Monday, February 24, 2014

The necessity of layering

MPC Wrath of the Titans VFX breakdown from MPC on Vimeo.

Despite the fact that it's what I do in most of my posts, I'm not a huge fan of discussing topics in a vague, general sense. I'd much rather make a point using specific examples. Well, here's one of those times where I actually know what I would like to discuss, and I have a specific example to make my point. I figured it'd be a nice change of pace. So, assuming that you've watched the above video (if you haven't, please do), let's delve into the complex process of effects layering.

It's no secret that there's rarely one super, awesomely fantastical effect that makes an animation what you want it to be. That would simply be too easy, and if animation were as simple as applying a single effect to a sole layer, everyone would be making the big bucks. And they're not. So, yeah. Point proven.

As I was saying, it's not uncommon for there to be dozens of layers for a single animation. It's the only way for an animation to look and "feel" the way you want it to. I apologize for the painstakingly long amount of time this may add to your current projects, but I can promise you the audience will notice the lack of effort in your final product.

Watching the above video will serve to better understand just how many different layers go into just one animation. Even an erupting volcano requires about 5 or 6 different layers of dust, smoke, and debris, not even to mention the enormous rock-like creature climbing out of said volcano. When the creature is destroyed, there's approximately 3 layers of smoke. Oh yeah, there's about 15 or so other layers that go into the monster and exploding debris as well. It's no problem, though. I mean, I'm sure you could do that. Right?

Boom. Second example. I don't mean to toot my own horn, but I happen to believe it's an excellent example of layering. Think about this: when you were watching the final Harry Potter installment (because who hasn't seen it?), were you really paying attention to the visual effects? I seriously doubt it. You were probably just sitting in the theater on the verge of tears as your childhood came to an end right in front of your eyes.

Just in the first shot of the video (also the preview image of the video), there's a layer for the environment (the ground, mountain, etc.), a layer for the people, a layer for the stadium, a layer for the smoke, and a layer for the fire. I'm also just guesstimating. That would be the absolute bare minimum that would have to go into a shot like that. I bet you there are at least two layers for each of the objects you see on the screen. There's usually at least a few layers of smoke to give it more depth or density.

It's pretty interesting to see the orc-like creatures in the "stampede" shots are actually pretty much the only real-life things to be seen. The environment, the people, and the smoke are all added later. It's astounding to realize what may seem to be the most obviously animated aspects of a shot are actually the only things that were shot. Obviously, the specific shot I'm discussing would need at very least 4 or 5 separate layers in order to make it come to life. I'm sure many more layers than what we're shown, though, were actually used.

It'd definitely be an interesting game to try to guess just how many layers go into certain shots of a film.

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