How Neill Blomkamp’s experimental Oats Studios is using photogrammetry for its short films

How Neill Blomkamp’s experimental Oats Studios is using photogrammetry for its short films

Director Neill Blomkamp is doing something many filmmakers and visual effects artists can only dream about - he’s making a series of experimental shorts with no studio oversight. Of course, the director of District 9, Elysium and Chappie is already an experienced filmmaker, but his newly-formed Oats Studios is looking to buck the system by making a whole bunch of shorts, many using complex visual effects, and seeing what sticks.

Interestingly, Blomkamp and his visual effects supervisor Chris Harvey have relied significantly on photogrammetry for creating the digital environments and creatures in these shorts, including the ever-popular Agisoft PhotoScan.

We asked Harvey more about how Oats Studios is approaching the photogrammetry side of their experimental film adventures.

Watch the Rakka short, featuring Sigourney Weaver.

Photogrammetry tech

Oats has already released a diverse selection of short films. Rakka tells the story of the rebellion against a lizard-alien invasion. Firebase is also somewhat sci-fi based and features creatures terrorising soldiers during the Vietnam War. Then there’s Cooking With Bill, which is a satire of infomercials. In each short - and there are many more in the works that are constantly being released - Blomkamp’s unique hand-held observational style is there, as is the reliance on photorealistic effects.

Harvey, who was the visual effects supervisor on Chappie, says these shorts need to get made quickly and that’s one reason why they choose photogrammetry for helping to build and map environments, and make digital doubles. It also means Oats can tailor its own capture set-up.

A still from Rakka shows how computer generated imagery was added to an existing landscape.

“At Oats Studios we are big fans of photogrammetry and as such that’s the approach we went with when ‘cyber-scanning’ any performers we needed to recreate digitally,” Harvey says. “We have an in-house capture suite that consists of 32 Nikon D3300 cameras with 18-55mm lenses. These are housed in a full white room (floors, ceilings and walls) on 8 stands (4 cameras to a stand) arranged so that 5 stands focus on the front and 3 stands on the back.”

“They are all linked together along with the strobes so that they fire and capture simultaneously,” adds Harvey. “Obviously, the more cameras you have, the higher detail capture you can achieve but we had a very limited budget to put this together. The interesting thing about the configuration we came up with is that with a very quick switch of the zoom lens from 18-55 we can switch from a full body scan to a high detailed face scan. So typically we will do two captures, one for the full body and one for the face and then we combine these scans together during processing.”

During filming of some of the shorts, which happened in South Africa, a few captures were also done at visual effects studio BlackGinger, since this is where the actors were available. In South Africa, too, Harvey supervised the photogrammetry capture of live action locations.

Watch Firebase.

“It consisted of me taking literally thousands of photos of the set or location,” he says. “I had to pay close attention to various best practices in photogrammetry photography to ensure we got good results when we later started processing. Many people think you can just shoot a bunch of pictures and away the software goes, but there is a lot in how you take the pictures that go into getting a successful solve. In addition to those photos we would also take HDRIs for delighting purposes and a lot of photographs with measurements overlaid.”

An artist at Oats Studios works on one of the shorts.

Making models

To produce digi-doubles, Oats Studios artists input the captures into Agisoft PhotoScan. This product essentially generates point clouds, 3D models and corresponding textures from the captured imagery. “It just worked better in a consistent pipeline sort of way, results and steps in between seemed to make more sense and we got good fast results,” Harvey says of PhotoScan.

Environments were a slightly different story. Here, there were many, many more photographs taken and so for these, Capturing Reality’s RealityCapture was used. “We found RealityCapture just simply out-performed on the data crunching,” notes Harvey, “and since the subsequent steps after the solve had different requirements the issues we had with it for the digi-doubles versus Agisoft didn’t matter and so we used it instead.”

One of the plans with Oats Studios is to produce 3D printed models of the CG characters from the shorts. This is a CG sculpt from Firebase.

From the capture software, Oats would end up with high density meshes, as well as texture maps between 8K and 16K. Both of these sets of data would then get further refined in later steps with other software. In some cases, meshes would be brought back in to recalculate textures into a controlled UV space.

Other tools that came into play were Adobe Bridge for pre-processing the photos. For post-processing after the photogrammetry solves, Oats used a tool called instant meshes that re-topologizes the meshes, Wrap3 from R3DS for wrapping the standard character topology to the scan, and then an array of tools including Autodesk’s Mudbox, May and 3ds Max for further detailing and modelling tasks.

A recent Oats Studios short, God: Serengeti.

Oats is doing it differently

It’s not just short films that Oats Studios is making - it’s also sharing that process with viewers, currently via the purchasing and downloading of behind the scenes content and actual 3D and VFX assets on Steam. There’s also a proposal to produce 3D printed models from these assets.

What’s interesting is, the tools Oats are using are ones that many visual effects artists would already be familiar with. Could this be the future of filmed entertainment? We certainly hope so.

Ian Failes

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