Double Negative Visual Effects, located in the heart of London's Soho district, was formed in 1998 as a small studio with a staff of about 30. Today the company is a major player in the United Kingdom digital effects market, boasting more than 220 3D artists and animators, and a reputation for quality and talent that has secured its place on Hollywood's A-list of facilities that create digital effects for film.
As Double Negative has grown, so too has its show reel, which features increasingly sophisticated effects for an impressive selection of movies—from independent productions to the latest blockbusters. Through it all, the team has relied primarily on one 3D package to help them consistently deliver top-quality shots: Autodesk Maya software. "Maya has always offered clear advantages for us," says Rick Leary, cohead of 3D. "It's full featured, and I think we've used every Maya tool at some point here" "Another huge benefit is the Maya API [application programming interface], which is excellent," he adds. "Almost everything can be accessed within Maya. It's a very open system."
As Leary explains, large studios like Double Negative need to combine off-the-shelf and in-house software to remain successful. "The Maya toolset serves so many applications extremely well, from commercials and TV to films and games. But when you work at the high end of any of these areas, you sometimes need a capability that off-the-shelf software doesn't yet offer."
As a result, on some films, Double Negative's R&D department writes a MEL (Maya Embedded Language) script to accomplish some specific task that no commercial software can do at that time. "The strength of Maya software is that it's full featured, yet open, so we can do most of our work in Maya and write scripts that plug into Maya to accomplish specialized tasks," says Leary.
Leary notes that these dual strengths have served Double Negative well in all its projects, including its most recent endeavor, Stardust, an enchanting tale of a shooting star that crashes into the magical kingdom of Stormhold and turns out not to be a star, but a beautiful woman chased by an array of seekers who want her secret powers. Double Negative was responsible for about 330 shots in the film, the most difficult consisting of the Sky Vessel—a fantastical flying ship—and a photorealistic rendition of Stormhold as seen from the Sky Vessel.
According to Leary, the team built the 3D model of the Sky Vessel entirely in Maya software. "Only about 90 feet of the 130-foot ship was built on set for use in deck shots. So in shots of the ship's bow, and in all the wide shots showing the hull, you're seeing our CG ship," explains Leary. "To make our model blend with the live-action shots of the ship, our model had to be spot-on accurate."
To aim for accuracy, the team started with the art department's blueprints of the ship. "We scanned them in, used them as image planes in Maya, and modeled the curves of the ship on top," Leary says. "This is a Victorian ship, built from wooden planks. With the NURBS tools in Maya, it was quick and easy to project curves onto the surfaces to work out exactly how the planking should be arranged to match the on-set model. Once we got that finalized, we converted to polygons, which we turned into subdivision surfaces." As a final step, the team used LIDAR (light detecting and ranging) scans of the on-set ship as reference while modeling the finishing touches in Maya.
Whereas the team relied solely on robust modeling tools in Maya software to build the photorealistic 3D Sky Vessel, they took advantage of the software's built-in features and a pair of MEL scripts to create the Stormhold environment.
For the aerial view of Stormhold, the team began with photos of Scotland's Isle of Skye, which they purchased from an aerial survey company. "We bought a 21x20 kilometer area split into 410 tiles," says Leary. "The photos were of phenomenally high resolution; about 25 centimeters of ground for each pixel in the photos." The company also provided Double Negative with LIDAR scans of the area. "That gave us a digital elevation map, which we turned into a polymesh in Maya," he says. "We used this for the environment immediately below the Sky Vessel."
To extend the Stormhold data set to the director's specifications, the team added to the mix some survey data of the Rocky Mountains and used Maya Artisan to make the Rockies look more like a cross between the Alps and the Himalayas. "We use Maya Artisan for all our organic modeling," says Leary. "For Stardust, we brought in chunks of the Rockies and used a brush to quickly and easily give them the precise look we were after."
In addition to landscape elements, the team generated cloudscapes for these shots, simulating moving foreground clouds using Maya Fluid Effects and static background clouds using dnCloud, a cloud-building plug-in for Maya that Double Negative's R&D department developed within MEL for an earlier project, the World War I drama Flyboys.
The resulting photo–CG hybrid environment measured about 90 kilometers from center to edge, and weighed in at around 60 GB. To manage this enormous data set, the team used Tecto, an innovative landscape management system they also had developed within MEL to manage similar work in Flyboys.
According to Leary, being able to extend Maya software's already robust capabilities with a tool for managing enormous data sets has played an integral role in the facility's success in generating photorealistic environments. "We've used Tecto on lots of projects. For Stardust in particular, we had to render huge sections of environment from around 4,000 feet. So we built a grid of squares in Maya and used Tecto to load into Maya the high-res photo tiles we wanted to use, along with spheres to represent the clouds," he explains. This enabled the team to do a CG flyover and preview how the scene would look before rendering."
The Stormhold environment is a great example of how the Maya toolset, combined with its open API and MEL scripting, enables artists to achieve otherwise impossible effects shots. "These shots encompass a large distance and needed to be photorealistic so that there was no discernible difference between these shots and the Isle of Skye photos," says Leary. "The only way we could view and work with this data set was with Tecto."
Tecto and dnCloud are among a handful of MEL utilities the team has created through the years. "It's quite interesting because once you've been at Double Negative for a while it's easy to forget what's Maya and what isn't, because our tools integrate so well with Maya," says Leary. "This is something at which Maya excels, and it's one of the reasons Maya has stayed the market leader."
It's also one of the reasons Double Negative will continue to rely on Maya. The facility has recently been working on the films 2000 BC and Hellboy 2 both which feature a heavy amount of creature work. "We're basing this work in Maya and using MEL a great deal to write our own tools to achieve some unique muscle and skin simulations," says Leary.
"There are a lot of innovative effects on the horizon for us," he concludes. "And Maya will continue to be an important element to our success."