Little history on Digital Lighting Effects

Another amazing feat from production teams at Pixar Animation Studios, Emeryville, California, “made possible by modern technology (William*)”. With processors and memory available in such large quantities more computing can be done in less time, with time being money, and films having a limited budget it means higher quality films can be made at lower special effects costs.

Simply put: How?

The film WALL·E uses a derivative of the Ray Tracing Technique, light rays are projected perpendicular to the viewpoint plane into the digital environment and reflected off surfaces until a set number of bounces or they reach a light source. This creates a very realistic looking shot, with the realism being proportional to the number of reflections, 1 bounce casts shadows but doesn’t produce any ambiance, 3 looks only just plausible but will be too dark, 8 would be acceptable for daytime television and a full 16 or more are used in motion pictures.

As you can imagine each bounce has to be remembered, the colour information of its reflecting surface(s) and the distance between each one until it matches a finishing condition, this has to be done for each pixel. A rough idea of film resolution is 2048 by 1152, that’s 2,359,296 light rays (2.4 MegaPixels) every 1/24 of a second. An awful lot to remember for just one frame of 129600 in a 90 minute feature.

Is there a simpler way?

There are many other ways, each with pros and cons, my particular favourite, for sentimental reasons, is Ray Casting, the technique used extensively in the film Tron (1982).

Ray Casting functions in a similar way to Ray tracing except there are no bounces once reaching a surface, colour and shading is faked. With less information to remember the process is a lot quicker but also has more inaccuracies. If the shading and colouring isn’t done proficiently then the entire shot looks fake.

Further Advances

There you have it, the basics in how light and shadows are produced digitally. Mathematical equations work out the path a real light ray might take, complicated stuff made possible by the advances in technology. Luckily Pixar aim to create one frame (1/24 second) to be rendered in 3 minutes, making a whole film take a year, so its safe to say we’re a long way off being able to create photorealistic digital environments in realtime. When that happens I would worry, if we could create a near perfect environment in a simulator and you went into that simulator how would you know if you really left?

WALL·E

Such a loving little film about an endearing robot. Whenever I’ve been in the cinema over the last month or so I’ve heard people saying “Have they remade Short Circuit?” Obviously not but there are some similarities. Back then they used Johnny as a promotional tool, but there was only one because it was sooooo expensive to make, with most of the budget going to the Visual Futurist, Syd Mead, who designed him.

How things have changed, now there are many of the things.

One of my Favourites clips

Keeping with the jovial attitude of the majority of their films the Animators often place a lot of ‘in jokes’ throughout their features Jim Hill lists most, if not all, the visual jokes Pixar employees have included in their final products. Enjoy.

Zeroth Law

The inherent flaws of Isaac Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robots have been reviewed with much scrutiny by many people over the years since there inception as a plot device. The favoured outcome; a rule to correct the problem already laid out in the first Law.

Zeroth Law

0. No robot may harm humanity or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

This removes ambiguity from the 1st Law, now it only concerns an individual and the Zeroth Law protects humanity as a whole.

3 Laws Unsafe

Most people should be familiar with the box office success I, Robot (2004), it’s 2035 AD, robots are everyday tools and are programmed to live and serve alongside humans. Detective Spooner is called out to investigate the apparent suicide of the scientist that designs robots; Dr. Alfred Lanning. A robot is found in close proximity to the crime scene and Spooner suspects it might be the perpetrator despite robots never having injured a human because of the unbreakable 3 Laws in there Circuits.

Those with a superficial interest in Science Fiction assume that the 3 Laws just ‘break’ because its a movie. This is not the case. Below are the 3 laws:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Can you see the flaw that lets the movie take place? The laws are in a descending order of importance, so the first law must always be followed, the second if it can, and the third if our orders permit it. So you can ask it to kill itself because the 2nd Law overrides the robots self preservation (3rd) however you can’t ask the robot to shot someone else because it would break the 1st Law.

The reason the robots can kill humans is the 2 letter word ‘or’ in the first Law. Its a logical operator that means one or the other. So if they follow the second part of the 1st Law in an attempt to preserve humanity they can injure humans.

A logical robot would find the first part most important and follow it first. An altruistic robot, one with emotions such as compassion would want no harm to all humans; the greatest good.

This is why the smarter a robot, indeed computers, the harder it will get to control them because there understanding of the laws we give them might surpass ours with dire consequences.

Film Review: Transformers

My toys when I had a single digit age were Transformers, I saw the amazing animated movie at the cinema and even dressed up as Optimus Prime for a Halloween. As such in my teenage years I daydreamed what a live action film would be like, drawing on conclusions from what I’d seen in the cinema that week, be it The Matrix, or Episode 1. As years passed I grew more and more doubtful anyone from my generation would write a screenplay to get it directed and produced. Now its 2007 and my extremely high expectations have just about been reached.

Whilst I didn’t expect blocky robots with grotesque transformations I never imagined that the Autobots and Decepticons would be depicted so authentically. All the internal parts of the vehicle modes are visible in the humanoid form which is absolutely breathtaking, I don’t care how much it cost to render all the frames at 38 hours each it was worth every penny. However, now that the initial thrill is over I bet in the sequel (and there blatantly has to be one) there are more panels covering the mechanical organs, probably ret-con’d in as armour now that they are warring again.

Showed me something uncommon then, and a rarity now; for once the good guys didn’t always win outright at the conclusion of that weeks episode but they did eventually triumph in that particular story arch which meant that anything could happen and kept me guessing each week and inspiring me to work it out with my toys. With the eighties show being so iconic I assumed that the film might do the same, whilst the tale didn’t regale me as a beloved intrepid leader falling at the hands of the enemy the special effects did, something progressively harder in these insensitive times.

As for the toys, I owned Optimus Prime, both the original version and the Power Master version. I did not have Megatron, which is easily forgiveable because his alt mode was a pistol and given one of them to a kid is not something I would be entirely happy with today, toys guns should look like toys, plastic and brightly coloured. Maybe I’m being to PC but there are many parents not being protective enough out there and others being too much, if I fall into the ‘to much’ category on this issue so be it. Anyway, with the detail on the transformations being so high I’m interested to see how they engineer the newline of toys…

Hopefully you’ve kept reading to this point and as such I’ll not keep your attention much longer. This film whilst not entirely faithful to the animation that I loved so much is a fantastic watch. An entertaining story, great effects and superb performances.
Rating 96%

Wallpapers: Standard (4:3) and Widescreen (16:9)