Games and Movies Share One VFX Pipeline

Industrial Light & Magic’s move to a new, four-building complex on 23 acres of parkland near the Golden Gate Bridge gives it more than a nice view. Lucasfilm game division LucasArts has joined ILM in the state-of-the-art facility, marking the first time a visual-effects studio and a game developer have shared a single pipeline. Game developers can access high-end software, and filmmakers get wicked pre-vis tools.
All the artists in both studios now access the same software tools on what Lucasfilm claims is the entertainment industry’s largest computer network. Designed to handle 4K images, the facility is equipped with 1500 1 GB ports, 300 10 GB ports and 600 miles of cable. A 13,500-square-foot data center houses a 3000-processor render farm and 100 TB of data storage. A new 40×40-foot motion-capture stage is equipped for real-time compositing in virtual environments.
In 2006, all the artists will move onto HP workstations fitted with AMD dual-core processors, Nvidia cards and two monitors. "With four processors and two graphics cards, we’re looking at a desktop workstation more powerful than something that used to cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars," says ILM CTO Cliff Plumer. High-speed fiber optics connect the San Francisco campus to Skywalker Ranch, where George Lucas leads the new animation division.
ILM’s R&D team and LucasArts engineers collaborated on the new pipeline, dubbed Zeno, for the past 18 months. LucasArts’ game engine, Zed, now runs on Zeno, as does ILM’s custom software, which includes replacement modules for all the studio’s legacy tools.
The modules include a camera-tracking and painting program, a unified simulation engine developed with Stanford University’s Ron Fedkiw, facial animation and sculpting modules, camera-mapping software called Zenviro, image-based motion-capture tools, and a new scene-based lighting module.
Zeno’s core is a proprietary scene graph that manages all the scene data. As a result, artists can copy and paste between Zeno modules, between Zeno and Maya via a live link and, similarly, to and from Photoshop. Asset management, versioning control, nondestructive override, and a common user interface for all Zeno modules means that any artist on the pipeline can use any software tool to change a scene or object in a scene during production. A technical director can animate a model or paint a highlight, an animator can sculpt, a rotoscoper can composite. Zeno handles the bookkeeping.
At LucasArts, engineers have begun incorporating layout, animation, nonlinear editing and lighting features from Zeno modules into the real-time engine, with particles and physics scheduled for early next year. On the other side of the pipeline, ILM’s R&D department worked with LucasArts to develop a previsualization tool that uses Zed’s real-time engine. Already, a film director (whose name Plumer can’t yet reveal) is using the new pre-vis software for a feature in production.
Further, because the software is part of the Zeno pipeline, it goes beyond what you might think of as pre-vis. Someone on set can access the entire production pipeline on a laptop.
"This isn’t pre-vis for just creating animatics," Plumer says. It affects everything. You can do photomodeling on set – build quick 3D models that represent the live-action set to plan shoots for the upcoming days. You can take blue-screen elements right off the videotap and do quick comps. We’re integrating the asset-management system so you can drag and drop 3D assets into a scene from the pre-vis tool. You can quickly assemble a rough cut."
At ILM, the pipeline has already proved its mettle on War of the Worlds and Jarhead (see story, page 28). Zeno’s impact at LucasArts will be seen as games roll out on the next-generation consoles in 2006 and 2007. "That’s where it happens," says Jim Ward, senior VP of Lucasfilm and president of LucasArts. "Traditionally, games have been for 18-year-old males. The medium hasn’t been fully exploited. We’re looking way down the line when everyone will enjoy games. They will be so different."