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Jean-Michel Prima - 8/12/2016

Inria Previz Tech Transferred to French SolidAnim

Marc Christie, chercheur au sein de l'équipe MimeTIC © Inria / photo J-M. Prima

A Paris-based company specializing in motion capture and 3D animation for the film industry, SolidAnim recently acquired an Inria technology that will enable directors to previsualize their work and pick between a variety of visual options before shooting the real movie. As scientist Marc Christie explains, in the wake of this successful transfer, both partners are now contemplating joint R&D work.

Previsualization is a rather new technique that consists in using 3D animation software such as Motion Builder, 3DS Max or Maya to create a rough version of a movie way before starting the real production. A departure from the sketched storyboard of yore, this mock-up enables filmmakers to virtually explore the cinematographic possibilities of the scenes, change the actor staging, try different camera placements or switch focal length. By improving the level of preparation, previz also shortens production time thus dramatically cutting cost. Icing on the cake: this crude pre-rendering can even be shown to potential investers as a project pitchviz meant to raise filmmaking funds.

Another aspect of this activity is referred to as on-set previz. During the filming, computer-graphics characters or sceneries are displayed on the camera viewfinder. This virtual content is inserted in the video tap of the real scene so that it becomes possible to frame and juggle with both worlds in an spontaneous way. Such technique was amply used by Canadian director James Cameron for the shooting of his all-time blockbuster Avatar.

By the same token, a Paris-based start-up came under the spotlight. Catering to the motion picture industry, SolidAnim has emerged as a provider of innovative gear, software and services. Early this year, the company has unveiled a hatful of novelties including a real time markerless tracking solution (SolidTrack), a virtual camera (named "Mr Meliès") and a software (SolidFrame) that will help directors and animators to edit their work. This latter tool is actually an offshoot of Directors Lens, an exclusively licensed technology from Inria research center, in Rennes, Brittany, France.

Motion Builder Plugin

Our first prototype couldn't fit into the industry's pipelines , says scientist Marc Christie. So Inria's Technology Transfer and Innovation Department commissioned an engineer to adapt the tool as a plugin to Motion Builder, an Autodesk suite for 3D animation that became very popular among previz services following the success of Avatar.

This industrialisation process also gave the scientists “the opportunity to improve the tool and add functionalities based on the feedback we received from people in the trade, including director John Lvoff and professionals at the French Louis-Lumière filmschool. Our first version automatically generated points of view at regular positions based on the actors' location. We changed that in favor of a data-oriented approach. The software now stores generic frames in a database and adapts them to the scene. A generic frame features a focal length, a type of shot (American shot, wide shot, medium shot, low angle shot, bird's eye shot . . . ), a depth of field, an actor position (face, profile . . . ) or several actors (over-the-shoulder shot . . . ). All the cinematographic cannons, in other words.

Relying on such a database confers a nifty advantage: “One can enrich it. Filmmakers have their favorite frames in terms of head room or lead room for instance. They want to be able to specify their own preferences,” which the tool allows them to do. “Furthermore, we can also use it in order to annotate real movies and extract generic frames from someone's filmography.

Having said that “this research is not about replacing the director. Au contraire! They are the author. The tool is meant to suggest frames as possible starting points for an exploration. One of the stakes in this research is precisely to re-empower the filmmaker and to give them more user-friendly tools that will help them to somehow emancipate from the previsualisation studios. The author will be able to elaborate their previsualisation by themselves in the quiet atmosphere of their home or their desk. ” In the end, “the new software will make previsualisation more accessible and less expensive as well.

Is that to say that previz studios are doomed? “Not in the least! They will concentrate on the 3D modelling and the animation of the characters, which are their core competences. These downstream tasks remain beyond the director's technical capabilities due to animation tools being overly complex and poorly intuitive. ” Upstream in the pipeline tough, SolidFrame will “enable the filmmaker to create a 3D representation of their movie that they will use in order to communicate a bunch of technical information to the previz studio: actor placement, framing, focal length . . .

After premiering at the FMX show in Stuttgart, Germany, last March, SolidFrame was showcased at the Siggraph conference in Los Angeles, world capital of the movie industry, in August. “We met with people from previz companies such as Industrial Lighting Magic, The Third Floor or Activision. We got a lot positive feedback. ” Noticeably enough, SolidAnim's on-set previz solution was purchased a while ago by Lightstorm Entertainment, Cameron's production company. The director is to shoot no less than three sequels to his magnum opus, following a deal with Hollywood's 20th Century Fox. “SolidAnim already had on-set previz expertise. Coupling their virtual camera system to our framing tool expands their field of competence.

Techviz in the Pipe

But the partnership “is not just about technology transfer. We plan  a joint R&D roadmap through support such as French ANR Labcom. We would like to go much further in the field of the so-called techviz. ” This notion encompasses a variety of technical information that could help to enhance the preparation of the set for any given take: “not just the camera placement but what kind of camera, what kind of tripod, what kind of rig for a trajectory,  and also  what kind of lighting and light stands. The whole point is to end up with a virtual blueprint that comes as close as possible to reality.

Marc Christie is also working on the construction of a European consortium on this topic, targeting the H2020 calls. The research consortium would include Louis Lumière school. “They train cinema technicians. They have a whole lore built around concrete experiences that we would like to formalize. ” Other partners would be Birkbeck/University of London and Bremen University. “Both have an expertise in the field of film analysis. In order to convey a particular emotion or an idea, a director builds a narrative and uses a cinematographic language made of framing and montage techniques: frameshare, intensification, fast pace cuts... We would like to formalize this knowledge into patterns that our tool could then rely upon in order to help exploring frames and editing cuts. ” The software would act as a smart editing table: “if the director wants a frameshare or an intensification pattern, the tool will automatically generate proposals that satisfy this wish. But once again: these are just proposals, Christie reiterates. It's up to the author to make the final cut.

Keywords: CineVIZ SolidAnim R&D Previsualization INRIA Rennes - Bretagne Atlantique LabCom MimeTIC Marc Christie Cinema ANR