ENTERTAINING THE FUTURE
The Virtual Question
Here's the scene: it's three or four years ago, in a dance gym - you know the sort of thing, bare wooden floor, mirror along one wall, no furniture except for the instructor's chair and an old upright piano. There's an old copy of Vogue on the floor with a couple of cracked coffee mugs on it, and somebody's woolly jumper left hanging on the fire extinguisher.
There are four people in the hall, and three of them aren't me. One is the director, pacing around the room, chalking lines and circles on the floor. Another is the producer, who's on the phone. I'm standing next to the third person, who's shifting his weight from one foot to the other, flexing his knees alternately, and pushing his hands forward, fingers interlaced and palms outwards, cracking the knuckles. Ah yes, he's the dancer - thirty- something (the something is probably twelve or fifteen), with a slightly embarrassed air - as if we both know that this isn't a profession for grown men, but hey, money's money, right?
The director looks up from the floor: "This is the prawns, here", he says, pointing to a vaguely circular seven-foot shape he's just drawn. "The radishes is that one there" (another circloid) "and I think that's the eggs. Or it may be potato salad". The producer cups his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and says, "It's not radishes. The radishes are on the hat. It's salad. Celery and things". He talks down the phone again.
"You have to end up here", the director is speaking again, "and you lean against the mayo jar" - he points, and the dancer nods, but uncertainly because the director is pointing at the empty air. "We'll put something here, an oil drum or something. Won't we?" He looks at me. I explain that no, we can't put an oil drum or something there, because we'll get occlusion and the infra-red (IR) cameras won't pick up anything.
What we're doing is something peculiar to this decade: we're rehearsing for a motion capture session. The script calls for a six-inch high vegetable man tap-dancing across a table-top filled with plates of food. The product is bottled mayonnaise in some thrilling new flavour, which is presumably why the little vegetable guy is so happy as he struts his stuff. The dancer will provide the talent, which we will bottle (figuratively speaking) and serve up in the form of a CGI character composited into a live-action shoot of a real, normal-sized table-top scene. The dancer himself will not be seen, although his movement will; I suppose he is doing the choreographic equivalent of a voice-over.
The problem with the mayo jar is resolved: a six-foot structure made of black- painted poles, like a giant birdcage. Strong enough to lean against, but lets the IR beams through. A stack of telephone directories provides a step up (he has to jump onto the plate of potato salad), and we're ready to rehearse.
The dancer is happier now, because this is familiar territory at last. He and the director build up the routine; the producer and I go through the list of things to be built or borrowed for tomorrow's session, and we wonder how many days' processing the mocap crew will hit us for. "Don't process everything", I suggest, "get the director to choose the take as we go, and just process the best ones. Just like a real shoot, with film".
During a break in the work, the dancer drifts in my direction. "I suppose", he says, and by the way his eyes look as he speaks, I know he is about to ask The Question, "I suppose You People..." (with that accusatory emphasis usually reserved for comments about You Foreigners or You Repo Men or even You Child Molesters) "I suppose You People won't need dancers much longer, I mean, you'll do it all in the computer, right?"
I'm asked The Question several times every month, in one form or another, but most of all on shoots (as they call filming, and more latterly, motion capture sessions). I usually find something reassuring to say, but I'm always left feeling slightly unwelcome, as if I should be ringing a leper's bell and chanting "Unclean! Unclean!" before I enter the next room. I guess it's an occupational hazard, and I'm sure it happens to all CG professionals wherever they cross paths with the inhabitants of the real world - yes, somebody said that to me, on a shoot. "You People", he said, "won't have any use for the Real World soon, will you?"
Another scene, earlier this year: Sunday morning in a film studio in West London, where a creature effects crew are putting the finishing touches on a fearsome four-foot head that looks like a cross between a crocodile and a kimodo dragon - which is probably a reasonable description, for this is Liopleurodon Ferox, the largest carnivore ever to live on the planet. At least, this is a one-third scale model in silicon rubber, with animatronically moving eyes, nostrils, and a working jaw with a horrific set of teeth - truly an orthodontist's nightmare.
We are bringing this prehistoric charmer (whom I have christened Dinah) to life, together with many of her pals, for a natural history series. This time, the close-up shots will be live-action film of animatronic heads, with CGI bodies grafted on. The long shots, where the gory detail is not so visible (and the body movement more acrobatic), will be all CGI. There's no embarrassment on this set - no vegetable men here, not even Jurassic Park - this is Real Science, and we have the paleontologists on hand to prove it!
The FX crew are practising head rolls, jaw clamps, eye blinks and nostril flares, while the carpenters are rigging up a wide, shallow water tank ten feet in the air above Dinah's head. She was an aquatic creature, you see, and cruised the mesozoic seas looking for tasty sharks to snack on. A bank of lights punching down through the tank (which is suitably rippled by stirring it with ... well, a piece of broken wood actually) provide those telltale caustic patterns on the scaly head, and the underwater illusion is completed by a smoke machine that gives the right degree of depth cueing.
And my awesome task amid this frenetic activity? Well, I have to stick these little white crosses onto Dinah's neck, to provide registration points for later, when I have to bolt the CG body on to the live-action (well, not quite live, really) head. Meanwhile, back in the Real World, a creature mechanic is mixing up a batch of gore to dribble onto those terrifying teeth. (In case you're interested, gore is made from one part stage blood to two parts wallpaper paste. Little scraps of waste silicon, stained pink, are mixed in to provide the yucky bits). The technician turns to me with that sidelong look that I know so well, and she says "I suppose You People," and I suddenly remember I have an important task at the top of a ten-foot ladder with a broken piece of wood, but I can't get away in time, "I suppose You People will be doing it all soon, won't you? You won't need the animatronics at all, will you?" I'm retreating up the ladder, but the accusing voice follows. ( I can see the headlines - CG Animator Drowned In Four Inches of Water).
A few weeks ago I had to participate in a panel discussion at IBC, which is an annual conference and exhibition for television people - technicians, editors, sound engineers, producers - in fact, until recently, anyone except CG animators. In the past couple of years, however, there has been a gradual thawing of relations between conventional TV post-production folk and us computer boffins, as they waggishly call us - relations which before had been cool, to the point of being buried in a deep crevasse in an Antarctic glacier. Anyway, everyone is now anxious to make friends and become one big happy family, and to prove it there is now an official CG Special Effects wallchart to go alongside the telecine wallchart and the editing wallchart, in the offices of, er, well people who read wallcharts, I suppose. When you have a wallchart, you're really close to being part of the Real World!
The conference programme put it more succinctly: "3D animation ... this, not compositing, is now the post industry's frontline craft skill.... and with the Hollywood Studios now paying senior animators $250,000 a year, the time is right for an appreciation of what they give to movies and commercials". I mean, money's money, right?
So there we were, a representative group of European and US computer animation professionals, with slides and commercials and clips of movies, chatting happily to our new oldest buddies from the post industry. Question time rolled around, and the first hand shot in the air. As the audience microphone was hurried over, I caught a familiar gleam in questioner's eye as he cleared his throat. I know my fellow panelists spotted it too, betrayed by those ghastly fixed smiles, the same as was no doubt plastered on my face too, as the voice echoed over the PA system: "I suppose You People", it began, "I suppose You People won't have a need for TV studios soon, what with virtual sets and virtual presenters and all the things you can do with computers, will you?"
Now I have a confession to make. I know that all my colleagues have to put with The Question just as much as I do, and on the whole we take it good- naturedly and don't talk about it much amongst ourselves. But the difference is, I've seen it all before! Back in the seventies, I was a lithographic paste-up artist for a time. Never heard of it? I can't say I'm surprised. It's a profession that graphic designers used to turn to when times were hard. Our job was to cut out bits of typesetting, paste them down onto board, add headlines and rules and line-drawings, and the whole thing would be passed on to a lithographic platemaker, who would photograph it and make a printing plate.
Mike Milne is Director of Computer Animation at FrameStore, which together with its sister company CFC, forms one of Europe's largest digital effects teams. Mike started out as an artist and beachcomber in the '60s, moved into graphic design in the '70s and finally to computer graphics in 1982. Sometimes he regards his career as one long, downhill slide.
At that time, there was a rival system in operation that had been more or less unchanged since the turn of the century. This was called hot metal typesetting, and it involved a skilled operator sitting at a huge machine like a church organ with a QWERTY keyboard attached. As the typesetter typed, little brass moulds (one for each letter) were carried along by pulleys and wires, dropping into a slot at one side of the machine. The typesetter had controls that allowed changes of font sizes and styles, provided that the corresponding brass moulds existed in the machine. Now here's the killer - when the operator hit the carriage return, a reservoir of molten lead tipped up and poured the liquid metal into the line of little brass moulds, and when this was cool enough it would be knocked out (automatically) into a wooden frame. This piece of metal was called a slug, and a few dozen slugs would make up a column of text. I guess in its day this machine was just the coolest thing, I mean it showed that guy Gutenburg a thing or two!
But when I used to go down to the hot metal floor, and see all those vast, steaming Monotypes and Linotypes, and hear that terrible din of metal on metal, with operators shouting at one another to be heard, it seemed like a scene from an industrial Dante's Inferno. Of course they regarded me with total suspicion. I came from the newer world of offset lithography; a quiet, clean world where the loudest noise came from a dropped scalpel. "You People," they'd say, You People will put us all out of work!"
And we did. By the time I left the world of print a few years later, there wasn't a single national newspaper or typesetting house using hot metal.
But the story doesn't end there. Near the end of the seventies, some friends from an educational establishment showed me a wondrous device; a television screen on a little box with a keyboard attached, that could draw pictures if you typed in some rather complicated commands. I was horrified and fascinated at the same time, for I had seen the writing on the wall. "You People," I probably said, "You People won't need lithographic paste-up artists any more!"
A few days later I signed up for a night school course in computer programming.