May 13th, 2015

FMX’s annual conference on animation, effects games and transmedia took place in Stuttgart, Germany last week, playing host to a range of technical workshops and talks aimed at VFX professionals, students and enthusiasts.

The Mill’s CG Lead Adam Droy teamed up with Solid Angle to give attendees an insight into how Houdini-to-Arnold was used on the CG heavy LEGOLAND ‘Awesome Awaits’, whilst head of animation Jorge Montiel and CG lead Sam Driscoll delved into the intricacies of creating a 100% photo-real CG ape in ‘Creatures In Commercials: A Case Study of SSE ‘Maya’’.

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The Mill’s London head of 3D Dave Fleet shares the key trends and his highlight’s from this year’s conference.

// Dave Fleet

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FMX 2015

'Immersion & Virtual Realities' was the official title for this year's festival. If I was to take one thing from FMX 2015, it's that VR & AR really is back in a big way. For the first time we have technology that can make you feel truly immersed. At an industry event the size of FMX it was easy to see how important content creation for this new medium is going to be.

With all the talk of VR and AR I was struck by how most conversations surrounding the topic are about the power of the technology, which makes sense, but for the first time it became obvious to me that creative, artistically crafted content is vital to its success. Solomon Rogers, founder of Rewind FX Studio, summed it up perfectly in his talk when he said, "The 'VFX' artist of today will become the 'VRX' artist of tomorrow". I am inclined to agree.

The program was packed with talks about content creation for all sorts of platforms as well as lots of new and interesting hardware to sample up close. The hardware currently available is only scratching the surface of what VR & AR can offer. In a year or two we will have higher resolution devices, higher frame rates and believable visuals integrated with our environment. When that time comes, the appetite for these visuals could rapidly grow beyond the industry’s skill and means, meaning there could be a shortage of rich, great looking imagery.

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The Trends

Wearable AR (augmented reality) devices are starting to get exciting, and by the looks of it they are almost with us. Unlike Oculus Rift and Samsung's Gear VR, these devices do not take over your view of the real world, they add to it by superimposing 3D imagery over real world objects and environments. Alex Laurent from Microsoft was there to talk about the much-anticipated Hololens, I was hoping he would show us a demo, but unfortunately the technology is not ready just yet. John Root gave a look into the future of immersive entertainment with Magic Leap and Mattias Wittmann from industrial design company Daqri showcased an amazingly futuristic AR driven work helmet called 'Smart Helmet'.

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Up until now much of what we all call 'VR' has been 360 video viewed on a tablet or smartphone. This experience is further enhanced using split eye stereo and viewed with gadgets like Altergaze, which was available to test at FMX. However, this approach only really allows the viewer to choose which direction that they would like to look in, which is cool, but not as immersive as it could be. The game changer for me was experiencing positional tracking. I checked out the excellent Red Bull Air Race Experience using the new Oculus DK2, I was amazed by how the introduction of interactive parallax totally pulled me into the experience like I have never felt before. Using this to view real time 3D content driven by engines like UE4 or Unity will massively enhance the gaming experience in the not too distant future.

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Anything interactive will need to be optimised enough to run in real-time, but there is a place for content that doesn't need to be interactive, like watching a film. Nozon have managed to make some progress on this front with their plugin called 'PresenZ'. This allows pre-rendered films to be viewed with interactive parallax. Whether it's real-time or pre-rendered, more photo-realistic imagery is the obvious next step.

Back to VFX as we know it. Day one predominantly focused on lighting and rendering technology. One thing that caught my attention was just how many of the big VFX facilities have developed their own in-house production renderers. Path tracing and all things physically based were big topics on that front. A side effect of path tracing is that you can get grainy noise embedded into rendered images. To solve this issue almost all of the big VFX facilities have developed various ways to filter out noise or perform some sort of post clean-up process. This is not new, but it's always refreshing to see that we all suffer the same limitations.

The Talks

My top three talks would have to be as follows:

1   'Toy Story 20th Anniversary, A Conversation'. This talk was like looking back to a time when there was no industry with the guys who invented what I do for a job. Pure indulgence I know, but it was great.

2   'Autonomous Animation of Virtual Human Faces' simply blew my mind. Professor Mark Sagar and his team designed a complex neuro-behavioural computer model, which they called 'Baby-X'. The computer program is basically the brain of a virtual baby that has the ability to become smarter everyday. He has taught it to recognise words and images. It basically responds just like a real baby would. I met him in the pub one night, nice guy. Professor Mark, not the baby.

3   The LEGO Movie - Cinematography in an Evolving Render Ecosystem. Craig Welsh's talk about lighting and rendering on the LEGO movie was the perfect blend of tech and art content. Lots of information about their custom render engine nicely coupled with his motivations as an artist and cinematographer.

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Top Tips for an FMX newcomer?

A day at FMX goes fast so you can't afford to waste time. I recommend carefully reading the program before you arrive and filter out anything that you know is not really for you. From what's left you'll notice that some shows run concurrently, so there'll be a few tough decisions to make about which to go see. You'll never get to see both, but it's much better to make the decision upfront so you can get the best out of the day.

Get in early. The big shows by the likes of Weta or ILM fill up very fast. Queues start to form up to half an hour before the presentation is scheduled to begin. If you can, I suggest you watch the talk before and just stay seated.

Lastly, always carry water. It gets hot in there and you are likely to be a little hungover from one of the FMX parties from the night before!

For more information about this year's lineup and highlights visit the FMX website.