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We had a great article on WETA’s new software linked to us on NZ Infotech Weekly, but they’ve taken the article off their webpage, so I’ll write us our own one.

Don’t you love those digital cameras? You grab the image on and it’s instantly converted into bytes, you whack it onto your computer and then you have a smorgasbord of software you can use to change it to your heart’s content.

Even better fun to do that with a movie! Add landscapes, change the light, add a forest or a waterfall or a tower anywhere you want…And that is just what PJ’s team were hoping to do, though they are not actually shooting the film digitally: "The trilogy is being originated on film, shooting in what is called "Super 35", a non-anamorphic method of capturing a widescreen image, by utilizing the entire width of the 35mm film frame from sprocket hole to sprocket hole, while cropping vertically to produce a 1:2.35 image ratio. All of James Cameron's widescreen films have been shot in Super 35, for example."
But the film is being stored digitally, allowing any frame of it to be altered or subtly enhanced. WETA has saved everything they’ve created so far and nothing will be lost. "At the end of the show we’ll probably have the clearest digital record of production that anyone’s ever created," according to WETA chief technical officer Jon Labrie. There will 60 terabytes of it, he says, by the time they finish all three movies. So you can imagine the processing power they’ll need in order to deal with that.

Archiving such a huge mass of data creates its own challenges. It needs to be accessible to everyone on the facility’s intranet – they’ll have Web browsers for that intranet– every element of every shot needs to be available to the artists around the facility at every stage so it can be worked on by each specialist.

My guess is that there must be problems with finding a way of cataloguing files so you can find the shot that’s needed out of 500 ones called ‘Rainy road out of Hobbiton June 15th’’ or ‘slightly greener magic flash on sword #43’ or something equally unmemorable. How do you pinpoint anything in that much data?

The software that’s been deemed equal to the task is the new Media 360 asset management system, made by Californian database company Informix.

"Media360, in concert with its technology partners, offers a complete environment for loading, digitizing, indexing, editing, storing, retrieving, browsing, playing, protecting, distributing and archiving any type of media asset. Unlike other solutions, Media360 is tightly integrated with an object-relational database, leading content creation tools, web publishing, e-commerce and analytical solutions" — according to the Informix website.

"Media 360 …can handle complex queries for particular types of shot or images."

(You can find out more about Informix and their partners by visiting their site at www.informix.com )

"The creation of visual effects for film is a very data intensive process," says Labrie. "A shot that passes in a mere 5 to 10 seconds may contain dozens, sometimes hundreds of separate image elements – and each of these elements may be the end result of many other operations. The majority of visual effect shots we will produce for Lord of the Rings will be very complex, and will include computer-generated images that interact with human characters. Weta needed an asset management system that is powerful, flexible, and easily extensible. Media360 is the only solution that met all of those criteria. It’s in a class by itself."

WETA was interested in Informix’s "generic object relational technology, which means that specialist partners source different DataBlades that come together as one package."

WETA has been working for the last two years developing mass animation software and crowd animation software, so far generating at least three terabytes of data. They expect that they will need to create between 1200 and 1500 special effects for the trilogy, the first film alone using a third of those. (Anyone wondering how they’re going to do Frodo when he’s got the Ring on?)

The majority of the fx shots are described as ‘very complex’ including of course the CGI Gollum. A lot of Gollum’s ‘look’ is going to generated using motion capture.

In Peter Jackson’s view, motion capture is a technique that could look terrible if done badly, but if done well, it could be "amazingly life-like." WETA’s done a great deal of work with improving motion capture. It generates a lot of data, hence the need for vast amounts of processing power.

In an early interview Peter Jackson talked about the large amount of new code that WETA was developing: "New modelling code; new skinning code, new bone and muscle code….we’re working on muscle code that actually acts the same as real organic tissue."

And then there’s MASSIVE, the thing that will create huge wars out of a mere 15,000 extras. It’s art meets chaos theory, as I understand it.

Will Gollum be better than Jar-Jar? (To look at, I mean.) Well, ask yourself how much every single special effects movie has improved on all previous ones. This is, of all the artforms in the world, the one that is going through a kind of Golden Age at present, and the sheer quantity of talent that is drawn to this field now is staggering.

Earlier in the year WETA went recruiting in England for sfx crews, and some of the applicants coming to them then had worked on Star Wars and Titanic. Since then, over 2000 applications have been received via the WETA website.

We know that there are people like special effects ace Tim Stetson (The Fifth Element) is working for them. In March there were 25 artists and 15 staff members, but they were expecting to need 80 artists once filming got underway. The special effects lab won’t enter pre-production until then.

What could you expect to be sitting at if you got a job at WETA? The artists are using SGI Octane or O2 Unix workstations. I looked up the blurb on SGI Octane (again at the Informix website) and it reminded me of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Specifically, the bit where Deep Thought, the computer designed to calculate the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything, dismisses its predecessor as ‘a mere abacus.’ That’s the attitude an SGI Octane might have.

There were reportedly 40 desktops and 25 other processors as of March. The system’s interface will be customised with the help of Informix staff so every department gets its own start-up screen. Informix has two staff in Wellington and presumably when they’re not selling Media 360 to other people – it has applications for advertsing and media markets – they will be helping extend Media 360’s usefulness in handling WETA’s object work model.

I’d love to know what management structure WETA has in place so that 80 artists in one building doesn’t degenerate into something resembling an attempt to herd cats, with everyone going in 80 different directions.

Mind you, the tantalising goal of creating the first perfect classic fantasy film would be a powerful unifying force. Rather like the sound of a tin-opener around cats.

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