Molecule Fueled Imagination
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Chris Healer : Molecule Fueled Imagination
The Molecule is a visual effects and motion graphics studio in New York, owned and operated by five of us - Ted Markovic, Luke DiTommaso, Andrew Bly, Luis de Leon, and myself. Each partner brings a different specialized skill-set to The Molecule - everything from lighting and shooting, to animation, visual effects, and stereoscopic 3D.
How did the company begin? "Human Error" started it all.
The first production I worked on was in Denver. It was a project that was entirely shot over blue screen. In total, it ended up being around 800 shots of blue screen with actors over very minimal sets. The picture, initially called "Below the Belt," was later renamed "Human Error" after going to Sundance in 2004. It was directed by Bob Young.
Originally, the intention was to do the post in Denver, but that deal fell apart. Months passed, and eventually I received a call from the production company asking if I could move to New York, and pick up where I left off. It just so happened that Bob Young's brother, Irwin Young, the owner of DuArt, had space on the 3rd floor of the building where they were able to set me up. And so the story began....
It was just me in the room at first. Then I hired a guy, then hired more guys, and eventually we were eight or nine guys. The growth in bodies, and the prep for Sundance, and the picture's eventual release required us to buy many more computers.
By that time, there was basically a whole studio in place that I'd built, with software to keep it running, and everything networked together - at that point, 60 computers for rendering and servers.
Years passed, and the film still hadn't yet been released. There was a studio, with all this equipment, so I started taking freelance jobs. I wound up buying the equipment, setting up shop, and incorporating - thus The Molecule was born.
The five of us have re-formed a little since then. With time and growth, our full-time staff has expanded. The total number of people continually fluctuates with the number of projects we have going at once.
The diner set for ABC's "The Unusuals." Note reflections from the Reflecmedia LiteRing in the center of the picture above. The challenge was to remove that, without removing the reflections from the set interior on the glass.
AN UNUSUAL APPROACH TO KEYING
For the ABC series "The Unusuals," the production chose a diner in New York's East Village as one of the filming locations for the pilot. Once the series was picked up, production decided to write the diner into the show. For a variety of reasons, the rest of the season was to be shot on a soundstage, thus requiring a replica of the set to be built.
They did an amazing job in building an identical copy - we're talking down to the bottles on the shelf. In fact, when we received the edit, a mix between location footage and set build, we weren't sure what we were looking at.
We couldn't figure out why they had used a green screen on the streets of New York. Did they just put it on the sidewalk outside the building? How did they light it? It just didn't make any sense. Then it finally came out - okay, got it. You built a set to match a location, and now you want us to match the two.
At first, we couldn't figure out why in the world they had used a green screen on the streets of New York. Did they just put it on the sidewalk outside the building? How did they light it? It just didn't make any sense. Then it finally came out - okay, got it. You built a set to match a location, and now you want us to match the two.
Our work on "The Unusuals" exposed us to a new technology, and thus new problems previously never faced. It was the series' decision to light the green screen behind the glass windows of the set build with a technology called Reflecmedia. While Reflecmedia definitely has its advantages, it does pose a couple problems that we were forced to address. There was the green spill from the front, newly created reflections on glass or shiny surfaces, and the projection of shadows on the Chromatte due to the front illumination of the technology.
Some effort went into hiding the LED ring from bouncing off the glass, and rotoscoping was always an option, but there was very little garbage area because we wanted to keep all of the reflections except for the ring.
We found a clever way to do the composites: by selectively spill-suppressing the source footage (using loose rotos), the spill and the greenscreen were removed.
Then, by subtracting the suppressed and unsuppressed material we could get a kind of difference matte between the two. The suppressed material doesn't approach black in the once-green areas, so the difference matte is used to expand those areas down to near black, where they would be if the material was premultiplied.
The matte was also used to modify the backplates so that color corrections would work properly. With some additional rotoscoping and tracking we were able to keep the hairs, reflections, and other fine details.
There were three sets that were entirely green screen out the windows. Over 13 episodes, that translated to over 200 shots. I could totally geek out on that for an hour, but it was a nice epiphany, to realize much better how premultiplication and un-premultiplication works on an image that's not clean enough to pull a true matte.
"Rescue Me" came along thanks to the kind word of a dear friend. Michael Barrow, the DP for "Human Error," also a 2nd unit DP for "Rescue Me," recommended us to Production.
We were brought in on the second season, and the first sequence we did was probably one of the crazier effect sequences that we've ever done for them. We were shooting film at 120 frames per second, and it was Denis Leary falling through a ceiling in an empty warehouse. The camera was supposed to zoom in on his face as he fell, and we realized that the only way to line everything up was to shoot it backwards: starting off on his face, then pulling back as he's raised up.
On stage, we had all green except for the warehouse room pillars, and we CG'd the rest of the room in. Then there was wire removal, debris, smoke, fog - a million things. What we ended up with was nothing like what we started with.
A common misconception is that we are the "fire people" on "Rescue Me." While it is true that some of the work we have contributed to the show were blazes or fire enhancements - like increasing the number of windows on fire - what many people don't realize is that most of the fire is real. "Rescue Me" has an amazing special effects team, headed up by Jeff Brink. One of the principal reasons we were brought on board was for practicality. It's not always practical to set a building on fire, have the guys fall through a building or jump off a bridge, or have explosions going off.
For a lot of the work we do, we may or may not black out the set, and my tendency is more and more away from green screen. If something is shot with green, you have to spill suppress, key, track, and usually roto. Shooting on black requires you to track and roto. Or you can simply just roto period, no green, no black.
For some reason, there is this common misconception that green is the color that makes all magically disappear, when the reality of the situation is that, in certain cases, it only creates more problems, translating into more work. You have to use it sometimes, but I'm not the hugest fan of green screen if you can get away from it.
Above: a small part of The Molecule's 60-computer render farm.
SIDEBAR: THE RENDER FARM
Over time and with our growth, our technological resources have taken a life of their own. Our render farm and pipeline are coming together. [ed: See sidebar.] We have managed to give it a full body makeover. Everything's been revamped, from the OS'es to the in-house software that links it all together.
Originally, when we began, we had two terabytes of storage running on a little RAID. I can't even imagine that anymore. Now we have at least 50 terabytes.
Getting there, we had the problem I think everyone has: first you start with one disc, one disc then becomes two, and before you know it you've got 8 or 10 share points hanging out there. This can be just a massive mess for artists, IT, management, etc. But luckily we were able to clean all that up.
I found a great company called Penguin Computing, guys that used to work at places like NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They have a Linux RAID system that has allowed us to put 40 terabytes in one expandable box. It is 48 discs, RAID'ed together in groups of seven or eight discs using RAID 5. Then those RAID clusters are JBOD'd together - grouped as "Just a Bunch of Disks" that operate as a single volume. It produces 38 terabytes of usable storage, connected via fiber to the host machine.
The JBOD element is what's so clever. Now we can just chain on new groups of discs - but the host system presents all of that as one huge contiguous space. It's infinitely expandable in theory, and it's redundant. If one of the clusters goes down (i.e., TWO of the disks fail in the same cluster), we would lose a portion of the filesystem, but not the whole thing. It would be devastating to lose so much data, but it's so frustrating to have tons of share points, so this is a perfect happy medium.
The host server has two Ethernet ports on the motherboard, and another four on PCI slots. It's pretty amazing, because we have 60 render clients, plus 20 some-odd workstations, spanning three or four routers, and we can get 60-70 meg per second, both directions, on NFS (Network File System) storage, which, for Ethernet, is pretty damn good.
We're still running some of the original machines from 2004. We've swapped out a lot of the pieces, so the total computing power is now about twice what it originally was, but we need new ones. I always get last year's computer, because if you take the GHz per unit of cost, it always ends up being the better value. The only factor that can change that is the consideration of compute density, where units of rack space are more expensive than GHz. Luckily we're not worrying about that quite yet.
SIDEBAR: THE MOLECULE'S BUSINESS
FROGS AND SKYSCRAPERS
One day I was riding in the elevator with Andy Young - another tenant of the building and Irwin Young's nephew - and another guy, and Andy says to me, "We're doing a project for the Bronx Zoo, and I need you to pull keys on 100 frogs." It was macroscopic footage of tree frogs - green frogs over green screens!
The other guy said, "You do keying?" He was Eli Kuslansky, and his company, Unified Field, does interactive exhibits and things like that.
We started talking about creating a 3D volume where you could project images, and were instantly friends. Ultimately, that project never happened, but later they were being considered to do the lobby installation at the new IAC building in New York. We starting talking about how to do it as a collaboration, and it seemed like a pretty good fit.
The idea was to create a 3D globe on IAC's giant video wall with haze and clouds and lights and indicators that show things about the companies around the world that IAC owns.
The actual globe itself is being displayed by Motion Builder. Some people know it as a motion capture program, but it's really cool because it can use multiple inputs - like a trackball and python scripts - to display everything in real time. Behind that is a circuit language called Relations.
What's going on behind the scenes with that is almost like a synthesizer. You program it the same way you would Logic, Reason and other kinds of music applications that use DSP-style logic.
The fact is that if computers were fast enough, there would be no need for hard drives for output. I'm amazed at the way that OpenGL in particular has linked together visual effects, video games, and interactive installations.
I look at video games the same way I do any other kind of compositing. I'm standing in the store just watching and thinking to myself, "Okay, so they used an add blend layer, and oh, there's a blur, but it's only a blur on specularity." They all play and work in the same space - kind of a huge compositing tree going on in real time, right before your eyes to arrive at this fully interactive world.
It starts with a storyline, but the final deliverable (a game) is the convergence of all types of media. It's important to play in all of them, or else you're going to be stuck in just one.