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Sun 21 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Kindling theFlame

Tallen Chow, Flame artist at Dubai-based post production facility Blackstone Studios takes the new Flame 2009 through its paces.

Tallen Chow, Flame artist at Dubai-based post production facility Blackstone Studios takes the new Flame 2009 through its paces.

I've been an Inferno/Flame artist since 2002 at The Video Lab in Johannesburg where I worked on numerous films and commercial projects. In September last year, I joined Blackstone Studios, which was a new boutique post facility.

Being a new start-up company, Flame wasn't an option because of the price, but it definitely became a consideration as the projects grew bigger. Since last year, I got to composite on some of the node-based compositing systems, notably Eyeon's Fusion and Shake. I also took on some editing in Final Cut Pro and some broadcast design work.

The majority of the high-end work [here] is still film-based so we receive a lot of material originating on 16mm or rendered as 2K digital files. That means it is crucial to work efficiently at those resolutions. - Tallen Chow.

At Blackstone Studios, we offer a creative shop catering to the boom in digital imaging in the region. We've produced advanced animation and VFX for commercials including campaigns for Coke, Absolut Vodka, Porsche and American Express, but also sophisticated CAD animations and 3D architectural fly-throughs fuelled by demand in the region's real estate sector. We run Autodesk Maya and Autodesk 3ds Max software with editing on Final Cut Pro Studio from a Mac G5.

By investing in Flame 2009, the idea was to create a more robust 3D compositing environment for the facility and enable us to produce advanced graphics at a faster throughput than previously possible. So Flame 2009 isn't just a leap for Blackstone but also for me personally as my last experience of Flame was version 8.5. Everything has changed since 8.5, and yet every function is familiar and intuitive.

The first thing you notice are the widescreen menus which have been entirely redesigned to make use of the 16x9 graphical interface. The Object node bin and Object menu make it easier to add and control elements in the scene. Whereas previously you had to click a few tabs to get into different menus, now it's a lot easier to switch between functions with the single click of a button.

One thing that Flame has never had and I've always desired, were Custom Batch Nodes, which enable an operator to create their own tools. I noticed that this function was included almost as a basic in other packages like Shake and Fusion but now Flame has it too.The ability to create your own tools means that once a function works for you, you can name it, save it and reuse it again. These are great shortcuts for speedier working and enable each operator to customise the software for themselves.

Also new is a revamped set of 3D tools. I can set the action resolution to match the background clip resolution automatically and temporarily hide whole objects from a complex scene. By simply selecting a solo object, I can isolate any object from the background schematic and do so as many times as I like. This saves time by not having to hide multiple objects one by one and makes life a lot easier at a facility like ours which handles such a volume of high-end 3D animations.

Essentially, instead of having to yield time and resource for 3D to a third party system, the 3D can now be maintained within Flame itself. Instead of waiting for camera motion issues that would normally have to be solved using an external 3D package and additional 3D artists along with additional render time, I can import 3D geometry including NURBS objects, lights, and camera data from animation packages and implement it myself with client attend so we can show them changes straightaway.

I can also export camera data, axis positions, and 3D point clouds [also via the Autodesk FBX interchange format] and map textures onto objects by simply importing them into my scene rather than waiting for it to be built.

On the animation side, there's a new option that Autodesk has pulled directly from Smoke. While the rest of the animation functions essentially remain the same, the ‘Insert Key' is a way to add keyframes to an animation curve.

One way to use this function is to change the duration between two key frames, navigate to an existing key frame on the curve and slide the value so it changes the timing and ripples the rest of the curve.

If the duration is for 20 frames, I press insert and a new keyframe will be inserted 20 frames later while all existing key frames will shift automatically to the right. The insert key value will automatically determine how much the next set of key frames ripple down the curve.

Flame's greater support for OpenEXR, the open-source alternative to DPX and Cineon (file formats we also use) is also a big plus point. This is applied straight out of the render into Flame's Action for high dynamic range files. OpenEXR gives great latitude when it comes to compositing, grading and CG.

When a frame is too dark, I can still pull light out of the shadows and when it's too light I can retrieve details without having to re-render. That's another big time saver. The format seems to do the trick and handle the extra colour space whereas with Tiffs or Targas we've had some problems with clipping in the past.On the debit side, Flame seems to be lacking in the more advanced 3D object compositing field. It would be great to see Autodesk improve Flame's capabilities with regards to better 3D object manipulation for compositing. I've seen some of Eyeon Fusion's latest developments and I think they're leading the pack there.

I definitely would also enjoy a slightly more robust, advanced particle system. (*Autodesk Flame 2009 Extension 1 now features new 3D compositing tools and particle systems including animated GMask 3D extrude to create textured 3D objects, 3D tracker enhancements and more than 80 new presets for 3D particle effects.)

One disadvantage is that the editing function in the player in the previous versions of Flame have been altogether replaced by the Smoke timeline editing. It's been a learning curve having to adapt to that style of editing. It would've been great to have the choice of switching between the two.

Perhaps the biggest difference running throughout the new changes to Flame is its speed. We're running Flame off a Linux HP workstation as a standalone suite with its own breakout box and sound box.

It is not currently networked by the WiretapCentral software that enables web browsing of Autodesk systems' clip libraries although that it is on our agenda. It used to be painfully slow rendering HD files but now we're regularly working at 2K resolutions with rendering reduced by something like 5 to 1.

A file which took 10 minutes to render is now complete in just two. Presently, we are creating two 2-3 minute full 2k commercials/short films for one of the islands being developed on The World in Dubai.

The majority of the high-end work in the emirate is still film-based so we receive a lot of material originating on 16mm or rendered as 2K digital files. That means it is crucial to work efficiently at those resolutions.

However, as digital HD formats like Panasonic P2 or the Sony systems [XDCAM/EX] are introduced, we've got a system that can support that without any upgrades or patches. [New in Flame 2009 is support for direct ingest of P2 MXF files, Panasonic's AVC-Intra compression and for XDCAM and XDCAM HD codecs].

Right now we're focused on architectural visualisation and commercials, but until the arrival of Flame, we were restricted to short-form projects. Now we feel we can take on longer-form work since we can get a lot more done in the same time. We're pushing to work with more 2K and HD because this product enables us to deliver more.

In my year away from Flame, the one thing I always missed was having the ability to do everything in one package: editing and good compositing. It was a good eye opener because I learnt new compositing tricks and now that I'm back on Flame it feels like I'd never left, but yet so much has changed.

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