"Vue increases our ability to quickly create multiple environmental design concepts with a photo-real sense of atmosphere and lighting."
With credits on such films as Thor, Captain America, TRON: Legacy, Terminator: Salvation and several others since its inception in 2007, Whiskytree has developed an enviable reputation in the field of created environments. One of the tools making up Whiskytree's arsenal in order to create natural landscapes and fantastical environments is Vue.
To see how a user actually incorporates the software in production we spoke to three senior members of Whiskytree, an award-winning visual effects company, as part of our 'For Example' series.
fxg: Could you give a brief account of the work Whiskytree was set up to do?
Jonathan Harb (CEO and Creative Director): Whiskytree creates visual effects for feature film projects. While our bread and butter is visual effects for the silver screen, we frequently produce work that ends up on the web and in other digital mediums. We are also adept with art department and design skills, and our clients frequently rely on us for these skillsets.
fxg: Could you explain the approximate set of tools you use?
Votch Levi (computer graphics supervisor): Our lighting and rendering pipeline is based on XSI and Arnold. Vue assets are rendered in XSI/mental ray using the Vue xStream plugin. All renders are then output as OpenEXR and sent off to Nuke for compositing.
fxg: Could you outline an example of a shot you used Vue?
Susumu Yukuhiro (matte painting supervisor): For the last few years Vue has been an important part of our concept work. Vue increases our ability to quickly create multiple environmental design concepts with a photo-real sense of atmosphere and lighting. Unfortunately, our current list of projects utilizing Vue are still confidential and have not been announced to the public, but we can say that Vue has given us the ability to produce high quality paintings in a very short amount of time for each of our clients.
For the production of Thor we were able to conceptualize a cyclorama of Asgard using Vue (click here to download a 3.5mb version of the cyclorama). This allowed the client to see the general look of the city, and atmosphere. The artist rendered the mountains and the ground in Vue, combined rendered buildings from XSI, and finalized the painting with the additional touch ups on top. Normally this kind of work, even in the concept phase, could take quite a long time to produce but utilizing these great tools enabled us to work a lot faster than before.
fxg: It seems these days the concept of a 'matte painting' is nearly fully been replaced by digital environment. Would you agree? Or does the technique of a matte painting projected over geo mean that a 'traditional digital matte painting' has as much relevance today as 10 or 15 years ago?
Yukuhiro: Yes, the concept of a matte painting has changed dramatically these days. If it was a 2D matte painting, it used to be mostly image-based and done almost entirely in Photoshop. For the last few years we have even started doing 2D locked off camera shots in 3D so that we have a lot more flexibility than we normally would have if we did it with a traditional matte painting.
We still do some additional touch-up in Photoshop on top of the 3D render, but thanks to the technological advancements the necessity for touch-up work is even becoming less and less nowadays. Image-based projection is definitely one of the quickest ways to achieve the photo-real environment and yet due to the high demand of the changes from the client, which we often receive, we use this technique much less than we used to.
fxg: We think of Vue as great for Pirates 2 style green mountains/jungle, but you guys used it extensively on Terminator: Salvation, including the desert but also looking at a destroyed LA. Could you give an example or discuss an example of this 'non-green jungle' style shot use?
Yukuhiro: In T4, we didn't have enough resources and time to build hundreds of the destroyed buildings, but Cornucopia3D (the site that sells hundreds of Vue assets) had extensive building libraries that we could use as the starting point. We modified those buildings and applied the grimy texture detail that made them appear as a part of the destruction aftermath.
Vue also was helpful to us when creating the look of the burned ground. It always takes some time to find the right look, or inspirational image to begin with, but instead of going through hours of reference hunting, we had a control with lighting and output size from Vue. That element gave us 80% of what we needed and we did additional touch-up painting on top.
fxg: How do you find yourself using Vue assets? Do you use Vue xStream in conjunction with another app or solo for matte production?
Yukuhiro: There are so many great assets in Cornucopia3D and we wish we could use them more in our production. Since we do so much more full 3D shots that are tied with the Arnold renderer now, it unfortunately makes them very difficult to use.
fxg: Vue's fractals provide a lot of power, do you find yourself using, for example, the rocky terrain fractal a lot or do you vary their use by project?
Yukuhiro: We'd love to explore that function but we haven't had a chance just yet. I see many beautiful images being done using that feature and I can see how powerful it is.
fxg: Do you find yourself using more procedural textures in Vue or standard textures for non-terrain assets?
Yukuhiro: Both. Some artists use more standard but some artists use the procedural and came up with pretty nice result.
fxg: Now the vegetation controls for ecosystems in Vue can populate an entire shot very quickly, for example with trees or plants. How do you ensure that you have enough variation to sell the shot to the viewer as real and not CGI? Do you find yourselves using the plant editor a lot?
Yukuhiro: When we do this kind of work, we make many varieties of assets, but when you are duplicating millions of them, you would still start seeing some duplicated patterns. We would normally render mattes for the tree leaves and color correct them in the comp to give a more subtle variety to the look.
fxg: Atmosphere in Vue can add quite a bit to render times, how do you cut down on this and do you use external apps to help with the main atmosphere for Vue shots.
Yukuhiro: We love how Vue renders a beautiful atmosphere, though we use the Arnold renderer for any moving camera shots and use Vue atmosphere for a still frame.
fxg: When matching the terrain of a reallocation are you using for example DEM (digital elevation maps) to help with this or some other data?
Yukuhiro: Yes, DEM is very helpful in generating very detailed and realistic geometry quickly.
fxg: When you're importing or exporting, what formats do you find the most reliable for your pipeline?
Yukuhiro: OBJ is the format we use the most.
fxg: How are you handling the assets and shots at a composite level? What passes do you render out for compositing, and normally at what resolution?
Yukuhiro: The resolution depends on the shots. We normally render between 3-4k so that we have enough pixels to paint on top of. We always render with EXR format and we tend to render many separate passes for flexibility.
fxg: If you could have any new feature added to Vue from purely a production point of view what would it be?
Yukuhiro: Arnold support! (I know it's not that easy though…)
fxg: Did you initially find yourself having any problems integrating Vue into your pipeline? Or was it a matter of rendering out bases upon which to paint over and build on?
Yukuhiro: Yes and we still do. I wish we could seamlessly render the Vue assets in our current pipeline but since we use the Arnold renderer now, we need to treat the Vue assets separate from the others.
Whiskytree is a team of award winning artists who offer concept art and design, art direction, digital environment creation, matte painting, and effects supervision.
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Terminator: Salvation images copyright © 2009 Warner Bros. Pictures. Thor images copyright © 2011 Paramount Pictures.
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