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The Last Post? - interview with Mitch Mitchell
by David Fox
Mitch Mitchell is Professor of Advanced Imaging at the University of Bournemouth, a fellow of both the royal photographic society and the BKSTS, a freelance visual effects supervisor and general imaging odd job man....
In an ideal world, every production would have its own dedicated post-production
facility, on site. An expensive fantasy? Not any longer, according to
renowned visual effects supervisor Mitch Mitchell. As the cost of hardware
and software continues to plummet, he believes productions will increasingly
create their own mini-facilities.
Mitchell worked on a 10 hour TV fantasy adventure, The Tenth Kingdom, a  Hallmark television production, which involves "a vast number of effects, most of which are conventional and invisible, such as set extensions and modifications to locations." While these may "not exactly be planets blowing up", there are "an awful lot of them", as well as "magic mirrors" which people step through and see things in. At least 500 effects shots were planned.
He believes that in the near future productions like this will create their own dedicated effects units, working at the studio, on Windows NT PCs. The only problem is getting the number of operators necessary. "There is so much production on [in London] at the moment that there is a shortage of people."
Indeed, at Pinewood, where he is shooting, there are no stages, or even office space, available until September, with The Tenth Kingdom taking four stages and the latest Bond movie, having all the rest. Office space, which would normally be used for offices, is being used for edit suites and machine rooms, as both productions are doing at least some post-production on site.
The pressure on personnel in London is heightened by the number of fantasy-type productions shooting this year. Ridley Scott's Gladiators, is occupying The Mill Film, a new version of Cleopatra is getting ready to shoot at Sheperton studios, Animal Farm has taken over the whole of Cinesite for its post production and Alice In Wonderland (at CFC/Framestore) is also underway. Nemo (a version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) and The Arabian Nights, are two other big budget TV productions coming up. Meanwhile, a lot of UK animators are being poached by Hollywood to work on The Flintstones II.
However, if the operators are available, the equipment is no longer an issue. "I believe there is the kind of coalition taking place between the stuff at the bottom end - professional hardware and software developed for pre-press and graphics area - which is coming up to TV and film quality, while at the same time you've got the high end prices of motion picture kit coming down rapidly. This is the point where they collide and come together," he says.
He cites Photoshop and After Effects as two of the most useful low cost software packages. Run these on SGI's middle market, high performance NT machines, "and you start to have something very capable, which runs at a high speed and is not very expensive at all."
With Intel about to release even faster chips which can be used in Quad systems with four processors each, he sees the fast NT machines from SGI and Intergraph as being suitable for a lot of TV and film work. There is also Commotion for the Apple Mac, which he says "is a great painting system for motion picture use."
Of course, it can be expensive having to have a lot of workstations in place for an individual production which might only take a few months and then lie idle. But he points to Chalice, the high-end compositing software by Silicon Grail, which is available to lease on a monthly basis per processor so that the cost relates directly to your workflow. "It means costs occur when you are actually making money," he says. Besides its cost effectiveness, he says Chalice is also an attractive replacement for the now defunct Cineon software as it uses a similar flow-chart way of working, which will also be familiar to Illusion and Inferno users, although he says Flame and Henry users probably won't like it so much.
"We are now in a situation where productions can afford to get in equipment for their own use so that they have complete control of it themselves, and it is adaptable enough so that it can be set up near the production source, where the director and effects personnel can keep tabs on it," he says.
This will also alleviate problems of sharing staff with other productions, "which you may not even know exist. Where people are not totally dedicated to your production they can get waylaid to work on other things, so that your material doesn't move ahead fast enough."
As far as Mitchell is concerned, the technology is in place, it just requires the people to use it. However, at present he believes there are not enough freelance digital effects operators to staff all productions like this, but he feels the industry will move this way and more operators will work like this. "It's the way production works. You get in the cameramen, electricians, props people, etc., that suit the project. I would say we are going to see post production adopting the same method, especially as it is now hard to differentiate between production and post. You can look at 3D as being the same as principal photography, in that they both produce the initial images."
The changes making this possible are not due to "some spectacular new technology,"but simply the advent of low cost memory and faster processing power. The cost of this performance "is reducing to the point where it's possible to do these things cheaply enough."
He believes this is enabling the democratization of post production. Not only can individual productions afford to use their own equipment, but individual operators can also, and will, he predicts, be able to move from production to production with the equipment set up exactly the way they need it, in the same way as some cameramen own their own cameras, others hire them, and others use the studio's camera.
"Empowerment is what's happening," he says. "For around £10,000 you can buy equipment capable of doing broadcast quality compositing." Of course, it may take longer to render, but he says rendering is also getting a lot cheaper, and as it doesn't require expensive graphics cards, "you can just build a network of low cost NT machines to render whatever you need in the time you've got."
If people say PCs can't deliver the quality needed, he points out that the biggest computer generated shots on Titanic were actually done using 3D Studio Max on NT machines. Whereas most shots, which involved a mixture of miniatures, live action and CG material, were done on SGI machines, about five shots where the ship is seen on its own at sea were completely done on PCs, "proving wrong people who say 3D Studio Max isn't a professional program for the film industry and you need to use heavy-duty workstations from SGI and Sun. There's the most famous effects movie ever, and the shots which were most computer generated were done on NT machines."
As far as Mitchell is concerned, this argument is won. All that is needed now are the people to put it into place. He believes that the next big technology which will change production further will be digital capture (where high resolution images go direct to disk to tape for TV and film), which will allow a closer and even more rapid integration between production and post. "That's close, but not there yet. We're still waiting for the right cameras, although Sony has promised a digital capture camera to George Lucas for the third Star Wars' film," he says. [Lucas shot the next installment of Star Wars in 2000/2001 using Sony's HDCAM camcorder]
For the drama and film productions he works on, he believes it will "change an awful lot, because you see in the monitor the real pictures you get. You don't have to wait for the film to come back to see the final picture." It will enable cinematographers to have more control over the final image, removing processing and telecine (and their costs) from the equation.