On November 23, 2011 Walt Disney Pictures and director James Bobin brought the Muppets back to the big screen after their feature film debut 20 years ago. While the beloved puppets haven’t changed a bit since their last cinematic adventure, the filmmaking process behind the new release is a whole different experience.
“Today, visual effects are ingrained into the business of movies – even a feature like this where there are no CG Muppets and everything is based on puppeteering,” said Max Ivins, visual effects supervisor from LOOK Effects, which created 350 shots for the feature. “Visual effects give filmmakers the ability to do more, to increase the scope of a movie, and to achieve higher quality results faster and more cost effectively. Technology like the NVIDIA Quadro GPU, which enables studios to visualize quickly and iterate more, has helped drive this evolution.”
LOOK Effects, with facilities in Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver, has been producing visual effects for film, television and special venue projects since 1998. Their work on The Muppets was focused on the shot-by-shot aesthetics of the movie; using visual effects to remove all traces of puppeteers, to extend sets with CGI and to create ambitious visual sequences to give the movie a contemporary feel and scope.
A massive particle-based CG fireworks finale, an overhead crowd simulation shot, blowing up Mount Rushmore and a subtle sequence when 2D paintings come to life and turn into 3D Muppets are just a few of the sequences that required extensive reviews and iterations to perfect – and high performance technology to execute.
“In a 3D environment, being able to visualize quickly and get iterations back fast is critical. We have to be able to crunch through millions of polygons and that can get unwieldy quickly. For crowd shots we need to be able to see the interaction of individual CG actors; we need time to preview the animations, make suggestions and see them again,” said Ivins. “The NVIDIA Quadro card is the lynchpin of the whole process.”
Over 11 months, 18 artists at LOOK Effects relied on workstations equipped with NVIDIA Quadro 6000 ultra high-end professional graphics processing units (GPUs) to help them work faster and iterate more efficiently. Compositing was done primarily on The Foundry’s NUKE, with Autodesk Maya as the 3D animation software and NVIDIA mental ray for rendering.
Said Ivins, “The crowd simulation shot required a lot of horsepower to allow us to finesse it at a fine-detail level. With NVIDIA Quadro we were able to view a tiny model of these people and create the nuances that make them move like a happy crowd – not a rioting mob. We were able to preview the setup and rely on the technology to perform. The Quadro card comes in big for us in those situations – it’s all driven on the GPU.”
NVIDIA GPUs also came in handy for the fireworks finale shot, as artists were able to process a massive particle effect, preview it, tweak it, and play it back in near-real time, and on the over-the-top Mount Rushmore destruction sequence, which combined a CG explosion, practical pyrotechnics and a particle system to take down the famous monument.
“When you’re caching particles, the worst thing that can happen is a crash or reboot. Instead of iterating you’re wasting time getting back to where you were. We standardized on NVIDIA Quadro graphics solutions because we can tap the GPU without impacting reliability. They’re just rock solid.”
Ivins noted that when working in a 3D environment, being able to visualize quickly and get iterations back fast is the foundation of the studio’s creative power. “Our profession is made possible by graphics acceleration. It’s one of those things we take for granted, but fundamentally, we couldn’t do our job without the power we get from NVIDIA.”
Michael Oliver, director of Technology at LOOK Effects sees the impact that GPU technology has had on the pace of production and looks forward to future advantages. “As multi-threading appeared on the scene, people got really excited about having access to 300+ cores on the GPU, where the CPU limits you to 16. As more software developers incorporate features that allow us to process effects multiple times more quickly on the GPU we’re able to tweak things creatively versus through rendering. I’ve seen this trend coming and look forward to things like real-time lighting and time warps.”
He added, “In the end, filmmakers don’t care about things like how much rendering power you have. What they want when they’re working is to see the effect, so they can give you feedback NOW. The NVIDIA GPU is what gives us that result on the screen, on the spot.”
All images courtesy of LOOK Effects and Walt Disney Pictures.