Thursday, October 31, 2013

Blue GFX at London's South Bank

Blue GFX Expo is an annual showcase for the visual effects industry and the software that drives it, sponsored by (among many others) the software-wizards Autodesk - who make Maya and 3DStudioMax, and much of the other software that we use in the VFX industry. Housed slightly incongruously in the vast and rambling Edwardian County Hall building on London’s South Bank, the Expo was marvelously hard to find, but highly rewarding to attend.

Visual Effects Artists aren’t generally the best speakers. Most of us talk in a strange form of jargon that is only intelligible to fellow sufferers of the VFX virus. How many digital artists can explain what they do to their Mum before her eyes glaze over and she says "that's nice, dear" before changing the subject?

Demonstrating software can be a dry business at the best of times. It isn’t a recipe for crowd-pleasing speeches. Still, with so much of our industry being technology-led, it’s essential to keep up with the newest releases, lest you get left behind in the race for pipeline efficiency and a speedy workflow.
Yesterday's river View. Earth hath nothing to show more fair...
I have fond memories of London's County Hall building.  Back in 1985, aged 17, I used to take the number 12 bus from my home in Notting Hill through central London to Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. I would sit in the front seat of the top row of one of the old hop-on hop-off Routemaster buses, which offered then - and still offers today - the best (and cheapest) view of the sights of London.

County Hall: formerly London's seat of government, now full of fish. Photo:Wikipedia
Every day the bus took me over Westminster bridge, offering a perfect view of County Hall (above), then the power centre of the mighty Greater London Council. The GLC was controlled by “Red” Ken Livingtone, who installed a gigantic banner across the front of the building, screaming out the latest unemployment figures, which were still rising in the mid 1980s following the shocks of Margaret Thatcher's stern economic medicine.

The Palace of Westminster - on the other side of the river
Thatcher and her ministers were treated to a view of Ken’s big banner every time they looked out of the window of the Palace of Westminster across the river to the South Bank. But the Iron Lady had the last laugh - she closed down the GLC, and Ken was out of a job.

The GLC may be long gone, but the magnificent County Hall building is still with us. It was built between 1911 and 1922 in the Edwardian Baroque style, the last gasp of high imperial self-confidence before architecture fell under the spell of modernism. Today, County Hall hosts an odd variety of attractions including the London Eye, The London Aquarium and the London Film Museum.

Grand staircase at County Hall
One of the joys of this wonderful building is how intact the interior is. Even the toilets are faithful to the 1920s, all carved wood inlay and marble washstands. They still retain their pull-chain cisterns - just like the ones we had at school.

And, since we were next door to the London Film Museum, the corridors were filled with bits of old movie sets. Here's one from one of those end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it pictures that comes out every summer.
Lady Liberty is in the house
But I digress. Back to BlueGFX. A number of the presenters were showcasing VRay, a relatively new rendering system that aims to render everything you need - faster better and cheaper than ever before. We saw amazing clips from the Elder Scrolls. We ogled at beautiful breakdown reels showing how CG elements were combined with live action to produce stunning visual effects work. Digital doubles, CG environments, smoke, hair simulation. Everything is faster, cheaper, quicker, bringing film-quality visual effects to episodic TV and games. 
IKEA Chair - real, or CGI? Who can tell?
But it's not just movies. Even your friendly local IKEA catalogue is now one third fakery. That means IKEA are photographing digital furniture in 3D software, rather than shooting the real thing. But why go to the trouble? Because its easier and cheaper, and the viewer can’t tell the difference. Plus, they can adjust the renders to suit local tastes. The kitchen of a Hasidic family in Jerusalem will look different from that of an uptown Manhattan socialite. Rather than re-build a real kitchen, you simply adjust a digital one. Quicker, cheaper, and more flexible.

The UK's largest TV animation studio
I got to meet Tom Box and Adam Shaw, the creators of Blue Zoo, who gave an excellent presentation on how they started up their studio from scratch in 2000, having just graduated from the National Centre for Computer Studies at Bournemouth University - an inspiring story for talented graduates everywhere.

We also heard a fabulous talk by Framestore's Diarmid Harrison-Murray who directed the excellent title sequence for Skyfall. It took me back to some not-so-happy memories of Soho VFX work as he explained having to work 3 days without sleep in order to get the job done on time.

So secret even the artists weren't allowed to know
And, astonishingly, they were not even allowed the hear the music for the title sequence until near the end of production - it was too secret to let the artists hear it. But how can you possibly animate a musical title sequence without the music - and still do a brilliant job?

When he was asked what was the biggest lesson he had learned in visual effects, he said this:

"You have to get used working with clients. They will routinely mess up your beautiful work, make stupid changes. Being able to do this - and not scream into a pillow - is a vital skill to learn. And that goes for all client work".

Amen to that.

As I left the building, I could not resist poking my nose into some of the empty and apparently unused offices that line the endless wood-panelled corridors.

My new office?

I found a nice blue one with stuccoed walls and a huge fireplace that rather took my fancy. Maybe I'll turn it into my new office. County Hall is so big and empty, I'm sure no-one will notice.


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