Even if your visual effects boutique is small, sometimes you need to make your systems work like the larger studios’-without the accompanying big VFX house price tag. This was what Darius Fisher, president of Digital Neural Axis, was asked to do when Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Rob Legato contacted him to produce 68 visual effects shots for the Martin Scorsese film, The Aviator.
“Early on, Rob Legato and Ron Ames [the film’s visual effects producer] realized they were going to have to use a lot of smaller shops, and visual effects boutiques-places that didn’t have high overhead-to really stretch the budget,” says Fisher. “That’s why we were approached.”
The bulk of the work for DNA centered on 53 shots in the Spruce Goose sequence of the film that recreated the one flight of Howard Hughes’ aircraft over California’s Long Beach Harbor in 1947.
Film footage simulating the bumpy, historic flight was shot of the actors in the cockpit against green screen. Then DNA helped to create the appropriate window views from inside the airplane. These would ultimately be combined with exterior views of the aircraft produced by the film’s principal effects producer, Sony Pictures Imageworks, in Culver City, CA.
Known for his ability to creatively apply off-the-shelf technology to projects, Fisher was tapped early on by the film’s visual effects production team to help set up a quality control (QC) station at “The Aviator Inc.’s” Imageworks VFX headquarters. This station allowed the visual effects producer and supervisor to preview the work in progress from different visual effects vendors in high-definition (HD) format.
Having had success in DNA’s own edit viewing room with Medea’s dual-channel, 2Gbps Fibre Channel-based VideoRAID disk arrays, Fisher was asked by the production team to help set up its own QC station with a similar, SCSI-based version of the Medea array. In “The Aviator Inc.’s” Imageworks-based QC suite, the plan was to preview the visual effects footage by loading the preview renders from the various VFX vendors onto an Apple Macintosh G5 workstation connected to a Medea storage array.
Work-in-progress VFX shots from one vendor would then be combined with other vendors’ shots using Apple’s Final Cut Pro HD editing software. Effects could then be previewed in HD QuickTime format on flat panel monitors and an HDTV CRT after being output from the Medea storage array via a PCI-based HD/SDI (high-definition serial digital interface) CineWave card.
At DNA, the edit room setup was virtually identical to the ImageWorks QC station, substituting a Blackmagic HD card for the Cinewave card. “We wanted to mirror the same system as the production team so we could see how our shots were working in sequence,” says Fisher. DNA intercut its VFX shots with HD footage of the exterior shots for its own review.
Since both the QC station and DNA’s edit room needed the ability to play back the frames in HD (24 frames per second, 8-bit, uncompressed) format, it was important that the storage system be able to sustain consistent data throughput rates of 85MBps to 95MBps, says Fisher.
“In the storage realm, if you’re going to play back 10-bit, interlaced HD footage, you need a data rate of about 140MBps to 150MBps, but because we had fewer frames per second it brought our data-rate requirements down to 85MBps to 95MBps,” Fisher explains. “We’d already used our Medea storage system for the 10-bit, interlaced footage, so we had no problem working at the lower data rate.”
Each morning, Fisher and his team gathered all the latest renders from the previous day and cut them into the timeline. They then reviewed them in QuickTime format in the DNA edit room.
“To really check the flow and pacing, we found it very helpful to review the shots in the timeline, played back in high definition in conjunction with Imageworks’ external shots and the work-in-progress sound track,” says Fisher.
Combining DNA’s shots with the Sony shots provided the creative team with a bigger picture perspective of how the whole scene was shaping up. “It was vital to be able to see the progression-Spruce Goose traveling faster, cutting to an external shot from Sony-and see it all played back in real-time,” says Fisher.