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Equilibrium Article: CGI
Digital Firepower

3ds max and combustion form a nice balance in Equilibrium

-- by Audrey Doyle

 The Article

According to Charles Darby, one of the biggest challenges about creating virtual environments for film is making the environments feel believable. "Even if you’re creating a fantastical or futuristic city, viewers still must believe the environment they’re seeing on the screen is a ‘real’ place," says Darby, who is visual effects supervisor and co-owner of Digital Firepower, a Hollywood facility that specializes in creating elaborate digital worlds through 2D and 3D digital matte paintings. "But whenever you create a virtual environment, holding onto reality is extremely difficult," he adds. "The further away you get from live action, the more challenging it is to maintain a sense of realism." As challenging a task as this might be, it’s something Darby and his fellow artists at Digital Firepower overcome on every film they work on, including Equilibrium, their most recent and most difficult to date. One reason they can do this is because the team of highly trained traditional artists have the skills to re-create computer environments that evoke a sense of realism, no matter how far-fetched the environments are. The other reason is because the artists have tools that are robust yet versatile and intuitive enough to help them meet their goals. Those tools are Discreet’s 3ds max modeling, animation, and rendering software, and combustion, Discreet’s paint and compositing system.

One of 2001’s anticipated fall movies, Equilibrium is set in a futuristic society where citizens must take a drug to prevent them from expressing their emotions. Digital Firepower’s role in Equilibrium was to create the city of Libria, which is where the film takes place. The three-year-old facility is no stranger to creating complex virtual environments for film; for its most difficult project before Equilibrium, last year’s Dungeons & Dragons, artists created 15 elaborate 2D/3D digital worlds. However, Darby says Equilibrium was more challenging than D&D for a few reasons. First, the digital matte paintings and set extensions the team created for Equilibrium are entirely 3D. "Where our past shows consisted of 2D environments or hybrid 2D/3D environments, Equilibrium is much more 3D-intensive," Darby says. In addition, unlike for D&D, for Equilibrium the team had to build a city that was oppressive and yet stately enough to fit in with the mood of the film, but that also looked tangible enough to be believable. Plus, while in most of the D&D shots the camera focuses on one particular building and keeps the rest of the environment in the background, in Equilibrium the entire city is the focus. Another reason is because D&D was a fantasy film, whereas Equilibrium is not. "With a fantasy you automatically have an advan-tage in that your colors can be stronger and your architecture can be more stylized," Darby explains. "But with Equilibrium, we had to make thousands of decisions as to what would make the city look real. How could we make Libria look like a real city even at different times of the day, given that there is no city on Earth that looks like Libria? How could we create this city so that it felt as real as the live action?"

Darby found the answers to his questions with help from the comprehensive toolsets in 3ds max and combustion software. "We’re impressed with the tools in combustion, especially the tracking tools, and the tools in 3ds max are versatile and efficient," he enthuses. "Both products worked together to help us get this job done." According to Darby, the first step for the artists was to devise the city’s look. "This movie was shot in Berlin and it’s about dictatorship," Darby says. "So we decided to create a city that resembled Berlin in color and mood and that had architecture that was dark and oppres-sive, but not colorless." For inspiration, the artists turned to designs and drawings created by architects Hugh Ferriss and Albert Speer, along with photos of Berlin and Munich. Once they decided on the look of the city, the artists began building it. According to Darby, Libria appears in 37 shots in the film. Although he says all 37 were challenging, he points to five that were particularly tricky. The first shot begins with a car traveling over a road that resembles a dam-like wall dividing Libria from the wasteland surrounding it. This cuts to the second, in which the car approaches the city’s "inner wall", passes through the city gates, and travels underneath another roadway. This cuts to the third shot, in which the camera pans upward to reveal the entire city. In these shots, the only real elements are the car and some live action in a guard tower. Everything else is a digital painting created in 3ds max and 2D-composited and tracked in combustion.

"The difficulty with these shots was the fact that during the sequence, you’re driving through this digital city and it must look totally real," Darby says. "This is the first time viewers see Libria, so it was important that we make it look impressive, but also believable." Meanwhile, the fourth and fifth shots were difficult primarily because of the complexity of the camera moves. The fourth shows the Palace of Justice. The first two floors of the building are portions of a real stadium in Berlin; the artists digitally extended the stadium another 12 stories. The fifth shot shows the Hall of Equilibrium. "For this we received a live-action plate of vehicles heading toward the base of the Hall, and we added a massive structure on top of the base and blended it in," Darby says. "In both shots, we had to deal with complex camera moves—dollies and cranes that must link up with live action. It was tricky."

According to Darby, 3ds max and combustion software helped the artists create Libria despite the fact that these scenes were so difficult. For instance, although some of the eight artists who worked on Equilibrium were new to 3ds max, they learned the program quickly. "It’s a complex program, but it’s not difficult to get into, so artists can understand it."

Plus, the artists were able to create a render queue in 3ds max software to speed up the rendering process. "Rendering in 3ds max is fast and efficient. Some of these shots are very large, but they still ren-dered quickly in it," he says.

Furthermore, thanks to the open architecture of 3ds max software, several plug-ins are available that extend the software’s features. One that came in quite handy was Scene Genie, a 3D camera tracking plug-in from Autonomous Effects. "We take our tracks pretty seriously, and Scene Genie is a great tool for 3D tracking. We love working with it, and we like the fact that it works from within 3ds max," he says. "In the past we’ve used a mixture of 3D modeling, animation, and rendering programs on our projects. But for Equilibrium, it was all 3ds max," he adds. "And from here on out, we plan to continue doing that."

The combustion product, meanwhile, enabled the team to accomplish numerous 2D tracks accurately. "Plus, the keyer is extremely efficient, even for getting rid of tracking markers in plate photography," Darby says. "We could roto and paint in combustion very easily. We swapped over to combustion [from another 2D compositing application] shortly after we started on this project, and we’re very happy we did. We composited more than half of the big hero shots in combustion. That would have taken much longer to do in other programs." All told, the Digital Firepower artists are pleased with the results they achieved with the Discreet products. "We take pride in being fairly clever about how we construct a shot. We don’t want to fall into a technical quagmire, spending our time discussing how to accomplish a shot technically," Darby says.

"We want to spend our time discussing how to accomplish a shot artistically. "These products let us do that," he concludes.