30th Birthday of the Engine That Powered the CGI Revolution

❝ When Pixar President and co-founder Ed Catmull announced his retirement earlier this year, people rightly saw his impending departure as a transitional moment for the animation studio. But it’s bigger than that. Catmull’s shadow looms large not just over groundbreaking films like Toy Story and Coco, his influence can be traced all the way back to the dawn of digital visual effects. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The Abyss. Terminator 2. Jurassic Park. All of these titles came out before Woody and Buzz Lightyear, yet all remain watershed moments for VFX—and all used the tool that Catmull and his colleagues helped create at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic.

RenderMan, as it’s known, came out of ILM’s computer graphics team (the same one that would later spin off into its own company called Pixar). It started as a powerful algorithm, but then became something greater—a graphical interface. “Up until that point,” says Catmull, “the look, the lighting, essentially had to be done by programmers.” A movie like 1982’s Tron might have been mindblowing, but its digital sequences also necessitated an absolutely knee-buckling amount of work, creating its futuristic effects frame by frame. RenderMan, though, allowed effects artists to realize their visions without needing to write code.

CGI Rulez! Most sci-fi geeks would agree. Most would also understand how the threads and techniques reach out into many aspects of today’s film-making regardless of genre. RTFA!

Borrowed Time by Pixar

❝ Pixar Animation Studios is known for making surprisingly dark, bold storytelling choices in its movies. For movies that are meant to be accessible to children, they can be sharply daring in the directions they take…

❝ The piece certainly is more adult, but it still has the familiar Pixar look, with marvelously expressive characters and a tremendous attention to environment and modeling…And like so many Pixar features, Borrowed Time is expressly about family bonds, and how they heighten emotions — in this case, guilt and disappointment. This is a short vignette, but it’s effective and powerful.

❝ Granted, an actual Pixar film would certainly make a point of relieving the tension and sorrow this short sets up, and would use it to some spectacular end…Hamou-Lhadj…and Coats…have set up what feels like the beginning to a terrific story. Here’s hoping they keep it going, past this tragic moment and on to the rest of the story of this man’s life.

I’ll second that emotion.

Pic of the Day

At dawn on Saturday 5 March, National Geographic Channel and a team of scientists, engineers and two world class balloon pilots successfully launched a house measuring 16 feet by 16 feet and 18 feet high, using 300 eight-foot coloured weather balloons from a private airfield east of Los Angeles.

The launch – inspired by the Pixar film Up – set a new world record for the largest balloon cluster flight ever attempted. The house and balloons measured more than 10 storeys high and reached an altitude of over 10,000 feet, flying for approximately one hour.

The record will be part of a new National Geographic Channel series called How Hard Can It Be? which will premiere in 2012.

The Challenges of Virtual Hairstyling

Imagine that you had to design a virtual hairstyle by painstakingly defining the position and shape of every single hair on a character’s head. It sounds like a joke, but modeling hair in this way – with a heaping helping of post-processing for added realism – remains the industry standard for creating virtual 3D hairstyles…

Work from Ugo Bonanni and colleagues at MIRALab at the University of Geneva promises to redress the sorry state of virtual hairstyling in the most intuitive and natural way possible: by using touch-sensitive, force-feedback technology – a.k.a. haptics – to allow animators and even real-life hairstylists to style the coifs of virtual characters in the same way they would style the hair of a real person…

Bonanni’s solution is to create virtual hair that can not only responds to virtual combing in real time – it also delivers appropriate force-feedback to the virtual hairbrush used to style it. This is, as Bonanni points out, a non-trivial computing challenge…

RTFA. The details are nothing out of the ordinary – for someone who works for, say, Pixar. Defining, assembling the complete package – however – is a work of proper, skillful industrial design.

While we’re at it, here is the equation for a single strand of hair:

“Application of the proposed interaction metaphors to a complete hairstyling interface relying on a simulation model enabling the explicit positioning of arbitrary centerline nodes […] together with appropriate parallelization schemes exploiting multicore architectures, could lead to a more robust implementation of haptics-based hairstyling applications and a breakthrough in 3D hair modeling.”

Uh, OK.