A Visit to Weta Workshops
While I was in Wellington New Zealand speaking at the AnimFX conference last week, Nvidia had the temerity to release the CUDA 6.0 RC candidate while I was out of town! Crushing, I was itching to get home and try it. Fortunately it’s a giant download, so I have a few minutes to update my blog while it installs. The Saturday session at Weta however really took the edge off. For those of you who aren’t big movie buffs, the Weta Workshop is New Zealand’s answer to Pixar. . Simply amazing company. The days sessions were held at one of their amazing facilities where we got to enjoy the presentations in the comfort of their own custom movie theatre. We were understandably not allowed to take photo’s on their premises given the highly confidential nature of the projects that they work on, but the theatre was amazing. Sparkling star ceiling, Egyptian columns, statuary and frescos, plush seating, it was a real treat. The presentations were about various major motion picture special effects scenes they had worked on and the speakers were the art directors who managed them so it was a really amazing inside look into how they work their magic. We got to see how Smaug was created and animated… amazing, how The Silver Samurai scenes were created in the new Wolverine movie and most exciting for me was seeing how the barrel rider scenes were created in The Desolation of Smaug.
A year ago when I first visited New Zealand I visited the legendary Huka Falls in Taupo where I took many pictures of the waterfall, in part because it’s a stunning site, but more practically as an example of a 3D simulation and rendering problem I believed to be unsolved at that time. Given my own interests in ray-tracing I thought it was a great “aspirational problem” to study.
Stunning, I didn’t think that this level of realism in turbulent systems had been achieved yet. Apparently I was almost correct. I never would have guessed that most of the water we saw in the barrel scenes was completely rendered. The Dwarves in the last shot were actually standing in barrels in a sound studio with green screen backgrounds… the water was all added digitally. Weta has a team of researchers who implemented the water simulation in CUDA. Now I know that my instincts were correct and that it’s possible… Now all that’s left to answer is… can it be done in real-time? Interestingly it appears that only limited areas of modern movie rendering pipelines are actually GPU accelerated. The ray-tracing engines like Renderman that are the gold standard for producing this kind of imagery are very old and highly developed technologies… apparently re-designing them to utilize GPU’s is a major undertaking that is only just beginning, which means that any performance they enjoy today is 10X-100X less than it would be on a modern GPU.
I have to say that the process of creating and animating Smaug was really cool too but since it didn’t involve any revolutionary new physics simulations I was more impressed with the artistry and organizational challenges than the technology. Did you know that Smaugs motions were modeled after Benedict Cumberbach crawling around on the floor in a motion capture suit? Smaug was less than two million polygons with roughly half of them devoted to his face. The shader work on his scales and eyes was really amazing. Those Weta guys get to have all the fun.
Well I came back hugely motivated. 66% downloaded, I’d better start reading the release notes!