Eagle-eyed camera remembers lighting


Visual effects innovator Hoyt Yeatman -- who won an Oscar for visual effects in "The Abyss," as well as a 2000 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Technical Achievement Award -- has co-designed a 360-degree high dynamic range camera that captures the lighting dynamics of a motion picture location or set, for use when making a movie that combines live action and CG.

The goal is to improve production efficiency and quality in scenes where a director of photography lights a set or location that will later include CG characters or environment. "It (captures) an image, but it's not used as an image as we might know it. It's used (by VFX teams) to set the lighting parameters inside CG shots," says Yeatman, who developed the camera with his brother, Robert Yeatman, and Fred Iguchi.

The camera debuted during production of the Walt Disney Pictures' "Underdog," the live-action version of the 1960s cartoon about a canine superhero that features a flying, talking beagle. Aimed squarely at the family audience, the film opened Friday, scoring weekend gross of $11.6 million, good enough for third place. Yeatman served as VFX supervisor on the film.

With that production completed, the technology is now in use on Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," which is scheduled for a May release, as well as DreamWorks' "The Ruins," also set for release next year. The camera also will be tapped as part of the production of "G-Force" for Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer. Hoyt Yeatman will take a seat in the director's chair for the first time, on the project that he developed.

When filming "Underdog," the HDR camera was used for scenes where in postproduction either a CG dog would be added, or a dog would require face work to enable it to talk. London's Framestore-CFC handled the former, while Cinesite U.K. was responsible for the later.

Yeatman says the feedback from Framestore was that the camera information would help the team to complete -- in four to five hours -- lighting tasks that typically would take closer to six days. He says that from a technical standpoint, it also helped them to match the dynamic range of the CG with that of the live action.

VFX teams often receive production lighting information such as light meter or color temperature readings, Yeatman says. "But most of that information is not really applicable in CG; they don't talk in those terms. There is a huge disconnect between computer graphics and the physical world of light. (The camera information is intended) to simplify the guessing process."

To begin, three cameras were built, now in use on "Prince Caspian" and "Ruins." An additional eight cameras now are in production that use essentially the same technology, but are made from a lighter weight carbon fiber material.

"That was the only complaint, that they were a little on the heavy side, about 40 pounds," Yeatman says. "I don't know what the final weight will be (on the new models) but they will be considerably less."

The first of the new batch will be used on "G-Force," which combines live action with CG characters and goes into production in the early fall. The story revolves around a group of intelligent animal commandos working for a government agency trying to prevent an evil billionaire from taking over the world. "It's played very real, so to help gain that realism we are using the camera to record the lighting," the helmer says.

"What I was trying to do was bring a lot of the artistry that is done on location -- that valuable, amazing director of photography's work -- and capture that and bring it into the CG world. This was a way to do it," Yeatman says.