CoreMelt SliceX powered by Mocha

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The structure of Apple’s Final Cut Pro X has brought many new and innovative plug-ins to market that extent the power of the application. One such plug-in is SliceX from CoreMelt. Developer Roger Bolton is a visual effects compositor who has been making FCP, Motion and After Effects plug-ins that fill the needs he sees coming from a VFX background. SliceX was originally developed as a mask-creation filter designed for FCP X, which has no built-in, custom masking tools. The latest version of SliceX has been improved to add keyframes to the effects parameters. It now also sports a built-in 2D planar tracker using Mocha technology licensed from Imagineer Systems.

SliceX is a set of six effects filters for Final Cut Pro X. These include shape masks for blurs, color correction, depth-of-field, object removal (cloning), vignettes and layer shapes. Each has a different set of parameters depending on the design of that filter – blur settings versus color correction sliders, for example. You can apply the filter on a single clip; or you can stack clips vertically and apply a filter to a higher clip in order to composite these clips together, enabled by the masks you have created. Each filter includes a common set of on-screen drawing tools for the mask shapes, as well as the Mocha tracking controls. Masks can be adjusted using control points with Bezier handles and can be moved, scaled and rotated along with the adjustment of edge softness.

Having built-in tracking is unique in a filter (except for the Boris Continuum Complete effects) and by adding the Mocha tracker, elevates the level of effects work you can do inside FCP X. Most trackers are point trackers, where you have to identify one to four consistent high contrast points within an image for the tracker to follow. The Mocha tracker is a planer tracker, which means it automatically calculates tracking points based on a wider surface area of flat planes detected in the image. When you use Mocha tracking in Adobe After Effects, for instance, the clip is sent out to the separate Mocha tracking application, which creates the tracking data. This data is then used to adjust scale, position and rotation information within After Effects’ transform tab.

df_slicex_2All of these extra steps are eliminated with SliceX. In keeping to the general FCP X philosophy of hiding the advanced technology under the hood, SliceX features a simple floating heads-up panel for Mocha and the drawing tools. Click the track arrow in the Mocha control panel to track forward or backward from the point you are parked and the mask is adjusted based on that track. Tracks can be set for either translate (position)/scale/rotation or for perspective. The tracker runs slower than real-time while it analyzes the shot, though this pass is relatively speedy as trackers go. Once the tracking analysis is complete, FCP X will apply and run the effect in real-time without rendering. In addition to the Mocha control panel, there’s also a new mask keyframe control panel. If you change the mask points within a clip, this automatically adds keyframes at every point where you have made adjustments. You can now step through or delete these keyframes, which is a separate function from the standard FCP X keyframe controls available within the effects Inspector window.

CoreMelt’s SliceX adds tremendous functionality to FCP X. You can use the effects to track and blur faces or act like tracked color correction nodes in DaVinci Resolve. The tracking is as simple and foolproof as it comes. Object removal is a great fix-it tool. Have an actress with a skin blemish on her cheek? Simply add the mask and offset the skin area. Track it and voila – the blemish is gone.

It’s easy to say good things about many filters. They are fun to use and give your videos unique stylized looks, but it’s rare that filters significantly improve the core function of your NLE. SliceX is one of those. It’s a must-have filter if you are serious about professional results with Final Cut Pro X. Use it on a few shots and you’ll instantly ask why every NLE doesn’t do the same – and do it so painlessly.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

Autodesk Smoke 2013

df_smoke_1_smAutodesk attracted a lot of attention last year with the revamped version of Smoke for Mac OS X. I had originally been working on a review with the earlier version (Smoke 2012), but held off when I found out Smoke 2013 was just around the corner. Indeed, the more “Mac-like” refresh wowed NAB attendees, but it took until December to come to market. In that time, Autodesk built on the input received from users who tested it during this lengthy public beta period. Now that it’s finally out in the wild, I’ve had a chance to work with the release version, both on my own system, as well as at a client site where Smoke 2013 has been deployed. Both of these are on recent model Mac Pros. Although Smoke 2013 is a very deep application, I would offer that the learning curve for this new version is a mere 25% of what it used to be. That’s a significant improvement.

Getting set up

There are several ways to install and operate Smoke 2013. Most users will install the application in the standalone mode. The software is activated over the internet and works only on that licensed machine. Facility users can also purchase license server software, which allows them to float the Smoke license among several machines. Only one at a time is activated, but any of the machines can run the software, based on the permission assigned by the license server application over the internal LAN.

df_smoke_2_smSmoke 2013 operation is tied to the media storage, so the first thing to do after software installation is to run the Smoke set-up utility. This allocates which drives are accessible to Smoke. You can grab media files from any connected drive, but specific locations must be assigned as library locations for media caches, proxies, render files and so on. These can be internal drives, SAN volumes or externally-connected drives. The key is that when you create or launch a project, it is tied to a specific library location. If that drive is unmounted, any projects associated with it won’t show up and are not accessible (even in an offline mode) to the operator.

You should approach Smoke operation with a media strategy in mind. Smoke 2013 handles more native codecs and file formats – and in a more straightforward fashion – than Smoke 2012. If you are working with ProRes media, for instance, no conversion is necessary to get started in Smoke and files can be rendered as ProResHQ, instead of the previous default of uncompressed DPX files. This means drive performance requirements are less than in the past, but it’s still a good idea to use fast RAID arrays. Even two 7200RPM SATA drives striped as RAID-0 will give you acceptable performance with ProRes media. Naturally, a faster array is even better. Smoke will let you render intermediate proxies for even better performance, but if you want to simply drag in new media from the Mac Finder, then Smoke 2013 now performs on par with other desktop NLEs.

Smoke uses OpenGL and not CUDA or OpenCL acceleration, so performance from ATI or NVIDIA cards is on even footing. If you run a dual monitor system, like my set-up with two 20” Apple Cinema Displays, you can enable dual-screen preview. This will let you mirror the UI or display a selected viewport, which is most often the current clip, but can also be the ConnectFX schematic. You are best off with two 1920×1080 or 1920×1200 screens. The scaling function to reduce the full screen viewer to fit my 1680×1050 resolution introduced artifacts and affected the performance of the card. Smoke 2013 can work with screen resolutions starting at 1440×900, but it’s better to stick to one higher resolution screen like a single 27” or 30” Apple Cinema Display or iMac screen. It’s best to run a broadcast monitor connected to an AJA KONA, IoXT or Blackmagic Design card (in a future version). In that configuration, you can’t use a second computer display to extend the real estate of the Smoke user interface, but could display the UI from another open application, like Adobe Photoshop.

The editing experience

df_smoke_3_smThe reaction to Apple Final Cut Pro X kicked up interest in Smoke. Users who wanted a 64-bit, track-based application that didn’t stray too far from FCP 7’s operational style, felt that Smoke 2013 might be the hypothetical “FCP 8”. Autodesk indeed sports an editing workspace that is closely aligned with the look and feel of Final Cut Pro “legacy”, as well as Adobe Premiere Pro. It even defaults to FCP 7 keyboard shortcut commands. If you can edit on Final Cut (before FCP X) or Premiere Pro, then you can be productive on Smoke with little relearning.

df_smoke_6_smThe user interface is divided into three panes – a browser, a viewing area and a workspace. Across the bottom are four tabbed interface pages or modes – MediaHub, Conform, Timeline and Tools. MediaHub is where you search drive locations for files. It is analogous to Adobe’s Media Browser within Premiere Pro. Locate files and drag or import them into the editing browser window. Conform lets you reconcile imported media with edit lists and is also a place to relink media files. Timeline is the standard editing workspace and lastly, Tools holds clip tools and utilities, such as deinterlacing, pulldown, etc. Each pane changes the information displayed, based on the context of that mode. In the Timeline mode, you see viewers and a timeline, but in the MediaHub mode each pane shows completely different information.

df_smoke_4_smEditors will spend most of their day in the Timeline mode. This interface page is organized into the standard editing view with player windows at the top and a track-based timeline at the bottom. Smoke always loads at least two timelines – the edited sequence and the selected source clip. Effects can be applied to the source clip, as well as to clips on the timeline. The viewer pane can display clips on a single, toggled viewer (like FCP X) or traditional source/record windows (like FCP 7). There’s also a thumbnail and a triptych view. The latter is helpful during color correction, if you want to display previous/current/next frames for shot matching. The browser displays all imported source clips for a project. It can be placed on the left, on the right or hidden entirely. Within it, clips can be organized into folders. You may have more than one sequence in a project, but only one project can be open at a time. As you select a clip, it immediately loads into the viewer and timeline window. No double-clicking required.

df_smoke_5_smSmoke is a good, fast editor when it comes to making edits and adjusting clips on the timeline. There are some nice touches overlooked on other NLEs. For example, it uses track-based audio editing with keyframable real-time mixing. There are a set of audio filters that can be applied and the output has a built-in limiter. Formatting for deliverables is built into the export presets, so exporting a 1080p/23.976 sequence as 720p is as simple as picking a preset. The edit commands include the standard insert, overwrite and replace functions, but also some newer ones, like append and prepend. Ripple and snapping are simple on/off toggles.

While editing is solid, I would still categorize Smoke 2013 as a finishing tool. You could edit a long-form project from scratch in Smoke, but you certainly wouldn’t want to. It lacks the control needed for narrative long-form, like detailed custom bin columns, a trim tool, multi-camera editing and more. On the other hand, a scripted short-form project, like a TV commercial – especially one requiring Smoke’s visual effects tools – could be edited exclusively within Smoke.

df_smoke_7_smThe better approach is to do your rough cuts in another desktop NLE and then send it to Smoke for the remainder. You can import various edit list formats – EDL, XML, FCPXML and AAF. Cut on Final Cut Pro 7/X, Premiere Pro or Media Composer and export an edit decision list in one of these formats for the sequence. Then import and link files in Smoke and you are ready to go. In my testing, XMLs from both FCP 7 and FCP X worked really well, but AAFs from Media Composer were problematic.  Typically Smoke had difficulty in relinking media files when it was an Avid project, most likely due to issues in the AAF.

Come for the effects

The visual effects tools are the big reason most editors would use Smoke 2013 over another NLE. There are four ways to apply effects. The first and easiest is the effects “ribbon” that flies out between the viewers and the timeline. It contains eight standard effects groups – Timewarp, Resize, Text, Color Correction, Spark, Blend, Wipe and Axis. (Spark is the API for third party filters. GenArts Sapphire is the first effects package for Smoke 2013.) The “ribbon” effects are always applied in the same order and some are multiple purpose tools. For instance, the Resize effect is automatically applied for format correction, such as a ProRes4444 clip in a ProResHQ timeline. When these effects are added to a clip on the timeline, a reduced set of parameters appears in a fly-out panel at the top of the timeline. You can immediately apply and adjust effects in the timeline without the need to step deeper until you’ve mastered the simpler methods.

df_smoke_11_smThe last effect, Axis, is a “super tool”. It’s the 2.5/3D DVE effect, but you can enter its effects editor and do a whole lot more. Axis lets you add text, lighting, 3D cameras, plus adjust surface properties and surface deformations. Once you enter any of the effects editors, the mode changes and you are in a new user interface specific to the context of that effect. The controls flow left to right and change options according to the selections made. For instance, picking “object” within the Axis effect editor gives you controls to adjust the scale, position and rotation of the clip. Pick “lights” and the control parameters change to those appropriate for lighting.

The third way to build an effect is to select ConnectFX. This brings you into Smoke’s world of node-based composting, where you are presented with a flow chart schematic, a viewer and a set of filter tools. An effect like Color Correction may be applied directly to the timeline as a single filter or as a filter within a ConnectFX build. It’s entirely up to the comfort level of the editor and how many additional effects will be applied to that clip for the final look.

df_smoke_12_smOne of available tools within the set is Action, which is a separate compositing method. It forms the fourth way to build effects. You can composite multiple media clips in an Action node, such as a title over a background. Once you step into an Action node, you are presented with its own schematic. Instead of a flowchart, the Action schematic shows parent-child links between layers of the composite, such as a light that is attached to a media clip. Action is where you would make adjustments in 3D camera space. Some tools, like the 3D lens flare effect are only available in Action.

df_smoke_9_smSmoke detractors make a big deal out of the need to render everything. While this is true, I found that a single effect applied from the FX “ribbon” menu to a clip on the timeline will play in real time. If you’ve applied more than one effect to a clip, then usually the last one in this string will be displayed live during playback. When rendering is required, the processing speed is pretty quick. If you export a sequence with unrendered effects, then all effects are first processed (rendered) before the finished, flattened master file is exported.

Conclusion

df_smoke_14_smSmoke 2013 is likely to be one of the deepest, but powerful, editing applications you will ever encounter. It’s deceptively simple to start, but takes a concentrated effort to master the inner workings of its integrated, node-based compositors. Nevertheless, you can start to be productive without having to tackle those until you are ready. In an editing world that’s gravitating towards an ever-growing number of canned, one-button preset effects, Smoke 2013 unabashedly gives you the building blocks needed for that last 5% of finesse, not available from a preset effect. You can even build your own complex presets to be applied on future projects. That takes time and talent to master. Fortunately Autodesk has gone the extra mile with good tutorials available on their Area community site and the Smoke Learning Channel on YouTube.

df_smoke_10_smSmoke is ideal as a finishing tool in a multi-suite facility, the main system in a creative media shop or the go-to system for broadcast promotion production. It is designed to fulfill the “hero” role and is targeted squarely at the Adobe suite of tools. The sales pitch is to stay within Smoke’s integrated environment rather than bounce among several applications. While Smoke 2013 largely meets that objective, it still gets down to personal preferences – compositing in nodes versus a track-based tool like After Effects.

Installation is easier than it was, but I’d still like to see Autodesk improve on the activation process – especially for those interested in using more than one machine. Smoke uses a Unix-style file structure, so project files (other than media index and render files) are hidden from the user. This makes it difficult to move projects from one computer to the next. Smoke 2013 lives up to the commitment made at NAB 2012, but now that it’s a released product, Autodesk has a chance to hone the tool to be more in line with the needs of the target user.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

Noise Industries FxFactory 4

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Noise Industries was one of the first plug-in developers to leverage the power of the GPU by tapping into the core image component of Mac OS X. This approach took off when Apple added the FxPlug architecture to Final Cut Pro. From this start, Noise Industries has been able to develop its FxFactory product into both a powerful filter package and a platform to add filters from other partner companies. FxFactory 4.0.2 now supports Final Cut Pro 7 and X, Motion 4 and 5, After Effects and Premiere Pro (CS6). Although After Effects has been supported for a few versions, the upgrade to 4.0 extended support to Premiere Pro CS6. (FxFactory Pro 4.0.2 is a free upgrade for owners of FxFactory Pro 3.x versions.)

df_fxf4_7_smWhen editors install the free FxFactory application, it functions as a central control point to purchase, install, license and manage all of the filters. Most of the plug-in installers are included with the package and are available as trial versions, plus there are links to tutorials for each effect. FxFactory enables users to activate or deactivate products based on preference.

df_fxf4_5_smIf you purchase Noise Industries’ FxFactory Pro filter set, then this adds 176 filters, generators and transitions for Final Cut Pro 7, Motion, Premiere Pro and After Effects, and 160 effects for Final Cut Pro X. If you only purchased FxFactory Pro, you would have a well-rounded set of filters to tackle many creative challenges; however, the beauty of the FxFactory platform is in its extension through partner companies, whose plug-ins tie into this application.

Current partners include Yanobox, Ripple Training, Stupid Raisins, Squid FX, Tokyo Productions, Luca Visual FX, idustrial revolution, Nattress, Boinx Software, SUGARfx, PHYX, Cineflare, Dashwood, Sheffield Softworks, DV Shade, Crumplepop, Futurismo, Aquafades and nVeil. df_fxf4_4_smDepending on the company, some or all of their products are available though FxFactory and supported hosts vary with each product. Some of the newest additions that are built as Motion templates are only available within Final Cut Pro X. Purchasing FxFactory Pro and augmenting it with a number of these add-ins gives you a very powerful set of filters. On the other hand, if you only wanted to use Ripple Tools, Yanobox Moods or Luca VFX Lo-Fi Look, then simply purchase the individual filters you need and run them under the free version of FxFactory. This way you can grow your inventory of effects as budgets permit.

df_fxf4_2_smFxFactory developers have been rapidly adding to the options, due in part to the ability to create FCP X effects as Motion templates, along with an increased user demand for Premiere Pro plug-ins. Noise Industries has brought on board some of the popular plug-ins from the old FxScript days of Final Cut. These include Nattress and Sheffield with updated versions of their looks and grading tools. New developers, not previously known as plug-in creators, have joined the fold to offer FCP X-specific effects. These include Ripple, Tokyo, Squid FX, Stupid Raisins and others. Some of the long-time FxFactory partner developers, like Luca, Yanobox and idustrial revolution are bringing out new products, as well.

df_fxf4_3_smAs a whole, this group represents one of the most eclectic set of filters and transitions available anywhere. Because these products are not developed by a single team of programmers, you get different styles that don’t all look like they came from one company. It would be very difficult, within a reasonable amount of time, for a talented editor to re-create from scratch the sort of transitions you get from packages like XEffects, Slide Pop, FxTiles or Punchline –  even using a powerful NLE like Smoke or a compositor like After Effects.

df_fxf4_6_smAs a working editor who uses these products, I appreciate that Noise Industries spends a lot of time making sure their tools work with the changes Apple brings about. They are fast with fixes and I’ve found that their filters tend to be more stable than some other packages as NLE or OS updates come down the line. This is especially true with Final Cut Pro X, which is still a moving target, as Apple tweaks AV Foundations with each update. FxFactory Pro and partner filters run well within the application and provide reasonable real-time performance when left unrendered. If you are running variations of Final Cut, Motion, Premiere Pro and After Effects, then one price covers the plug-in installation for all of these hosts.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Boris Continuum Complete 8 for Final Cut Pro X

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Boris Continuum Complete 8 from Boris FX has finally made it to Apple Final Cut Pro X and Motion 5. Customers purchasing BCC 8 will receive installers for both new and old versions of Final Cut and Motion. FCP X users will install the new 64-bit version designed for the updated FxPlug architecture – bringing to FCP X one of the most comprehensive plug-in sets available.

Third-party filters, transitions, titles and generators for Final Cut Pro X are built as Motion templates. This has made it a particular challenge to create an FCP X version of BCC 8 with the same controls, plus look and feel of the Continuum set. Yet changes are inevitable. According to Boris FX founder Boris Yamnitsky, “Since FCP X is a new platform unrelated to FCP 7, there is no need to maintain compatibility with BCC 7. This frees our hand to remove older filters, re-work some of the existing filters and make new filters best suited for the FCP X host. It is a very exciting project. We plan to release more templates as we get more feedback from our early adopters. We will be posting them for free as we go. For example, we are working on Materials and Transitions now.”

df_bcc8fcpx_3_smAround 200 filters install into Motion 5, but of these, a smaller subset of 94 effects filters and 11 transitions (in the current build) show up inside of Final Cut Pro X. Last year, I highlighted the new BCC 8 package for After Effects, which introduced new effects, like film glow and particles, as well as general improvements across the board. The same is true of this newest member of the BCC 8 product line. The Continuum filters are all high quality effects, but with modifications to make them work within FCP X. Some filters don’t show up in Final Cut, such as 3D lens flares, the 3-way grade filter and artist’s posterization, but you still have a variety of flare and art effects, including water color. All are there in Motion. Some of those in Motion have been modified to fit within the parameters of the Motion user interface. For instance, the 3-way grade filter uses color wheels in After Effects, but sliders and a floating “heads up display” panel in Motion.

df_bcc8fcpx_4_smThe over 100 effects and transitions inside Final Cut Pro X work in a familiar fashion to other versions of Boris Continuum Complete. There’s a wealth of slider controls on all of the filters to fine tune each effect. Many include built-in masking (the Boris Pixel Chooser), motion tracking (a first for FCP X filters) and/or beat reactor. The latter will pulse or vary an effect based on the amplitude of a linked audio track. Certain Boris FX hallmarks, like high-quality extruded, shaded 3D text, are also part of this package.

df_bcc8fcpx_5_smAll complex effects installed in the Final Cut Pro X host are somewhat slow to react as you adjust them. They do not play smoothly without dropping frames, until they are rendered. This is true for BCC 8, but also true for packages from Magic Bullet, Digital Film Tools, Tiffen and GenArts. If I compare similar Boris FX filters within different hosts, but applied to the same footage and using the same workstation, then BCC 8 in Premiere Pro CS6 outperforms Final Cut Pro X for real-time playback (when left unrendered). In general, user interaction is faster in After Effects, but rendering is often faster in Final Cut Pro X. As with most things related to FCP X, performance on the newest iMacs and MacBook Pros will be better than older Mac Pros. Yamnitsky adds this, “Because FCP X is a very different host, all traditional assumptions about visual effects will be reconsidered. For example, where in other hosts we rely on presets to deliver new looks, in FCP X we can simply export new Motion 5 templates, exposing just enough parameters to make the new look customizable. This approach allows us to avoid complex contextual controls and long parameter stacks.”

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Boris Continuum Complete 8 for Final Cut Pro X and Motion 5 is the most complete package of effects for this combo to date. Quite a few effects, like caustics, 3D text and various distortion effects aren’t available in competing filter packages. Of particular interest is anything involving 3D rendering and shading. When you compare the quality of the BCC lens flares that are done in 3D space or the quality of shaded, extruded text, it’s clear to see that their quality exceeds similar effects available for other plug-in packages. BCC 8 isn’t cheap, but does offer a lot of value. Talk with any professional editor familiar with the BCC set and you’ll find out how important the BCC effects become to solving routine creative challenges.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Looper

One of the fun films of this year is Looper, a sci-fi/time travel adventure by director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom). In the story, the character of Joe – a mob killer – is played by both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. One as the present day version of Joe and the other as his future self. An ambitious film like this typically requires the work of numerous visual effects companies. The task of setting up the futuristic environments fell to a relatively new northern California effects shop, Atomic Fiction.

Co-founders Kevin Baillie and Ryan Tudhope started their careers as talented, enthusiastic teenagers who, through persistence, landed slots on the Star Wars, Episode I pre-visualization effects team working at Skywalker Ranch. This led to a decade of work as compositors and effects supervisors on a host of blockbusters (Hellboy, Sin City, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers) thanks to a long stint at The Orphanage and ImageMovers Digital. With the demise of those companies, Tudhope and Baillie decided to combine their talents and start a new visual effects company model that could take advantage of the latest in software and post-production concepts, like working in the cloud.

Setting the tone

I spoke with Ryan Tudhope about the work Atomic Fiction did for Looper, as well as some of his thoughts on this new business model. Tudhope explained how they landed the job, “We’ve been a fan of Rian Johnson’s films and love the gritty reality of his stories. So we were all over Looper as soon as it was announced. We also knew that Looper’s visual effects supervisor, Karen Goulekas, was a meticulous and seasoned supervisor and would be looking to pull together the best team possible. Atomic Fiction’s art director Brian Flora and I explained how we were combining our incredibly talented team with a new, lower cost business model. Karen saw an opportunity to utilize us, initially for concept design and later on approximately 80 shots. All of this encompassed the film’s digital environments, which include futuristic city aerials, building design and modifications, set extensions and so on. Everything from wide establishing shots down to street-level views of buildings and scenery.”

The crew at Atomic Fiction took many of their cues from Bladerunner. Tudhope continued, “We wanted Looper to have a classic feel and looked to Bladerunner for inspiration, with its industrial tone and signature style, the lens flares and so on. But we also wanted to find our own way, so the two cities in Looper are more grounded in reality. They are more run down. We used common elements to tie our shots together such as graffiti and shelters for squatters, tents, etc. We designed objects and technology – like generators and antennas – that would be attached onto existing building as you know them today. The story takes place in two future cities – Kansas City and Shanghai, which is shown as the more prosperous of the two. Shanghai had to be newer, shinier and far more futuristic-looking. San Francisco doubled as Shanghai in one particular shot, so we had to transform aerials of the bay into this future version of Shanghai.”

To achieve their vision, Atomic Fiction relied heavily on using elements from the film’s 35mm anamorphic plates whenever possible. Tudhope explained, “We are big believers in having something real in the shot. You get so much good stuff from the plate photography that you don’t have to create from scratch, as you would if it were all CG. For example, the water and building textures and overall atmospherics. Sometimes we were able to use existing buildings and simply modify them. You get inspired by objects that are actually in the shot, which can be used as you transform it. In one of the bay aerials, there was a real barge on the water that we were able to enhance. In Bladerunner, the effects team made extensive use of miniatures and relied on fewer shots to tell the story. I often feel that modern effects films tend to overdo it, while the classics let the audience breathe for a moment. I believe Looper will have some of that classic feel.”

“One of the coolest, but also challenging aspects of Looper, was the film format. The film was shot on anamorphic 35mm. Match moves were a real problem for us, because of extremely complex lens distortion patterns, heavy grain and extensive warping on the edge of the frame during focus pulls. On the other hand, we had a great time matching the anamorphic lens flares that were already in the footage. It was great reference.” In total, Atomic Fiction took five weeks to develop the original concept art and design and then about four months to deliver finished effects.

Tools of the trade

Like any visual effects house, Atomic Fiction taps into a wide range of 2D and 3D software to get the job done. Tudhope described their operation, “We rely heavily on off-the-shelf software, but we tie it together with custom tools and functionality. For asset builds, animation and most lighting, [Autodesk] Maya is the tool of choice, but we tend to use [Autodesk] 3DS MAX for matte painting projections and CG environments. All of the matte painting is done in [Adobe] Photoshop and the final composites are done with [The Foundry’s] Nuke. All three companies have been great partners for us and dedicate substantial resources to the professional market.”

“The combination of 3D and 2D can be very efficient, because you can take 3D building models and reuse them from different angles without the need to draw them again from scratch. We typically put together digital environment teams, pairing 2D and 3D artists based on their strengths and what’s needed for any given shot. Sometimes you have to go back and forth between 2D and 3D. The key is being able to look at a shot and know why something isn’t working and then make the necessary adjustments. That’s harder to learn than figuring out how to bend the tools to meet the task. In general, the industry’s 2D/3D pipeline could still use some improvement. For instance, matte painters using Photoshop can easily put a lot of nuance into a shot through hundreds of layers and composite modes to get haze and glows and other details just right. That’s something that combines well inside Photoshop, but gets subtly altered when you try to pass those layers out to other tools.”

A new business model

Baillie and Tudhope realized great talent would be an important ingredient to launching Atomic Fiction, but they also felt their industry was due for innovation. They wanted to leverage new technologies to allow their company to be nimble, yet produce the high quality visual effects their team was known for.

Tudhope discussed their thoughts behind establishing the new company. “From our experience at other shops, we feel that the right number in any one location is around 40 or 50 employees. We have about 40 now and that number seems to be a sweet spot for efficiency, crew morale and maintaining a sense of team and company culture. We designed the facility with the cloud in mind. When you plan to build local hardware resources like a render farm, you end up buying for peak capacity, which means many times the system is underutilized. Instead, with the help of our partners at ZYNC, we jumped head first into Amazon’s EC2 cloud services. By moving rendering to the cloud, instead of owning the hardware locally, you start to treat it like a utility, such as electricity. You only pay for what you use. This means that rendering can literally be scaled from as little as the Macs on the artists’ desks to as many cores as you need. You have a lower total operating cost, and don’t have to pass unused equipment expenses on to the next client.”

“We render both 2D and 3D in the cloud, using V-Ray for 3D renders and Nuke for comps. ZYNC provides the software to manage the process from end-to-end. In order to make it work efficiently, we have an extremely fast internet connection. We literally push terabytes of data back and forth. Fortunately, it only takes a few minutes to get our shots into the cloud at first. After that, many of the revisions to a shot only require sending the changed data, which makes subsequent updates and renders just as fast as a local render farm.”

Security is always a concern when you talk about cloud-based services for the studios. Atomic Fiction has taken that issue head-on. Tudhope explained, “When we pitch a studio, we are often prepared with all sorts of data as to why the process is secure. In most cases, they are actually quite eager to exploit the cost savings and quality improvements, via more and faster artist iterations that cloud rendering provides. The reality is that many effects shops – especially smaller ones – don’t even have dedicated firewalls between them and the Internet. We take security very seriously, with high-end firewalls, a well-engineered internal network architecture, and heavy encryption of data going into and out of the cloud. Despite these intense security precautions, we are careful to only process small slices of a shot – not edited scenes with audio – with the cloud. Those micro-level components pose a much smaller security risk for our clients. We believe that the most important security measure of all is the professionalism of your staff and imparting to them how important the issue of security is.”

Looper opens across the country in September. Check it out to see how Atomic Fiction has used the cloud and off-the-shelf tools to transform the reality of today into the cities of tomorrow.

More from FxGuideWired and Movieline.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).

©2012 Oliver Peters