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Digital Days with Electronic Arts blew my mind

Digital Days, held at Electronic Arts in Vancouver, was two days jam-packed with seminars and equipment displays showing how Vancouver is at the forefront of the digital film age - a must-see for anyone interested in the magic of film.

Digital Days - the latest digital technology and equipment on display.
Courtesy of IATSE 669, B. Strauss

The magic of film has always fascinated me. You see the most incredible things happen on the screen. I’ve always been curious how they do this. Aren’t you? So I couldn’t resist attending Digital Days held February 1st and 2nd at Electronic Arts in Vancouver to see how the magic is made and what the future holds. I wasn’t disappointed.

On day one I heard a fascinating talk given by my old friend Curtis Staples, owner and managing director of Vancouver post production house Digital Film Central. He worked in Vancouver with director Neill Blomkamp  before Neill became famous for writing and directing District 9.

When Neill shot part of Elysium in Vancouver, he made the revolutionary decision to do all his post production work here and enlisted Curtis’s help. Neill’s decision was revolutionary because few major motion pictures are finished in Vancouver. Vancouver is known as a great place to shoot, but usually you go to Los Angeles or London to edit and finish your film. Determined to put Vancouver on the same footing as these other cities, Curtis made a revolutionary decision of his own by developing an entirely new post production process for Elysium.

Typically the editing, visual effects and finishing schedules run back-to-back and take about 450 man hours of time. Using some careful planning and advanced technology, Curtis and Digital Film Central were able to run the schedules concurrently cutting the man hour time down to 120 hours. Neill enjoyed some creative freedom he’d never had before and the film was delivered ahead of schedule. This is a remarkable achievement. Vancouver is now on the world post production map. Kudos to Curtis Staples, Digital Film Central and the Vancouver film community.

The second highlight for me was on Day two. We have all heard of Electronic Arts. Some of us may even know that EA has a facility located in Vancouver. What you may not know is that this facility houses one of the largest and best equipped motion capture studios on the planet. Motion capture was used in the film “Gravity”. You may have seen photos of people in black jumpsuits with sensors attached to their arms and legs. Animation is used to turn the motion capture bodies into the actors bodies and the real actors faces and heads are digitally attached later.

I saw a portable facial animation rig, operated by only one person, recording an actor’s face so that it could then be animated. You’ve seen this used in the “Lord of the Rings” films and in “Toy Story”. The most remarkable advance is that it no longer has to be pre-rendered but can be done in real time. In other words you could ask a question of these animated actors on line and they could answer you! The possibilities are endless – education, scientific simulation and online customer sales reps who never sleep.

But the best was something called “the virtual camera”. I watched a man looking through a film camera, pointing and panning it – at empty space! So what was he seeing? I checked the monitor and his camera moves were being reflected in an animated scene with an animated setting and animated characters. This would be an amazing pre-visualization tool for film directors and producers. You could add in a 3D animated representation of a location (using a laser scanner) and a director in a remote location could plan and pre-visualize how he was going to shoot the scene without ever having to go there until the day of the shoot. In this way, the director could pre-visualize the entire movie and could compare different locations if he wanted to. There are a lot of producers out there who would love to see what their movie looked like before it was made.

The first Digital Days was in 2011 and was originally a creation of the film workers Camera Union (IATSE 669) and the Directors Guild of Canada. It has grown since then and the present steering committee wants to make it an annual event. Seeing the future now is awesome. I hope they succeed.

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