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A Ride of One’s Own: “Meteor Attack” Delivers Big Effects Without a Big Budget

Independently produced ride films are rare. Usually, large simulator-filmdistributors who license titles from their libraries to worldwide venuesfund such films. But when Japanese company Casting Office wanted a ridefilm of its own, experienced sim-film director Yas Takata helped a projectcalled Meteor Attack find its way to Blur Studios in Venice, California.

“They said they did not have a lot of money,” recalls Tim Miller, Blur’sco-founder and the film’s co-director. “We took it with the stipulationthat we wouldn’t go over budget, but we would have a lot of creativecontrol.”

The 4:17 film, which Blur agreed to deliver on five-perf 70 mm film, is atextbook case of what experienced animators can do with affordable PCsoftware. In one complex scene, the camera sweeps around a high-tech hangarwhere several “Rocketstar” spacecraft hang suspended above a pool of waterbathed in atmospheric light. In preparation for deployment, one Rocketstarrevs its glowing engines and causes jet-wash to ripple the water below. Thecraft flies toward an exit tunnel, but its trajectory goes awry. It grazesthe tunnel’s entryway, sends sparks flying, and tumbles wildly down thetunnel out of sight. In its wake, a roaring fireball rushes back into thehangar and plunges into the water below.

“The first part of the process actually had two parts,” explains Miller.”We generally begin the choreography of a shot by doing an animatic, usingfairly simple, low-res boxes and cones to test out camera movement. But wehad a very short time frame, so we had to start modeling at the same timewe began the choreography of various elements in the shot. It’s preferableto get the choreography done before you create models because then you knowwhat you’re not going to need to see. But we didn’t have that luxury here.”

Because of cost restraints, “there were some definite ‘holes’ in themodels,” admits lead animator Steve Blackmon. “In this shot, the camerarotates around in the room, so we didn’t have a lot of freedom to not buildthings. But if you were to look at some of this environment, you’d berather surprised at what’s not there.”

For Blackmon, the camerawork was the hardest part. “In a ride film, therehas to be one seamless camera move through the whole thing, but it’sactually spread over different models composited together. I was makingcamera move adjustments right up until the end.”

Creating the look was straightforward by comparison. Filmmakers appliedtextures from Blur Studios’ extensive library to the scene’s varioussurfaces, which they then modeled using Kinetix’s 3D Studio MAX. They alsoused Adobe Photoshop to create textures.

With the basic choreography and modeling complete, Blackmon turned hisattention to the subtleties of animation in the shot, which included thewater, sparks, and fire.

“The water was pretty tough,” he recalls, “especially getting everybody tobe satisfied that it looked like water! When the Rocketstar’s engines litup, we needed to show the jet wash on the water underneath them. I threwsome particles down there to spring up really fast and then motion blurredthem and made them transparent. It smeared the water’s surface, almost likefinger painting with motion blur.”

For those particles and the sparks that fly when the ship hits the tunnel,Blackmon used the standard MAX particle system, Combustion. While most ofthe flames depicted in the sequence were Combustion atmospherics, Blackmonadded an additional off-the-shelf element to suggest the big ball of flamethat roars out of the tunnel. “We got actual flame elements from PyromaniaPro, which is a $199 CD ROM library.” Blackmon incorporated those fireelements into the shot in eyeon Software’s Digital Fusion.

“Doing the flame down the tunnel was one of the more clever tricks in thepiece because it looks really 3D,” observes Blackmon. “But there areactually three elements that are staggered coming down the tunnel, onebehind the next. They’re just close enough together that they overlap soyou can’t actually see they’re individual elements, and with motionblurring, it actually looks like a big column of fire coming out. MAX 2.0has a process called ‘Image Motion Blur’ where they calculate the actualspeed at which each pixel in the image is moving, and then they blur it.It’s extremely fast. If you’re really careful, it works pretty well withalmost no render time expense.”

“It’s a different way of doing motion blur,” adds Miller, “which makes aproject like this doable for us. If we’d had to render the whole jobwithout this, we’d have had to buy more equipment.”

Rendering the final images in “Meteor Attack” could have been incrediblytime-consuming, since filmmakers created many of the sequence’s lightingeffects with ray tracing. Blackmon says that the MAX plug-in Raytrace,which he co-wrote with Blur’s Scott Kirvan, is “pretty fast.”

“We tried to avoid ray tracing as much as possible for the same reason thateverybody else does, which is that it’s processor-intensive. But there aretimes you just can’t avoid it, like with the water in this sequence. Itjust looks so much better.”

Notes Miller, “Our frame times weren’t too brutal-at 2K resolution weaveraged 35 minutes a frame.”

Miller admits with a laugh that “Meteor Attack” did occupy Blur’s entirephalanx of Intergraph computers. “We have 22 quad processor and 14 dualprocessor machines. When it comes to completely using our computingequipment, we’re like the Plains Indians with the buffalo-everything getsused!”

Directors-Yas Takata and Tim Miller; Producer-Stephanie Taylor; LeadAnimator-Steve Blackmon; Modeling Supervisor-Aaron Powell; Modelers-JeremyCook, Sam Gebhardt, Juan Granja