Making Magic: On Schedule and Within Budget

The teams at Framestore, one of the world’s leading digital-film and -video studios, are taking audiences to incredible places and helping children’s stories and long-appreciated fictional characters spring vividly to life. By consistently creating original imagery so real it suspends belief, Framestore has brought the planet Pandora to life in the movie Avatar, re-created the London waterfront in Sherlock Holmes and achieved the bedraggled look of a well-used toy for the creatures in Where the Wild Things Are.

To keep up with demand for its original imagery, Framestore has been reaching new efficiencies in the production pipeline by using the right tools. The company is equipped with state-of-the-art workstations — boasting multicore processors, high-performance graphics cards and 64-bit operating systems — and a portfolio of Autodesk’s market-leading software tools. This allows it to push the technological envelope and raise expectations for improvements in visual experiences.

Rob Hoffman, senior product marketing manager at Autodesk, put it in terms that anyone connected to computing can understand. “The industry is not following Moore’s Law,” says Montreal-based Hoffman, a 15-year veteran of both the hardware and software sides of content creation.

The pace of change shows few signs of abating. Computer-graphics creators are some of the most demanding customers in the business. “They are not telling us they want the next ‘make monster’ button,” says Hoffman. “Instead, they want tools that are easier to use alone or in combination and that help them to finish projects from paying customers faster.”

Tools of Choice

Achieving new efficiencies in the production pipeline can yield big benefits, such as cutting costs. Autodesk, a world leader in 2-D and 3-D design, has been supplying the media and entertainment industries with the tools to get the job done. The last 15 Academy Award winners for Best Visual Effects used Autodesk software for CG effects and animation.

One of the key tools for animators in professional studios, such as Framestore, is Autodesk Maya 2011 3-D-animation software. Maya provides a consistent, enhanced user experience with a revitalized interface that offers a fresh new look, dockable user-interface elements, more flexible editors and an updated color selector and file browser. In addition, a new node browser within Hypershade displays nodes by category in a searchable tree list and provides easier access to frequently used nodes.

Using Autodesk software along with hardware featuring the latest microprocessors helps to keep the hits coming.

Peer Into the Pipeline

Hoffman refers to “the pipeline” as a way to understand those giant, pixel-pushing jobs. “There are four pillars in the modern pipeline,” he explains, “and if you can understand them, you can get a feel for the incredible challenges our customers face.”

Performance: Framestore’s Mike Mulholland, an 11-year veteran of the VFX industry and a computer-graphics supervisor, says it’s hard to keep up with the technology, but the IT staff is constantly rolling in new equipment. “The hardware continues to improve at a rate where things we would have thought impossible just a few years ago are now commonplace.”

Productivity: In the past, getting to the final frame was an iterative process, with multiple, time-consuming test renders. By streamlining the software, users can do the same tasks with fewer clicks. Autodesk has developed an enhanced, in-context user interface that lets artists model a character and add texture, then view a fully shaded and textured representation of that character almost immediately.

Tool sets: Tools support collaborative workloads, where multiple artists can attack a project from multiple angles.