FMX 2014: day two report

FMX was in full swing on day two, with a variety of presentations on feature films, commercials, animation, interactivity in the real world, and more. With some help from Matt Leonard, we recap a few of the day’s offerings including the sneak peek at Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Our other coverage from FMX 2014 includes:

FMX 2014: day one report
FMX 2014: day three/four report

Early Look at Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Andy Serkis

We begin with perhaps the most anticipated presentation of the day, during which Andy Serkis previewed new scenes from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with FMX attendees. All computers, cell phones, and cameras were checked at the door, as attendees were warned of ahead of time. It’s also the first time I’ve ever had to pass through a metal detector to attend a session at a conference.

Andy Serkis at FMX 2014
Andy Serkis at FMX 2014

The presentation was not a technical one, but instead a chance to see more of the work in progress on the film as well as learn more about the story line. The footage expands upon what has been seen in the trailer, and it’s clear that WETA has stepped up its game once again in the years since the 2011 release.

95% of the film was shot on location in the rain forests of Vancouver or in New Orleans. Serkis commented that each ape shown on screen is played by an actor or stuntman. The foreground apes were captured in principal photography with mocap suits and facial rigs, while the background apes were later recorded on a motion capture stage.

Once again, the hardest challenge for the actors was to express things without language, as a majority of the apes are still unable to speak. As the actor playing Ceasar, Serkis clearly takes authorship of the performance executed on set with the director. However, that’s not to say he is dismissing the role of the artists in the pipeline. Instead, he mentioned the skill of the WETA artists numerous times during the presentation, focusing on the artist’s ability to bring the nuances of his performance to Ceasar. It’s actually a very strong compliment to the entire team at WETA – artistic and technical – that Serkis sees the subtleties of his original performance in the CG rendered ape.

The new film fills the story gap between Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the highly successful 2011 offering, and the original 1968 film. It tells the story of the evolution of the apes, who have begun a community in the forests outside San Francisco. The apes have built a society with Caesar leading the community, and they believe that the human race is extinct.

The first scene Serkis shared was of two apes that first encounter a group of humans led by Malcom (played by Jason Clarke) who have entered Muir Woods to explore and forage for food and other supplies. Both sides are surprised by the encounter and the humans draw their guns on the apes and eventually fire at them. Ceasar arrives and eventually yells at the humans to run and the humans retreat back to the safety of a weathered and overgrown with foliage San Francisco. The second scene shown was of the “army” of apes entering San Francisco in a show of strength to confront the humans after the encounter in the woods. Ceasar led the apes on horses and warned the humans to stay away. The apes would live in the forest and the humans in the city

These two scenes effectively lay the groundwork for the future conflict, but the other scenes showed glimmers of hope that the two factions could leave peaceably in the same world. There are signs of hopefulness, which obviously turn at some point, sending the plot down the path to the original Planet of the Apes.

MPC Advertising character showcase: When animals play Humans
Anthony Bloor (MPC Advertising), Carsten Keller (MPC Advertising)

In the last session of the day Anthony Bloor and Carsten Keller from MPC presented there work on three television commercials: The Pony, Platypus, and The Ride.

Scene from 'The Pony'. Courtesy, MPC
Scene from ‘The Pony’. Courtesy, MPC

The first commercial showcased was ‘The Pony’ created for the UK mobile supplier 3 and features a moonwalking dancing pony. The production used a real pony called Socks on set but MPC would later go in and entirely replace it with a 3D version.

The Director Dougal Wilson of Blink Productions was very particular about the animation of the pony and supplied MPC with reference footage of himself performing some of the moves he required the pony to perform. MPC used there own in-house hair and fur system Furtility for the creation of the mane, feet and other parts of the pony. You can download and read the research paper about Furtility, submitted for SIGGRAPH 2010. In some shots 95 different fur systems where used. They also used a full dynamic muscle system underneath the pony’s skin layer.

Platypus. Courtesy, MPC
Platypus. Courtesy, MPC

The next spot shown was ‘Platypus’ in which the character walked and talked it way through the advert for UK bank First Direct. For this project MPC started by sculpting the platypus in different poses to type and work out it’s overall size and proportions. From there a digital model was produced in a more standard T-Pose. All this was done based of either reference photos or the small amount of video they where able to find online.

On set they used a stuffed otter stand-in as the fur was very close to that of a platypus. As with ‘The Pony’ project MPC again used Furtility for the characters hair and fur. An interesting artist choice was to have the ad in black and white but MPC decided to render and composite in colour and then desaturate it later in the grade.

Another interesting character in the commercial was a beat-boxing bird. The sequence was only a few seconds long so MPC looked for alternative methods of creating the character as a full 3D solution as a huge amount of work for such a sort section. In the end they filmed a trained bird with a 5k RED Epic and cut the sections together as a straight edit job. This worked well as the birds movements where so erratic.

MPC explains the work in their making of video

The final commercial shown as again for the mobile supplier 3 called ‘The Ride’. This featured a singing cat in the basket of a young girl riding her bike. MPC created the whole cat digitally based on a real kitten. Because the day on the shoot was overcast not only did the film makers have to add onset lights but MPC had to go in and replace all the skies. Also to keep continuity some of the buildings needed to be replace. As before MPC again utilised it’s Furtility fur and hair system for the cat.

The Ride 01
The Ride, WIP
The Ride
The Ride

Facial Animation
Chris Landreth

In this fascinating one hour lecture, legendary animator Chris Landreth talked about what makes us human. Landreth is known for his Maya animation including the Oscar nominated The End (1995) and Bingo (1998), also in 2004 Landreth won a Academy Award for Ryan, his short film based around the life of Canadian animator Ryan Larkin. Landreth however didn’t start out as an animator, before joining Alias (Alias/Wavefront, and now Autodesk) in the mid nineties Landreth worked as a mechanical engineer. Recently Landreth has been teaching a course called ‘Making Faces ‘ to universities and colleagues around the world, and it was a cut down version of this course that was presented here.

Landreth started the session talking about how good the human brain is at recognizing faces. This was illustrated by him displaying on screen a well-known personality at a very some scale. Not only was this image recognisable but the audience was also able to determine what mood they where in at the time. He went on to discuss how we have an area of the brain called the ‘Fusiform Gyrus ‘ which is designed specifically for recognising faces and expressions. Landreth continued to illustrate the point by showing a series of images of famous people from their younger days and very quickly the audience was able to recognise them, even if they looks reasonably different to how they appear today.

From here Landreth talked about the ‘uncanny valley ‘ and how the closer we get to created a perfect digital human the more creepy the character appears. Examples of this would include Clu in Tron Legacy (2010), the Conductor in The Polar Express (2004), and Aki from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). The reason we find it so hard to believe these characters are real is because the closer you get to perfection the more the brain tells us something is wrong. It isn ‘t until we get 100% perfect that our brain accepts the image to be real. This problem is then accentuate even more when the character moves. As with faces, we are experts at human movement and the slightest problem causes us to reject the animation altogether.

IMG_0072-2However when a digital character is not human we are more likely to believe it is real. For examples characters such as Smaug from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), Hulk from The Avengers (2012) and Dobby from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) are easier to believe simple because we are not familiar with how they look and move.

Landreth then spent the remainder of the time discussing the muscles of the human face and how they bring out our emotions in a physical form. He talked about how each of the 16 main facial muscles can be used to create expression such as anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, fear and happiness.

He finished up the session showing a short clip from a screen tests Andy Warhol did with Bob Dylan in 1965. Here Warhol told Dylan to sit in a chair and do nothing for one minutes. This is a great example of how human emotion can be seen when we are apparently doing nothing. You could really read Dylan uncomfortableness before he storms out at then end of the clip. Landreth concluded that as animators and artist we should focus on what is really happening within the human emotion system and not try and guess from memory. Studies closely how humans look and move is really the only way to properly recreate a digital human outside of the use of performance capture.

Live Your Dreams – Interactivity in Disney Parks
Brent Strong (Walt Disney Imagineering)

FMX is filled with a variety of talks and sessions, from virtual production to animation to education to disruptive technologies. It’s always interesting to check out presentations outside our main areas of interest, and the Disney session on interactive experiences was no exception. Especially when one of our fxguide partners (yes, Jeff) has such a strong interest in all that is related to the Disney theme parks. This presentation was part of the FMX “Interaction in the Real World” stream and we thought it would be interesting to share the details.

In traditional story telling, VFX support the the storytelling on screen, but the story and plot line are reconciled in a single fixed ending. What Disney deals with in its theme parks is an interactive experience where the base story and rules are set, but the end result can vary depending upon the guest.

Brent Strong

Disney Imagineering’s Brent Strong gave a presentation on creating interactive experiences in Disney parks. When Disneyland opened in 1955, it was truly groundbreaking as it allowed guests to step into the stories of Disney, effectively a place built on dreams. Walt Disney relied on a fusion of imagination and engineering to create the park, and from this the Disney Imagineering moniker was born. Imagineering’s work includes building attractions at the park, live entertainment, design of Disney’s resort properties, cruise ships, retail, dining and more.  There are over 140 unique disciplines at Imagineering, from fabrics to horticulture to programming. The number of employees varies based upon work load, with approximately 1400 imagineers worldwide today.

Why create interactive experiences?  The parks have always been interactive in some way, but the attractions have become important over the years at Disney parks, as guests move from a passive role experiencing the park to a protagonist role. In the Disney view, this is important because they create a different kind of fun as well as empowerment of the guests to use their creativity to achieve victory. The games also promote togetherness for the guests as well as the fact that it is, in the end, simply good storytelling.

There are several challenges in creating these attractions that include interactivity in the real world or, more correctly, interactivity in the world of fantasy.

The first is that when one designs an interactive experience, you only really have indirect control over the user experience. Consider traditional storytelling in books or movies where the author lays both the groundwork as well as the end result. There is only one possible outcome.

This is certainly not true with interactive experiences. As a bit of background, in game design, one often considers the MDA framework to analyze games. Basically, it is made up of three parts:

  • Mechanics — the base rules of the game
  • Dynamics – the behavior of the mechanics as influenced by the player
  • Aesthetics – the emotional response of the player

With interactive games, designers only have direct control over the mechanics. The dynamics and aesthetics — effectively the resulting experience —  end up being different based upon a variety of factors from game play, to user background, and more. So what designers have to do is change the rules so that they always end up with the desired experience.

Another challenge is the diverse audience of guests. Disney parks have a wide variety of visitors from young users comfortable with games to grandparents who have never held a game controller in their live. Language is also a potential barrier, as many park visitors don’t speak English. The bottom line is that it has to work for everyone.

Visitors have a wide range of skills. Some people can barely operate an iPad or are scared of tech. In research Disney has done, they’ve discovered that there are many adults who are nervous about video games….they simply don’t want to look silly or inept. Other visitors are hard core gamers, sharing tips and tricks for Disney attractions via online forums.

The short duration of the rides or installations is another challenge. In a video game, users can take as much time as they need to learn all the controller codes, maps, behavior etc. In the theme parks they have five minutes to teach you how to play, play, feel challenged, and then overcome the challenge and be successful.

Finally, and this might be obvious, but visitors have extremely high expectations due to the level of experience that Disney has created in their parks. At a minimum, new installations need to be as compelling as the other rides at the park.

A common site at the Disney parks.
A common site at the Disney parks.

While there are challenges there are also several advantages in Disney’s favor. First the experiences can be larger than life. An example, at Walt Disney World’s The Sum of All Thrills ride, guests can create their own roller coaster. There are lots of apps available for this on computers and phones, but at the atraction they can create their own special multi touch UI. And then on top of designing your ride, you actually get to enter a simulator and ride your own ride. Something that’s obviously not possible at home.

At the theme parks, there’s also a willingness to play; guests come wanting to take part. People behave differently in the park and are willing to have fun and act silly. It’s one reason you see women of all ages wearing Minnie Mouse ears or men wearing Goofy hats. So certain behavioral barriers are broken down.

Strong then shared his “Five Tips for Making Dreams Come True”, though admitted that there are really no universal rules and each and every challenge has a unique solution. That being said, there are some common themes.

1. Know the “kind” of fun you want to create

When creating the experience, it should not be about the aesthetic or music, but all about the experience. Theses things lead to the experience, but it’s not the experience. And it’s not enough to just say it needs to be fun. Chess is fun…Twister is fun. So it’s not really fun that’s the question, but instead the kind of fun.

Strong referenced Marc LeBlanc’s site which lists the types of fun: Sensation, fantasy, narrative, challenge, fellowship, discover, expression, and submission. In a family-friendly move, Disney refers to the last one as “relaxation”.

The Sum of All Thrils ride
The Sum of All Thrils ride
The Sum of All Thrills ride has the following kinds of fun:

  • expression (users create a unique ride that only they created)
  • fellowship (users create the ride in teams, not as individuals)
  • challenge (building a ride is not necessarily easy. There are built in failure mechanisms that cause the ride to be rejected if it wouldn’t work and disobeys the laws of physics)
  • sensation (they get to actually ride the roller coaster)

2. Choose (or create) the ideal interface

The Test Track at Epcot. Another Disney design your experience ride
The Test Track at Epcot. Another Disney design your experience ride

Unlike general interfaces (iPad, wii), the interface for attractions is a single purpose and the interactive interface tells the story. Even with touch UI systems such as are used for the Sum of All Thrills ride, Disney will use additional physical objects such as knobs or rulers to enhance the experience. They had tried with touch only but it wasn’t successful because users felt were “choosing” (on a computer) vs. designing. A subtle distinction but an important one.

The Toy Story Midway Mania ride was another example Strong used to discuss interfaces. This is a ride where users travel through the ride and shoot at animated objects displayed on various screens.

The interface can make your experience clearer. They created prototypes of lots of different models of potential blasters. They tried a gatling gun which sprayed bullets and did make it easy for participants, but then they had to have tons of targets to compensate. Using a trigger made it seem like a gun range, which wasn’t what they wanted to convey. Disney ended up with a pull cord. But then things like how long did you have to pull, did the thing shoot on pull or on release, was it durable were still questions that needed to be answered.

3. Playtest, playtest, playtest

Toy Story Mania ride
Toy Story Mania ride
It’s really impossible to know how guests are going to use the mechanics of the game until users actually play. In almost all cases of first implementations, users actually immediately start with a behavior that designers don’t expect, and that gets amplified by the diverse audience. Designers have to be ready to embrace failure….it will fail fast, fail frequently, and fail forward. The more failure the better because designers become aware of what the users are struggling with.

In Toy Story Midway Mania, at first there were not enough targets and players were frustrated cause they didn’t score. Next, they put in too many targets, however users then couldn’t distinguish between targets and “noise”. In early testing, they were actually doing real physics sims as part of the game. But the problem was that when the ring hit the object it would bounce off. It was incredibly frustrating to get close but not score. So they added gentle magnetic properties to the target and the ring.

4. Simple rules, Complex Play

Simple rules, as displayed in the queue for the ride.
Simple rules, as displayed in the queue for the ride.
Games must be simple on one level, so it’s fun for all users. But the reality of the rides is that people come back time and time again, so they need to have a complexity. This way, for these returning users there is a different level which they can explore and solve, almost like hidden levels.

The base rules of Toy Story Midway Mania are simple:

  1. Pull string to shoot
  2. Hit the targets

But there is also added complexity built into the play goals. These goals include, in increasing order of complexity:

  • hit the targets
  • smaller targets are worth more
  • targets at edge are worth more (because players concentrate on the center of the screen)
  • moving targets worth more
  • some targets come and go (for instance, a horse is hidden in barn and the barn door only occasionally opens)
  • two stage targets trigger bonuses add further complexity (for instance, a fox on edge gets 500 points…but then once players hit it, chickens then run across the screen and are worth 100 points each)
  • teamwork targets unlock more. have to coordinate hitting different targets at the same time

This reality plays out in online message boards where users discuss strategies for winning by revealing strategies for hidden or more complex goals. This all can be seen in the scores. 75000 is the average score for first time users. However, the high scores for the day are now well above 500,000 points, with the high score increasing year over year. As a frame of reference, after playing the game hundreds of times during its development, Brant’s high score was around 300,000.

5. Make it meaningful

In the end, this is a key factor. The attractions which Disney builds actually make people happy. And that’s the true end game.

3 thoughts on “FMX 2014: day two report”

  1. Pingback: Reports from FMX 2014 | Sphere VFX - Visual Effects Training

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