fxphd: The Role of the Optical Printer

We have just announced the new term at fxphd.com. More on that below, but to give you a sample of what is on offer we have decided to provide a free class from last term. This video was part of last term at fxphd.com

With each membership of fxphd you get to pick three courses – such as Nuke, AE, Maya, etc — and you also receive a bonus free weekly course called Background Fundamentals. In this course we provide a magazine style show that covers a new topic each week that focuses more on the business, history and technology behind the industry. “BKD” covers new tech from shows like SIGGRAPH but also historical perspectives and key industry background knowledge that makes your professional life richer.

With help from our good friends at ILM, especially Compositing Supervisor Jon Alexander and also from Stu Maschwitz, Director and owner of prolost.com, we produced this class for last term’s fxphd Background Fundamentals course. Enjoy!

ILM and the Optical Printer

One of the most important pieces of kit in the history of visual effects was the optical printer. In an age before computers it was the center of the effects universe. Almost every major effects film and most title work was done with an optical printer. Some the finest work was done at ILM, who had several optical printers and used them to make Luke fight his father, Roger chase Jessica and Indy discover strange new corners of the world. While the optical printer was still in commission, Stu Maschwitz was working at ILM in the Rebel Mac unit, but he had so much respect for the optical team that he sat down one day and worked out how to replicate the optical printer in After Effects. Here is both a review of the optical printer and that re-creation of it in After Effects.

ILM’s Greg Grusby hit the ILM archives to find us these historical images of the optical printer and some of the great team that worked on them exclusively for fxguide. We thank him, Jon Alexander and especially the original optical department of ILM for such a wealth of talented filmmaking that truly the rest of the industry is built on today.

ILM Optical department circa 1982. From back row: Ed Jones, Marc Vargo, Dave Berry, Ralph Gordon, Dave Hanies, Peter Almlandson, James Lim, John Ellis, Chris Rand, Michael Moore, Tom Rosseter, Phil Barberio, Duncan Myers, Mike Shannon, Mary Walter, Bruce Nicholson, Peg Hunter.
Once at ILM, the optical department constantly upgraded the hardware including commissioning optics guru David Grafton to design and build a series of special lenses that would help ILM set the standard for film composites for years to come.

ILM’s famed Anderson optical printer, seen above right, was originally purchased from Paramount Pictures in 1975. Built by Howard Anderson at Paramount for the 1956 Cecil B. De Mille film “The Ten Commandments,” the Anderson had been used on Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest.”

Ken Smith composites a shot on ILM’s Quad Printer. Originally designed for “The Empire Strike Back” by Richard Edlund.
Tom Rosseter works on an element “line-up” prior to tuning over the film and detailed instruction assembly list to the optical compositor.

A number of ILM staff continued to contribute their expertise to the system including: George Randle, camera and projector movements; David Grafton, optics; Jerry Jeffress and Michael MacKenzie, electronics interface system. Bruce Nicholson also provided his expertise to the system.

One of ILM’s Oxberry animation stands in action.
‘Optical Dog’ Ken Smith adjusts settings on the ‘Work Horse’ printer.

Prior to Episode VI, “Return of the Jedi” ILM dismantled the Quad printer and two of its projectors were used to build the Work Horse which was driven by a highly sophisticated, custom engineered computerized control system which sped up the arduous process substantially.

Garry Waller (center) in discussion beside one of ILM’s Oxberry Roto-stands.
Bruce Nicholson reviews a line-up sheet for an upcoming composite shot.

Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett take a breather in the ILM lounge.
The L.S. printer, named after its builder, ILM optical cameraman and expert machinist, John Ellis.

Mike Bolles aligns the optics on a prototype design for an advanced optical printer.
Ken Smith loads the Academy Award-winning Quad printer in preparation for a composite.

Tom Rosseter and Mike Shannon review a line-up to ensure a particularly complex composite shot comes off without a hitch.
Mary Walters synchronizing elements for an optical composite. Note the line-up sheet next to the sync block.







(All images copyright ILM/Lucasfilm. All rights reserved.)

New for the new October term

The class above is from last term – so what is on offer this term?

You can find out everything at www.fxphd.com

Here is a brief summary of what is on offer this term:

Check out the listing of our courses for full descriptions and a projected outline of the classes. Our orientation week video covering our new offerings can be seen here – or at the end of next week’s fxguidetv Episode #122.

As always, we’ve taken our member’s requests into account in building our curriculum and we have some great new courses (and profs). Some highlights from the over 40 courses on offer:

  • Nuke Zombie Apocalypse: The title is catchy, but the course is about the strong Nuke classes covering useful and common tasks that artists need to know in both 2D and 3D.
  • RED EPIC Grading Workflow: fxphd has had an EPIC M since March 2011and then one of the first EPIC X cameras (#22), so we’re well placed to present solid post workflows.
  • The Craft of Color Grading: Following in the steps of our popular editing series, this course takes a look at the craft with some of the top colorists in the states.
  • Python Fundamentals for the Pipeline: Bring efficiency to your workflow or facility with some essential programming for the 2D pipeline, taught by Digital Domain’s Michael Morehouse.
  • Creative Editing and Graphics with Smoke on Mac: Broadcast editor Brian Mulligan shares tips and techniques showing why Smoke on Mac is a full creative workstation.
  • Introduction to Character Animation: Kai Pedersen teaches our first ever character animation course.
  • Intermediate SynthEyes 2011: Glutton for punishing himself with difficult tracking scenes, Victor Wolansky returns to help you get the most out of SynthEyes.
  • Broadcast Mograph Integration: Popular prof Mark Bowey returns to cover one of the lastest trends in broadcast motion graphics.
  • Motion Graphics Project Workshop: We have some great “real-world” projects to cover from concept to finish.
  • Introduction to Maya 2012 I: Matt Leonard updates our introductory Maya training to the latest release.
  • Background Fundamentals: This term’s free offering will primarily be covering large scale production workflow issues such as scheduling, asset management, client management and producing.

fxphd October 11 Term Orientation Week Video

This is an overview of the new courses for the October term at fxphd.

6 thoughts on “fxphd: The Role of the Optical Printer”

  1. I just watched that video through – great stuff. Great history lesson and back-to-basics theory of what we all do but don’t always know what exactly it is we’re doing or why! Much appreciated.

  2. Hi

    Interesting piece on optical compositing: “The Role of the Optical Printer” by Mike Seymour. I used to work in opticals in Sydney 30 years ago, and had always been interested in bluescreen shots – something we rarely did.

    In one of the great highlights of may career, thanks to the Australian Film Commission, a small group of us spent weeks watching Roger Dorney, John Dykstra and Jon Erland working at Apogee. I still can’t believe that Richard Edlund (BOSS Film), Bruce Nicholson, Mark Vargo and Mary Walter (all from ILM opticals) generously gave hours of their valuable time to talk hicks from down under! They were all truly generous and wonderful people. I installed a much revised version of my original bluescreen technique at Colorfilm (the lab and optical house where I had worked), then when Oz feature film production dropped in the late eighties I ended up moving to Toronto where I put together a new optical department.

    Everyone presumes film bluescreen was a clever printing trick (it certainly was) but it was far more than just that. The entire process was precisely numerically controlled beneath its creative surface. It required a near perfect, correctly exposed rear (Stewart T-Matte) or specially blue front-lit blue screen, not today’s wrinkled ‘Utlimatte blue’ material flapping in sunlight. It required the right lenses (generally good primes closed 2+ stops down from maximum aperture with everything in focus) and film emulsions (slow to medium speed negatives with minimal blue crosstalk: Agfa XT125 or Eastman 5295 were good). Feet and shadows in shot created real problems and were best avoided unless you could shoot with a mylar mirror under a plexiglas floor or allowed for lots of articulate roto of floor reflections.

    Most folks didn’t appreciate that the best bluescreen compositing relied totally on precision D-96 and D-97 black and white processing just as much as it did on good printing. Versions where the bluescreen element is printed using the standard interpositive plus hi-con matte were more convenient (no D-96 lab needed) but didn’t work as well, especially for rapid motion or translucence. D-96 was the chemistry of the old B+W movie negatives so by the 1980s, it was hard to find, and the few labs that had it would often run slash print through it, contaminating the bath with a streaky pink stain. In the end I had to install and run my own D-96 and D-97 processors (and associated chemical mixing gear, sensitometer and densitometric analysis – a big expense). Even with these machines in house, the fastest I could turnaround a first bluescreen comp was 5 working days (but I could do 1 or 10 in the same time).

    Why so long?

    Well, opticals were not interactive the way digital compositing is. We had to shoot batteries of 21 step wedge groups for each shot to

    get correct separation, cover matte and intermatte densities, to custom fit mattes and to colour match the FG to the BG interpositive.

    All of this required D-96 and D-97 processing to different gammas and took a great deal of prep time for each shot. We would print lots

    of wedge tests, send them to processing and wait a day for the results to come back. Then you had to print and sync (cut to length with

    leaders) the seps, covers, male and maybe intermattes. By the time you had a full set of rolls, the original bluescreen negative had been

    run through a printer gate 9 times! We never damaged a negative, but I was always a little uncomfortable about this. We could not use a

    wetgate for a damaged original because it allowed too much float, so bluescreen negatives had to be pristine.

    I rarely had the luxury of Vistavision bluescreen footage so I couldn’t produce generation 5 composite academy internegatives like ILM

    (Vista neg -> Vista Interpos -> Vista Interneg -> Vista Seps, Covers, Mattes -> Academy comp interneg). I was lucky to get 35 full

    aperture originals to make generation 3 comp internegatives or they would have been too grainy and soft to intercut with

    non VFX negative.

    Twenty years ago when I began digital compositing, keying operators were pretty rudimentary HSV tools, and usually I achieved far better

    results by emulating the old optical process in the digital network. It was surprisingly easy to do! Compositors I’ve worked with include

    Eddie, Ice, Chalice, Jaleo, Shake, (a little Flame), Sillouhette and Nuke (my favourite to date). Today I can pull decent mattes off of

    the most tricky or atrocious green and bluescreen footage with Keylight (perhaps supported by a little math) – stuff that would have

    been impossible optically.

    Opticals were great in their time, because the only alternative was to composite in camera using process projection, matte shots,

    hanging miniatures, Schuftan shots etc. – and that wasn’t always possible or ideal. Optical shoots were also notoriously unforgiving – printing a frame in the wrong place could blow the previous 6 hours of work!

    Much as I loved opticals at the time, I would never go back…. Oxberrys gave way to SGIs which yielded to cheaper Intel PCs with fancy nVidia graphics. When a better bluescreen matte can be had in minutes with a clever algorithm than one reached after days of waiting and hours of work, or when you can instantly eliminate flim float or reduce grain or insert and light textured geometry into film camera moves reconstructed with 3D tracking or interactively colour match shadows, mid-tones and highlights, there really is no choice is there?

    Of course, freed from the limitations of photochemical-mechanical algorithms, today’s problems have expanded to fill new digital solutions and compositing today can be just as difficult as it always was, but the tough shots faced today would often have optically out of the question 25 years ago, and it was rare they could achieve the sheer quality we routinely expect now.

    If anyone is interested I could dummy up a typical film bluescreen comp in Nuke.


  3. Wow what a great story. I’d love to see that Nuke Script if you have have time. As you saw we did it in AE.

    thanks so much for such a well written post/comment

    co-founder fxguide

  4. Okay, I’ve knocked up a quickie nuke script, with eyeballed images (don’t want to spend time on the exact colour math!).

    How do I upload it to FXPhd?


  5. I worked for years on the animation stand doing motion graphics, multiple pass stuff – often shooting for days to produce a 10 second piece of animation … hundreds of passes sometimes. Small technical point on the (very excellent) video – and, sorry, really niggling here … the perfs on the film slides (neg, dupe neg, IP) were print perfs, not negative perfs. I know Mike will want to correct that.
    – thanks for this video, really great stuff, Mike.

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