The Zbig Movie Miracle

By Paul Vlahos *

From the very beginning of motion imaging, the task of content creation has spawned ingenuity. Images projected on the screen must somehow come into being. The most obvious approach is to travel to whatever location might workout and stage the scene as best as the equipment and budget allows. Problem is, the expense of travel to a location can be prohibitive. Many times the right location doesn’t exist. The painted backdrop, a staple from the days of theater, was an early solution. Over the years many techniques to enhance this process have evolved.

Budget permitting, the advantages of a specially constructed set are easy to understand. Ceilings do not get in the way of lights. Walls can be removed for the placement of lights and camera, allowing camera moves that would not otherwise be possible. If a window is in the wrong place, a new wall with a window ideally placed can be constructed. Colors, textures, and all architectural details can be addressed. Practical sets, In addition to expense limitations, also have logistic limitations. To the rescue comes the world of CG (computer graphics).

The artists’ ability to realize his vision has always been limited by the budget and the usual constraints of current technology and physics. All too often the elements needed for any given scene do not exist in the same place at the same time. For example, this road with that rider and horse needs to be seen in front of that dragon against that castle which needs to be in front of this mountain against that sky. Methods were needed to combine these disparate elements. Techniques such as rear projection, glass shots, miniature forced perspective, front projection, split screen, and blue screen, have been invented to achieve desired visual content. Motion controlled camera systems have added even more capability.

The last few years have seen even greater creative freedom with the advent of the computer and digital imaging. A new list of techniques such as morphing, rotoscoping, motion tracking from witness point and pattern recognition, wire removal, wire frame construction, 3D animation, texture mapping and rendering, digital matte extraction, comprehensive color control and compositing are now in every day use.

Today, any image that can be imagined can be convincingly created. We are living in an age where anything is possible. But the age-old question must be asked, “At what cost?” The cost of making movies has not come down, even when adjusted for inflation. What has changed is the value, as seen on the screen, for every dollar spent. Production value now has minimums that are expected by both the viewer and the production community.

Writers are told to not concern themselves with how any given sequence can be pulled off. They are encouraged to concern themselves only with what, not how. Create the most stimulating vision, pull out all the stops on visuals because anything and everything is possible. This is the creative process today. Effects laden movies are expensive but they have big returns.

These digital effects tools are versatile and powerful. They are responsible for “the what, not how” school of movie creation. It allows the visionaries to create the vision then turn it over to the effects supervisors for execution. The director integrates the actor’s performances into these scenes as best as possible. He’s not fully in control on the set because in most cases the rest of the scene has not even been created when he shoots the foreground performances. In post, under the direction of the effects supervisor, with legions of computer jockeys laboring under his, and the directors, watchful eye, compromises are being swallowed to get the most out of whatever performances were recorded at the time of principle photography. It is also in post where the mistakes are discovered as rotoscoping, repositioning, multiple matte pulls and all the other “fix in post” budget buster digital tools work their magic.

Technology has many faces and can be used in many ways. Zbig has developed a creative method that is completely different from how the industry has evolved. Instead of a “we can do anything we can imagine” approach, Zbig has mastered a “we can imagine anything we can do” approach. His tool set contains electronic 24 P digital cameras, non-pumping prime lenses, real time digital matte extraction and compositing hardware, digital tape machines with no generation loss, computer controlled motion control system that includes track, pedestal, pan, tilt, focus, zoom, roll, turntable and treadmill. Zbig’s creative process is harnessed in such a way that the most complex camera moves imaginable drive the set construction process where complicated sets, literally without limits, can be inexpensively produced. When the set photography is completed the movie is essentially in the can minus the actors.

The Zbig technique automatically coordinates the camera moves, scale, position and compositing of any size object or CG element from a pre-visualized software representation. Once the pre-visualized move is created any size element is automatically moved and adjusted for scale, positioned, photographed and composited. Each new element required to complete the scene is simply placed in the center of the turntable, a determination of the desired size is interred, and the rest is automatic.

When the scene is complete the live action performances have the advantage of being choreographed while witnessing the actual finished product including cuts and dissolves. When multi-layering of performances is called for there is no better technique for a director to have creative control than to create the real time finished product on the set.

The Zbig method has many limitations compared to traditional techniques and at the same time traditional techniques have many limitations compared to the Zbig method. Some genres, such as musicals and dramas particularly lend themselves to Zbig’s techniques while westerns and car chase movies do not. Traditional techniques, fully exploited, will produce a top quality visual experience. The Zbig method, fully exploited, will also produce a top quality visual experience. Both movies will be regarded as big budget projects. The difference is that the Zbig method will cost only a fraction of the traditional movie. The crew list can have less than a hundred names. The number of weeks of principle photography will be far less. Postproduction budgets are almost completely eliminated. The bottom line is that both techniques provide massive scale movies as far as the audience is concerned while the process of how these movies were conceived and executed are entirely different. The most important bottom line consideration is cost. While both projects will appear costly, the Zbig project will be low budget.

* Paul Vlahos - Chairman, Chief Executive Director of Ultimatte and iMatte, Chatsworth, CA.
With over 20 years of experience in the creation of Oscar and Emmy winning tools and techniques for the motion picture and broadcast, production and post-production industries, Paul realized the power of the unique perspectives and disciplines of Ultimatte Corporation’s research and product development team to bring unique solutions to the presentation industry. He served as President of Ultimatte from 1982 to 2000, with direct responsibility for all aspects of the business, playing a key role in the conceptualization and invention of Ultimatte’s products. As the “Chief Visionary Officer”, his vision energized key associates at Ultimatte to join him in the establishment of iMatte to address the presentation needs of the broader business community.