Arnauld Lamorlette, a founder of Buf in Paris, was in Los Angeles to attend the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s Sci-Tech Awards ceremony. There, Lamorlette, pictured at right, along with Eric Tabellion, above, will receive a Technology Achievement Award in honor of “the creation of a computer graphics bounce-lighting methodology that is practical at feature-film scale.”

“This important step in the evolution of global illumination techniques first used on the motion picture Shrek 2 was shared with the industry in their technical paper ‘An Approximate Global Illumination System for Computer Generated Films,’” continued the Academy. Lamorlette and Tabellion developed the technique at PDI. Studio Daily sat down with Lamorlette to talk about his Sci-Tech award and the state of VFX and animation in Europe.

How did you develop this global illumination technique and how did it improve the status quo?

After Shrek, we had to keep people busy, and we had a global initiative that would enhance the technology at PDI. We found a new way to do  sub-surface scattering, developing a technique for secondary or bounce lighting. We started the work at the end of 2002 and spent around one-and-a-half years of research and development finishing and fine-tuning this in-house tool.

At the time, people relied on radiosity, and by the mid-1990s there was some work on global illumination using photo-mapping, which was an improvement in speed. Mental Ray had a photo-mapping technique, and we used that at Buf, but it was very slow and not usable on a big scale.

The core of global illumination is that when an object is lit, the light bounces off of it and becomes a source of light itself. It makes everything look more natural. It gives a gradient look of shadow and light that’s smoother.

At the time, PDI/Dreamworks was the only facility using only NURBs, which could have been a technical burden but was a technical advantage. We improved the speed tenfold and got more stable results using particles compared to photo-mapping. Then we found that instead of using particles, we could use textures. PDI/Dreamworks uses a surface description with NURBs that has a mathematical property allowing us to create textures automatically. So, with textures we were again 10 times faster. From the beginning of CG, we had a pipeline to handle textures, so the solution is a pipeline that people support today.

One last improvement we made was using an average value for specular lighting instead of calculating the entire specularity. That, again, saved over 10 times in computation.

You created this product in 2002/2003. What took it so long to get the award?

The Sci-Tech Awards is about your impact on the industry. They have to wait to see if what you did was a flash in the pan or Teflon — whether what you did has an enduring impact. Last year, the Academy gave awards to people who worked on the particle approach.

You are now CTO of a company called The Bakery. Tell us about it.

The Bakery is a technology company with a team of people who come from production companies like MacGuff, ILM, Pixar and so on. We have worked on a secret lighting product for three years. Called Relight, it is the first in a suite of products. We’ll launch Relight just before NAB this year. It will change how people light their shots. Now that people can achieve great images, it’s about saving money. We came up with a product that not only will increase quality but improve productivity. It’s interactive lighting where you can work on your final image and get the results in a few seconds. Modern projects handle so much data, and this is designed to work in production for huge film and TV projects, film and TV.

What is the state of visual effects and animation in France/Europe? Things are tough in the U.S. Are they better in Europe?

I think it is the same everywhere. Visual effects has never been a very profitable business. It’s been a break-even business. Now you have students with pirated software and powerful CPUs who can actually do decent work, so it’s difficult to compete. And China and India both definitely have a future in the field. Before, a film with 200 shots was huge. Now every movie has 1,000 shots and they distribute them all over the globe. It’s tough to not lose money now. The only profitable business in CG is animation, as Pixar and DreamWorks have proven.