Here’s a provocative question: does the current educational system for the CG industry fully prepare students for the high-pressure production processes of the industry? Do lectures and seminars properly ready students for the constantly-evolving pipelines and new challenges that a single working day can throw up? Is there room for improvement?
For Alex Counsell, principal technician at the University of Portsmouth, the answers to these questions don’t come easy. “We talk a different language half the time,” he reflects on the various differences between education and the CG industry. “Universities predominantly talk about how we teach, and the industry wants to talk about what we teach. We created FOAM Digital to tackle this.”
A new and unprecedented approach to education that hopes to bridge the communicative gap between universities and the industry, FOAM Digital offers an innovative way to merge the how with the what. Operating on the grounds of the University of Portsmouth, the studio doesn’t follow set curriculum templates, make students sit in workshops or take lessons on individual software applications. Rather, FOAM Digital is an adaptive, dynamic and fully operative studio environment modelled on the industry’s top CG vendors. Students don’t just learn the pipeline through presentations and slideshows, they live it.
The first project to come out of this unique educational experiment couldn’t be more ambitious if it tried. Headed up by ex-Weta Digital animator Paul Charisse, Stina & the Wolf is a feature-length film created entirely by staff and students on a not-for-profit basis. Not only that, but it’s utilising professional facial-animation software capable of delivering performances in a manner that has rarely been seen before. We spoke to the FOAM Digital team to find out how the project started out, and where it’s going.
Before the idea of FOAM Digital was formed, Stina & the Wolf existed as the personal project of Charisse – a 25-minute CG short, similar in nature to the 1936 children’s classic, Peter and the Wolf.
“The script took two years to develop and underwent quite a few revisions,” remembers Charisse of Stina’s early days. “It takes place in a world of mountains, where Stina lives in a brutal army town with her disabled uncle and unforgiving aunt. However, a troupe of feral gypsies arrive, led by a mysterious pipe-smoking war veteran. The ensuing festivities bring a contest that carries with it the threat of death to the boy she loves, and she is drawn into a story she can’t resist…”
The setup is indeed intriguing, but even more so when you consider the sources from which Charisse has drawn inspiration: “A broad description of the production, and one we’ve been using as a kind of shorthand is: ‘An Angela Carter short story, populated with characters from Gregory’s Girl, with the dream logic of Mulholland Drive and the atmosphere of Picnic at Hanging Rock meets Don’t Look Now’,” he recounts, before taking a step back into more recognisable cultural territory. “Having said all that, we also quite like Star Wars, so the film will hopefully be consumable as a [simple] adventure as well as contain something much darker and stranger.”
As fate would have it, Charisse’s ambitious alchemy of narrative proved too unwieldy to settle into a 25-minute running time. “After initial storyboarding I realised there were far too many ideas to explore effectively in a short,” he admits. “I decided instead that it would be a great opportunity to develop a full-length feature film.
“[I consulted] a friend and fellow filmmaker Graeme Herwig about co- authoring a script, [as well as] work colleague Alex Counsell about the logistics involved in using it as a teaching exercise at the University of Portsmouth… It became clear that Stina & the Wolf was a perfect vehicle for our students to experience the kind of cutting-edge production pipeline I had been exposed to at Weta Digital, while working on The Lord of the Rings.
“We decided we should form a structured organisation that functioned like a visual effects studio – one that could go on to deliver a variety of additional film and VFX projects in the future.” From this, FOAM Digital was born.
Counsell, the man responsible for bringing FOAM Digital together, had been waiting for an opportunity like Stina & the Wolf to come along. “The idea of FOAM had been established for a while. We just needed a project to use as a kickstart to design our pipeline,” he elaborates. “When Paul (Charisse) approached me with the idea for Stina and asked if the performance capture could be achieved at the university, it seemed the perfect fit. After all, if FOAM is to reach its potential then we have to start off in an ambitious way!”
Based within the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries at the University of Portsmouth, FOAM Digital has grown into a cutting-edge animation, visual effects and post-production facility. Its purpose is simple: to teach students high-end industry habits in such a way that they are employed in the real world, rather than through a strict, course-based curriculum.
“Universities generally run on a unitised system, where work is mostly delivered in self-contained, separate pieces, staggered over a three-year degree,” says Charisse. “We thought it would be great if the project could run in parallel to the curriculum as an optional project; one that could span all three years and maybe even involve post-graduate and PhD students.
“We wanted it to function as a real-life industry experience that could hopefully get us engaging with the VFX industry on a production level that it could relate to.”
Counsell has long been aware of the disparity between how students are taught and how they’ll end up working. “It’s very difficult to keep up with the demands of industry when you have to design a course and keep it consistent,” he tells us. “Education cannot be as reactive as the industry can. Industry issues are very specific and our courses have to be broad to give the students that general understanding of an extremely diverse range of topics.
“That’s one of the great things about FOAM: it can act in a way that is the same as the industry – changing its software, project duration or any other design aspects as and when it is needed – and offer a way of adopting current practices to run in parallel with our curriculum.”
FOAM Digital and the Stina project do indeed pose an elective, voluntary endeavour, complementing the university curriculum rather than being embedded within the courses themselves. However, the potential for students eager to get involved is huge; the real-world production environment of FOAM Digital has been set up in response to feedback from the likes of The Moving Picture Company and Cinesite. More importantly, at Weta Digital Charisse was once himself an employee as animator on The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum.
“My experience at Weta gave me the basic template of how I wanted FOAM Digital to run and how I saw the pipeline and departments evolving,” says Charisse. “I clearly had my work cut out – I imagine many a wry smile from some of my more technical ex-colleagues upon discovering an animator was setting up a VFX pipeline, and I’ve had a fairly steep learning curve getting to grips with the various pipelines.”
FOAM Digital now boasts many of the same departments as Weta Digital. “We have many of the same basic departments with the same basic functions and pipeline, albeit on a much more modest scale – very modest in some cases!” adds Charisse. “I felt we had the talent within the university to pull this off and that the potential student gain was massive. The industry pipeline experience, the chance to produce an actual feature-based showreel, and the industry involvement, all [feeds] back directly into [students’] courses… It’s a great complement to the existing curriculum.”
It’s not just the setup of the studio that’s high-concept, but the creation of the project itself. Under the leadership of Charisse – who worked on the facial animation of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings – the Stina & the Wolf team has fully embraced the latest mocap and animation technology to ensure that the film delivers firm, believable and above all human performances from its cast for the CG characters.
“We wanted a complete performance capture of face and body,” remembers Charisse. “At this stage, we didn’t know what facial animation solution we were going to need, but my experience on The Lord of the Rings had shown me that if you at least have very good, locked-off facial reference, you could always animate frame by frame if you needed to.”
In order to keep the budget low, the students built four custom head-mounted cameras to record their facial performance. FOAM Digital then reached out to Faceware Technologies and its Analyzer and Retargeter software, selected for its student-friendly flexibility. Like many companies that partnered with the production, Faceware kindly offered the use of its software free of charge.
The results are stunning, with the actors’ performances transposed nearly flawlessly onto the characters’ faces. Early animations of Stina display humour, fear and conviction completely convincingly, immersing the viewer into the unfolding drama just as a live-action production would.
“The reality of the performance relates directly to our ability to translate the facial performance from the original acted version to our CG puppets,” says Charisse. “The faces are tracked using our custom, shed-built, facial cameras that provide mostly solid 30fps video. This video is then tracked and mapped onto our rigs using Faceware’s software.
“The Softimage facial rigs, meanwhile, have a lot of attention to detail around the eye area, including eyeball deformation of the eyelid flesh, additional shape deformation of the eyelids depending on which way they are looking, and an automated eyelid follow that can be overridden or added to by the studio’s Animation department.
“The quality of our video capture, combined with Faceware’s pixel-perfect tracking of the pupils, means eyes are actually our easiest mocap element,” continues Charisse. “For the rest of the facial muscles around the eyelid, mouth and nose we have Faceware data driving a combination shape system that’s based on The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum system and uses Paul Ekman’s FACS as a reference.”
A number of other systems further drive the performance. “On top of Faceware we have assorted automated sticky lips systems and other averaging and smoothing operators to soften out the extremes of the combined muscle movements,” explains Charisse. “We also have a method of modelling the initial facial shapes, which takes into account sliding skin. This helps a lot in the believability levels of the skin’s elasticity and helps us retain a high degree of sculptural control – something much harder to do when you’re just using cloth or dynamic skin simulation. We model the skin sliding by moving the topology along the surface normals as a final pass, once the basic muscle shape has been modelled. We teach this process on our animation courses, which means many of the students are already familiar with it.”
It’s also exciting to hear that FOAM Digital isn’t just embracing the technology from a technical standpoint but also from an artistic perspective. Throughout the project the students have been using animation tricks to immerse the viewer further into Stina’s strange, dreamlike world. “As far as I can tell we are attempting to use performance capture and CGI in a context I’ve not seen it used before,” says Charisse. “We’re pitching our film in the magical- realist genre, which seems perfect to me for CGI performance capture as it allows the filmmaker to exploit a tension between what is real and what is fake. From a character standpoint, we want to use and control the idea of the Uncanny Valley, using it for narrative reasons and not just as the inevitable result of bad animation.”
Up to this point, FOAM Digital and the initial stages of the Stina & the Wolf project have proved a resounding success, but Charisse knows the hard work is still to come. “We have quite a challenge ahead to pull this all off,” he admits, but remains confident. “On the performance-capture side, thanks to Faceware coming on board, some very keen and talented team members and some fantastic central performances captured on our excellent Vicon system, we have a good headstart. We also now have over 800 individual storyboard plates and hundreds of pieces of concept art to map out our journey as we transpose our performances into the CG realm.”
Many environments and character assets are yet to be created, and full shot production isn’t expected to commence for some months yet. The team has, however, completed an animated test shot, which is viewable at http://tinyurl.com/ StinaTestShot. Created by two lecturers and 12 students over the course of four weeks, this prototype sequence is proof that FOAM Digital can reach and maintain the quality levels required. It’s also enabled the FOAM Digital team to work through the majority of its pipeline, preparing the students for the next big milestone: the cinematic trailer.
The team is currently looking to get the finished film completed by the end of 2015, with various scenarios for completion in place based on various funding options inside and outside of the university. However it comes together, Stina & the Wolf is an exciting proposition – not just in terms of the film itself, which promises an intoxicating blend of imagination and technology, but also with regards to the future of 3D education.
“We hope that [what we’re doing] will set a precedence for other institutes to embrace the challenges that the industry faces and incorporate them into the curriculum,” says a hopeful Counsell. “This will help to provide students with that all-important headstart that they need in a very competitive job market. Integrating the workflow and pipelines that we develop into teaching and the student experience is vital in keeping courses fresh and exciting.”
Paul is optimistic too. “It will also, hopefully, help promote a culture of independent feature-film making that could exist widely in the education sector,” he beams. “Partly as a result of the developments in digital technology, we are all now at a stage where it is possible to make feature films in a university environment. Maybe the education sector could even push its way into the multiplexes one day…”
If it does, Stina will no doubt be held high as the pioneer of this determined push into a new brand of non-classroom-based education. We certainly can’t wait to see what comes next.