The Day Dragons Attacked the World
Rogue State turns to LightWave 11.5 to conquer CG dragons and 220 visual effects shots for Dracano
Posted: Tue 23 Apr 2013
In Dracano, a volcanic eruption in the Pacific Northwest spews lava, steam and fire—along with eggs that hatch ancient, menacing, winged dragons that prey on man. Since similar volcanic eruptions in Russia, Japan, and other “Ring of Fire” regions are also releasing these menacing creatures into the world, scientists fear they are witnessing the start of a global dragon apocalypse.
Set in contemporary times, this ambitious plotline depends upon the credibility of the dragon creatures and their appearance, movement, and interaction with people from a nearby U.S. military base who fight back.
But one incredible fact Dracano viewers would never suspect is that three visual effects animators completed the movie’s 220 visual effects shots in just six weeks using LightWave 11.5, the latest release to advance the features, capabilities, and efficiency of the popular LightWave 3D modeling and animation system.
“There is no other 3D animation software out there with the breadth of features and ease of use to allow us to handle all of these visual effects shots for Dracano, given the tight time and budget constraints,” said Scott Wheeler, the visual effects supervisor for Dracano and president of Rogue State, a visual effects and post production boutique in Burbank, CA. In the fall of 2012, Rogue State worked closely with Los Angeles-based Remember Dreaming Productions to realize this fantasy/action adventure movie for Odyssey Entertainment in Australia.
LightWave 11.5 was used to create all of the CG dragons, military vehicles, helicopters, and jets, as well as volcanic smoke, steam, and lava. It was also the primary tool for creating the 220 live action visual effects composites. Wheeler said that new LightWave 11.5 features like Genoma for character rigging, Soft Body Bullet Dynamics, and Motion Blur added to the Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR) system, are “invaluable tools for speeding up the process and streamlining the workflow on complex effects shots by a factor of ten.”
The Genoma Potential
When asked about the single biggest advancement in LightWave 11.5 Wheeler said, Genoma. This intuitive character rigging system jump-starts the 3D modeling process by providing instant rigging of legs, arms, fingers, wings, spines, and other body parts for biped, quadrupeds, and even exotic creatures, like dragons. While Genoma provides a head start in creating 3D rigs, animators can modify these rigs, such as making a tail longer, or any creative changes they may need.
“You’re basically just putting pre-programmed pieces together almost like an erector set to build your character. There isn’t a lot of trial and error because once you set-up your creature in Modeler and export it to Layout, it just works exactly the way you’d expect it to,” Wheeler said.
“Before Genoma, you’d actually have to build the rig in LightWave, starting with the bone structure in Modeler and then exporting a fully functioning rig to Layout. To do this, you’d have to have a solid understanding of how to build a good rig,” Wheeler said. “With Genoma, an animator can rig a creature without having to understand the underpinnings of the process.”
The Flesh of Dragons
Most of the CG dragons in Dracano are six to eight feet tall with a massive wingspan and sharp teeth. While they emanate from active volcanoes, they do not breathe fire. They range in size from baby dragons just hatched from eggs to a 150 to 200 foot tall mother dragon. Enraged that her babies are all being killed, she emerges from a fiery volcano ready to do battle with human attackers.
The dragons have soft flesh covering their bodies and wings that move in relation to the rigid skeletal structure underneath. Soft hanging flesh can even jiggle as the creature moves for greater realism. In LightWave 11.5, Genoma works in conjunction with another new feature, Soft Body Bullet Dynamics to produce this effect.
LightWave 11.5 extends LightWave 11’s Bullet dynamics for rigid models to encompass flesh, cloth, rubber, and other soft materials that deform. A dress can blow in the breeze even if the underlying model remains rigid because Genoma and Soft Body Bullet Dynamics understand the distinction between the two materials.
“Bullet knows which surfaces to deform based on the weight maps and other parameters you set. These values are not the weight of the creature, they are values you set that define the degree of deformation you want to achieve,” Wheeler said.
“It’s like mapping an object by making different areas different colors. One color denotes a rigid structure while another color means that area needs to deform and move in relation to the rigid framework underneath,” Wheeler said. “Genoma works with Bullet’s hard and soft body dynamics to figure out how much each object or surface should bend, collide, flop, wiggle, wave, stretch, or any movement based on how you set it up.”
Motion Blur for a Better View
The Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR) that was introduced in LightWave 10 has also been extended in LightWave 11.5, making the rendering process much more efficient. Instead of seeing the animation as frame to frame to frame, like a stop motion animation, motion blur gives a better, clearer sense of the animated motion and depth of field without having to go through the full rendering process. Motion blur on the VPR is not a visual effect, it’s a way to preview how the animation will actually look and integrate within the scene.
“With motion blur inside the VPR, you can get a feel for the speed of something that’s moving very fast, such as a dragon swooping by,” said Wheeler. “Since you can get a quick, accurate view of incremental creative enhancements without rendering, it saves a lot of time previously devoted to trial and error interspersed with rendering.”
“LightWave has had motion blur available at the wireframe stage, but now its addition in the VPR makes this valuable tool even more indispensable,” said Wheeler. “Where it would have taken hours to experiment with lighting a scene or refining a creature’s look or movement and send those frames to your render farm, these improved VPR features can dramatically cut the time involved by providing a quick, accurate view at your desktop.”
In the same way that Genoma and Bullet dynamics work together throughout the modeling, layout, and animation process, the VPR is also readily available at every stage of the process.
Swarms and Flocks
Prior to Dracano, Rogue State produced visual effects scenes for Dragon Wasps, including swarms of dragon wasps flying in the sky. Since hundreds of wasps had to move as an organized group, Wheeler’s visual effects team used the LightWave Flocking feature.
In Dracano, many dragon creatures also take to the air and fly around or congregate in caves. But in this instance, Wheeler said they used Instancing to clone one dragon and create a group of 20 to 30 creatures.
“Flocking is best to move large numbers of creatures like a thousand wasps to form a deadly swarm. But for a relatively small number of dragons, we used Instancing to create a group. LightWave lets you vary their attributes, like size or colors, and animate them independently of each other,” said Wheeler. “Having a wide array of tools ensures that we have the right one for the unique challenges of every task.”
In his visual effects career, Wheeler has presided over the effects sequences for an impressive array of feature films and episodic television series. His visual effects TV credits include the Emmy Award-nominated FOX series Space: Above and Beyond, Chicago Hope, Jag, Xena: Warrior Princess, Unsolved Mysteries, Millennium, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X Files. He was the digital effects supervisor on the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon and the Emmy Award-winning SyFy miniseries Dune.
In 2005, he set his sights on creating visual effects for Direct-to-DVD and sci-fi feature industry, with dozens of visual effects supervision credits including the SyFy Originals Cerberus, Mega Shark, and Jabberwock. Since launching Rogue State in 2009, his facility contributed visual effects, production and postproduction services to SyFy’s Dragon Wasps and Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island. Rogue State’s recent credits include Xtinction: Predator X (with K2 Pictures), Mega Piranha, The Adventures of Sinbad, and Airline Disaster (with The Global Asylum). In 2011, Rogue State also co-produced Sand Sharks.
“In our segment of the market, creating visual effects for ultra-low or low-budget features, our visual effects team needs powerful, cost-effective 3D animation tools that get the job done quickly,” said Wheeler. “LightWave 3D helps us meet the production demands of budget-conscious producers without sacrificing the visual impact, credibility, or realism of creatures or visual effects.”