ILM: Pushing the FX envelope

High-end computing projects don't happen in a fantasy realm where someone waves a wand and a fully formed project bursts forth with just the flick of a wrist. We interviewed Tim Alexander, the Visual Effects Supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic, based near downtown San Francisco about the company's work.

It was Pablo Helman and his team at ILM who figured out how to make the swirling mass of particles look massive and yet finely detailed at the end of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, employing new techniques for particle displacement.

In this exclusive interview with PC Plus magazine, Tim Alexander of Industrial Light & Magic goes beyond the magical features for specific theatrical releases. He delves into how ILM stays ahead of the curve in digital effects, the challenges they face in making effects look realistic and amazing, and even the software used to create them.

What do you consider some of the major achievements from the last couple of years?

Tim Alexander: The major development in the past couple of years has really been water. I would say that's where a lot of companies have focused. It's where we have focused, especially with movies like Pirates and Poseidon. Transformers was also pretty (much been a) breakthrough for us. That's more of a hard-surface model show, but I think that as an industry, water has been the thing over the past couple of years.

I think that the more organic type of visual effects or simulations is probably where the next big breakthroughs lie. Like fire – things that we still have difficulty making on the computer that are still better to go out and photograph. Although you can't always go out and photograph everything that you want, which is why people come to us.

What evolutions in computing have helped you to push forward with effects?

TA: Over the past few years, the workstations at our artists' desktops have changed from single-processor to dual-core and quad-core, and now the higher-end video cards allow us to harness that power. So we make sure that all of our in-house software is hardware-accelerated, start doing simulation art as well through hardware acceleration and then additionally use that hardware acceleration for technologies in games as well, for doing fast previewing, that type of thing.

That's what we want – to enable the artist to be able to use those types of technologies. We need large amounts of RAM too, so most of our machines now have four cores with 16 gigs of RAM.

What about 64-bit computing? I know Photoshop is still 32-bit – is that a problem?

TA: Not really. A lot of the software that we use is Linux-based, and pretty much every vendor we deal with as well as our internal software is 64-bit. The exceptions to that are compositing programs like Shake, which is now out of development and never hit a 64-bit build. The artists that need programs like Photoshop on their desktops have Windows machines. And typically they're not dealing with large data like the Linux users. So 64-bit computing is not an issue.

What kind of Linux software are you using?

TA: Our internal software is Zeno, which started out as our matching tool. We would use it to duplicate the on-set camera in the computer so we could put CG characters into a shot and make sure they're tracking to the ground plan. It's grown from that and now we use it for almost all aspects of our work. We typically don't model in Zeno. Modelling is done in Maya or Alias or programs like Brush.

Once you get past that point, all the creature development work – like putting muscles in creatures, water simulations, hard body simulation – is done in Zeno. Lighting is done in Zeno. Rendering is done through Zeno using Renderman – which is another example of a Linux application that we use.