OSCAR WORTHY?: More than 30 Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) animators brought Optimus Prime and his fellow Transformers to life in last summer's special effects extravaganza. Image: Courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic
It is unlikely that this year's Oscar ceremony will include an award for best animated actor in a film. But that has not stopped movie companies from pushing the boundaries of animation to make their synthetic characters seem as real as possible—even if those characters happen to be shape-shifting megaton robots, as in last summer's Transformers special effects extravaganza.
The prospect of turning a lineup of toy action figures into a live-action film that kids would want to see (and their parents would want to take them to) was daunting, admits Industrial Light & Magic's (ILM) Scott Benza, the animation supervisor for Transformers. He adds, "We all scratched our heads," when we first heard about the project.
In November 2005 Transformers director Michael Bay and a team of designers provided Benza with 3-D computer images of the animated characters that Benza and more than 30 animators would eventually bring to life. These "animatics," or rough animations for the film, tell the movie's story, but they do not have any clearly defined style of movement.
"My job was to bring character to these computer animations," says Benza, who previously worked with Bay on 2005's The Island and Pearl Harbor in 2001. Indeed, animators are tasked with bringing computer-animated characters to life, particularly those with key "acting" roles. Lead animators work closely with directors to ensure they get the best performances out of their animated characters.
Even though he has more than a dozen films to his credit, including work on the 2003 film version of The Hulk that garnered him nominations for two awards from the Visual Effects Society, Benza says it was a challenge to create highly athletic performances from bulky, animated characters that appeared to be the size of small buildings and weigh several tons. "In some moments you have to sell the weight of the Transformers, in other moments you have to sell their athleticism," Benza says.
The key to making the Transformer characters interact well with the human actors and the sets was giving these mammoth machines a sense of weight and a fluidity of motion. "Most of what we had to achieve was possible, but not easily possible," Benza says. "A lot of the technology we used was in the early stages and had to be dramatically developed for us to use it in the film."
ILM animators employed a technique they refer to as "virtual background pipeline" to make sure that the animated characters had plenty of room to move in any given scene, whether they were flying, fighting or racing through an intersection. Virtual background pipeline starts by taking a large number of digital photographs of a scene or location using a tripod with a robotic head. ILM then used its custom-created Zeno software, as well as other different pieces of third-party software, to stitch the images together and re-create a seamless digital background. "These photos can also be used to create textured 3-D geometry, with a process called photomodeling—again, inside Zeno," Benza says.
Using the new seamless background combined with the textured 3-D geometry, artists at ILM, a subsidiary of Lucasfilm, Ltd., had the flexibility to alter camera moves that were filmed on location, or to create new ones. "Think of it as a projected image," Benza says. If Bay shot footage of an intersection, the animators would integrate computer imagery into Bay's background plate so they could better control the action of the animated characters moving through the scene. Virtual background pipeline was developed for The Island and was also utilized on Mission Impossible: 3, he says.