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SGI Powers ILM's Visual Effects For Five of This Summer's Biggest Films

(August 13, 2001)
SGI IRIX OS-based compute power provided the Academy Award winning artists of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) the means to create, design, animate, photo-realistically light and render the amazing array of visual effects that enhance five of this summer's biggest blockbuster films. ILM, using proprietary software written on Silicon Graphics(R) O2(R) visual workstations as well as off-the-shelf 3D modeling and animation software, completed approximately 350 visual effects shots on The Mummy Returns, 160 shots on Pearl Harbor, 200 shots on A.I., 400 shots on Jurassic Park III and 140 shots on Planet Of The Apes. ILM, which has used SGI(TM) systems since 1988, uses more than 500 Silicon Graphics O2 visual workstations networked to an 800-processor SGI(TM) 2000 series system with 400GB of storage.

The Mummy Returns


"In The Mummy Returns, there aren't many shots that we didn't have something to do with," said Ed Kramer, ILM's sequence supervisor on The Mummy Returns (which has grossed more than $200 million at the box office). "We were involved in more than 350 shots, creating everything on Silicon Graphics O2 systems backed with SGI 2000 series servers. SGI technology was an essential part of everything we created and rendered."

Creating a living, breathing Imhotep (the mummy himself) was top priority. "We had to create digital skin to cover the surface of the muscles, and we wrote simulation software on the O2 systems that would allow the surface skin to react to the way the muscles were moving and rippling underneath," explained Kramer. "Those muscles, in turn, were reacting to how the bones were moving and supporting them."

Director Steven Sommers wanted plenty of holes in Imhotep's body so audiences could see through to the background, proving that this was not an actor wearing a mummy suit. "We had to systematically remove lungs or parts of his head so that we could see right into him," Kramer continued. "We even had to create his brain, because there's a big chunk of his head missing, and when he moves, his brain has to slosh inside his skull. That required calculations based on the volume of a brain and the collision between the brain and the skull that it's floating in. We also had to paint an incredible number of texture maps, transparency maps, bump maps and displacement maps to create that rotted flesh."

Other CGI challenges included a battle sequence containing more than 10,000 jackal-headed Anubis warriors, and in some scenes 40,000 warriors were needed. Digital duplication tricks weren't of much use: each warrior had to be animated and rendered individually for continuity among the shots in the sequence. "Any time you see Imhotep, the hordes of pygmy or soldier mummies or the popular WWF wrestler, The Rock, as the Scorpion King, that's ILM's CGI, all created on SGI systems," said Kramer.

Pearl Harbor

ILM's visual effects work for Pearl Harbor (which has surpassed $200 million at the box office) included three main sequences: the aerial tour de force of the Battle of Britain; the devastating Pearl Harbor attack, including the all-digital ships in Battleship Row; and many shots in the Tokyo raid sequence at the movie's climax.

"In the Battle of Britain, we did all the dog-fighting shots using digital planes and explosions," said Michael Bauer, ILM's CG supervisor on Pearl Harbor. "We even generated the background plates for many of those scenes, cutting together pieces of sky and ocean to complement director Michael Bay's choreography. For the Pearl Harbor battle, some shots were almost entirely computer graphics. We digitally created Battleship Row with 3D models of ships based on the original 1941 blueprints. We made all the battleships, the water that they're floating on, all the smoke plumes and the giant smoke events, digital airplanes, the tracers and the tracer smoke coming from the airplanes, and the bullet hits on the water and on the battleships. Where they filmed one or two planes coming through, we'd populate the sky with our digital planes. We also made a whole library of digital sailors to complement the stunt sailors."

Using Silicon Graphics O2 systems, artists adapted ILM's proprietary fluid dynamics, originally written on O2 systems for last year's Academy Award nominee for visual effects, The Perfect Storm. "We added certain modifications to the code to be able to add torpedo rings," explained Bauer. "We weren't doing big wavy, choppy water like The Perfect Storm. This was mainly calm water that's being disrupted by outside elements. Oil slicks, torpedo rings and torpedoes running just below the surface with torpedo trails had to be added." For the smoke, ILM adapted its fluid dynamic volumetric software to generate very complex smoke plumes, which filled the battle sequences. All the procedural animation tools were written in Alias|Wavefront(TM) Maya(R) software, which also handled the crowd placement for the digital sailors. ILM proprietary software, written on Silicon Graphics O2 workstations, was also used for crash dynamics, lighting and rendering.

"All of our code was written in the software we developed for the O2 systems. They're great," added Bauer. "They are integral to our work."

A.I.

ILM's involvement in A.I. dates back to around the time of the first Jurassic Park, when Dennis Muren, one of the two visual effects supervisors on A.I., briefly discussed some ideas with Stanley Kubrick. ILM did not hear much more about the project until it was announced that Steven Spielberg would be taking over after the death of the legendary Kubrick. ILM's work on A.I. began well over a year ago, with the initial modeling, animation and lighting work all done on Silicon Graphics O2 workstations using SGI 2000 series systems as render servers. A fair amount of code, mostly plug-ins and shaders, was also written on the O2 systems.

"A.I. had one of the broadest ranges of visual effects that I've ever been exposed to," said Doug Smythe, ILM associate visual effects supervisor for A.I. "We did literally every kind of shot you can think of, including simple wire removal, blink removal and digital creature work of all kinds; digital enhancement of live action; all the CG eyeballs and prosthetics in the Flesh Fair shantytown; complete digital environments such as the excavation; combinations of miniatures with live action and computer graphics such as Rouge City; and, of course, the furry teddy bear. ILM worked on a just under 200 shots, but they were unusually long shots, which was dictated by the style of the editing. Out of the two-hour and 15-minute film, about 45 minutes are visual effects shots running 1,000 or even 2,000-plus frames long."

ILM artists working on A.I. used a variety of Alias|Wavefront(TM) software, relying heavily on PowerAnimator(TM) for modeling, Maya for procedural animation and Avid Softimage primarily for animation, supplemented with a large amount of ILM's proprietary software -- all running on Silicon Graphics O2 workstations. Pixar RenderMan, as well as ILM proprietary software, was used for rendering on the SGI 2000 series servers. "We have Silicon Graphics O2 systems on our desks, and they do the job," Smythe added. "We've used SGI equipment for such a long time that all of our proprietary software runs on it. The O2 systems are real workhorse machines."

For A.I.'s on-set needs, ILM created a new system for live-action, real-time bluescreen and digital virtual environment compositing, which was used on the Rouge City bluescreen set. Dual-processor Silicon Graphics(R) Octane(R) workstations, along with custom hardware built by BBC and an Ultimatte box, performed real-time compositing, manipulation and rendering of the scenes.

Jurassic Park III

ILM's groundbreaking visual effects used in the original Jurassic Park earned the company an Academy Award in 1993. For 1997's The Lost World: Jurassic Park, ILM was again nominated for an Academy Award for visual effects. This year, Jurassic Park III, featuring ILM's dinosaurs and effects created on Silicon Graphics O2 workstations, grossed more than $50 million on its opening weekend.

Model development at ILM of Jurassic Park III began well over a year ago. ILM then completed more than 400 2D and 3D effects shots using Silicon Graphics O2 workstations, primarily running Softimage for animation. The flesh simulation application within an ILM proprietary dynamics engine, originally developed for The Mummy and written on the O2 systems, was adapted for dinosaur skin simulation. Some of the "creatures," as ILM's Tim McLaughlin, creature supervisor for Jurassic Park III calls the dinosaurs, were based on the designs of the previous films while some were new or totally rebuilt. More than 60 shots featured flesh or cloth simulations (used, for example, for the pteranodon's wings).

"There were a half-dozen hero-style creatures and another five or six that were used in background shots," McLaughlin said. "T-rex, which was prominently featured in both Jurassic Park and The Lost World, came back for a cameo in Jurassic Park III. We had to take a look at the dinosaur in terms of how it was structured: what its patch structure was, what its chaining rig (animation control) was, and how it needed to perform in the new movie. We knew we wanted to do flesh simulation -- flesh, bone and muscle -- on most of the featured creatures. We had to resurface the entire T-rex, using what we had originally created on SGI systems as the basis of a template, and then repainted and rerigged the creature."

One of the many complex CGI scenes that demanded the performance of both the Silicon Graphics O2 visual workstations and ILM's array of SGI 2000 series servers for rendering is the dinosaur fight sequence, featuring the T-rex and an all-new spinosaurus. "This scene needed two huge CGI creatures doing a Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier imitation," said McLaughlin. "The chance to work on the choreography and what I call the environmental effects -- the way the skin of the animals moves, how the trees and bushes and dust around them react to their movements and making everything have the right scale and physical dynamics -- was truly an exciting challenge."

McLaughlin, who has worked at ILM for seven years, concluded, "SGI systems are all I've ever worked on, and they work great for what I need to do. In Jurassic Park III, the complexity of what we were dealing with on a shot-by-shot basis is just amazing to me. The dinosaur models that we worked with are three times as heavy, in a geometric sense, as they were in The Lost World, and yet we were able to accomplish the production of the shots in a shorter time period. I think that speaks volumes for both the pipeline here at ILM and the SGI hardware."

Planet of the Apes

ILM was involved in the creation of various sequences seen throughout Planet of the Apes, including the setup of the entire initial space sequence, which featured a practical model shot of the mother spaceship The Oberon, a CG model of the space pod and the creation of a tsunami effect within the nebula that sends the pod -- and actor Mark Wahlberg -- back in time. Planet of the Apes soared to a nonholiday-weekend record of $69.6 million gross for its opening weekend.

"The tsunami was a very interesting effect because we were asked to create what director Tim Burton called 'a shockwave in space,'" said Thomas Hutchinson, CG supervisor for ILM on Planet of the Apes. "He didn't want it to look like anything he'd ever seen before, so it couldn't be light pulses or anything like that. It was quite a challenge to come up with, and the R&D early on was very exciting. There were only about 10 shots, but it was a unique little tidbit that we did all with Maya and RenderMan on SGI systems."

The majority of ILM's almost five-month production schedule was compositing work, augmenting numerous battle sequences with additional apes. "They could only suit up so many actors as apes, so we did a lot of what's called tiling in compositing," said Hutchinson. "They shoot a section of actors in ape costume, then move them over in the field, change their positions and then shoot them in various bits and pieces. We edit all the footage together and composite one big sequence of many apes into one shot."

Hutchinson added that this was a relatively traditional show for ILM. "We weren't really pushing the envelope," he said. "I think we were basically helping Tim Burton to tell a story and the O2 workstations performed as well as they ever have for us. I think the software has had plenty of time to integrate, and we've worked with SGI for so long that the software -- especially our compositing software -- runs very smoothly and our shots went very efficiently."

"Our job as manufacturers is to put the best tools in front of the creative and technical community and advance the state of the art," said Greg Estes, vice president of corporate marketing, SGI. "We are extremely gratified to see ILM use top-of-the-line SGI IRIX OS-based tools to advance its state-of-the-art visual effects. All five summer blockbuster movies were in various and overlapping stages of preproduction and effects-shot production throughout the past 12 months, and ILM not only completed the visual effects on time, but wowed the film community and critics with its digital artistry and underlying propriety code, which, we are very proud to say, was entirely created using SGI technology."

For more information, visit www.sgi.com


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