November 21, 2008

SCA Strikes Back

Alien Robots Descend On The New SCA Complex

By By Cristy Lytal

Though workers are still putting the final touches on the new School of Cinematic Arts Complex, the place is already being targeted by invading hordes of massive robots—virtually speaking, that is—as Visiting Associate Professor Eric Hanson gears up for a new live-action/visual effects class next spring.

Offered by the John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts, CTAN 508L: Live Action Integration with Visual Effects will be held in the visual effects lab of the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts and will be compromised of approximately 15 students hailing from all the divisions and across the university.

Illustration of compositing technique.
“This class is primarily to illustrate compositing technique, the assembly of pieces that constitute a visual effects shot,” said Hanson. “For production students that would wish to direct, the class would give them additional understanding of the visual effects vocabulary to be able to use in their own work. From a writing perspective, it would offer an understanding of the process to enable opportunities within story. And from an animation production or technical level, it would give students the ability to integrate visual effects into their own work.”

Each student will make a one- to two-minute short film composed of a series of eight to 10 special effects vignettes. Based on storyboards provided by Hanson, the class will work as a team to stage a live-action shoot around the new building, a green-screen shoot featuring live-action characters, and a motion-capture session. Then, each student will be charged with the individual task of rendering and animating the computer-generated robotic characters, adding dents, color, shadows, smoke, and other photo-realistic details and incorporating them into the building’s courtyard. The process is time-consuming: it will take between 50 and 80 hours to make each of the finished films, which will be screened at the course’s conclusion and posted online.

The new SCA complex presents the perfect backdrop to experiment with these important animation techniques. “The courtyard and the architectural nature of the buildings will offer a lot of opportunities for integrating CG characters and live action,” said Hanson. “And it’s a good opportunity to celebrate the arrival of SCA’s new home.”

Visiting Associate Professor Eric Hanson reviews a project with student Thomas Huang in the Zemeckis Center VFX lab.
Hanson’s student assistant Sepehr Dehpour, a second-year animation graduate student, hopes to gain skills in the class that will help him create a thesis set in a fantasy world of giants. “Going and trying to simulate everything in the computer usually doesn’t work, because people feel something is wrong,” he said. “With the integration of live-action, I can get to a higher degree of realism in my work. So that’s the goal.”

Third-year animation graduate student Brian Lee enrolled in the class because his thesis relies heavily on compositing, a subject of lifelong fascination to him. “Growing up watching movies my entire life—Clash of the Titans when I was a little kid, Ghost Busters, Die Hard, even simple special effects films like Michael Jackson’s Thriller—I’ve always thought it was interesting that you can enhance reality and make something totally unreal become something believable,” he said.

Lee believes strongly that the diversity of majors represented in the class will foster the best creative environment. “Classes like 508L bring together production students, animation students, people from critical studies and writing, and that’s the big reason I chose to come to USC,” he said. “They had a great animation program that I knew about, but I also knew that the collaboration was strong, so I wanted to take advantage of that. I think that USC’s biggest strength is the opportunity to collaborate.”