The Future of Visual Effects (VFX)
The future of visual effects in films, TV, and VR; from crossing the uncanny valley in human animation, to light-field camera technology that will change the way moving images are captured.
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Video by Bryce Plank
Editing by Robin West
Visual effects have come a long way in the 124 years since we first set eyes on the motion picture. Today, the world’s most talented vfx studios create films and TV shows that seamlessly blend the digital image with the analog, allowing artists to make their wildest dreams come to life on the big screen. The full maturation of the tools used by creators working on the cutting edge of the industry – like computer-generated worlds, real-time previewing of motion capture, cloud-based rendering, and hyper realistic digital humans – has laid the groundwork for the media revolution we’re about to experience as 360 degree Virtual Reality goes mainstream.
This is a look at the near-term future of visual effects.
In order to understand where we’re headed, let’s look at where we’ve come from.
[Clip from Jurassic Park]
Many of today’s premier VFX artists were hooked by iconic scenes like this one from Jurassic Park: aha! moments that opened their minds to the power of mixing computer-generated imagery with live action footage.
Today, nearly 25 years after Spielberg’s T-Rex changed the game, every single film on the 50 highest grossing movies of all time list relied heavily on visual effects, or was completely animated.
But what might be even more telling is that 25 of them were released in the last five years. That’s an indication of how reliant the big studios are on VFX and how much we, the public, love to see visual effects take us to worlds we otherwise couldn’t visit.
The king of VFX, is director James Cameron. For both Avatar and Titanic — the two highest grossing films of all time — Cameron pioneered a number of new techniques that heavily influenced the blockbuster movie industry, like a motion capture stage six times larger than any before, a way to preview shots in the virtual world in realtime while motion capturing them on set, and a technique to enable full performance capture using small cameras right in front of the actors’ faces to collect facial expressions and, importantly, eye movement. This allowed Zoe Saldana to breath emotional life into her Neytiri character in a way that was compelling to the audience.
Full performance capture has become an industry standard. But while it’s become commonplace to bring characters like the Na’vi, Maz Kanata, Caesar, or the Hulk to life using facial capture technology, using it — or any other CG technique — to make a believable fully digital human is another story.
We are getting closer to crossing the uncanny valley. While it’s still cheaper to hire Tom Hanks than to recreate him digitally, we’re a long way from the waxiness of the CG characters he brought to life in The Polar Express.
So far, the most lifelike use of digital humans was Rogue One’s resurrection of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia and Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin.
But Industrial Light and Magic had hours of reference footage of both actors, mapped the digital recreation of their faces onto full performances of other actors, and even found a lifecast of Peter Cushing’s face from a previous role.
[Artist] “This was gold for us because it was Peter Cushing as he appeared at a certain time in his life.”
Neither Leia nor Tarkin’s cameos were very long or involved much movement, and they still didn’t quite look human.
But this technology could be about to take another leap. Last week, Weta Digital finally began post production on the four sequels to Avatar, which are slated for December 2020, 2021, 2024, and 2025 releases.
And Cameron says he wants the films to set a new high bar.
[Quote from director James Cameron] “What Joe Letteri and Weta Digital bring to these stories is impossible to quantify. Since we made Avatar, Weta continued to prove themselves as doing the best CG animation, the most human, the most alive, the most photorealistic effects in the world. And of course, that now means I can push them to take it even further.”
But what really needs this push isn’t traditional films like Avatar, it’s the newest form of entertainment, virtual reality. Because effects studios can make literally anything else look photorealistic, creating believable digital humans seems to be the last big hurdle to creating feature-length films for VR. Why do I say that?