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Frantic Films Succeeds With New Software

As visual effects creation becomes an increasingly diverse and far-reaching enterprise, big studios are looking to companies all over the world, from New Zealand, to Bombay, India and even Winnipeg, Canada to handle their special effects needs.

CEO Jamie Brown (L)
and 2D/3D lighting specialist
Darren Wall

Based in Winnipeg, Frantic Films was founded by Ken Zorniak and Chris Bond in March, 1997. Bond had been a freelance broadcast designer, working on local TV commercials and for ad agencies like McKim Communications, which is part of BBDO. He also had a background in web development, though he was less than thrilled with the limitations of that particular medium.

“I don’t like the limits imposed by artificial resolution and graphics and working towards the lowest common denominator,” says Bond. “With the web, it used to be, ‘Make a pretty image. Now make it 15 pixels wide.’ Working in film has allowed us to do whatever we want in terms of resolution and character.”

Bond was ready to strike out on his own and he did just that, forming Frantic Films with Ken Zorniak. “I’ve always wanted to have my own company. I knew it was time for me to pursue the focus that I wanted: visual effects and computer animation,” says Bond.

Frantic Films co-founder Ken Zorniak

Because there isn’t much production in Winnipeg, Frantic primarily works on Hollywood-based feature films. Their first major movie was the John Travolta starrer, “Swordfish,” which was overseen by visual effects supervisor Boyd Shermis. Prior to “Swordfish,” Frantic had been hired by Shermis to create some snow and water effects for the TV miniseries “Storm of the Century” — a project that earned them an Emmy nomination.

More recently, Frantic was one of seven companies working on the effects for “The Core,” a thriller about a group of scientists, who in an attempt to save the world, send an experimental craft to the Earth’s core to detonate nuclear weapons.

Frantic Films common area

Frantic began with the pre-visualization. They designed and created the animation for the visual effects sequences so the director and his team could decide ahead of time what would occur and how many shots they needed to build.

Then, using this pre-visualization, they did some look development and created some onscreen graphics. Look development is similar to pre-visualization, but with much more detail. Where pre-visualization is often just wire boxes, look development incorporates color and texture. This look development was used as a guideline for the various companies who worked on film. Bond compares it to being a concept artist who works in 3D.

Some of the concept art Frantic created was later used for onscreen graphics. “In the film, there are a lot of computer displays. We used our pre-viz and look development, so that even though the effects had not begun, we could put material on the screen that would be done as full visual effects,” explains Bond.

Frantic Films board room

After shooting, the company was awarded one of the major sequences in the film, which they had previously designed and done tests for, though Bond is not at liberty to reveal the specifics. Frantic ended up creating nearly 100 shots in the movie.

Frantic is one of the effects companies working on “X-Men 2,” which is currently in post. They did the pre-visualization for the film in Vancouver and helped define the action sequences with visual effects supervisor Michael Fink and director Bryan Singer. In addition, Frantic is currently involved in the effects for two other effects-heavy blockbusters, but Bond cannot divulge their titles.

Frantic employs 50 people, about two-thirds of whom work in the commercial and visual effects division. The other third is management, producers, infrastructure and live action. The company also has a live action divison.

Through its live action arm, which is overseen by Jamie Brown, Frantic has developed and created two television series for the History Television: “Quest for the Bay” and “Klondike: Quest for Gold.” For the latter show, they took five modern day people and had them retrace the historic route taken during the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush. Cameras followed their 91-day journey along the infamous Chilkoot Trail and up the Yukon River to the gold fields near Dawson City.

Image rendered by Frantic Films
using Brazil

Frantic is a cross-platform company. To get the job done, it deploys a variety of tools such as 3D Studio Max by discreet, Maya, Eyeon Digital Fusion for compositing, Boujou for 3D tracking, particle paint program Illusion and all of the Real Viz products.

The facility also relies on the Splutterfish Brazil Rendering System, which has been in use for about eight months. “We initially brought Brazil into the production pipeline to handle about 30 shots to meet a massive rendering deadline that was looming on “The Core.” Since then we have also used Brazil to render elements on “X-Men 2,” says Bond.

“The speed at which Brazil is able to handle supersampling of textures and raytracing is enormously impressive,” he adds. “Within just a few weeks after initially deploying Brazil, we tripled the number of Brazil licenses in order to integrate it facilitywide as our primary rendering system. It is unquestionably the best rendering tool for complex imagery creation and manipulation.”

And for those times when no particular piece of software will do, Frantic turns to its R&D department, which writes its own software. “We find that during every project, we have to write some code to use as glue between tools,” says Bond. Brazil also comes into play here. “We are using Brazil to test renders with complicated scenes that we aren’t in post-production on now.” The company is currently working on a top-secret tool that they hope to announce at SIGGRAPH this summer.