From pencil to 3d: The exciting life and development of an epic shot.

Mmmmm … moonlight….


This shot began its life as a proof-of-concept for a client who was tentatively exploring the possibility of a long helicopter shot in a short, low-budget video involving the Canadian Pacific Railway.


They wanted the camera to fly in out of the mountains, come up along side the train, and settle at one of the brightly-lit windows and the people inside (these people would be the only practical element in the entire shot).




Getting in close to the train was a relatively simple matter. I would just need to create a selectively-detailed 3d model of the passenger car with some good texturing. The real challenge was in building the landscape.




The first big hurdle was one of practicality: the task of building a photorealistic, highly-detailed 3d mountain range, with a fully-populated alpine ecosystem, would be time consuming and extremely taxing on all but the most advanced systems. I started brainstorming ways to simplify the shot by breaking it down into manageable bite-sized layers.


Each layer was defined by the level of detail needed, and by the most expedient — but photorealistic — means of creating it.


The fact that it was to be a night shot meant I could hide a lot in darkness, but also that I had to be much more subtle and selective in the way I lit the scene. I created a full-color version of the storyboard in Photoshop:




It was around this point I realized that this would be the ideal image to to a camera-projection test on, so I  brought the picture into Maya and started building a simple photogrammetric scene.


A wireframe model reveals just how simple the geometry behind the projection is:



This is what the actual scene looks like:




And here’s how it looks as a final render. Note the scene did not need to be lit at all, because all the color and luminance values for the scene were inherited from the concept painting. It really doesn’t get much easier than that!



Put on your 3d glasses! I thought I’d take the shot to the next level — the STEREOSCOPIC LEVEL.  It was unexpectedly challenging to get the stereo look established: Since the projected scene in Maya was of a relatively small scale, the inter-ocular distance of the cameras had to be set to the third decimal point (that’s pretty small). The average distance between a human’s pupils is 64mm (women avg. 63/men avg. 65), and we humans use that slight parallax between the two eyes to judge distance and scale. So when I was setting up the stereo cameras on this project, they had to be a scale 64mm apart in relation to the size of the mountains; if they were too far apart, the mountains would look like miniatures, and if they were too close, it would kill the 3d effect all together.


Anyways, I hope all this talking gave you a chance to dig up those blue-and-red paper glasses you have leftover from your old popup dinosaur magazine (did anyone else here obsessively collect those as a kid? You got a piece of a plastic dinosaur with each issue, and by the end of the year you could build your own Trex!). Check it out!



This is still only a test of the technique. Hopefully, the project will go forward and I’ll be able to flesh the entire shot out in all its glory. *fingers crossed*




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