[Note: This review is based, in part, on a conversation with expert compositor/lighter/artist Shahin Toosi - IMDb]
One of the distinct pleasures of writing about technology and in particular 3D digital technology is the privilege of speaking with some of the best users in their fields. In this case it was Shahin Toosi, an extremely accomplished lighter/compositor that has an extensive IMDb listing of which you've probably seen more than one title: Godzilla, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, The Bourne Legacy, Captain American: The First Avenger, The Dark Knight Rises and so on. To say this guy knows his way around a production pipeline would be like saying Mick Jagger sings a little here and there. I'm not exactly new to this stuff even though I work more in the asset based end of things but I confess I am more familiar with layer based compositing than procedural. This was an eye opening and educational experience to say the least.
One of key advantages in node based compositing is the ability to go back... no wrong word... to go to any node in the composition and make a change and view that change. You aren't locked into what you see since that can be altered anywhere along the way. As an outsider looking in at this level of production I couldn't help but be amazed at the speed in which changes in lighting and other features are accomplished. As a project manager the first thing that popped into my mind were dollar signs. The money saved by this type of immediate feedback could have a major positive impact on any budget. While a budget maybe a buzzkill to the production people it's still a very real problem that has to be dealt with in terms of the project.
Next was asset management, which is not at all a small thing in itself. Today's production artists are no longer just using a few characters in a small scene. Now there can be as many as 500 cars in one shot. Shahin pointed out that today's character driven projects are routinely exceeding 1000 shots! So let that soak in for a minute. You have to juggle hundreds to thousands of assets within a complex digital artist pipeline that includes a multitude of applications like Maya, Max, Houdini, Modo, Katana and others. And, by the way, we haven't even gotten into shaders yet!
Continuity used to be a struggle as alternate packages were created for the different tools used by different pipeline artists. Maybe there were just a few apps or maybe the pipeline consisted of more apps than days of the week. Either way it is an expensive struggle and a drag on the creative flow to take what you created and get into the other artist's hands and then back to you. Just porting assets could take as much or more time than creating them.
This pipeline method allows for pre-translated, pre-rendered assets that can be modified at any node without carrying the entire overhead of the combined assets. Whew... that was a mouthful but let's take a closer look.
Scenario 1: You have a scene that combines the work of several artists. Geometry from Maya, lighting from Houdini and so forth. Not an atypical project by any means. You can send the lights to the Lighting artists in Houdini with the vrscene format and it will look the same. They'll save time by not having to translate assets too.
Scenario 2: In Modo you can export the scene as a vrscene and open it in NUKE with all the shaders and lights working inside the pipeline identical to the scene in Modo. All the V-Rays in Max, Modo, Houdini, Maya, Katana are all identical. No more building alternative package scenes to send to different artists as it all shares common information/assets. This is another thing you need to let soak in. Just look at the tremendous amount of time saved by not having to port out to the other applications on an app by app basis and then deal with it looking the same. Just getting the uniform look was hassle in itself. These are just a couple but rather powerful examples.
Let's take a look at modifying on the fly. Feedback is very important as the gaming industry has demonstrated and that has put pressure on other productions to respond quickly to feedback but at a much grander scale. A lighting director can now view the work along with the artist as changes are made in real time based on the director's immediate feedback. No more waiting a day or even hours to see the results of feedback. It's instantaneous. Plus, when you consider you can go to any node and add things like additional lighting, you begin to realize the power at your fingertips.
Some of the production pluses include: (A) the ability to lock out certain things from users like production approved lighting. (B)Pre-translates/renders all the assets which are controlled from a single node and eliminates the lag waiting to view the render. While working you get a low poly view but you can view the full poly count when needed. (C) Manage shaders that span multiple networks and software applications (a big plus in itself). (D)Quicker final production views since you are not having to deal with generating geometry but only render time issues. Again... these are just a few pluses. It's always been a bit frustrating to have to work on the shot... go to the meeting... work on the shot... go to the meeting. Now you can do it at the meeting.
Shahin and the team were able to interact directly with the developers on IM and email to resolve bugs, tackle issues and methods. The developers were quick to respond to the team and that collaboration helped to craft a powerful and responsive application that met several needs while saving time which in turn is saving money. To watch Shahin work was an amazing glimpse into the highest level of production. The one that hits the screen and takes the praise or the heat. You quickly understand that artists like Shahin have a complete grasp of what is expected of them by the public. The highest production quality available with anything else being unacceptable.
It's reassuring to know that a person this talented understands what it means to stay in step with the audience. Sadly, not every artist is this savvy but as I watched how a character jumps seamlessly around the pipeline I realize that the pipeline concept in itself is changing. It is no longer linear. No longer locked into certain results.
The pipeline is now open for business at any location. Let that soak in too.
Images & Video Courtesy of ChaosGroup
About the Reviewer
M.D. McCallum, aka WarLord is an international award winning commercial graphics artist, 3D animator, published author, project director and webmaster with a freelance career that spans over 20 years. M.D. is currently working on VR projects and characters. You can learn more about MD at his website.