Studio Spotlight: Platinum Platypus

From freelance artist to studio owner, Pete Sussi relies on LightWave 3D to deliver the goods

Posted: Mon 29 Apr 2013

When visual effects job offers tried to lure him to Los Angeles, Pete Sussi came to the realization that you can’t take the New Yorker out of New York. When he passed up the chance to work in the movie capital of the world, little did he know that movie effects work would find him—right in Northport, Long Island.

After years of rising through the ranks as a Senior Creative Director in the advertising industry, Sussi’s moonlighting as a freelance 3D animator became his full-time gig. In 2010, he founded Platinum Platypus, a 3D visual effects and animation boutique based on the LightWave 3D animation system.

With himself as president, three full-time staffers, and a stable of freelancers, Platinum Platypus (PlatPlat for short) has produced an impressive array of work that’s attracting even more challenging, high-end work. “My right-hand man, Mark Foscolo, has been with me for six years,” says Sussi. “He’s a very seasoned and talented video editor. And, over the past three years, he’s demonstrated the drive and commitment to learn CG with LightWave. He’s been producing fantastic work, and I couldn’t be more proud. Plus, it shows how intuitive LightWave is to work with. Now, we have even greater capabilities for our clients.”

The portfolio includes a cartoon owl driving a Mini-Cooper, a gingerbread man dancing on a Dominos sugar bag, mole warriors going into battle, an array of sports stadium graphics, and a 3D birds-eye view of Vatican City.

This LightWave work garnered them a contract to provide all of the visual effects shots for a movie that will go into production in May 2013, which Sussi can’t discuss, except to say how excited he is for the opportunity of a lifetime.

“LightWave is a very powerful, enabling platform that, in the hands of a skilled artist, is now capable of creating virtually any creative vision,” said Sussi. “As LightWave’s capabilities have advanced, we find we’re able to take on much more complex visual effects and animation. Much of the work we’re doing cost-effectively today on LightWave’s latest version 11.5, we would not have attempted years ago because of the time and labor involved.”

In looking back at the projects they tackled in recent years, there were many instances where Sussi says they would have been able to accomplish much more if the latest LightWave software had been available then. He explains, “You have to stay competitive. You don’t want to over-charge your client because your software is so complex, or lock yourself out of a potential job because the client can’t pay for the time it’ll take you to do.”

One example of work that’s now easier to do are the sports stadium graphics he created for the NFL, MLB, and various college sports teams. These image branding pieces are usually 30 second clips involving a mix of character animation, motion capture, whiz-bang lighting and visual effects.

While they’re primarily intended for display on the stadium’s big board on game day, they can also be used for team promotions and telecasts. Many new LightWave features enable PlatPlat visual effect artists to get them done faster and with a higher degree sophistication and creative control than ever before.

“Putting characters in motion has always been a favorite of ours. In many cases, we apply motion capture data to the character’s rig in LightWave. In one graphic, we edited motion caption data we acquired from a library so that two animated football players would run, jump, and go for the catch the way we wanted,” Sussi said. “Now we’re seeing these stadium graphics requests leaning heavily in the direction of visual effects, such as having animated football players crash through concrete walls or other barriers as they catch the ball, followed by chaos and destruction.”

“In the past, we’d use LightWave’s original dynamics system, not knowing what you’d get until you hit calculate. Since it would take forever to do, you’d tend to shy away from these projects because they weren’t cost-effective. But Bullet and Fracture, two relatively new LightWave features, enable you to set-up the effect and run it almost in real-time. You can then modify and control the way it looks—like the way the concrete debris is bouncing and flying around the playing field—so the results are more credible and natural looking.”

The Viewport Preview Renderer or VPR is also vital to productivity at PlatPlat. With VPR, animators can visualize how the lighting, depth of field, motion blur, hypervoxels, and other visual elements will look without actually having to carry out time-consuming production renders.

After making a start on Oddfather—a two-minute character animation done as a test with LightWave 9—Sussi decided to finish it later when he had more time and a more advanced program capable of meeting his creative needs. With the timesaving, productivity tools in LightWave 11.5, he feels this project can now be finished without compromise.

“You don’t want to invest six months of your life doing something where you know you’re short-changing it or holding back on the quality,” Sussi said. “You’d rather wait until the technology catches up to support your creative vision. I feel that LightWave 11.5 has now gotten to the point where you can unleash your creative energies and produce anything you want to.” With the new speed advancements, VPR, upgraded radiosity, and bullet cloth dynamics it is now possible to fulfill his vision.

Oddfather is a brusque, abrasive mobster who turns to the camera and threatens unseen people in the room. The vintage color graded tone and palette are prominent in the animation: Oddfather is standing in front of a gray desk, holding a grayish cigar, in a room appointed with different shades of gray wallpaper, ceiling tiles, paneling, and objects.

“As an artist and illustrator, I like to produce pieces that are a study in the interplay of color and light,” Sussi said. “When I did Oddfather a few years ago, it was very frustrating because I didn’t have all the processing power, accelerated LightWave rendering and VPR capability I have now. In the past, if I wanted to tweak a light to make it more intense, I’d change the settings and render it, and then wait 40 to 60 seconds even for a low-resolution render. While this delay is very small, it would add up to a fairly big delay because I’d have to repeat the process each time I made another small change.”

“LightWave now is very capable of using radiosity for rendering. When coupled with VPR, I can tweak the lights or colors or anything I need to modify in the composition and see what’s happening virtually in realtime,” Sussi said. “Now the time to completion—from broad stroke to finished product—has been drastically reduced.”

One rendering-intensive project that PlatPlat did in 2011 was Secret Access: The Vatican for The History Channel. Unlike the 3D character animation and visual effects work that comprises the mainstay of the business, Secret Access: the Vatican featured an immense architectural rendering of Vatican City that was used in the program opens and bumpers throughout the show.

Viewers could also “fly-over” the 3D rendering of Vatican City and then zoom in towards a particular building, courtyard, or whatever structure the show was discussing. The animation team began by acquiring a ready-made 3D model of St. Peter’s Basilica and then used LightWave 10 to model and build-out the rest of Vatican City.

“Rather than just present a plain architectural model, we applied a gilded surface to the buildings, created a white marble ground plane, and added a ‘painterly’ sky overhead, much like a renaissance painting,” Sussi said. “The client originally wanted the buildings to have a shiny, metallic veneer, but those surfaces would reflect all the nearby structures causing an unpleasant mirror in a mirror infinity-plane effect.”

“Instead we chose a satin finish that glistened without reflecting neighboring structures like a mirror. With all the creative experimentation, this was a very challenging rendering task that was handled by LightWave and our Mac-based Screamer-Net render farm with 48 render cores,” Sussi said.

“We did end up going out of house for additional rendering services when the client made last-minute changes, but had we been using 11.5, we might have been able to pull off the entire render in-house since LightWave’s rendering experience keeps getting better and faster from each version to the next.”

Much of the character animation work at PlatPlat is done using Rhiggit!, an advanced set of templates for creating automated character animation rigs with LightWave 3D V9.6 or greater. Developed by Rebel Hill in the UK, Rhiggit! lets animators build robust LightWave character rigs as well as add advanced deformation to standard LightWave mocap rigs.

A RHiggit! rig is also at the heart of another cartoon character animated by Sussi, Ninja Assassin, a proof-of-concept character test done to garner interest in a possible animated series. In the 30-second clip, Ninja Assassin, jumps through a hole in the ceiling of a Japanese house, lands on his feet, looks cautiously around, draws his Samurai sword and swings it.

“LightWave is a comprehensive toolset with everything you need to create 3D animations, character animations, architectural renderings, visual effects for commercials and movies, essentially any work that comes in the door,” said Sussi. “And this platform can be seamlessly extended with third party plug-ins such as a built-in link to exchange files with Adobe After Effects, which we often use for live action compositing.”

The After Effects link was used to export a scene of Mole Warriors—an original character animation project being developed by Platinum Platypus—into After Effects in a manner that preserved virtual camera moves.

In one scene, the camera focuses on a 3D rhino pulling a chariot and then pans up to show that it’s adorned with flaming torches. The camera pan stops to show a mole warrior commander on the chariot giving a battle cry that launches an army of mole warriors into battle. After the scene data was exported to After Effects, the flames were added to the torches by adding a null at the tip of the torches in LightWave where the fire would go. We then exported those null coordinates to After Effects, tracking them throughout the After Effects 3D camera move and simply matched the real flame footage to the same coordinates.

Once the main mole character was rigged, they animated several different run cycles of the mole carrying various weapons and baked out MDD’s for each. LightWave’s Instancing feature was then used to replicate the various running moles into an army of hundreds, and the Flocking feature ensured that they all marched in unison along a defined path.

“If you want to bang-out a simple effects shot, LightWave doesn’t over complicate things or get in your way,” Sussi said. “But if you have a very complex project to do, LightWave gives you all the tools you need to accomplish it, in an unobtrusive way that really frees you up to create, and that’s a remarkable balance.”

Learn more about Platinum Platypus at www.platinumplatypus.com.