Sony Pictures Imageworks at 15

The effects unit continues to raise the bar for digital production with creatIons that span the invisible,the spectacular and the emotional.

"Beowulf," director Robert Zemeckis' latest partnership with Sony Pictures Imageworks, promises to bring us one step closer to photoreal humans and to making animation as easy as filming live actors. The imaginative retelling of the ancient epic poem features performance-capture animation, which Zemeckis has enthusiastically adopted as an animation technique -- and also highlights the well-honed strengths of his visual effects/animation facility of choice. In fact, the Paramount-distributed "Beowulf" could be said to be a showcase for everything at which Imageworks excels: sophisticated character animation, proprietary performance-capture techniques and tools and photoreal, spectacular and invisible effects.

"(2004's) 'The Polar Express' and (Sony's July release) 'Monster House' were also performance-captured, but 'Beowulf' has a completely different look," Zemeckis' producing partner Steve Starkey says. "(Imageworks' senior creative director) Ken (Ralston) suggested we try this technique because it would give us the freedom to express ourselves, and yet we could layer all different kinds of styles. Ken keeps coming up with the technique, the solution ... and this has allowed us to make the movies we wanted to make. We go to Imageworks for that kind of inspiration."

Finding innovative solutions always has been at the heart of the company's success. Making key hires that attracted top-end talent, creating tools and an infrastructure to support their artistic visions and pushing beyond the boundaries of what had been done before helped Imageworks evolve from a small in-house visual effects division into a full-fledged digital production company with active divisions in key-frame computer-generated animation, performance-capture animation, visual effects and stereoscopic 3-D films. With an extensive digital backlot of buildings and cityscapes, Imageworks, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, is the quintessential digital studio.

From its humble beginnings in 1992 in a couple of borrowed offices in a far corner of the Columbia TriStar Pictures lot, Imageworks has been on an upward trajectory. It opened its doors at a time when motion picture studios were buying or creating their own in-house visual effects houses -- among them, Warner Digital Studios, Disney's the Secret Lab and VIFX, an independent company that Fox purchased. Fast-forward to today, and Imageworks is the last man standing, a testament to Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment president Yair Landau's vision of what Imageworks could be. "My contribution was to say, 'Let's be the Sony of the visual effects companies,'" Landau says. "We'll only work on shows where the quality level is such that our artists are motivated, and we can grow the abilities of the company."

Attracting those artists and other core talent was the first step in growing the company. The 1995 arrival of Ralston, whose visual effects career includes 1977's "Star Wars," marked a major shift in the company's direction. Ralston brought with him Industrial Light + Magic colleague Debbie Denise, now executive vp infrastructure. Ralston also brought with him a relationship with Zemeckis, one of the early Hollywood directors to embrace the new digital technologies. And when president Tim Sarnoff joined Imageworks from his previous position as senior vp at WDS, the course was set. "With the arrival of Ken, Imageworks found creative leadership, and with Tim, operating leadership," Landau says. "They righted the ship, and when I came onboard, I steered it."

With creative and operating leadership in place, Imageworks was ready to move beyond the spectacular and invisible effects for which the company had become known. 1999's "Stuart Little" was the motivating force behind the company's launch of both CG-animated features and performance capture. What began as a spunky mouse with realistic fur and a digital wardrobe designed by a real tailor led to Sony Pictures Animation, which opened its doors in May 2002, and the push into motion capture, or what Sony calls performance capture, the technique whereby movements of real actors animate CG characters. And, after "Polar Express" stormed the U.S. boxoffice in an IMAX 3-D version, Sony also opened a division devoted to transforming 2-D movies into stereoscopic versions for IMAX theaters and ordinary motion picture screens turned into 3-D theaters with Real D technology.

Today, Imageworks' creations span the invisible, the spectacular and the emotional. "Imageworks as a company has directed a great deal of its focus toward creating believable digital characters," Sarnoff explains. "Its contribution to the industry is to allow those characters to perform in a live-action movie, a performance-capture movie or an animated movie -- all with the same degree of verisimilitude you'd expect from a real actor." Sarnoff notes that the company's evolution from producing spectacular effects to achieving emotional performances is much like the evolution of the industry itself. "Films started out being the spectacular -- (1904's) 'The Great Train Robbery' was all about the train -- and the movies that move us today are about the performances."

Sarnoff points out that Imageworks is not simply focused on performances in animated features such as (Sony's September offering) "Open Season," "Polar Express" and the upcoming "Beowulf" and Sony's "Surf's Up" but in its continuing visual effects work. "We're as focused on the wave in 'Surf's Up' as we are in the surfer riding the wave," he says. "We're not talking about the technology used to create the pixels but about the feeling that the image gives us. All our artists are actors, whether they're doing lighting or shading or performance -- they're performing for the audience, and their creation can be seen on the screen."

These abilities all come together in such work as 2002's "Spider-Man," 2004's "Spider-Man 2" and Warner Bros. Pictures' "Superman Returns," all of which featured healthy amounts of all genres of visual effects. Visual effects supervisor John Dykstra describes why he trusted Imageworks to make Spider-Man fly and to create a "stunt" version of the superhero up close and digital. "I always feel that the people working there are motivated by a true desire to make the product better," he says. "Each of the people who took a leadership role was as dedicated to the project as to the company, which is a huge advantage in going through a creative, intensive project. I just find the environment there is based on creativity."

Having proved its mettle in creating an aerodynamic Spider-Man and Superman, Imageworks was irresistible to Mark Steven Johnson, director of Sony's upcoming "Ghost Rider." "When you see someone that's done great work in the superhero genre -- it's one thing to create something artificial but something else to understand heroes," he says. "I knew their work with completely CG characters, especially ('Spider-Man 2's') Doc Ock in close-up. That's very hard to pull off."

An additional bonus, Johnson says, is that the Imageworks artists he's working with already are comic book fans and motorcycle enthusiasts. "We have a shot of Ghost Rider (Nicolas Cage) going off a building," he says. "He was going to hug the wall and go straight down. The artist had him bash into a parapet and go airborne. It was so much more than what I asked for, and that's what you always hope for."

Imageworks executive vp production Jenny Fulle says that pushing the visual effects envelope for so many years has resulted not just in an expertise in digital characters but a repository of digital assets that give the company a leg up in new creation. "We have a digital backlot of environments -- the buildings we've created, the cityscapes we've done," she says. "We absolutely use it as a library. It is easy for us to take the geometry of a building, for example, and redress it. Whether it's animation, visual effects or motion capture, we're encompassing all the digital tools to create the most options for a filmmaker to tell his story. And we have a lot of tools to offer."

The challenge has been to create a production pipeline for each of the four divisions -- key-frame CG animation, performance-capture animation, visual effects and stereoscopic 3-D films -- all of which must maximize efficiency and maintain the integrity and value of the digital assets flowing through it. "We take a modular approach," Denise explains. "I like to refer to the infrastructure as the hub of a wheel, with different departments being the spokes. Being modular, we can pick and choose what module we want for each part of the pipeline, and having two or three ways to go for each task is really helpful."

Senior vp technology Bill Villarreal notes how the pipeline distinguishes Imageworks.

"I think from a technology standpoint, we're the only facility that has developed pipelines for live-action visual effects, performance capture and fully animated CG movies," he says.

Fulle adds that with the pipeline group, the main focus is to accrue and centralize the technologies developed on each show. "In the early days, we reinvented everything for each show," she says. "Now, we leverage what we develop for each show." For the animated projects from SPA, that means the filmmaker is free to design characters and environments to his specifications. "There is no 'house look' for Sony Animation," says Sarnoff, who notes that this ability is based on the company's longtime expertise in visual effects. "Whoever comes to this facility can design exactly what they want. The ultimate goal is to create stories based on what's interesting to the audience, and we can create whatever we need to."

At the heart of that ability are Imageworks' technical whizzes, who write the computer code necessary to create new effects and new ways of working. Senior vp and chief technology officer George Joblove and Villarreal have provided the technological basis for Imageworks' transition into character animation, both key-framed and performance-captured.

Their crowning achievement is the trademarked performance-capture system, which the firm assembled from scratch and has developed into a sophisticated means of capturing facial and body movements simultaneously. Joblove reports that they continue to develop the system, to improve the way Imageworks' assets are managed and to write better tools for creating realistic visual effects and more effective rendering of animation, as well as to work on ways to manage Imageworks' expansion to remote facilities.

"I think it's a great time to be in the industry," Sarnoff says. "More and more, we're becoming less about the cycles of the big visual effects movies and more a part of moviemaking. We've become part of the fabric of making movies, whether it's a romance or a drama or an action-adventure (film)."