the shot, which was a ball covered with semi-gloss grey paint to show us where the light was coming from in that location. This was important so we could make the lighting on the created dinosaur image to be the same illumination as was on the actors.""If the shot was going to have the camera moving in the midst of the action, then we also had to place tracking references into the frame," Phillips continues. "We took accurate survey measurements of the camera height from the ground, and from the camera lens to many objects in the frame. With 3D filming, these measurements had to be done twice... once for each camera lens. The measurements allowed us to recreate the same geometric proportions from the camera to all objects in the frame when we later set up a virtual representation of the scene environment in the computer. Once all of our measurements and reference shots were done, we removed the devices and mock ups and then the shot was filmed with the actors in it, creating the live-action plate... or background image... for our dinosaur creations to be placed into later."(top)The live-action film was then developed. For this large-format 3D film, that meant two strips of 65mm wide film was pulled through the camera at the rate of 24 frames per second, simultaneously and in perfect synchronization. The live-action film was then digitized, meaning that each frame was analyzed by a computerized-scanner which breaks up the image into millions of quantifiable picture elements, or pixels. These pixels are represented digitally as ones and zeros, the universal language of computers.
Feeding it into the computer..."The digitizing of the 15/70 frames takes place at a very high resolution," explains Sean Phillips. "This is a big format, and a big image requires four times the information to really capture it. Traditional 70mm film is digitized at 2K resolution, often in a restricted color space, whereas 15/70 film is done with 4K resolution and a 30-bit color space. Doubling the resolution quadruples the information."With such large frames to work with, the task of creating visual effects for the IMAX® screen also means that the computer animation must be done with the same degree of detail, and this places an extraordinary onus upon the texturing artists to create unparalleled detail in their creations. With the 3D element added, it also means that computer animators have to work in a virtual space that closely matches the real-world space that was photographed in the background plates. The benefit to the audience is that they are experiencing a filmed image that rivals the resolution of real life.(top)
Sculpting and digitizing the T-Rex modelAround the time that the live-action footage was being shot and digitized, the real sculptures of the dinosaurs were analyzed and input into the computer as digital information."For convenience, the sculptures of the dinosaurs were done in halves," explains Sean Phillips. "The sculptures were digitized by identifying a series of points on the model which were entered into the computer, where the software recognizes them as points in space. This was a time-consuming process, so instead of having to do two different sides of the same dinosaur, the computer simply created a mirror image of the second half. Doing this also cut down on the tremendous amount of data needed for the digitizing process."
Once the models were digitized, they then had to be made to appear to move, and the process of creating an animatable dinosaur began.
"Moving the dinosaur within a sequence not only meant moving it from point A to point B, such as seeing a Hadrosaur drop its neck to drink from a lake or a T-Rex walk from a tree into a clearing," Phillips explains. "It also meant seeing the parts of the dinosaur body move in relationship to one another. To an extent, we can study animals in our own time that relate to the scale of what we were representing in order to help us with the realism of movement. Tyrannosaurus Rex was a massive animal weighing many tons and it was one of the biggest dinosaurs we know of. It would have moved completely differently from one of the smaller dinosaurs that was only about eight feet [2.44 m] long, having a different character of mass. In the film, when T-Rex slams his foot down, there is muscle and fat on his thighs that vibrate and shake at a much slower rate than it would have on a smaller animal."(top)
Texturizing and Animating"Understanding and incorporating the movement of the muscle and skin tissue of the animal is what we call deformation," explains Jini Dayaneni. "If you look at your arm when you're flexing your biceps, you see the muscles moving and changing in shape as you work through the movement. We paid close attention to the deformation of the dinosaurs' tissue as we animated them in order to add realism to the characters."
"The animators worked with computers and software programs, but it's not like they had the dinosaur set up to run through a pre-designed maze of possibilities," notes Sean Phillips. "The artists had to use their own sensibilities and artistic interpretations about how these characters would move, setting the speed and duration of the movements."
"The initial animation of each dinosaur was done with a simpler shape representing the animal, using all of the basic joints that would be articulated during the movement," Phillips says. "This movement test was done at a low resolution to speed up the rendering process so we could decide if the basics of the movement matched the concept and requirements for the shot. After that was confirmed, then the animator began to add the other subtle animations and the texturing and surface of the dinosaur."
Secondary animation movements included the way that the muscles distorted the creature during movement, the way that eyes might narrow while pulling in the skin around the face, or the movement of the jaw or limbs. "Deformation of the character according to the physics of its anatomy was a very critical process for creating a believable creature," notes Sean Phillips. "It was just those tiny details that allowed the dinosaur to cross the threshold from being clearly a computer-generated object into being something that most audience members would perceive and accept as being photo- realistic."
"Part of the texturing process involved the artists creating what the dinosaurs' skin would look like," Phillips says. "The artists used the computer tablet to paint a flattened representation of the skin, and then that was wrapped around the computer's basic structure of the creature. On a simple level, it was just like wrapping an object with paper that had a dinosaur-skin design on it."(top)
Pure Digital"The dinosaurs in this film exist purely as digital images in the computer," says Phillips. "The live-action photographic image was digitized and then the synthetically-created images were laid on top of the photographed background plates. For the 3D version of the film, you have a left-eye and a right-eye dinosaur with slightly different perspectives, shifted in equal amounts to the real backgrounds on which they appear."With all of the complex measurements taken at the filming location, the animators created a matching virtual replica of the location environment in the computer. When the computer-generated dinosaurs were ready, they were composited with the digitized image of the live-action plate. For the finishing touches, the animators added further details to the environment - such as shadows - as well as to the creatures in order to seamlessly meld them into the same environment.(top)
The details..."There are all sorts of little details that we added in the end to really attach the elements of the scene with the special visual effects animation," says Jini Dayaneni. "For instance, when the asteroid passes through the air, the clouds were made to move and deform according to the physics of the asteroid object propelling through them changing the currents of air. And when Ally is walking through the steamy, jungle-like environment of the rain forest, there also had to be a layer of mist that the dinosaurs moved through in order to place them within the same physical space. And this became even more complex when we were dealing with three-dimensional space because the mist had to exist, not only where it looked right, but actually within a perception of the 3D space that it would be in if it were a real-life environment."(top)
Computer Memory"A scanned image of one frame, took up 50 megabytes of data space in a computer," notes Sean Phillips. "For one frame of this IMAX 3D film, that made it 100 megabytes of information. That meant that with four minutes of film, we were up to a terabyte of information.a terabyte being a thousand gigabytes, and a gigabyte being a thousand megabytes. That was just for the raw images themselves, even before all of the information and rendering that was done to the bare images. It is difficult to imagine the amount of data space required for the completed work."In the end, it is the thrill of seeing stereoscopic, photo-realistic dinosaurs that made the work of more than 60 people - from Blue Sky / VIFX and L2 Entertainment - over the span of a year-and-a-half all worth the artistry and technical resourcefulness."We were very excited about the work and about experiencing the film as well," says Jini Dayaneni. "When T-Rex opens its jaw and roars and you see everything inside, including the tongue vibrate from the wind of the exhale, it's an awesome experience." (top)