Going Behind the Scenes at Dreamworks Animation
Not too long ago I was humbled to have had the opportunity to visit Dreamworks Animation thanks to my mentor David Prescott. During his time at the studio, David mentioned that Dreamworks had been experimenting with different mixed media capture systems with tablets and game controllers for previsualization. One of the proponents of this movement is Frank Gallego, a previz engineer working at the studio’s motion capture stage.
Now you may say, “Motion capture at an animation studio? Blasphemy!” On the country, Frank, along with his team, is in charge of utilizing motion capture as a tool to aid in the animation process, not replace it. As part of my tour, I had an opportunity to experiment with their virtual camera system on a scene from one of their upcoming films. This was my first experience applying the techniques I developed experimenting with camera capture on an actual prepped capture-ready scene.
While testing out a variety of shooting scenarios, I was able to inquire further regarding the process and pipeline tools that are in place to aid directors in capturing their desired shots. The capture stage is often used after the layout department blocks the rough shots and motions based on the storyboards. At this time, the stage is prepped for the actors and directors to capture the necessary motions for the blocked shots. This capture animation is then processed and passed off to the animation department as reference for hand-keyed animation, which is how Dreamworks does all of its computer animation.
At this time, Frank invited me to present some of my work with the SmartVCS to select members involved on the capture stage, layout department, and R&D team. Overall the response was positive and through their hands-on experimentation, I was able to receive feedback on how a tool such as this could be utilized in their pipeline. To the studio, the SmartVCS, at its core, is a system they envision that could make virtual scouting easier and more accessible to those who may not want to touch complicated animation software. Virtual Scouting is one of the earliest steps in the production pipeline prior to Previz/Layout where the Story department and Head of Layout work together to determine and experiment with shot sequences. At this phase, which could take over a year, the departments quickly block basic geometry and iterate upon developing shots that would further the story.
The feedback I received from Frank and his team was extremely rewarding in providing me with a greater understanding of how these production tools play a role in the overall pipeline. It was great talking about the future of production and moonshot ideas of where we see the technology growing over the next decade with the emergence of new devices. At the end of the day, it was important to take away that at the end of the day all of these are just tools that are designed to aid the storytelling process. Story is king, after all!
I look forward to working with Frank and Dreamworks in the near future on developing new experimental tools that could further the notion of a symbiotic virtual production environment.
I’ll leave you with this recent clip of President Obama visiting their capture facility as they demonstrate a scene from How to Train a Dragon 2: