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Name a blockbuster movie, and chances are London-based Framestore has had a hand in the visual effects. Europe’s largest visual effects and computer animation studio, Framestore’s portfolio of recent films includes Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time, Where the Wild Things Are and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. For the creation of the animated “Dobby” character in this last film, Framestore won its 15th VES Award. The company has also been the recipient of numerous BAFTA, Emmy and Technical Academy awards over the course of its 20-year history. In addition to film, it handles many commercial and television clients as well.

Framestore works closely with the makers of production and post tools to help further develop them for the ever-changing visual needs of the commercial, television and film world. We had a chance to speak with Framestore Head of Paint and Roto Marc Rice, who worked on Avatar, about his background and collaboration with Silhouette for the film.

How did you get involved in the visual arts? Did you go to school for it?

I was always a very keen photographer. As a child, I set up a dark room in my garage, and also at school. Then in college, I studied it along with film and IT. Films have always been an influence for me, and when choosing a university course, it was a natural progression to combine my photography skills with my love of film. I have a Bachelor of Science in Computer Animation and Special Effects from the University of Bradford [in the United Kingdom].

After university I had a job as a cameraman at a production company, then worked for ITN in London. Framestore held a two-day training session back in 2008, which I heard about from a friend who was a runner at the time. It was recruiting heavily for artists on Where The Wild Things Are, and took me on as a junior paint and roto artist.

As you’ve done the paint and rotoscoping on most of your past projects, this is clearly your area of expertise. Did you learn most of this on job at Framestore?

University taught me the basics of the skills I have today, though we used software that was different than what I use at Framestore to achieve the same results. Framestore is very dedicated to staff training. It holds regular training sessions for its artists and many of the seniors are more than happy to help teach you new techniques.

What tools do you use for your roto and paint work?

We use The Foundry’s Nuke and Silhouette FX’s Silhouette. We use Silhouette to do all our roto and frame-by-frame paint work. Silhouette’s B-splines work very well. The corner pin function allows for less boiling in your mattes and the splines themselves are much more versatile. Its paint function is second to none, with its onion-skinning option being a favorite of mine. It’s something I always make sure I teach new artists.

That’s a good segue into your use of Silhouette for Avatar. Where was Avatar shot, and who handled the post?

It was filmed all over the globe, though mainly in California, Hawaii and New Zealand. Framestore flew out visual effects supervisors to the sets for the sequences we worked on, so that we always had a presence on set. We worked closely with James Cameron to create his vision.

Post was split up between three main houses -- ourselves, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and Weta Digital, as well as Prime Focus and Blur. We worked with all these companies to make sure what we were all doing matched and would seamlessly link with one another.

What sequences in Avatar did Framestore handle?

We worked on four major sequences: Jake Sully’s arrival at the Hell’s Gate military complex on Pandora, the Hell’s Gate military landing field, the team’s night escape from Hell’s Gate on the Samson tilt-rotor helicopter and Sully’s initial conversation with Colonel Miles Quaritch.

How did you use Silhouette for these sequences? Could you discuss the workflow?

This wasn’t a conversion film; it was filmed ‘toe-in’ rather than parallel, where the left eye would reveal slightly more of the left of the character and the right more of the right, meaning we had two separate plates that needed work done on them. Without Silhouette, this would have required us to do the rotoscoping literally on the hero-eye camera, and then again on the second eye. Tests we did initially showed this would have caused the two plates to be slightly off, making the shot slightly fuzzy, which would have given moviegoers headaches!

Silhouette’s stereoscopic tools allowed us to load in both plates at the same time, line them up side by side, create splines on one eye, then automatically copy and link the splines to the other eye. We would then manually offset the splines, so that whatever we did to one would automatically move to the other.

Silhouette also has the functionality to paint in stereo as well, which I used to paint out tracking markers on the character's masks (the glass on the masks were added in after to help add correct reflections in). This meant that the paint work was kept consistent and when you viewed the stereo output it all lined up.

In terms of the rest of our visual effects workflow, we would render off review comps using our mattes from Silhouette, they would then get approved internally in our department and our in-house visual effects supervisor would then view these in our Avid Suites as dailies before they went to the compositor. Once the compositors had the mattes, we would have conference calls with Cameron, where he had looked over Framestore's work, and feedback would come back down the line to us.

How would you have had to approach this project if you didn't have Silhouette?

The alternative would have been to do the roto in Apple's Shake, which I don't recommend. As well as having to do everything twice, the tools available at the time we worked on Avatar were far less superior and we would just not have been able to produce the quality that we did in Silhouette. I honestly think that without Silhouette we wouldn't have been able to complete the amount of work that we had in the time we had to do it.

Silhouette is relatively cheap compared to some of the larger compositing packages that do the same work. The corner pin option in it is priceless -- something no other packages have integrated into their roto tools. Although the onion skinning option has been repeated in other packages, I always take the time to render out my paint work and take it into Silhouette if I ever need to do frame-by-frame painting, as it is a much superior tool to use. It gives you the option to clone from multiple frames and roll-mix your paint work, giving you a smoother result.

For Avatar, did you use other technologies in addition to Silhouette? Did Silhouette compliment them?

Silhouette complements compositing packages on a huge scale, as well as being able to render out float dpx sequences. It also gives you the option of exporting splines. This can be a useful option over rendering out mattes, allowing the compositors to tweak your key frames if need be and alter their own motion blur.

When did you first hear about Silhouette?

I first heard about Silhouette when I moved to Framestore in 2008. I'm now aware that most of the other houses in the industry use it. We help train students at a visual effects course held at Escape Studios in London to use Silhouette, and I'm in constant contact with universities now, pushing them to start using it so that students can finish their degrees and be in a much stronger position to get a job than I was at the time of my graduation.

Besides Avatar, what other projects have you used Silhouette on?

I use Silhouette on every project I have worked on and so does a lot of the compositing team. Projects include: Where the Wild Things Are, Sherlock Holmes 1 and 2, Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time, Salt, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Your Highness.

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