The VES Handbook of Visual Effects

Visual Effects are such a ubiquitous element of filmmaking that it’s rare to see a commercial or short film that doesn’t use them.

With the digital revolution changing the film production landscape on daily basis, from new cameras to capture formats, the field of visual effects is yet another part of the production process that is important to keep up with. As visual effects become more prevalent and take up a larger part of the pre-production decisions it’s vital to understand the basics of modern visual effects as designers.

The-VES-Handbook-of-Visual-Effects-post

Much as the ASC Cinematographers Manual has been considered an essential volume, the VES Handbook of Visual Effects fills the same need when it comes to gaining a working knowledge of today’s VFX processes. At over 1000 pages the book is even more comprehensive than the ASC manual and covers everything from pre-production to post-production considerations.

It covers green-screen work, front and rear projection systems, shot design, motion capture, stereoscopic 3-D work, compositing, game and animation projects and motion tracking as well as traditional in-camera effects work like glass shots, forced perspective and miniature photography.

For understanding the modern visual effects world you would find it hard to locate another book with this much practical information.

Available from Focal Press for $75 in paperback.

 

Superdome To Be Converted To World’s Largest Soundstage

Superdome-world's biggest stage_rdwilkins

With film production reaching ever larger numbers in Louisiana, adequate stage space has been a constant complaint from film companies looking to shoot in New Orleans. Now that the New Orleans Saints have moved to their new state-of-the-art sports facility in Metarie, the Superdome’s future looked dim.

The city has announced today that the facility will be remodeled as a soundstage and will by 2017 be reopened as the largest film production stage in the world.

Plans call for up to 12 films to be able to be shot simultaneously with new sliding curtain walls to divide the space as required. As a single stage, the dome will be large enough to conduct aerial dogfights inside. The film Apollo 11 is scheduled to be the first production shot here as the new floor will now retract to expose a deep tank for a 800 foot floor-to-perms height which will allow the rocket launch footage to be shot without worrying about bad weather.

Ernest Fuertmann, the projects manager, has announced that filmmakers can certainly take advantage of the bad weather when they need it as the dome’s roof will be configured to open for full sky exposure. The dome will also have the ability to become a giant water tank and will be completely filled with water for the 2018 remake of Red October.

During the news conference, Fuertmann said future plans include numerous subterranean levels which will house blocks of 3-story facades of every major city in Europe.

Google Earth Pro Price Drops From $400 To $0

Google announced last Friday that they were going to start offering their Pro version of Google Earth at no cost. The Pro version was meant mainly for developer, architects, contractors and real estate agencies who need both more advance measuring tools than the basic version offered plus higher resolution printouts.

 

 

Here is a table showing the differences between the two versions.

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 8.54.07 AM

The Superdome is 66.82 Smoots In Diameter

Unlike with the free version the Pro version allows you to measure diameters, heights and 3D paths and polygons.

Google Earth Pro 2 Google Earth Pro

 

How Accurate Is It?

I decided I’d test the measuring tools on something small to test the accuracy. I zoomed over to Colonial Williamsburg Courthouse which I built the model of years ago based on HABS surveys. The footprint measured out to be accurate within 99% and the height to within 98% accuracy. That’s pretty amazing.

williamsburg courthouse

 

You can download the model here and check the results for yourself.

Comparing Cinema Lenses To Still Camera Lenses

A lot of people take shots of sets and wonder how the focal length of their still camera lens compares to cinema lenses. Even if the capture format is 35mm film or a digital camera with a 35mm size sensor, the angles of view are not the same as with a 35mm still camera.

The reason is that the the film runs horizontally through a still camera instead of vertically as through a cinema camera, resulting in a larger frame in the still camera which in turn results in a wider angle of view with a similar focal length lens.

The lens angle chart below is similar to the traditional AOV acetates used in Art Departments for decades but this one has the equivalents for still lens focal lengths next to the cinema lens angles. (You can print out a pdf of this below, just have it printed on clear acetate.) Beside each cine focal length you’ll see the equivalent focal length with a full frame DSLR. If you are using a camera with a crop frame factor this will of course be closer to the cine focal length. In fact if you shoot with the Nikon D40 or similar, it will be almost identical in focal length numbers to the cine lenses.

Angle Of View Comparison Chart

On the chart I’ve drawn a full size outline of each sensor/frame size so that you can see the difference between the two mediums. You can use this chart on any size scale plan and it will give you a very close approximation to what you’ll see with a given lens. If you want to use it on elevations you’ll need to divide the angle by 1.33 to get the vertical angle.

For those of you who use iPhones for stills, you can download a AOV chart for the iPhone below, print it on acetate and compare in to the 35mm lenses.

 

Cinema_Super 35 AOV Comparison

iPhone Angle Of View

Your Next Phone May Be A Real-time 3D Scanner

In February Google launched what they call “Project Tango”. They have developed a smartphone which is also a 3D scanner that can map the surrounding area and build a visual map of it. Processing over 3 million reference points a second, the device can build a virtual, scalable model of a room in the time it takes to walk through it.

Schematic of how the Tango device works

Schematic of how the Tango device works

They have currently hand-picked 200 developers to create applications for the device which as of now only runs on Android devices. Imagine what this would do to those never-ending time-consuming location surveys. Would you ditch your iPhone if you could have an Android phone that did this?

 

Can’t wait that long? If you’ve got $4500 and want the latest in room scanners, go over to Matterport and watch their demonstration video of their room capture camera system.

 

 

What Lens Is It? Comparing Apple Device Cameras To 35mm Lenses

A lot of times when you’re using your smart phone camera to take a shot of a set or location it would be nice to know what the equivalent view would be with a 35mm cinema / video lens.

I ran the numbers for most Apple devices and came up with the following equivalent focal lengths for both 35mm still cameras (full frame) and Super 35mm size sensors. Remember that although both formats are based on 35mm film stock, the frame for a still camera is a 1.5 aspect ratio with a frame width of about 1.417 inches. A Super 35mm frame is a 1.35 aspect ratio and the frame width is .980 inches.

Why only Apple? Well, the company readily makes their devices lens and sensor data available and it was easy to calculate. In the next post I’ll show you how to measure for your devices’ angle of view if the exact focal length isn’t published.

Please note in the following table the focal lengths for the given device have been rounded up to the nearest whole number so the equivalent lengths given are approximate.

Apple device lens comparison chart

‘Hand-Hewn’ vs. Machine Made: Comparing Historic Tool Finishes To Modern Methods – Part 1

Creating period wood finishes for film and television scenery always involves a certain amount of subjective and creative interpretation. Usually the wood surfaces are finished to a level having more to do with the time period’s distance from modern times more than how old the set would look in relation to the time of the story. So usually anything set in ancient Roman times looks like it’s been through several hundred sandstorms, attacked with a grinder and sand blasted until the early growth rings are worn away from the late growth rings. There were certainly buildings that were very old at that time but there were plenty that looked much newer than the photo below.

weathered wood showing sunken early growth rings

weathered wood showing sunken early growth rings

I was working on a period film several years ago and I noticed that one of the other designers had called out the wood surfaces of their set to be finished as ‘hand-hewn’. I knew the surfaces would have actually been surfaced to a finer finish than a rough hewn beam and I asked why it needed to be so rough. They answered that being pre-machine age, other than furniture which would have required lots of sandpaper, they wouldn’t have had the ability to give the wood a smooth finish. I said that not only was that not true,  in many ways hand tools gave a superior finish to the tools of the machine age, and they had something better than sandpaper.  They laughed until they realized I wasn’t kidding.

Let’s take timber framing. When most people think of a timber frame building they tend to think of the wood looking like this:

fachwerk3

16th century German timber frame or Fachwerk house.

The wood didn’t look anything like this when it was built. The faces of the wood probably looked more like this (minus the checking or cracks):

restored German Fachwerk building from the mid 1600's.

restored German Fachwerk building from the mid 1600’s.

 

Partly because of this trend toward artistic license, and not understanding period construction which leads to misinterpreting the photographic research available (such as the photo below), wood buildings get designed and built with anachronistic finishes.

 

fachwerk2

The timbers of this fachwerk building were originally as smooth as those in the previous example. Many years later the faces were scored to act as a grip for the
plaster stucco-like finish that was applied at one time to ‘modernize’ it, much like some old interior brick walls were scored to accept plaster.

 

Even the building industry can take some of the blame. Here’s a photo of a popular flooring with a simulated jack plane finish. The plane had a curved blade that was used to quickly take a plank down before being planed smooth to its final thickness. A board with tool marks like this would not likely have been used in a decent dwelling.

fake jack plane tool marks

 

 

Today it’s hard to imagine doing all the work involved in processing wood from logs to a finished form without power machinery. How could a hand tool created a finish smoother than a modern tool, much less sandpaper? first of all, the way the tools work today is much different than the way period tools work. And, because it was  a much more labor-intensive process, they didn’t finish surfaces that wouldn’t be seen.

Let’s start with the big stuff. The process of taking logs from a tree to a piece of framing timber in the European tradition in the 16th and 17th centuries involved a number of types of hatchets.

Here’s a video by Christopher Schwarz on the use of hewing axes by Plimoth Plantation’s master joiner, Peter Follansbee:

 

 

By the 18th century the process involved not only the hewing axes and saws but an adze to square the sides followed by a broadax to smooth the sides, and possibly a drawknife to remove the axe and adze marks.

Here is a great little video by Ken Koons explaining the process:

 

 

Once the mortises and tenons were cut they were cleaned up and smoothed using chisels and slicks, which were basically large chisels meant to be pushed by hand rather than hit with a mallet. The photo below is of the largest slick in my collection. Made in the late 1860’s in Ohio, it has a 3 inch wide blade. This big blade is certainly closer to a chisel than an axe as you can see from the closeup of the blade as it shaves off a sliver of my thumbnail. The blade will leave a very smooth surface.

 

A three inch wide framing slick from the mid 1800's

A three inch wide framing slick from the mid 1800’s

framing slick2

 

Here is a short video by John Neeman of a framing slick in use, you can see how quickly and cleanly it cuts a tenon.

 

 

 

Cut timber surfaces were as smooth as their maker wanted, or needed them to be. Here are two photos of the Daniel Trabue cabin near Lexington, KY. The cabin was restored some years ago and returned to it’s 1797 appearance. The clapboard which had been applied later had protected most of the logs from decay. Notice the tool marks on the exterior logs. Now look at the second picture of an interior wall on the second floor. Here the German maker has signed his name with an 18th century cipher. Notice how clear the signature is. It was made with a traditional crayon made of beeswax and powdered vermillion used for marking out work while building. The crayon was found during the restoration, tucked above the front door lintel. The clarity is only possible because the wood surface is so smooth.

front door of the Daniel Trabue cabin

front door of the Daniel Trabue cabin

18th century cipher of the cabin's builder

18th century cipher of the cabin’s builder

 

Next week, in Part 2 of this post I’ll talk about and show you how traditional hand tools can actually create a finish that’s superior to their modern day counterparts and why our ancestors didn’t use, or need sandpaper to surface wood. Also, you’ll learn why every recreation of Noah’s Ark you’ve ever seen is dead wrong.

3D Scanners For Your Pocket – Coming Soon, Very Soon.

There must be something in the water in Boulder. A lot of technology is coming out of that little town including two new devices which could continue to revolutionize the way we work. Location survey work has never been much fun and always comes with unknown challenges that often leave you stymied, ike that billboard you suddenly learn you have to measure, or the block-long row of buildings that you have to survey with two hours of sunlight left in the day.

Using 3D scanners for location surveying and object duplication in the past has been something people have wanted, but the price of most of these devices usually makes their use too cost prohibitive. The iPhone and the many apps that accompanied its popularity have been a real help in many Art Department workflows but their uses are currently limited as far as true 3D capture and augmented reality functions.

Two companies, Ike GPS and Occipital are trying to fill a need for low cost 3D scanners with two inventions which act as add-on devices for digital phones and tablets. By harnessing the power of these devices, their creations enhance products that most people are already using.

Ike is a company which has had previous success with hand-held scanners and was looking to create a device which could be small enough to fit on a smart phone. They’ve come up with a small device called Spike which attaches to an iPhone or other smart phone and uses the devices built-in accelerometer, compass and GPS functions to make it possible to measure the size, height or even the volume of buildings and even create a 3D model to export to a modeling program.

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The company is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise interest as well as funds to develop the device which they plan on having ready for the market by next May. The device will come in two versions; the Basic version and the Pro version which will generate 3D model files, geolocate buildings and allow for pulling measurements from the digital image.

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For a donation of $389, you’ll get a prerelease Spike Pro which the company says is around half of the final retail price, meaning the street price of the Pro unit is going to be somewhere in the $800 range. That may seem pricy but the next closest device I know of that can provide similar functions is about 5 times more,  both in size and price.

Here’s a video from the company website:

 

 

Occipital has developed a device they are calling the Structure Sensor which attaches to an iPad and can create 3D scans of objects or rooms up to about 550 square feet with a range of 3 1/2 meters. The file can be imported into a CAD package or output for 3D printing.

Structure Sensor

The Sensor Kickstarter program is fully funded but for a $330 pledge you can still get a Sensor at a significantly reduced price than it will retail for when it becomes available early next year.

Check out the video below:

Here are the links to the Kickstarter pages:

Structure Sensor

Spike Pro

Rendering In Sketchup

For those of you who work in Sketchup and are new to rendering, or are confused by all the different rendering software packages available, a new book is coming out March 25 that will help. Daniel Tal, landscape architect and author of Sketchup For Site Design, has written a new book, Rendering In Sketchup, which is now available for pre-order or as a digital download.

rendering in sketchup

There are now a number of rendering programs on the market for use with Sketchup, with a majority of them working from within Sketchup without having to exit the program. This can be a plus or a minus depending on how you work. Even though most of the programs offer free-use trial periods of their software, It can be pretty difficult and time-consuming to decide which is  the best one for your workflow and budget.

Daniel is an excellent teacher and has written a very thorough and detailed book on the process of rendering from Sketchup using a variety of software programs as well as explaining post-rendering work with Photoshop. While not every rendering engine is covered, he does go into a great amount of detail explaining not only the basics of rendering, but his own methods using Shaderlight, SU Podium and Twilight Render.

The book covers workflow, hardware requirements, how to model efficiently for renders, use and teaching of textures and a lot more. At over 600 pages, the book is both a reference and a guide and can be read for pertinent chapters rather than just cover to cover.

You can get more information on the book here, and you can view the videos on Daniel’s Youtube site here

Here is a really good tutorial by Daniel you should watch which is based on the material from his book:

Land8 Webinar: Rendering in SketchUp – Daniel Tal from Land8.com on Vimeo.

If you want to know all of your rendering engine options, here is a list of rendering programs that work with or within Sketchup;   ( Prices are as of March, 2013. )

From within Sketchup:

Shaderlight – $299 full license; timed access from $50

Twilight Render – $99

V-Ray – $800

ArielVision – $175

Bloom Unit – free software , cloud-based, priced per render

Caravaggio – $295

Indigo Renderer – $220

IRender nXt – $499

Light Up – $189

LumenRT – $295

Maxwell – $995

Raylectron – $99

Render[in] – $160

Renditioner –  $99,  Pro $199

SU Podium – $198

Thea Render – $420

Standalone Software

Artlantis

Kerkythea – free

The Future Of Sketchup

On Monday morning I, along with about 280 others, packed into the Boulder Theater in downtown Boulder, Colorado in the hope of finding answers. It was the first day of Sketchup Basecamp, a semi-annual event that attracts Sketchup users from around the world for a three-day conference that’s more like a cross between a family reunion and a college party than a traditional industry conference.

When it was announced on April 26 of this year that Google was planning to sell Sketchup, a lot of people ( myself included ) got more than a little nervous. Sketchup is the sole piece of software I use for modeling sets and creating working drawings. Since purchasing the program in 2006, Sketchup has become the most-used modeler in the world with it’s user base growing to over 30 million people. The program was obviously very successful, so why was Google selling it off when it normally doesn’t divest itself of products. The last time they had sold a product investment was in 2009. A Sketchup blog article by Product Manager John Baucus on the same day helped to allay fears but there were still a lot of unanswered questions and concerns.

Google had purchased Sketchup’s parent company, @Last Software in 2006 to provide content for Google Earth. The idea was to provide a free 3D modeling package that would allow people to create buildings for use in Google Earth. Even with a paid version of Google Earth it seems that Earth was never a profit generator for them and with the introduction of a new system which allows Google to now create models from auto-generated 3D mesh buildings from photo-grammatical data gathered from satellites and unmanned aircraft, it seems that they no longer saw a need for a 3D modeling program. There was speculation in the engineering industry that the company would be sold to Dassault Systemes, but when the announcement was made it was revealed that Sketchup would be purchased by Trimble Navigation.

Trimble Who?

So, who is Trimble Navigation and why did they buy Sketchup? It turns out Trimble is a billion dollar company located in Sunnyvale, California and is a leader in developing systems which use GPS technology for the surveying and construction industries. They have offices in over 30 countries and have over 1,800 patents relating to GPS systems. Sketchup is just just one of a number of acquisitions Trimble has made this year, including Tekla, a BIM modeling program from Europe. On Trimble’s website they describe the company as having integrated  “a wide range of positioning technologies including GPS, laser, optical and inertial technologies with application software, wireless communications, and services to provide complete commercial solutions. Its integrated solutions allow customers to collect, manage and analyze complex information faster and easier, making them more productive, efficient and profitable.”

Far from dumping the software in a fire-sale, Google wanted to make sure Sketchup went to a good home. Google had a previous relationship with Trimble having used their GPS systems in developing Google Earth.

Trimble Vice President Bryn Fosburgh was there in Boulder at the opening session to explain how they saw Sketchup’s position in the company’s structure. Having established itself in the engineering and construction side of the industry, the acquisition of Sketchup is seen as a way of extending the firm’s footprint into the design phase of the industries as well. He said they saw the modeling company as becoming seamlessly integrated with the other companies’ software and hardware products and said his only surprise after the purchase was getting used to the unusual dog-rich environment of the Sketchup offices.

Users of their products like the Robotic Total Station will be able to bring the file from a Sketchup model of a house into the device and have it’s laser lay out the corners of the building with 1 centimeter accuracy.

More Tasty Sketchup Biscuits To Come

A problem most companies have is learning when to leave acquisitions alone. Much like biscuits, where over-handling the mix leads to leaden,  inedible lumps. Trimble seems to have a record for buying quality companies, integrating them into the family, and then leaving the work to the people that know best how to implement it.

Joined on stage by Sketchup Product Manager John Baucus, Product Evangelist Aidan Chopra and a number of others from the company, the group quickly explained the plans Trimble has set for the 3D modeler: the program is going to stay simple to use, and it’s going to get a lot more complex as well. The company sees Sketchup as a platform as well as an application.

Here’s the abbreviated breakdown:

– There will always be a free version of Sketchup available and the basic program will     never be more complicated to learn.

-The Pro version will continue to be developed and you will see a continually greater difference between it’s abilities and those of the free version.

-They will continue to support 3rd party developers in creating compatible software and plugins to work within Sketchup. Over 45% of users have and use 3rd party plugins with Sketchup and they want to continue to support the creation of useful additions that they would never develop in-house, hoping that each industry will take the initiative in creating plugins for specific needs.

-They will continue to support “everyone else” as well. Since the program is used in so many varied industries and vocations, the company wants the software to be truly useful to anyone who uses it to create.

-They plan to continue to make the software run bigger and more complex models as fast as possible by any means they can.

-The company is ramping up their team size and is currently looking for new talent. Trimble is pumping a lot of money into the company, especially in Layout, their software for creating construction drawings from Sketchup models. They plan on continuing to improve the drawing program to equal any CAD package out there.

-Starting in 2013 with the release of the next version, the company will now go to annual updates instead of the random release dates we’ve become used to. Another sign that the software’s development is going to proceed at a much faster rate than it did at Google.

Also, there are plans to overhaul the 3D Warehouse. The Warehouse now contains over 2 million models with over 1000 new models added each week, many by major manufacturers. They plan to update it to make it easier to use and easier to find content.

And, it was announced that the company has developed an STL importer/exporter for creating model files for use in stereolithography and 3D printing. Now that companies like Makerbot have made desk-top 3D printers available in the $2000 range, 3D printing may soon become as common as paper printers.

They have licensed STL plugin code from three outside developers, streamlined it and offer it as a free plugin. You can download it here.

All in all, the switch to Trimble ownership looks like a much better fit than it did with Google. Although as John Baucus will say, plenty of good things came from the Google purchase. It was at Google that the free version of the software was launched and the 3D Warehouse came into being. And, kudos to Google for making sure the company went to a good new home and wasn’t just cut loose.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I left the conference relieved. It looks like Sketchup has a very long and productive future ahead. Aidan Chopra joked at the opening session, “Sketchup 17 is going to be awesome!”