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ILM: Pushing the FX envelope

We have a lot of people working behind the scenes overnight to make sure that the shots run so that when we come in the next morning we have something to look at. That's really the beginning of the day. We look at the shots, comment on it and give people some feedback and a direction to go in. And then most of the rest of the day is involved with getting into meetings with the artists over larger issues like if we're not really sure quite how we're doing this type of shot yet.

We'll get everybody together, talk about it and try to figure out how we're going to do the water for that shot or the fire for that shot or something like that. It's a pretty free-form environment. There's no hard-and-fast rule imposed by the company on how it's supposed to run.

I think we run well and efficiently because we've been doing it for years and there's nobody saying "at 9am you have to be here in this room to do this thing and then at 10am you're going to be over here". It's really dependent on the makeup of the show, the people involved and what the work is like.

Why do you have to do the shots overnight, and when will it be much more instantaneous?

TA: We're striving for hardware acceleration techniques so we can pre-visualise much faster. We're still at the place where a large water simulation could run over days. We multi-process our simulations with 16 processors, sometimes up to 32. You start getting diminishing returns at a certain point because you're pushing so much data around that it starts becoming more of a data flow problem than a processing power problem.

Everyone needs to go home because we need the hours to process the data and to make images. Obviously, we want to strive to get as much real time as we can, and that's why the company as a whole is trying to combine what we're doing at LucasArts and what we're doing at ILM. We're trying to bring those technologies together so that ILM can benefit from the faster techniques that Arts is using and maybe Arts can benefit from ILM's look and feel.

Where do you think you are on the continuum with movies and games both looking pretty realistic? Are you still way ahead?

TA: I would say that an audience member who is going to go pay 10 dollars in the movie theatre would think that video games are not realistic enough for the work that we're doing. Even just in terms of organic effects in video games – and I play a lot of games so I've seen a lot of them. Uncharted [on the PS3] was one that I've played recently that has a lot of fire effects and those types of things.

They wouldn't hold up in a long shot. You know, even if you had a shot that is going by pretty quickly a lot of that stuff wouldn't hold up. At times we try to find that balance internally – like if we're going to go do a huge fire scene that's only on-screen for like a second, can we just do something quick and easy there?

But I do see the technologies converging and I think for the appropriate type of movies right now, you could do a full CG movie that wouldn't bother anybody. However, I think that mixing live action with video game qualities would be obvious at this point. There's just a level of detail that we even struggle to achieve sometimes with huge numbers of processors and hours and hours of rendering time.