|Camera Mapping in: The Chronicles of Narnia The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Ivo Horvat has been a matte painter for Sony Pictures Imageworks for over a decade. In that time he has worked on every type of film, from special-effects extravaganzas like Starship Troopers, Spider-Man, and The Polar Express, to true-to-life dramas like Seabiscuit and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. Another to showcase his talents is The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe.
The Queen’s Castle
Matte painting is a classic cinema technique in which live action elements are blended with painted elements to create a complete scene. Originally, mattes were actual paintings, and could only be filmed from a limited range of angles. New technology has made it possible to match camera movement and create environments that appear to move in the same way that the live-action footage moves. Camera mapping involves projecting a painted matte onto 3d geometry so that the matte can be shown from more than one angle, and so that painted scene elements can move in relation to each other.
Ivo Horvat explains, "Traditionally matte painting was very limited, in that matte painters would be painting a static image on glass or masonite. The most movement you could attain would be moving the camera that was filming the composite of the live action characters and the flat painting. But today, when we paint what is effectively a flat painting in the computer, we can project it upon geometry that matches form and proportion to the painting, and make it move so that it feels completely three-dimensional."
Sony Pictures Imageworks uses a particular workflow to help scenes make their way from screenplay to screen. The initial design of the matte painting begins with the description in the script. Sometimes this is interpreted by the production art department or production designer in the form of artwork. According to Horvat, this artwork varies from near-perfect designs that are very descriptive, to less detailed images that require a great deal of interpretation. In some cases there is no guiding artwork at all, and the matte artist works from nothing more than a verbal description by the director, often conveyed by the visual effects supervisor. Horvat explains, "these descriptions reference many things to relate how the shot should feel: classical art, art photography, and even other matte shots may be used. In larger shots or sequences where there are a great deal of 'all digital' shots, the animatic or previs is crucial, because they convey the sense of movement and overall layout of the space." This camera movement and any previs geometry that is used can be sourced directly to begin to lay out the shot.
Before a plate is shot, if there is to be a major matte painting added later, artwork or discussion takes place about the painting's overall design, its place in the sequence continuity, and its look and feel. "If planned properly, this affects the way the plate will be lit, if shot on a soundstage. Some matte artists are asked on set in advance to help avoid lighting problems later, but this is not always the case," Horvat says. "In those shots where there is a plate, the painting is painted to match the final plate photography based on the artist’s perception of the visible lighting in the plate and understanding of film exposure."
If there is a moving camera, the first steps are technical: matching the camera’s animation and the location of the various objects in the scene. This is generally done by a “matchmover,” not a matte artist. Additional on-set measurement will be done if there is time to assist the matchmover. Once this is done, then it’s possible to recreate or extend the plate using either 2-D, 2.5-D or full 3-D techniques.
Horvat says, "the initial creative steps of matte painting are all about capturing the narrative points that the shot is to convey. This usually involves doing quick sketches or mockups that flesh out all of the necessary beats of the shot: mood, quality of light, composition, color palette, and location of key geographical elements, if any." These get submitted to the director for approval and comments. Horvat emphasizes that "the skill of a matte artist is not simply to attain photorealism; that is just the prerequisite. This is, after all, cinema, and a shot must convey an emotional beat, be it a close-up of an actor’s face or a matte painting."
At this time, there is also a general breakdown of the elements that will be required to accomplish the matte shot. Horvat details the decision-making process: "If the camera moves a great deal, and flies very close to complex surfaces, it may be more efficient for a miniature to be constructed and filmed in place of using a very high resolution painting. If miniatures are not an option, a 3-D model is sometimes constructed, textured, lit, and rendered as a replacement. If to do so requires a great deal more effort than simply painting, and making the painting ‘move’ by projecting it on geometry, then the choice to go with matte painting for the entire thing is preferred."
"In an ideal world," Horvat says, "once sketches and mockups are finished the shot simply evolves to final; however, this is not always true, and seems to be less so as time goes on. . It is not unheard of for a matte shot to be completely reimagined and restarted."
Horvat's work on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe made extensive use of camera mapping in MAXON's CINEMA 4D.
London Bombing Sequence
Approximately 150 shots in Narnia use CINEMA 4D camera mapping. "The London bombing sequence has a variety of different applications of this technique," Horvat says. "There are several dozen shots tracking the planes as they are descending on London. All the environments behind the planes are camera-mapped matte paintings. So in some cases you're looking down upon London; in other cases you're looking out a window while the camera tracks around the cockpit. The camera looks down through the cockpit glass and then out toward the horizon. You see 300 degrees of environment, all of which is camera mapped. The camera stays with the planes, so is also sliding across the ground at 500 miles an hour, and that movement is built in as well."
Other portions of the London bombing sequence also use camera mapping. One particularly complex setup involves a shot where the camera flies over the Pevensie family's house. Horvat says, "we see them leave the house and run to the shelter in their backyard."
Pevensie Backyard Plate
Pevensie Backyard Completed
The backyard was a real life set, as was the wall with the door in it that the family exits through. "The neighborhood, the roofs, surrounding houses, and even some fence sections were all done using camera mapping technology in CINEMA 4D."
Train Station with Green Screen
Completed Train Station
In addition to the bombing sequence, Horvat worked on the Paddington train station sequence. "In the case of the Paddington train station interior, I painted all of the interior other than the foreground staircase that the actors walk on," Horvat explains. "I painted the trains as well, and we did a simple 2-D animation on them to give them life."
Imageworks's history with MAXON led Horvat to initially try out CINEMA 4D. "When I started looking at camera mapping solutions for Sony Pictures Imageworks’ pipeline, they had a relationship with MAXON over BodyPaint 3D. They were leaning toward using BodyPaint because MAXON was excited about working with Sony and interested in doing whatever modifications were necessary to make it a viable tool for Sony's pipeline, as well as the fact that it is a good texture painting software package for visual effects. That relationship and the good things that happened from it encouraged some of the pipeline people at the company to recommend CINEMA 4D to me, to see if they could perhaps write some camera mapping tools." Horvat had used other software packages and felt strongly that "if camera mapping work was to happen at any reasonable speed at the company it wouldn't be possible with existing means. Something needed to be written that made it very fast, and made it very easy for any artist to use. And of course it also needed to plug in to the rest of our pipeline which is very complex."
"When I picked up CINEMA 4D, one thing I noticed was the emphasis on making it as artist friendly as possible. That makes it possible to get results very quickly. And that can be very important when you're under deadline pressures, because you never have enough time." After trying out CINEMA 4D, Horvat thought that he could use the matte projection tool in his work at Sony Pictures Imageworks, if some modifications were made. He was pleased to discover that MAXON welcomed his suggestions. "We contacted MAXON and I said, 'this is my spec sheet, this is what I'd like it to be able to do, I'd like to be able to push a button and have it do this, and push a button and have it do that.' I sort of aimed at the sky, thinking that probably they would look at me and say, 'okay, well, we'll talk to you next year.' But in reality, three weeks later they brought us a prototype, and that prototype didn't need to change all that much to become the tool that we use today."
All of Horvat's matte shots for Narnia were rendered in CINEMA 4D. Horvat points out that at Sony, CINEMA 4D uses the same render farm that RenderMan uses. "The beauty of the system is that it's very scalable. So if I have a high priority shot that needs to be rendered immediately, I can get 120 processors and it's done. If it's something less complicated I might not need that many; I might need 10 or 20."
Horvat praises the enthusiasm of MAXON's developers. "They write it, they build it, they give it to you, and then they want to see what you do with it. They've come to visit us several times over the course of the last few years, and they just get so jazzed seeing the things that we're doing with their tools."
Horvat is passionate about his work, and offers emphatic advice for anyone serious about a career in matte painting. "Hopefully it's something that you have a great deal of desire to do, because only that will enable you to have enough patience to deal with the inevitable frustration. There's a learning curve and it's very steep, so if you don't have the patience for it you'll wind up giving up. But if it's something you're obsessed with, where you simply can't leave your computer at night, and all thoughts of the real world fall away, because you're so obsessed with your work, then you pretty much have what it takes to learn the skills. Which means that you have to do a great deal of work. It is very, very, very difficult to be a good matte artist, and the only way to become one, is to continually do the work, show it to someone who knows more than you do, learn from them; repeat."
Horvat emphasizes that knowing how to use "Photoshop" is not enough. "If you're getting the structure and design of your image from a photograph, you've failed before you've started. Tools are not Process. Process is purely internal. Process exists in your head; process exists in your mind. You are the render engine. There is no piece of software that will make you a matte painter. You need to sharpen your skills in perspective, composition, color, light, value, and understanding all of the variables between. And the only way to get there is by repetition; by doing a great deal of work to attain as much mileage as necessary."
Superman Returns and Beowulf are Ivo Horvat's latest projects for Sony Pictures Imageworks. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is available on DVD.
Mary Dell is a freelance writer residing in Chicago. She can be reached via her website.
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September 4, 2006