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KATANA helps Buick blend the present with the prehistoric

Imagine driving down the bustling city streets in your shiny new car while weaving gracefully between the legs of massive prehistoric beasts lumbering through town. It's certainly an attention-grabbing illusion and one that Tippett Studio pulls off beautifully with KATANA in its 31-second "Dinosaur" spot for the 2013 Buick Encore.

Having done VFX work on Steven Spielberg's dino-blockbuster Jurassic Park, the Tippett crew are no strangers to creating unique collisions between the disparate worlds of ancient dinosaurs and modern-day society. Meshing the old with the new in exciting ways is familiar business for the busy visual effects studio. In this case, it proved a perfect opportunity to transition the company over to KATANA.

Large-scale visual effects-heavy productions, including recent projects like Ted, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, make up the bulk of the studio's work, which dips heavily into the sci-fi, horror, and fantasy genres. In contrast to the more time-consuming projects, work on "Dinosaur" spanned a mere several months and encompassed a total of 12 VFX shots.

"There's something refreshing about getting to the essentials quickly with the shorter turnaround times of commercial work," says Lighting supervisor Brad Fox, who spent 15 years working in commercials and broadcasting in Manhattan prior to joining Tippett in 2002. While he's well accustomed to the faster pace of production required to pull off short, punchy TV spots, this project is also the first to integrate KATANA into the studio's pipeline.

Dealing with dinosaurs

Trying to accurately light multiple CG characters in a shot can be a tough painstaking process at times. In the opening shot of "Dinosaur" a giant stegosaurus is attempting to parallel park between two triceratops and smashes open a fire hydrant that spews water skyward. Meanwhile, another stegosaurus is wandering down the street in the background.

"Having multiple characters or creatures in a shot presents a unique set of problems," says Fox. "I always try to start lighting a shot with overall, generic lighting. Once that's working, I will often need to start making little changes to each character's lights, adding some additional lights to each. With KATANA it was really easy to refine my lighting and make more and more granular adjustments to each dinosaur's lighting."

The final shot of the zippy 31-second spot features a lumbering stegosaurus trying to squeeze under the overhang in front of an upscale hotel. It's too massive to fit, and the tips of its back plates grind into the overhang, spraying a show of sparks and blowing out the recessed lights in the process. Since this nighttime shot uses lots of sourced, localized lightning, a few tricks were pulled out to make it shine.

In KATANA, Fox was able to use separate Arbitrary Output Variables (AOVs) to create virtual lights to represent the ones that blow out, then write them out. This let the compositor animate them so they could turn them off easily, creating the effect of the lights flashing then dying. For this shot, he also wanted to break up the light hitting the side of the screen, since he felt it was too even and uniform otherwise. Pairing the in-house light shaders, which have a Cukoloris system for blocking light, with KATANA's flexibility made lighting setup for the shot go much faster.

"With KATANA I was able to define the coordinate system, place it interactively in the viewer, complete with a preview texture on it, so I could immediately get a sense of the size and scale of the pattern in my shot," he says. "This is usually a trial and error process for us, but with KATANA it took a fraction of the time and made the process quite painless."

Making the switch to KATANA

"The benefits of using KATANA on this job are the very reasons we are adopting it as our tool of choice for the lighting department," says Fox. "KATANA provides us with a powerful, yet highly customizable tool. In addition, it provides us with a level of flexibility we could never have imagined with our previous [in-house] pipeline."

During pre-production on "Dinosaur," Fox spent a lot of time testing out KATANA with other departments upstream from the lighting pipeline and building a template to use it for all shot lighting. In doing so, he developed a better sense of how to use it more efficiently and continuously revamped his template throughout the early ramp-up process. Much of this revolved around KATANA's ability to define parameters, then let those attributes and settings be inherited down the production branches to maximise workflow, which he says is such a powerful aspect of the program.

Tippet's Head of R&D, Mike Root, focused most of his energy on this project into reworking the pipeline. "I've been excited about KATANA since I first found out about it," he says. "Its philosophy is very similar to the one we had back at Tweak Films: flexible, attribute-based, manipulation of cached geometry, bounding-box-based lazy loading, and the ability to feed that data into multiple renderers."

Root continues: "I firmly believe this is the best approach for high-end work, and KATANA is a much, much better implementation than we ever had at Tweak. Until KATANA came along, there weren't really any commercial options that I'm aware of that worked that way."

Integrating KATANA into the pipeline allowed Root to streamline and improve the production process by setting up helpful tweaks like reading assets directly from the studio asset manager, rendering out to the studio's specific directory structure, and running renders from KATANA on the render farm. Wrapping up common tasks into macros also let the team create useful interfaces for commonly needed parameters among node groups.

All of the rendering for "Dinosaur" was done using Pixar RenderMan, which plays very nicely with KATANA, notes Fox. "KATANA is a fantastic tool for setting up renders for RenderMan," he says. "It really makes it easy to get at RenderMan attributes and settings, and override them where needed. Once a shot was set up it was very straightforward to iterate on it, refine it, and tweak the lighting."

Tippett even modified its in-house light shaders to make use of KATANA light manipulators, which allowed them to make little adjustments to a light and interactively render a frame without switching programs. This greatly sped up the time it took to iterate on shots, he says.

"Our adoption of KATANA has allowed us to jettison our old proprietary Maya to RenderMan pipeline, which frees us up to focus on more interesting problems like more advanced lighting and shading models, exploring other renderers, and of course extending and refining our in-house fur system," adds Root. "And, of course, we'll be continuing to specialize KATANA for our pipeline and our artists using the extensive APIs."

Integration and expansion

One of the reasons Tippett enjoys working with The Foundry's products is that they haven't been oversimplified and watered down for the "prosumer" market, Root explains. He appreciates the continued focus on high-end feature work and the fact programs build on open standards like Alembic and OpenColorIO.

“It makes such a difference when the people writing the tools know how visual effects production is done," he says.

"As users of NUKE, MARI, and now KATANA we're looking forward to seeing how the out-of-the-box integration continues to progress between those packages," Root adds. "In particular, a unified geometry ingestion framework and asset management APIs will be great to see."

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