The Big Studio Pipeline
CGI effects can be executed by a small boutique studio employing 10 to 20 artists or by a huge corporate studio such as Disney. Since the first edition of this book many small effects houses have disappeared. The majority of blockbuster visual effects today are created in house by the major film studios. The student who wishes to enter the visual effects field and work for a big studio may be dismayed when their portfolio piece falls far short of the quality seen in a film like "Pirates of the Caribbean". What one has to realize is that the Maya you use in school is not the Maya used by a big studio. The step-by-step tutorials you learn are good for a foundation but do not reflect the working modality of a Warner brothers or Disney. The big tent pole pictures like Iron Man or Pirates are incredibly complex and require a way of working that is little understood by outsiders. To give you an idea of how big studios operate is a breakdown of the sophisticated working methods used by the modern day motion picture studio.
CGI PRODUCTION PROCESS
History of production workflow
When in school learning about live action and animation movie making along with game development there will usually be introduced some type of linear conceptual progress like-
Pre production > Production > Post production
that leads to a linear workflow like this-
Script > storyboard > photography > modeling > compositing > sound > editing >final release > distribution. Unfortunately, these categories and the linear organization are only theoretical and used academically to break processes and tasks into a flow that beginners can understand. Mostly the workflow tended to follow traditional general and fairly easy to define job categories: writer, 2D artist/illustrator/animator, cinematographer, model and/or miniature construction builder, compositor, sound technician, editor, optical printer operator, colorist, producer, etc.
In reality, as students create their own productions, alone, in small groups, professionally in large teams or professionally as part of a huge studio, the idea that any production can be accomplished linearly fades away as everyone encounters the parallel workflow.
What is a parallel workflow? It means that there is no time to wait for one task to be completed before starting the next and a framework (shell) structure is immediately implemented and populated with placeholder or proxy items that will be swapped out as each item is iteratively created and refined. If along the way the framework structure itself must be altered to allow for improvements discovered while modifying and finessing elements, then so be it. Even the project foundation and personnel cannot be so fixed that there is not enough flexibility to adjust for improvement.
Here is a sample production process for one shot in Dinosaur; a CG character animation movie using altered live action background plates. (This being a feature animation product required that the background plates be handled differently from a live action movie with human actors. No direct comparison to live action movies is implied.)
This sample illustrates the iterative and parallel production workflows.
Background- Live Action Photography
After location scouting and surveying, the live action photography crew goes to a location using the script and/or storyboard references for a list of camera angles and compositions. (Each scene/sequence would require a location change.) Reference items for light direction and camera position recreation should be included in each shot. For example items like a mirrored sphere, a white diffuse sphere and markers for scale, distance and/or animal height/size might be included. (Today, a high definition range image, HDRI, is often shot as an alternative to sphere references.)
Other photographic standard references might also include lens barrel distortion charts, color and grayscale charts, and skin color references. These are references for camera matching in CGI later and for color correction. (Currently, many of these controls are done simultaneously during the live action photography.)
After the shots are filmed, the photographic references are used to
1. Establish timing clips for color standardization to be used for the duration of each shot (for the digital compositing)
2. Establish virtual camera and scene duplication
3. Establish lighting standardization for the duration of each shot
All the film is then digitized, color corrected and ...
An overview of the studio CGI production pipeline process using popular feature animation models. This is for film, animation or entertainment students who would like to learn more about real-life applications.