Can DFD Bring Back Visual Style?
A new generation of DFD software, such as Storyboard Lite, allowsdirectors to create scenes before shooting. This new type ofprevisualization can be done without having to invest in complex andexpensive software.
You know an idea has reached popular status when it's christenedwith an abbreviation. DFD, or digital film design, is computer-basedprevisualization. And it's finally beginning to reach a broaderaudience. Formerly the domain of effects houses and computer animators,DFD — due to the inevitable progress of software and hardware— is now within the reach of any director with a computer.
The idea of director-cum-designer of digital scenes has been slow tocatch on because previz requires fairly high-level computer skills anda very clear calendar. For most directors, storyboards have beenenough. This is beginning to change because the current generation ofdigital filmmakers is as likely to jump into Photoshop or Final Cut Proto test a sequence as they are to put pencil to paper or hire astoryboard artist.
Such fluency in design tools yields more than just practical,logistical benefits. It has the potential to reinvigorate personalvisual style in filmmaking. Directors who can navigate theirimaginations before they begin shooting will inevitably find moredistinctive ways to craft their scenes, compositions, and cameramoves.
Digital film design falls into two basic categories: 2D electronicstoryboards, or animatics, and 3D animated sequences. Frequently, bothtechniques are used together. Today, when most people speak aboutcomputer previsualization, they mean the 3D variety. While storyboardsare still the starting point for sequence design, the 3D environment isthe thing that gets directors excited. Frankly, a 3D animated sequenceof a car chase or courtroom scene can predict with remarkable accuracywhat will eventually appear on the screen. An added benefit of 3D DFDis that lens and camera information generated in virtual space isapplicable to a real set or location.
Until recently there have been no dedicated 3D tools for digitalfilm design. Artists have used Maya, Lightwave, Softimage, or 3ds Maxbecause these are the most sophisticated products for 3D animation.They are also too complex for most filmmakers who only need basic 3Dprevisualization and don't want to spend a lot of time learning complexand expensive software.
The exception to this is Curious Labs' Poser, a crossover productthat bridges professional and consumer markets. While it has animationcapability, Poser is mainly a 3D environment for creating 2D images ofcharacters. Over the past three years Poser has really come into itsown by constantly improving figure models and features. While it'sreally aimed at hobbyists and digital illustrators creating singleimages, Poser has carved out a niche with previz professionals. Poser'sease of use has spawned a cult following that gathers atcommercial/user sites like renderosity.com (for more links, see p.42). This iswhere Poser artists share and sell customized characters, props,costumes, sets, texture maps, and tutorials. The database of offeringsincludes upwards of several thousand downloads. This universal databaseworks because Poser uses a well-defined modeling and hierarchicalstructure for models and accessories. As it turns, out one size reallydoes fit all in Poser.
Poser's animation and lighting tools are limited, and you are betteroff bringing your characters into Lightwave, Cinema 4D, 3ds Max, orMaya to add backgrounds and sophisticated rendering. For one thing, youwill immediately have OpenGL hardware support and far better lightingtools. Importing Poser files into Max or Maya used to be a compromisedaffair, but now Reiss Studio has provided an excellent translationtool, BodyStudio 2.0. There is a Maya and 3ds Max version for bothversion 4.0 and 5.0 of Poser.
BodyStudio uses most of Poser's most important data, includinganimation, dynamic cloth, and shader translation. BodyStudioestablishes an efficient workflow by maintaining links to your Posersource files. This is useful in two ways: First, you can make changesin Max to a Poser scene, return to Poser to perform additional work,and the Max file will update to reflect the changes. The secondadvantage to the BodyStudio link is that only updates from Poser areimported into Max or Maya. In other words, you don't have to sendacross an entire scene every time you make a small change in the rootPoser scene.
For the few filmmakers with heavy CG chops, a Poser/3ds Max,Lightwave, or Maya workflow is the optimal DFD environment when teamedwith Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro for editing. Poser also works wellwith landscape generation programs such as Vue d'Esprit and WorldBuilder. Landscape software is another powerful solution for digitalfilm design. (See “Build Your Own,” April 2003). While themulti-product approach provides the most powerful previz workflow, itturns the design process into a second career for most directors.Fortunately, two software developers have recognized an untapped marketfor dedicated 3D previz tools.
In the past few months, two new products have appeared that create anew sub-genre of software for directors that some are calling“shotware.” Innoventive Software's FrameForge 3D Studio andZebra Development's Storyboard Lite are 3D applications optimized fordirectors. While the first versions of both programs only generatestill frames, the plan is to add animation in future versions.
Here's how they work:
Storyboard Lite 1.0 is an all-in-one package that brings the entirepreviz process into a unified workflow. You can import a script fromstandard formatting software such as Final Draft and Movie Magic, andStoryboard Lite automatically sets up the blank 3D scenes properlynamed according to the slug lines in the script. You can even view yourentire script in the Script Viewer as you work.
Storyboard Lite is an all-in-one previz package that is compatiblewith script software, such as Final Draft and Movie Magic.
Storyboard Lite has three main windows: Main Editor, CharacterEditor and Board Editor. The Main Editor is where most of the designwork is done. There are three panels, or boards, across the top of thewindow, showing previous, current, and next boards in a sequence. Thecurrent window is essentially the camera view of the scene. There arealso two other orthographics views below this, and these changedepending on the task. At the very top of the interface are threebuttons to select the Prop, Set, or Picture Browser. If you were toselect Props the browser replaces the left hand Orthographic view. TheProps Browser is a tabbed window with library categories. Majorcategories appear across the top of the view — Building,Household, etc. The subcategories appear along the side. Household, forinstance, would contain subcategories such as Bedroom, Chairs, andKitchenware. The props, sets, and characters in Storyboard Lite areimpressively detailed considering this is a previz-only product. Theprogram comes with 350 props, sets, and characters, which is theminimum you need to get started.
When you select an object, it appears in the remaining orthographicview. Drag the icon of any library item into the current board, and itappears in the scene. Library item properties are shown on the rightside of the screen. These are contextual. For example a desk lamp emitslight. The Properties window allows you to change the brightness andcolor of the light as well as to control the position and rotation ofan object numerically. All objects including cameras can be accessedfrom the Properties window.
The character button at the top of the screen brings up a CharacterEditor that completely replaces the Main Edit window. Here you canselect one of several characters, set the basic facial type, andcostume the character. You can name and save any of the customcharacters to create the cast of your movie. The characters are quiterealistic, although the character variation and costume options arelimited. Fortunately, future libraries will be available, and Zebradevelopment provides custom model services.
Positioning characters requires direct manipulation with the mouserather than Poser-style parameter sliders. This makes posing a bitawkward and certainly not as precise.
Storyboard Lite has basic lighting instruments: Ambient,Directional, Point, and Spot. None of these, however, cast shadows. Thecamera controls are a combination of sliders and key controls. You canzoom, orbit an object (free or axis constrained), and translate (dolly)left and right. This may take some getting used to since it is not astandard navigational interface.
There are several smart features that are big timesavers, such asthe Lister, where all objects used in your project are shown. TheLister lets you alter the instance of an object, for example, a streetlamp, and have it make changes to every street lamp in a scene ratherthan individually. Similarly, there is a replace function for anyobject so that changing a fat character for a thin one replaces thatcharacter in every board; a huge help if the character appears in 30 or40 boards.
In the Board Editor you can change the order of the boards, add,delete, and rename boards or add notes in a simple list. This is a bitlike editing except that there is no graphic representation of theshots. You can set the duration of a shot here as well, becauseStoryboard Lite has a slide show function. Audio support, however, willonly be available in the pro version of the product, Animatic Pro, duein early 2004.
Storyboard Lite shows the promise of any 1.0 product with a fewrough edges. While the product comes with 350 props, characters, andsets, it is unlikely that you will be able to find a match for everyscene in your movie. At the moment there is no way to import objectsfrom other programs or modeling databases, but there are plans tochange this in future versions. There is no wireframe preview andperformance slows down on complex scenes. These points aside, Zebradevelopment has laid down the groundwork for a powerful previztool.
FrameForge 3D Studio debuted in 2003 at the same time as StoryboardLite and is a very similar product intended for directors with basiccomputer skills. FrameForge is based on the 3D clip art approach, whichlets you quickly build scenes using objects included in the 350-pieceprop library, and then position a camera for each shot. Saved shots canbe placed into a slide show or printed out with slug lines andcomments. You begin by importing a formatted script (Final Draft, MovieMagic, or MS Word) directly into FrameForge, which automaticallygenerates a blank set or shot for each slug line. You can alsoassociate script description with your FrameForge shots to create anillustrated script. Now you are ready to begin creating shots.
FrameForge’s Shot Manager feature allows you to add, delete,or change the order of your shots.
The main workspace in FrameForge is called the Control Room. Hereyou will find two main windows: the blueprint, or aerial orthographicview, and the perspective, or camera view. Props, characters, and setsare stored in a scrolling menu on the right side of the workspace.Select a category such as Vehicles, and a palette with various cars andtrucks appears. Drag a car to the Blueprint view, and it immediatelyappears in the Blueprint and Camera views. The two views toggle so thatonly one view appears in a fully centered view on the screen at atime.
You pull in the characters, cycloramas, and props to create yourshot, and they automatically snap to the floor. You can reposition anyprop with move, rotation, and scale controls located on the left sideof the frame. Characters can be posed in the Camera view or in theGreen Room. The designers for the dials and interface for this part ofthe program should have looked more closely at Poser, which is a farmore refined posing environment. Posing is a bit awkward, but betterthan in Storyboard Lite. In addition, FrameForge is unable to takeadvantage of the massive Poser database with the current characterlibrary. The first DFD production that figures out how to pullin Poserassets will hit a home run.
Characters are also given special behaviors so that when a characteris dragged to a chair it knows to sit down. Even with this feature, youwill certainly have lots of posing to do in the Green Room to createnatural “performances” from your digital cast. Thecharacters, by the way, are quite simple, and not as detailed as thosein Poser or Storyboard Lite. Still, they get the idea across. Changesmade to characters can be saved and added to the library.
Sets can be made from scalable walls that snap together. Doorwaysand windows in the walls can be moved and resized quickly and easily,however, building an entire room with furniture is more than a fewminutes work. Fortunately, there are several pre-built sets such asbedrooms, street intersections, and hills and cliffs, etc. In thecurrent version there is no way to import models from other programs ormodel databases. FrameForge will be adding more models as free updates,but they will also offer collections of specific locations forsale.
The Shot Manager feature allows you to add, delete, or change theorder of your shots. You can add arrows or framing boxes and turn thewhole thing into a slide show. Each frame can be given a duration inframes and seconds, but the only transitions between shots are cuts.Like Storyboard Lite there is no audio support. A slide show, however,can be exported as a movie and imported into any NLE where you can addmusic, sound effects, or dialog.
FrameForge is easy to use and somewhat more intuitive thanStoryboard Lite. This is particularly true of the posing controls. Theprogram's interactivity is fairly fast even with complex scenes,however, the renderer does not support shadows, the major renderingeffect required to create depth. The camera information, such as focallength, is misleading because the program does not actually calculatechanges in film format. Yes, you can change the aspect ratio, but thefocal length will not match up with real world cameras. However,FrameForge does properly calculate field of view. Directors will findits an indispensable tool when the library of props and characters isefficient for their needs. However, when searching for models is anissue, directors will ask themselves if 3D previz is the best use oftheir time. But the die is cast, FrameForge and other DFD digitalapplications get better every year.
Having taught and promoted the idea of previsualization —whoops, digital film design — for more than a decade, it mightsurprise some people that I end on a guardedly optimistic note. Whilethe current crop of storyboarding software provides a wide selection oftools to choose from, there is a great deal of similarity betweenproducts. One major truth emerges: All the 2D and 3D solutions featuredin this article rely a great deal on available clip art, which meansthat directors will find that they are spending more time looking forthe right background and character than actually composing shots.
Characters can be posed in the Green Room in FrameForge 3DStudio.
The claims that the computer will easily solve a director's shotflow problems are a major overstatement. What the computer does provideis a powerful environment to replicate the experience of setting up thecamera on a location. But creating a storyboard in 3D or 2D software isstill a massive undertaking.
Because I believe that 3D design tools are the future ofprevisualization, I strongly recommend that direcors spend time lookinginto the various software solutions. The new shotware applications,FrameForge and Storyboard Lite, have some kinks to work out but arepart of an inevitable trend to return the design process to directorswith a strong visual sense. Digital film design is destined to becomeas intergral a part of a filmmaker's process as screenwriting. This mayeventually lead to a new type of script that looks more like a graphicnovel, using images created in a 3D environment. But don't hold yourbreath; the economic requirements of the motion picture industry willbe slow to embrace change. As in the past, the desktoppers will be thefirst to innovate. Here come the DFDAs (Digital Film DesignAuteurs).
Curious Labs is the developer of Poser with links to other Poserrelated sites. curiouslabs.com
Renderosity is the largest Poser community site and marketplace.Featured are thousands of free downloads as well as products for saleby hobbyists. If you plan to do previz, bookmark this site. renderosity.com
Daz is the Poser-only offspring of Zygote Modeling. Daz creates thebest third-party character models available for Poser. daz3d.com
Runtime DNA is a competitor to Renderosity, and while much smaller,has several excellent artists selling wares exclusive to DNA. host1.bondware.com/~syydr/
Reiss Studio is the home of BodyStudio. Visit this site if you wantto use Poser with Maya or 3ds Max. There are also tutorial tapes forPoser and BodyStudio. reiss-studio.com
Meshes available online used to be a mess. Lacking texture maps,often poorly made or too low resolution, finding a pre-made modelfrequently ended in frustration. In the old days, Viewpoint was theplace to go, but its models were not the answer since they were usuallyunarticulated meshes from disparate sources and not optimized forproduction.
Today there are several excellent sources for consistently designedmodels and texture maps in all the popular formats. Here is a shortlist of the best providers of high quality pre-made assets for 3Dpreviz artists and directors:
Based in Germany, Dosch Design has one of the largest selections ofmodels available. They provide the usual categories of architecturaldetails, buildings, engineered structures (oil rigs, bridges, dams),furniture, and landscapes, but also humans, fantasy characters, trees,and garden elements. The models are all highly detailed but do not comewith textures. In fact, many of these models have more detail thannecessary for movie visualization, but the user always has the optionof using simpler models if scenes becme too cumbersome tomanipulate.
Dosch homes and buildings tend toward European designs and aregenerally contemporary, so if you are looking for 1950s periodstorefronts, you will not find them here.
Overall, this is an excellent place to begin looking for props andarchitecture for your scenes.
I highly recommend the texture collections from Marlin Studios.These are the best all-around texture maps I've seen. What makes MarlinStudios products stand out is that they have been created by artistswho actually create 3D scenes.
Marlin offers a huge selection of textures and a good selection ofmodels. Textures include the usual metal, wood, stone, fabric, andarchitectural subjects, as well as storefronts and architecturaldetails for Asian and European locations. Most of the CD collectionscontain 350 to 400 images generally in the 1200- to 1600-pixel range.Marlin has also put together collections of alpha trees and people tobe used on clear polygons and inserted into a scene: A good way to adddetail without creating massive files.
Marlin does not specialize in models, but what they offer isfirst-rate, including city buildings, suburban houses, and home andoffice furniture.
This is an excellent series of 3D clip art collections with realtimemodels. Realtime means low poly, but the lack of detail won't be missedfor previz work, and you'll appreciate the ability to manipulate sceneswith lots of elements. There is a wide selection of categoriesincluding skyscrapers, bedroom interiors, living room interiors, 3Dplants and trees, modern houses, modern urban cars, and several othercollections. Many of the models are texture mapped and available in.3ds and .w3d.
The one-stop shop for models, texture maps, and other 3D assets.This site sells both commercial products, such as collections of carsand architecture, as well as the work of individual artists. Pricesvary considerably, but there is a great deal of very good work herethat can save a director or previz artist days or even weeks ofwork.
This is the leading tree creation program. Greenworks OrganicSoftware's Xfrog also has model collections of over 900 plants andtrees. If you own Xfrog software (and not just the plant libraries) youcan dial the polygonal count for plants up or down.
The other great plant creation program. Relatively easy to use andmore intuitive then Xfrog, this is a great program for creatinghundreds of botanical models.
While the focus of this article is primarily 3D software, 2Dprevisualization software has been around much longer and may be theonly tool a director is willing to spend time learning. Here is a quickdescription of the major 2D previz tools:
There are two types of 2D storyboard software: simplified editingand compositing tools for artists that import their own boards forsequencing and storyboard tools that offer libraries of art fordirectors who do not draw.
Storyboard Quick and Storyboard Artist from PowerProduction softwarefor non-drawing directors is probably the best known storyboard tool onthe market. Quick is the light version of Storyboard Artist, and bothproducts provide libraries of 2D art, including figures and locationbackgrounds that are easily manipulated. Characters are available inmultiple positions — walking, running, sitting, lying down— (Storyboard Artist provides a greater range of poses) andappear in a palette showing the available positions. Select a characterfrom the palette and drop it into the composition window. By clickingthe arrow buttons at the top of the workspace, you can cycle throughthe different positions. You can move and scale the character withinthe frame and add layers of other objects and backgrounds. Layerpositions can also be cycled, so it's easy to move a car or personbehind a tree as long as they are separate objects. Naturally, you canimport your own figure drawings or photographs including locationpictures taken with your digital camera. Storyboard Quick and Artistboth have simple drawing tools so you can draw directly on a frame.
You can make a slide show without sound in Storyboard Quick or afully edited version with sound in Storyboard Artist that can beexported as a Quicktime movie. There are several presentation templatesand text options for printing your boards, and script material can beimported from popular script formatting software such as FinalDraft.
The bottom line is that the Storyboard system works well fornon-artists much of the time, but you will frequently feel you aremissing just the right character pose you need. Similarly, theexpressive nature of a good storyboard artists' facial characterizationis missing. Extreme camera angles are not automatically available inthe database. Still, the ability to create basic shot flow with motionand sound is made about as accessible as is realistically possible inStoryboard Quick and Storyboard Artist. I recommend getting theStoryboard Artist Studio version at the outset because it will save youtime in the long run.
▪ Storyboad Quick
Storyboard Artist Studio
Macintosh 9.0, OS X, and Windows
This is a Windows-only product that has its roots in animationtiming and storyboarding. You can, however, easily use the software forlive-action sequence building. Like Storyboard Artist, BoardMasterworks as both a sequencing environment for existing artwork or for clipart. Boardmaster provides libraries of characters and backgrounds, butunlike Storyboard Artist the database is primarily photographs createdexpressly for storyboarding. Characters and backgrounds are availablein numerous angles and poses. There'a whopping 500MB of clip art thatcomes with the software, but even then you will probably find that youwill have to resort to creating your own photos or art.
Boardmaster has basic editing and compositing tools so you can zoom,pan, tilt, and generally manipulate images over time. Paint tools allowyou to add notes, arrows, or design modifications to images, and thereare dozens of Photoshop-style filters that can be applied to an image.Similarly, there are hundreds of transitions available in editing modegiving you a complete workflow for sequencing scenes. Motion sequencesare exported as AVI files.
▪ BoardMaster Software
ShotMaster is software developed by the Badham Company. Yes, JohnBadham, the director of Saturday Night Fever. His company sellsShotMaster online, and the program is a Mac and Windows storyboardingtool with pre-made illustration. ShotMaster is quite similar toStoryboard Artist, except that it does not offer the ability to createedited motion sequences or slide shows. It's strictly a still-imagetool.
There are rudimentary drawing and text tools for modifiying drawingsor adding notes. ShotMaster has a logical organizational workflow andshows the input of a working director. However I missed an editablestoryboard view showing multiple panels simultaneously where the orderof shots can be altered. ShotMaster provides the next best thing, whichis the Juggler; essentially, an editable drag-and-drop shot list.
ShotMaster lets you create storyboards from the existing database ofcharacters, props, and backgrounds or from scanned photos or downloadsfrom you digital camera. Like Storyboard Artist, there are never enoughimages in the databank to fit everyone's movie, so be prepared tocompromise or spend time searching for art.
Yes, free. Shareware software is one of the remaining delights ofthe Internet on the flip side opposite spam and banner ads. Usually youare made to feel guilty if you don't send the developer anywhere from$10 to $50 if you like the software, but fair is fair. Technically,it's free.
The following applications seem to be generalized storyboardingtools for any kind of sequencing design, rather than specific directortools, but you may find it's all you need for your short subject.
▪ Atomic Learning Storyboard Pro
▪ Storyboard Tools
▪ 3D Storyboarding Software
Storyboard Lite (Storyboard Pro, Animatic Pro)