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TNG Visual Effects - 3D Scanning Services

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Virtual Characters in Entertainment

Virtual characters are being used in all aspects of entertainment from film to television to video games as we’ve seen in many productions over the last few years, and even in musical performances as in the famous Tupac halogram. Whether a character is modeled, 3D scanned or sculpted, they are in the production.

tupac-hologram

Virtual characters have been used to create heavy crowds of armies like in 300: Rise of an Empire, and the mob of zombies in World War Z. To create this, predetermined virtual paths (waypoints) are used based on our common movements and are randomly chosen to mimic real humans.

world-war-z zombies

Nearly all video game characters are computer generated (CG) with some becoming the main star through the use of Motion Capture (MoCap) and voice-overs, such as Ellen Page‘s character in Beyond: Two Souls, or the newly released Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare featuring Kevin Spacey.

Kevin Spacey, Call of Duty, 3d facial scan

Every year we inch closer and closer to bridging the gap between virtual and reality, and like all endeavors, change is inevitable. Stay tuned for more updates. The wave that is technology is something you want to be on top of rather than submerged in.

 

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Using Lidar Technology

In recent years, Lidar has become the most used technology and is a necessity for many industries. Lidar is typically used to scan large areas or environments, buildings, and vehicles. It’s been used for mapping cities and for agricultural use, however our main use has been for visual effects purposes.

building scan 2

tng cg town, lidar scanning, 3d scanning

When we use the FARO scanner on a job, the data captured can be used for Previs and then again as a background for a set. The scanner can either be mounted on a tripod to scan a large area or object, or can be attached to a vehicle or helicopter to collect the data. Some units can now scan point clouds at a much higher rate than past units. If the job is in a more remote area, we make sure to bring along a portable generator for the scanner. One thing to note is the need for a collection of SD cards to store the scans on.

Lidar scanning on site, battle ship

Whether you are scanning in a studio or for a commercial at a baseball stadium, planning is paramount to getting the best results in the shortest period of time. You observe your surroundings, consider the timeframe you have been allotted and are willing to spend on location, and you think about how many scans there will be along with their positions to optimally cover everything vital.

building scan

There are some tricks to aligning the point cloud Lidar data. For example, light bulbs in street lights can be used as markers – or anything for that matter of a consistent size that’s throughout the scene. Another style of alignment is to use printed out targets that are seen by each scanner position – with enough overlap on each scan. Line of sight is very important as well as observing the conditions such as wind and anything that can move in the scene during the capturing period.

 

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The Process Behind 3D Scanning & Processing Data

There are clear cut differences between 3D scanning a human character and a hard surface object. When 3D scanning an object, you will receive precise and accurate measurements because an object does not move. A person, however, cannot remain entirely motionless which results in creating an alternate way of 3D scanning a human to locally obtain tight alignments that provide good measurements. Larger objects require larger 3D scanners or at least larger 3D volume boxes, which are calibrated for their size, and thus a smaller 3D volume box has less chance for incongruities.

3d scanned sunglasses

To begin with the process of 3D scanning an object, reference pictures are first taken which aid the 3D modeler, 3D texture artist, and during final QC (Quality Check) to make sure the 3D object matches the real life counterpart. After the object is 3D scanned (sometimes multiple scans are needed), the scan data is aligned and fused together. A good alignment requires some pre-requisite factors such as having overlapping data and choosing intelligent places to start and stop scans as well as the angle of the scanner at the time of the scanning. Once the 3D scan technician acknowledges they have as close to 100% coverage as feasibly possible, the scan is complete and can be processed.

3d scanning before & after

Processing the data can take a longer or shorter time depending on the resolution needed. The higher the resolution you work with in 3D, the slower the process. It’s much easier to work with 5,000 to 500,000 polygons versus 5 million to 50 million polygons. In fact, when working at such high resolutions, decimation (or multiple) must take place (and at the right time within the process). Once the scan data is processed and decimation has been executed, the 3D modeler can begin their work. With the use of the images captured from the professional photo shoot, along with a perfect silhouette and scale of the item provided by the 3D scan, the modeler will 3D model out the many components and unwrap the geo for the 3D texture artist.

lidar scanned vehicle, 3d scanning

The texture artist then paints the object (or projects images) as well as paint seams of where the UV coordinates were cut. The completed texture is given back to the 3D modeler who will bring out further detail through sculpting. As the model is finished off, the normal maps and displacement maps are generated. These maps provide multiple ways for the 3D model to be viewed; taxing the render engine less and proving a higher quality result.

 

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An Overview of Current State of 3D Scanning in VFX

Seekscale interviewed Nick Tesi, Founder and President of TNG Visual Effects, a 3D scanning company based in North America known for its 3d scanning work on many hits lately (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Once Upon a Time and Sleepy Hollow). While 3D scanning technologies are focused on 3D model production, which is a very specific part of a VFX pipeline, they are a great indicator of global trends at work in the industry.

3d scanned train

I was told by a studio that they used 3D scanning for 2 applications: to create 3D objects and for VFX insertion. What do you scan exactly?

We scan people, animals, cars, buildings, scenes, etc. Animals are typically difficult to scan because of their fur; however we use different technologies for different scanning targets.

We are a one-stop-shop for film, television, and all of the entertainment industry. One amusing point is sometimes we’ll scan and deliver 3D models that are within minutes of their death. Studios often need a 3D replica just before they blow up or freeze a character, or throw them from a cliff.

We’ll scan anything people need scanned! We take a lot of different types of work. A few weeks ago a friend called us from the California Science Center to 3D scan the Space Shuttle Endeavour.

What is your technology stack? Are you a services company or a technology company? Do you use proprietary algorithms?

We are a 3D scanning services bureau for the entertainment industry.

For example, we provide scanning services to Blur (a lot of cinematics and game trailers), Stargate (episodic television work), ABC and Fox (Sleepy Hollow) to name a few.

For our technology stack, we use LIDAR to scan buildings, structured light scanners for people, and professional photography for texture mapping. We really use different tools for different use cases.

On the software side, most scanners come with their own software, and proprietary algorithms. Once we get a 3D model out of the scanner software, we go to Maya for quality control, then Mari for texture mapping, and then Zbrush to fine-tune the details.

Are your 3D models used for previz or for final results?

The studios don’t always tell us what they do with our 3D models but they can be used for either. If it is a character that we scanned, then usually the next step is to rig the model by inserting digital bones. They may want to add cyber hair, etc., and we also offer 3d scanning for facial expression to give the character more life.

We could expand into a rigging business, but currently we leave that to the studios because there is no standard yet, everybody does it differently. We usually ask for wireframes so that we can anticipate problems and provide ready to use 3D models.

What are the transformative effects of 3D scanning over a VFX pipeline? From the logistics, timing (scheduling, fixing emergencies etc), rendering, data volumes point of views…

The big studios put together a VFX team for each project. This team will go out and find production houses with the right skills for different sets of shots. They then come and see us and ask us to send our 3D models out to the production houses that will be working on the models so they can match the plates.

As a result we don’t have much visibility over each house pipeline, so it’s hard for us to answer that. However, one thing is clear, more and more studios now call us at the last minute (1 or 2 days notice) and we’re now becoming known for our flexibility and speed of delivery. The industry is going towards shorter cycles, and towards local partners. We try to adapt, and recently launched satellite offices in several locations throughout North America. We think 3D scanning is becoming mature, and like all mature and efficient technology, people turn to it to assist in their production.

Is 3D scanning technology becoming commoditized?

You see consumer devices that are able to do some 3D scanning (Kinect for example), but they are still low-end, not good enough for production purposes. The better your scanner is the better the model is, and the less work humans will have to do. So there is a strong economic drive to pick top-notch hardware.

For example, Lightstage provides the most expensive 3D scanning solution, and then you have other companies doing photogrammetry (mainly in the UK with investments between $100K-$250K) with 100 or more cameras surrounding the target, you can find hardware at all price tags.

When picking hardware, you have 2 criteria: portability (if you need to go onsite), and resolution. For resolution, we provide 3 levels of service: low resolution (for an extra in the background), medium to high resolution, and high resolution for main characters needing a good amount of screen time.

There was a Star Wars teaser where an actor was moving, and in real-time a Stormtrooper was moving in the real movie environment. This is real-time MoCap, could we have real-time 3D scanning soon?

That’s a combination of a motion capture device and a rigged 3D model. These are clearly awesome technology, but keep in mind that 3D models have to be rigged first. We can’t just scan someone in real time, rig in real time, and then have the person appear in the movie environment. Moreover, doing this for high resolution would be problematic since there is always a lot of 3D modeling and manual cleaning involved. So unfortunately, I think we won’t be stopping expert manual work anytime soon!

Where do you see your business going?

Personally I think all movies will soon be all-VFX. Most characters would be filmed on green screens and cyber characters would be used more and more. Building digital assets should be quite a good market (and good for us!), with the hope that hardware and software will improve, and artists and technicians gaining even more knowledge in their fields. So I think we shall have ever more amazing VFX!

Written by François Ruty, Seekscale

Where’s your closest TNG location?

tng vfx locations

We welcome your feedback! Comment on our blog or visit our Facebook page.