Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Creating a Giant

Jupiter I invoke, the Earth, and Solar Light, the Moon's pure splendor, and the Stars of night. Thus spake the ancient Orphists, according to Thomas Taylor. Of images, however, they remained silent.

In order to get convincing footage for one of the most majestic vistas in the Solar System - the gas giant Jupiter - the production team quickly realized it would not really be feasible to shoot on location.

Even at the very shortest the distance from Earth to Jupiter is 365 million miles, give or take. Since going there was simply out of the question something else clearly needed to be done. Consequently the decision was made to create the entire planet digitally, something that had never been done before.

Thereby 2010: The Year We Make Contact became one of the first movies to seamlessly incorporate CGI with live action photography; the CGI effects were in fact rather revolutionary for their time. The movie also has another digital first to it's name: it is the first movie to combine computational fluid dynamics with CGI, which nowadays is rather standard digital cloud-making fare. Here is the whole story about the Jovian bits.

The players

Digital Productions

The company that actually produced the CGI Jupiter effects was called Digital Productions. The company was started in 1982 by John Whitney, Jr. and Gary Demos, after they left Information International, Inc. (also  known as III, or simply Triple I, a company that built electronic paste up techniques for magazines) mainly due to a disagreement over the amount of computing power that needed to be devoted to feature film production, particularly for the movie Tron. Demos and Whitney were convinced the future of visual effects lie in computational power, and lobbied hard for better CPUs. Triple I did not budge, and the duo left to form their own company.

The pinnacle of computing power at the time was the Cray. The first commercial Cray model - prophetically named Cray 1 - was just about to be replaced by the next model in Cray's product line, the Cray X-MP. Digital Productions acquired one the moment one became available. It was at the time the only Cray X-MP (of six in existence) that was not in governmental or military use.

Demos and Whitney and the Cray X-MP.

Digital Productions was financed by CDC (Control Data Corporation), and the Cray was leased from Ramtek, the frame buffer company. While the Cray certainly provided the CPU power that Whitney and Demos desired, the cost was astronomical. According to facts and figures the computer required approximately $12,000 per month for electricity - it was said "Cray manufactured the most expensive refridgerators money could buy" - and was marred with maintenance costs approaching $50,000. When Digital Productions set out to create their business model the industry simply did not have contracts that would cover such immense costs, but both Demos and Whitney were adamant: the Cray was there to stay.

The first 'civilian' Cray X-MP with proud parents.

At their peak, Digital Productions employed between 75 and 100 employees, and executed special effects for a number of films and advertisements. Some of the more notable projects include a whopping 27 minutes of CG for The Last Starfighter - which cost $14M (Digital Productions's contract was for $4.5M) and grossed only $21M - Mick Jagger's Hard Woman music video, Labyrinth, and of course the Jupiter sequence for 2010.

Boss Film and EEG

When Richard Edlund left ILM to form his own company in 1983, Boss Film Studios, one of the first jobs he got was 2010. Boss Film Studios were contracted by director Peter Hyams to produce the shooting models for the Discovery and the Leonov, as well as the smaller models for the Russian reconnaissance pods. By far the most complex and innovative project was, however, the creation of the gas giant Jupiter.

When the production team decided to utilize digital technology to generate Jupiter the obvious choice was to cooperate with Digital Productions, using both the Digital Film Printer (DFP) that was originally constructed for Star Wars, as well as the pride of Digital Productions, their Cray X-MP.

Creating a Giant

The giant gas planet Jupiter is one of the crucial elements in the movie. The aerobraking sequence, among other scenes, rest on the visual quality of the planet; if the planet does not look real and believable, all scenes where the planet is an element would have to be redesigned. Special effects supervisor Richard Edlund realized Jupiter needed to be created digitally in order for it to be the central, detailed visual element that was needed in the film. The effects shots simply had to be lifelike, there was no other option. "The longer the audience has to study the shot," he said, "the more difficult it becomes." Before 2010 an effects shot averaged 3 seconds in length. In contrast, the Jupiter sequence shots occupied 8 second of screen time on average. "An effects shot is going to show itself as an effects shot eventually," Edlund said, "and the degree of detail and difficulty goes up almost logarithmically based upon the time it is on the screen."

Early in the production director Peter Hyams, special effects supervisor Richard Edlund, Digital Productions' president John Whitney Jr. and vice president Gary Demos, along with fractal consultant Walter Gish and software engineer Larry Yaeger, both also of Digital Productions, met up at The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to look at the Jupiter images taken by the Voyager space probe.

Mosaic obtained from JPL.

Richard Terrile from JPL showed the team images, both still and moving, of the swirling chaos and ceaseless motion of Jupiter's cloud cover. The stills were actually the same stills JPL scientists themselves used for simulations and mission planning. While fascinating and mesmerizing, the production team quickly understood the quality of the imagery was too poor to be used in a feature film. According to Larry Yaeger there were "visible linear anomalies, sections with bad data, and they were insufficiently detailed". In several images shadows from the Jovian moons blocked out big chunks of the cloud patterns. John Whitney Jr. immediately realized more detail was needed "to enhance audience perception of the enormous size of the biggest planet in our Solar System."

JPL Jupiter approach animation (6.5 MB file)

However, a mosaic consisting of Voyager II images was nevertheless obtained from JPL. The mosaic was then used to pinpoint the major vortices of the swirling cloud cover: a copy was made, cleaned up, and the rather painstaking manual labor of locating the swirls, comparing them to the surrounding clouds, and marking the rotation direction - clockwise or anticlockwise, i.e. negative or positive - was begun.

Composite mosaic used to pinpoint vortices.

Larry Yaeger then proceeded to place the vortex rotations. The surface map was then scanned and used as a contour map, marking the global initial vorticity distribution with color coding. These color codes were then used to simulate the circulation patterns of Jupiter's atmosphere.

Jupiter map with vortices marked, negative rotation in blue, positive in white.

The vortex data was then used as raw data for the animation programs that were created by the software engineers at Digital Productions. There existed no fluid animation programs for the Cray, so the Digital Productions software engineers set out to create them. The resulting programs were in-house productions, coded in CFT (Cray Fortran) and CAL (Cray Assembly Language). "The key to the creation of the swirling clouds of Jupiter," says Gary Demos, "was the creation of a Navier-Stokes fluid dynamics particle system by Larry Yaeger and Craig Upson." The programmers - enhanced with Robert Myers, an associate of Yaeger's - set about programming three separate programs: 'Trade', which translated the 2D images into time-stretched versions of themselves; 'Winds', which applied the vortex data to the textures; and 'Depict' which averaged several of the vortex-and-time-stretched images to finally produce a processed picture frame. These three pieces of software engineering were then collectively called 'Vortex', and this was the suite that was used to produce the animation.

Mitch Wade and Larry Yaeger make calculations, Craig Upson looks on.

The issue of the lack of detail still existed, though. The problem was rather elegantly solved; instead of aquiring more detailed imagery by extrapolating the existing, real footage - obtaining new source material was, of course, rather impossible - the decision was made to add new details by simply painting them in.

An 8-foot-by-30-inch image composite was created from the real footage from Voyager II and production artist Ron Gress was commisioned to airbrush the entire wallpaper-sized picture, adding detail and enhancing colours and contrast. According to Digital Productions, Gress added "complex, realistic cloud swirls into separation and recirculation regions."

Artist Ron Gress airbrushing Jupiter 'snakeskin'.

Since the mosaic was created from images snapped by Voyager II at different times, the clouds in the real images had naturally moved between shots. All of these sharp angles and differences had to be smoothed out by airbrushing. Several hundreds of these blemishes were corrected, and areas with no data were filled in by Gress by comparing the area to the surrounding cloud cover.

"Ron is a genius," says Craig Upson. "He spent a month repainting the entire thing." The airbrushed 'snakeskin' was checked for consistency, repeatedly re-checked and finally declared fixed.

Larry Yaeger and Craig Upson examining the Jupiter 'snakeskin' images.

The resulting airbrushed image was then shot in 35mm VistaVision format by Christopher Dusendschon, and scanned into the Cray at Digital Productions. The detour via the VistaVision was dictated by pragmatics: there existed no digital scanner large enough to scan the artwork in one go.

Larry Yaeger and Craig Upson scrutinize the Jupiter slides.

To create the final digital texture, several images were combined into one file. In fact, four overlapping scanned images were digitally placed on top of each other, and then averaged to remove film grain from the VistaVision frames.

Full 'snakeskin' after being airbrushed by Ron Gress.
The airbrushed, fixed and scanned, now-digital 'snakeskin' was then used as a 6000 x 2500 pixel texture for the Jupiter planet. This was the texture that was used to 'wrap around' a digital sphere and animated, creating the gas giant on the silver screen.

Big Crays Don't Cry

Further obstacles were encountered before the animation could be finished, however. The Cray X-MP, impressive enough in its day, was very modest by even the most humble standards of today. While equipped with a then-massive RAM memory of 16 MB (later models of the X-MP expanded this to a whopping 64MB), a CPU operating at 105MHz, and 7 GB of hard drive space, the Cray was brought to it's knees by the Jovian animation.

Detail of linear Jupiter 'snakeskin'.

The textures were initially scanned in four parts, each at a resolution of 2560x2048 pixels, and each frame was then broken up into several million fragments, each fragment having several discrete vectors, from 1 to 5 each. These vectors were then used to extrapolate the position of the fragment in the next frame, creating a new base line for the next frame, and so on, ultimately ending up with a fluid animation for the Jupiter cloud cover. But trouble was brewing on the Jovian horizon. After successive iterations, the Cray started coughing and sputtering.

Non-linear detail.

To ease the memory load of the machine, the texture resolution was lowered to 1400 x 1000 pixels. This began producing visual artifacts, and in addition, the final result was not of high enough resolution to be usable. Yaeger's solution was to apply non-linear texture mapping to the digital sphere. In short, the areas of the gas planet which are facing the viewer are rendered with a higher resolution texture, and the "unimportant" areas that bend around towards the back of the planet are rendered in lower quality.

Killing a Giant

The final piece of animation was the implosion and 'death' of the planet. The effect was made by placing a "gravity sink" - a digital zero-length object - at the center of the sphere. This object then curved the surface of the sphere, creating a dimple in the cloud formations. Adding more gravity to the sink obviously made the hole deeper. The deeper the hole, the more black was added to the surface color, effectively creating the illusion of the sphere imploding.

The gravity sink.

The resulting animation frames were rendered at 6400 x 3240 pixels, but this was slashed in half before delivering the end product. Ultimately 3,600 frames of animation at 3200 x 1620 pixels were produced by Digital Productions. At 24 frames per second this adds up to 2 1/2 minutes of continuous animation. This loop was then used throughout the film, variously processed via a multitude of color filters, slits, and lenses. The perceptive viewer can easily recognize the tell-tale details that give away the fact the same sequence is used repeatedly throughout the movie.

Nevertheless, Jupiter had never looked as good in motion pictures before. "I think more time and effort was spent on physically getting Jupiter to look like Jupiter than has ever been spent on any single image in the history of motion pictures," Hyams remarks.

Jupiter's implosion as it appears in the movie.

One fact remains: the results are very convincing, especially considering the CGI effects are over 30 years old as of writing. "We have created," said Richard Edlund at the time, "an image of Jupiter that is more advanced than anything anyone has ever seen before." He was completely right.

In addition to the Jupiter globe, several thousand monoliths were created for the final sequence. These multiplying, replicating and swirling monoliths were not printed to film from the Cray, however. The monoliths were simply shot from a stabilized line-drawing display, the display having a fine enough resolution for images to be shot directly from the display screen to be shown on the cinema screen. What 'fine enough' really means, is up for debate. "We were filming off a CRT face," says Craig Upson, "about five inches across."

Creating the animations was an immensely time-consuming process. With a rendering time of over 2 minutes per frame, one second of film took an hour to produce. Richard Edlund laughs, "I would ask for a test, and John [Whitney] would say 'how about thirty frames'?"

Yet, after all was said and digitally done, the images of Jupiter in 2010 were vastly superior to anything previously seen on the silver screen or elsewhere. They were so good, in fact, that when director Peter Hyams showed the resulting images to JPL consultant Rich Terrile, the scientific adviser was astonished. "It is beyond a simulation," says Hyams, "it is Jupiter, and it's an image to be proud of."

Post script

In the name of full disclosure, while the images of Jupiter were quite revolutionary for the time and the results are astonishing, the image on the silver screen does not look like Jupiter, despite Hyams' claims.

Jupiter in true color, taken by the Hubble telescope.

Jupiter, according to it's popular image, is very much tinted in red. The actual gas giant is not really red at all, rather a bland beige with light brown stripes. Despite this fact, the image of the 'Red Giant' is so ingrained in the public consciousness that only a select few amateur and professional astronomers who watch the movie might let out a groaned sigh.

For the rest of us the image in the movie really is the Jovian planet. Colours be darned.

Images copyright ©1979 NASA, ©1983-1984 MGM.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

2010 center-pin Frank Yablans dead at 79

On Thursday, November 27, 2014, New York-born Frank Yablans, who was the president of Paramount Pictures during the era that produced movies including Chinatown and The Godfather, died of natural causes at his home in L.A., according to his son, ICM Partners agent Edvard Yablans. Yablans was 79.

Frank Yablans with Diana Ross.

Investor Kirk Kerkorian brought him on as vice chairman and chief operating officer and co-chairman of MGM from 1983 to 1985. During this time Yablans began to restructure the companies United Artists and MGM, creating MGM/UA as a single company, drastically reducing costs. Immediately after assuming his responsibilities at MGM/UA, Yablans launched a program to attract new talent all the while keeping costs manageable.

It was during this time he was instrumental in bringing 2010 to the silver screen. Having produced Peter Hyams' The Star Chamber, Hyams was Yablans' first choice as director once MGM/UA had procured the movie rights to Clarke's novel, after ceremoniously having offered the director's chair to Stanley Kubrick knowing full well the offer would be equally ceremoniously declined. Hyams, too, declined the offer, several times in fact, but Yablans was adamant: Hyams was to be the director. Ultimately Yablans got his way; Hyams relented and the movie became a reality.

However despite Yablans’ efforts to reduce costs by combining the historic studio with United Artists, the studio continued to face financial troubles. By March 10, 1985, the movie 2010 had earned $40.700.000 domestically, but Kirk Kerkorian was "impatient" and had the blunt-spoken and direct Yablans removed from the company.

Yablans proceeded to set up his own venture and produced films and television productions until the end of his life.

His son Edvard Yablans put it succinctly: "He never retired."

(Article in Variety magazine)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The cars of 2010

What will personal transportation look like in the future, four years ago, in 2010? Peter Hyams has his own ideas regarding the issue.

The cars, or rather the car of 2010: The Year We Make Contact is seldom mentioned. Perhaps it is because only one single car is seen driving in the movie, and it is seen only once. (A television advertisement for Sheraton hotels shows people exiting a DeLorean for a couple of seconds, but it is merely ancillary.) In any case, this article tries to rectify the lapse.

Design concept for the concept car.

Science fiction and fantasy movies often have specially made ad hoc cars and other vehicles, novelty items created by the prop department specifically as props for the movie. Not so in 2010. The car in question is an actual, driveable, real, bona fide car, created by a third party. What is this mystery car, then?

The car is a Ford Probe IV Concept Car, built in 1982/1983 by the Ford motor company. Ford launched a Probe model in 1989, but this vehicle is a completely different beast. The Ford concept cars were never meant to be templates for production models, but rather feasibility studies. Car companies made and still make concept cars, often outrageous designs never even remotely considered for production, but rather as eye catchers at shows. The Probe however was different. Fully operational and innovative, is was conceivably the most advanced concept car Ford ever made.

As is apparent from the model number - the roman numeral IV - there should have been three previous concept cars, right? Wrong. The Probe II Concept Car was never made, and number 1 obviously never had a number. In addition Probe III was only targeted for European markets and was a creation of Ford Europe. This means Probe IV was, despite the numeral, essentially the second general Ford Concept Car.

Ford Probe
1983 promotional picture for the concept car with wheel strakes clearly visible.

Probe IV was created after the 1979 Oil Shock, a largely manufactured energy crisis that never the less had real world repercussions. For the first time aerodynamics and fuel efficiency were brought to the forefront in car design. Car designs prior to the '79 crisis fundamentally looked like barges compared to the sleek, arrow-like designs that came after it.

Looking Forward

Probe IV was the epitome of aerodynamic thinking of the day. One of the most striking features of the design are the urethane wheel enclosures, created to minimize wheel well turbulence and to reduce drag. The membrane 'skirts' bulged and shifted with the wheels when turning the vehicle, reducing aero drag remarkably. There were other innovations in the design, as well. The undercar airflow was reduced by a streamlined belly pan and strakes in front of and behind the wheels. The front headlights were housed in a cone-like plastic casing. The seats were molded sling seats to reduce roof height while maintaining driving comfort. The windscreen had a wind spoiler at the base, and even the emblems and logos were flush with the car surface. In fact, the entire car changed posture when driving at higher speeds: the front end could 'dip' four inches, and the rear end could be raised up to six inches, all to create a more aerodynamic driving profile. As a result, Probe IV had a Cd (drag coefficient for the un-initiated) of 0.152, the same as an F-16 fighter jet.

The only car in the movie.

There are not many outdoor scenes in the movie at all. Perhaps that is why the Probe is so visible. Being photographed from the front, alert viewers can also notice the strangely thin tires of the vehicle, thin discs that almost look like bicycle tires. The thinness is not due to any optical illusion: the tires were P155/75R-16 LDC thin profile tires with a low drag tread pattern specially-developed by Goodyear for the Probe IV to reduce drag and raise fuel efficiency.

Looking Further

According to production designer Albert Brenner, director Peter Hyams requested the Ford because "he wanted the most advanced design car he could find." However, one little detail seems to suggest that even the advanced Probe was a bit too limited.

When the car passes the viewer, the distinct humming of an electric motor can be heard. The Probe IV however made no such sound; the scene was in fact shot silent and all the dialogue and audio effects, including the electric hum, were added in post-production by Richard Anderson's sound department. The Probe IV was after all powered by fossil fuel. A turbo-charged 1.6 liter engine, tilted almost flat to reduce hood height, but a fossil fuel engine never the less. Electric it was not.

While the Probe IV was a very forward-thinking vehicle, with plenty of clever designs, it seems director Peter Hyams wanted to go one step further.

Images copyright ©1982-1983 Ford Motor Corporation, ©1984 MGM.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

2010 Picture Archive

The 2010 Odyssey Archive maintains an amazing resource for Peter Hyams' 20102010 picture archive

The biggest 2010 archive on the internet, bar none.

The archive is the most comprehensive picture collection regarding 2010: The Year We Make Contact available anywhere on the Internet, with over a thousand pictures about the movie, about the filming, about the props, and of course about the legacy of 2010.

Please be sure to check it out.

Friday, November 7, 2014

It was the best of Hyams, it was the worst of Hyams

The mysteries surrounding the Monolith were, perhaps, explained in 2010. On the other hand, the answer we received was, perhaps, not meant for the question we asked.

It seems people are of two minds regarding Peter Hyams' 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Either some people do not particularly like it for what it is not - mostly because it is a sequel to one of the most heralded movies in all of science fiction, conceivably all of cinema - or then they like it for what it actually is: a well crafted science fiction tale.

The Leonov heading for the Jovian system.

2010 came out in late 1984. To present a little bit of context this was the year that witnessed the release of TerminatorGhostbusters and Beverly Hills Cop. Among the light fluff of the 1984 movie canvas, 2010 was rather an oddity: a cerebral science fiction film with a positive message, in a time when all others around it were focusing on oddball comedy, savage robots, and marshmallow men.

The main reason for the more negative reviews seemed to be that it was (and is) very difficult - almost impossible - to decouple the movie from its formidable older sibling. If, however, one manages to do that one can notice that 2010 is, in fact, not a bad movie at all.

The most common criticism raised against 2001: A Space Odyssey is the impenetrable symbolism contained in the imagery. Because imagery is what it is, the first sound of a human voice comes at almost half an hour into the movie. In contrast, humanity is at the very core of Hyams' film. The first time we hear a human voice in 2010: The Year We Make Contact is at 00:00 seconds. The entire movie in fact opens with Dave Bowman's utterance of total amazement: 'My God, it's full of stars.'

The mystery reveals itself.

Andrej Tarkovsky said he made Solaris in response to the "cold and sterile" world of 2001. He felt Kubrick's movie was focused on tech and "lacked humanism". It cannot be denied, to a great extent the 1968 movie was and still is a tour-de-force of technology. In Tarkovsky's words, Kubrick "forgets about man, about his moral problems", arguing that such an approach leaves no place for people. While the Russian directors "anti-2001" arguments were drummed up a couple of notches too much in the Cold War narrative - and we now can (with 20-20 hindsight) see 2001 and Solaris as cousins and not antagonists - there is a grain of truth in Tarkovsky's words.

Where the elder sibling of 2010 was inaccessible and mysterious, the follow-up is an accessible, positive tale. All 2001 did was ask questions, it provided no real interpretations to any of the issues it examined. To be fair Solaris never offered any resolutions either, it only offered us a sense of grief.

2010, on the other hand, finally grants us a reply - at least partly - and states that the answer is a benevolent one. It tells us the Universe is not, after all, a hostile place. The Cosmos is host to a benign force, a compassionate instrumentality - one that goes the distance to offset the merciless indifference of what has been called the "hopeless distance" of the megacosm.

There is something out there, and I think they will be our friends.

Images copyright ©1984 MGM.